For the first few hours of Rift, you might think you’re playing a polished if not unimaginative World of Warcraft clone. As you discover nice features like the translucent map display, the single button to sell all your vendor trash, or the instant “join group” button when you come across a big fight, you’ll think, “Hey, these guys really get it!” It’s something refreshing in a new MMO, particularly from a first-time developer.

But you might think there’s otherwise no real hook to this generic fantasy world of elfs and goblins and mages and spiders and so on. I mean, just look at that screenshot.

After the jump, you have no idea

MMOs traditionally have static worlds. You can’t rescue the princess for real, because what about the guy behind you? What’s he going to do if there’s no princess to rescue? So nothing ever resolves and any sense of change is smoke and mirrors, like instances or phasing tricks. I’ve been playing THQ’s wonderful de Blob 2 lately, and that game really drives home the satisfying feeling of having an effect on the world, of bringing about change. Of actually rescuing the princess, if you will. You breathe color and life into the world, and then later missions move you through the world you’ve redeemed, enjoying the fruits of your labor. It’s the exact opposite of an MMO, where you do a mission that resets immediately, so the game herds you to go play somewhere else where you won’t pay attention to the fact that the only thing that changed was your xp. Content is geography. New stuff is new places.

Rift doesn’t do a lot to change the basic mechanics. You’re not going to be able to rescue the princess because there’s always that guy behind you. But if a kingdom can’t change, at least it can be dynamic. This is the thinking behind Rift’s rifts. These are holes that open in random places, like the gates in Oblivion, spitting out monsters. But these monsters don’t stay put. They have places to be, roads to travel, other monsters to meet up with, cities to conquer.

This is the real genius of Rift. Wandering monsters might seem like a gimmick. Mobs are called mobs anyway because they’re mobile. Anyone who’s killed Stitches knows that a wandering monster is no big deal. Sheesh, even JRPGs have wandering monsters. But Rift’s wandering monster are “mobs” in two unprecedented new senses of the word. They’re mobs, or mobile, in that they move with purpose. And they’re mobs in that there are lots of them. In fact, let’s call them armies, because that’s what they are. You’ll see a formation of demons marching along the road toward the city where you’re going to turn in quests. Rifts will sometimes open a dozen at a time, in a coordinated effort to attack specific places, as you’ll see by the arrows on the map. It’s exactly what maps of a war look like. Check it out:

Crossed sword icons pile up at a crossroads as armies snowball into bigger armies. Fifty players mill about restlessly on one side of a clearing while satyrs and fairies and weird green beasts gather on the other. Rift lets you press a button to join the nearest group with an extra slot, much like the public quests in Warhammer Online. The group leaders haven’t set waypoints yet. But someone runs forward to take a potshot with a spell and he’s instantly slapped down by some kind of ranged attacks from evil priests. The first casualty. Poor guy. A group moves around to the flank, drawing some of the creatures away. Another group moves forward to engage directly. Loiterers hang back for a moment, but then surge in. It’s on. It’s insane. It’s the battles from Dark Age of Camelot or the castle sieges or public quests from Warhammer Online, but it’s happening always and everywhere and for everyone.

These battles come in a variety of different flavors with a variety of different monster types. There are life rifts and fire rifts. There are assaults and holding actions. There are invasions into enemy territory. There are skirmishes as you head off reinforcements. Just as Soldak Entertainment’s ingenious Din’s Curse gave action RPGs new life by letting the monsters play the game too, Rift does the same thing with MMOs. These monsters have an agenda. They are alive independent of their aggro radius. In fact, at one point, when I got jumped by a general with a retinue of followers, I assumed I was being ganked by the other faction. “Dang it,” I thought, running away while the other party gave chase, “I knew I shouldn’t have rolled a character on a PvP server!” It wasn’t until I saw a bunch of friendlies running the other way that I turned around and joined them. At which point I discovered I’d been jumped by a raiding party of monsters. More things happen on a moment to moment basis in Rift than in any other MMO.

If things can’t change — and, really, you’re never going not rescue the princess in anything with the initials MMO — at least they can be dynamic. If you can’t save the world, at least a wild battle can rage across it.

Another way that Rift is dynamic is in the way you play your character. There are four “callings”, which are the usual classes: warrior, rogue, mage, and cleric. But each calling has eight skill trees (and what a clever take on skill trees, combining choice with a predetermined path). You can combine three skill trees to create your own “role”. Furthermore, you can have up to four roles available to toggle at the press of a button. And you can freely respend your points if you want to try something new.

For instance, I started out my rogue as a combination of bard and assassin. The bard uses abilities to buff my party and the assassin is a melee fighter that builds up moves to unleash powerful attacks. But what kind of bard runs up and goes toe-to-toe with monsters? That was stupid. What was I thinking? So I swapped out my assassin tree for the marksman tree, setting up my bard to hang back with a bow. That was more my speed.

But rift battles weren’t nearly as gratifying hanging back and playing the support role for random players who were getting all the kills. So I set up a new role, composed of a saboteur and riftblade. The saboteur tree lets me throw bombs that do area effect damage and the riftblade has options for better survivability when I draw aggro. Now I flinging chemical bombs into the roiling battles and watch the damage over time numbers waft up in thick gouts of numbers. Dig it (Rift lets you display the name of the ability that cause the damage as well as the amount of damage):

Rift has admirable amount of breadth and generosity in the way you build your characters. I can swap freely between my bard/marksman and my saboteur/riftblade. And I can buy slots to store two more roles if I want. It’s the perfect combation of World of Warcraft’s detail with Guild Wars’ flexibility.

This is a great time for MMOs. Last month, DC Universe showed how an MMO can break the forumula, playing like an open-world multiplayer action game that I’d rather play with a gamepad than a mouse and keyboard. And now Rift comes along as shows how the formula — this is still an MMO about clicking on spells on a hotbar and waiting for the cooldown timer — can break free of the usual stagnation.

Rift goes live tomorrow and you can get more info here. If you roll up a character on Sunrest, add Elfchick to your friends list.

4 stars
PC