The Warhammer mythos is one that was spawned from table top miniature combat. Wargame fans the world over delight in the rich fantasy world of dwarves, elves, orcs, goblins and the forces of Chaos.
Many hours were spent painting armies of finely detailed 25mm lead alloy figures to fight them over equally detailed terrain. The Warhammer World was always going to be a natural for transitioning onto the PC gaming platform, however intial forays were restricted to standard wargame and strategy games. The release of Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning marks the first move to online gaming.
It's worth noting that this game has had a lot of build up. It has been years in development by EA Mythic, and it has been eagerly anticipated by Warhammer and MMO fans alike. It is fair to say that a lot of this has been driven by players seeking an alternative to Blizzard's hugely successful World of Warcraft. In doing this review we are aware that there are fundamental differences between the games, but it is necessary to compare where similarities do exist - if only to add to the debate on whether this is the "WoW-killer" that fans claim it to be.
This review has been completed on the standard retail copy. This contains two installation DVDs, the manual and the initial one month's free subscription. The manual is pretty basic, containing only the barest of information on the races and gameplay. The Warhammer franchise is well known for its wonderful artwork and colourful documentation, and we have to say the black and white offering (although pretty standard in the industry) is not up to the quality we would have expected from the franchise. Those who splashed out the extra coin for the Collector's Edition won't be complaining about the beautiful art book and graphic novel included in that box, though.
Installation for our copy of the game was a nightmare, and an inexcusable nightmare at that. The long load time (during which the progress bar appears not to move at all) had us looking at the task manager to see if in fact it was working, and the very business-like load screen was nothing compared to the absence of an executable file at the end of it. Yes, you got it, the only file that looked anything like an executable was the patch file, and unfortunately this crashed. A trawl through the internet revealed that this was not an uncommon problem, and after a new version of the patch executable together with a 200MB update we were finally into the game. The absence of a robust game loader is inexcusable. We understand this is a problem affecting only Australasian copies of the game; regardless, it's a right royal screw up.
The game starts up with the already released trailer intro (which hung on our review machine) after which you're dropped into the game proper. The first order of business is to select the server you wish to play on. Kudos to EA Mythic for including at launch a bunch of Oceanic based servers, which was something that WoW has managed to do in name only. You have a choice between RPG, Core and PvP (no realm is safe). You are then given the choice of the Forces of Order (Dwarf, Empire and High Elf) or the Forces of Destruction (Green Skin, Chaos and Dark Elf). Each of these differing races has three distinct character types which in total gives you 18 different character classes, add to this the different talent trees in each class (these kick in at level 15) and this has to be the most varied character selection in any MMO we have seen.
This has its problems of course, as although some effort has been made to differentiate each class, some do have a level sameness about them. That is to say they have different abilities, but the same effects.
Once you have made your selection you are off to your character's starting point. First impressions of the graphics at this point are pretty good. Warhammer Online has a more realistic and gritty feel than some of its counterparts. The Green Skins' area has the muddied feel of a war camp, while the Elven area has that ethereal, tree-hugger feel to it. The environments are well thought out, and have themed music that manages to capture the underlying story well.
Early quests are pretty much what you would expect (go there, kill this and gather that) but what we particularly liked is how intuitive the quest tracking is. On the larger map, quest areas are surrounded in red so you have a fair idea of where you need to go to complete your quests, and the quest tracker on the right hand side of the UI gives you immediate access to what you need to do when you get there. There is a helpful sound when you have completed the quest as well.
The UI will be familiar to a lot of MMO players, and this can be readily adjusted without too much effort. Bags can be viewed as icons or in list format, and the casting bars give you a good description of the ability and a cool down time once used.
Once you have mastered the basics in the early quests, you can move out into other questing areas (called chapters) and this is where you find one of the more curious game features. Each of the questing hubs is pretty much fully featured with the trainers you need to progress. There is no need to make your way to a capital city to train or up-skill your profession. It's early days yet, however this decision may be one the designers will regret. Although convenient, it comes at the expense of creating a sense of community. In other MMOs, hanging around the capital city, chewing the fat with your mates, forming guilds, showing off gear and so forth has been fundamental in creating a game community. Dispensing with the need to congregate in one spot will make this community building so much harder. We're not sure if the lack of in-game chatter may be a product of this as well.