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January 2014

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This past weekend, Warhammer online held a "preview weekend" beta event for people who had pre-ordered the game.

I got the invitation email on Friday - for an event that starts on Friday and runs to Sunday. Fine, whatever. But WAR is a 10 GB download, and I was slowly slurping it down via torrent - and there was no way I could finish the download in time. The only chance of getting the file in time was to use Fileplanet.

Fileplanet is horrible. It doesn't work in Firefox. Oh, it seems to - until you go to download something, at which point you notice that the captcha doesn't work. So, I jump through the hoops in IE, and finally get to a download link - but it's not just a normal http or ftp link, no, it's some proprietary thing that requires the Fileplanet IE toolbar.

Eventually I got the stupid thing downloading, and sometime Friday afternoon it finished. I logged in remotely via VNC to poke around.

First thing of note - there's not really an installer. You just end up with a directory that contains "setup.exe" which does nothing but add some registry keys and create some Windows shortcuts. I like this.

Feeling adventurous, I fired up the patcher from work. It did its thing for a bit and seemed to get everything in the appropriate state.

I didn't get a chance to play for real until Saturday. I figured I'd start off with an Empire Warrior Priest, since their healing mechanic seemed interesting - they basically have to melee to build up mana for healing.

Character creation is pretty straightforward. Just like with WoW and many other modern games, you don't get to set attributes or anything like that - you aren't given a chance to gimp your character at creation time. Also like WoW, appearance options are very limited - no body type choices, no sliders of any sort, you've just got 6-10 options each for face/hair/hair color/eye color/skin color.

I selected a female model. First thing I noticed was her ridiculous posture - she's arching her back in a completely improbable manner. I went through the various options, not really sure what I was looking for. I quickly realized that all of the facial expressions could best be described as "snarling" or "insane." I grabbed one that looked a little less demented, and I ended up selecting a hair model based on the fact that it had no clipping issues.

By this point I'm already underwhelmed by the character appearance. Art direction looks like some kind of hybrid between DAoC and WoW - very cartoony like WoW, but lacking the vitality and cheer, instead feeling just generally "drab" as did DAoC. On top of this, the graphics just look inexplicably "old" - the models and textures really do not look like they belong in a modern game. I know this game's focus is on large scale PvP, and pretty/detailed models just don't work well in such an environment, but I still find this a bit disappointing.

Enter the game. I'm in some kind of town, with a bunch of other noobs - time to get to killing foozles.

Immediately I notice the strange character animations. It's hard to describe with words, but when you run, your character's arms and legs seem to splay in a jerky and ridiculous manner. It looks very unnatural. It's even more odd when you strafe run, and you see your character move at an angle. Really weird.

OK, so killing foozles. I see a green dot on my radar, pretty clearly something I should look into. Looks like this guy is the foozle master - he wants me to go out and kill stuff. Got it, guy. He was also kind enough to mark the kill zone on my map, which is a pretty basic feature notable only due to the fact that WoW still lacks it.

On with the killing. I find some foozles and start whacking them. As it turns out, the warrior priest seems to really suck at killing stuff - I have a crappy nuke that does minimal damage, and a melee ability that does a bit more damage. Combat works like this, generally:

- pull with crappy nuke
- use melee attack
- keep hitting melee attack button until dead

This normally takes ~30-45 seconds per (even level) monster, which feels excruciatingly long.

The WP does have healing abilities, but I never really needed them in PvE until I ended up facing an "elite" (which I guess was part of a public quest). I could usually just stand there and whack stuff to death by hitting "2" on my keyboard over and over.

I completed the quest by killing the raiders. Yay for me. Got my XP and kept looking for more quests. Rinse and repeat. One nice thing is that the quest givers aren't all concentrated in a single area, and instead they sort of "follow" you as you move through the zone. This may not hold true at higher levels, but at low levels anyway you actually have a good sense that you're progressing geographically as you play.

There are a couple of slightly different quests as you move along - one where you shoot stuff with a cannon, one where you talk to people and convince them to join the war effort. But it's all basically the same stuff.

At level 3 or 4, I got another melee ability, which was some sort of debuff. I couldn't really tell that it did much, but hey, it was another button to push. So then combat switched over to nuke, debuff, spam damage ability.

At this point I was starting to become a little bored of the whole thing, so I decided to mix it up a bit by doing some RvR. This is supposed to be the "deal" with WAR - people of any level can hop in and contribute in battleground scenarios or open world PvP. If you're a lowbie, like me, your effective level is increased in RvR areas, so you aren't totally useless (as would be the case with WoW).

The first tier human "scenario" (the WAR equivalent of WoW battlegrounds) is a pretty straightforward zone control game. It plays out a lot like EotS or AB in WoW - people run around and zerg stuff. I believe it only had 3 control points though, which is helpful, as I never really liked how thinly you were spread in the WoW maps.

Here I get to learn how the WP works in PvP. My nuke is useless, so I'm thinking healing should be my primary tactic - but mana is used up quickly, and has to be replenished through melee. So typically what I'd do is sit back in healbot mode until I ran out of mana, then jump in with my hammer and get to town.

My heals were useful but not really impressive - not sure if this gets better over time, or if that's just "how it is" with healing in WAR. I could get off several before having to go in and hit people. This is when things got rough.

My melee felt really weak, so the only time I'd engage in melee combat was to restore my mana. It seemed like a sort of last ditch thing - OK, out of mana, time to go run in and die. I could actually survive a pretty substantial beating by self healing, but what would happen is I would run up, melee, get enough mana to heal, but be hurt enough that I'd have to use that mana on myself. And my damage output was so low I was basically treading water.

I guess this tactic is good as a distraction, but not much more. I'm soaking up damage, but not really dishing it out, and I can't really heal any of my allies since I need to focus entirely in keeping myself alive.

So I did this a few times, and leveled up. That's nice - you earn both realm rank and normal XP during the course of RvR, so you can largely avoid PvE (though PvE leveling does seem substantially faster). Not so nice is that, about 50% of the time, my system would lock up in RvR.

Anyway, bored with the WP and tired of the lockups, I put the game down for a while. On Sunday I updated my drivers and started anew with a High Elf Shadow Warrior, which is, basically, a Ranger.

I used the female model again, and the elf models didn't seem noticeably better than the Empire models. But they do have a tiara. That's kinda cool I guess.

Elf starting area is basically the same. Kill some foozles, level up, move on. I found playing the Shadow Warrior to be much preferable to playing the WP, as I killed things far more quickly and had a wider range of useful abilities. I started with a long cast time high damage shot, and quickly added a DoT shot and a debuff shot. They all seemed useful.

It is with this character that the game's comically bad pathing became apparent. Mobs would react in seemingly arbitrary fashion when you hit them at range - sometimes they would just stand there until dead, others they would run in a random direction, and sometimes they would actually run towards you and attempt to melee. Probably only about 50% of the time did mobs do what I would consider the "right" thing, the rest of the time they seemed to spazz out at least partially. This plays to the advantage of the Shadow Warrior.

Around level 5 I hit a quest that sent me to the elf scenario. I didn't recall seeing an equivalent quest in the Empire area, but it is possible that I'd just missed it. I went in, didn't crash (for a change!), and had a good time. The elf scenario is also a zone control map, but with a twist - there's a "nuclear option" which can trigger the death of everybody around the control points. This can really help reset things if one side ends up dominating.

I found that having a good ranged ability was incredibly useful in this setting. The DoT shot doesn't do a TON of damage, but it's easy to hit a lot of people with it and run away, so you can actually do good damage with minimal risk. The long range aimed shot does good solid damage and its range is good enough that you can have most classes substantially injured before they get up on you. At the worst you can snipe and then run away while letting your team's melee folks get up in the fray. I really enjoyed this playstyle, and consistently found myself near the top of damage done with very few deaths, despite being a lower level.

Oh, this is also where I first encountered Dark Elves. Apparently the DE females' defining characteristic is "not wearing any clothing," which is a practice I normally approve of. However, the models and their animations looked really odd to me, and there's something really strange about being gang banged by a bunch of goth vampire chicks in their underwear. I have conflicting feelings about this.

So, the big questions - is it any good? How does it compare to WoW? As a whole, WoW and WAR are strikingly and disappointingly similar. Combat plays out about the same, minus a few twists, and the basic PvE questing model seems identical (though WAR does have you sort of progress "through" a zone without as much backtracking, instead of the sort of hub-and-spoke thing WoW does). WAR's PvE has a lot of issues, though - the dreadfully slow combat and the pathing issues are clear even at lower levels.

WoW's art direction, animation, modeling, and just general visual quality are all very much better, despite using an older engine with seemingly lower poly counts. I've heard that the capital cities are impressive, but I didn't make it that far and can't comment. I don't know how WAR manages to do so poorly here, but it does. I guess they just don't care.

Where WAR differentiates itself, though, is as an RvR game. Unlike WoW, where PvP is *never* the primary focus, with WAR you can completely avoid the PvE game if you so desire (and I do desire). This alone is what makes WAR appealing to me, despite its weaknesses. I think Mythic has really missed the mark with their painfully slow WoW-esque combat, but their focus on RvR outweighs this for me (at least enough that I'll be giving the game a shot after release).

In short - will play. Great if you're burned out on WoW and want something similar. Probably not so great if you want something new and different.

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