Disclaimer: This review is taken entirely from the perspective of a player who quit Rift after 45 days and returned to the game at the launch of the expansion. If you are looking for the viewpoint of a life-long Rifter, with ultra detailed information on raid content, this is not the review you are looking for.
Trion World’s Rift was one of the more pleasantly surprising games of 2011, in that it became the first of a new breed of MMO that actually posed some element of threat to the status quo. I initially reviewed it favourably, noting that while the genre had become stale to the point that it managed to parody itself, Rift introduced enough of a differential that it could possibly pull people away from WoW. But that was last year, an age in terms of our rapidly changing industry, and we are all well aware by now that a lot can change in the space of 18 months.
When Guild Wars 2 released back in August, it brought with it a new design ethos, an emphasis on exploration and teamwork, and a fast paced, strategic battle system. Gone were static quests and quest givers, dead towns full of zombie NPCs, and well worn paths to quick and easy levelling. You didn't need to worry about hitting the cap, since the journey was fun on its own. Everything, from the complete removal of subscription fees to the broad range of classes and play styles to breaking the holy trinity fundamentally flushed almost every other competitor out of the arena.
Its within this new dynamic that Rift: Storm Legion has decided to enter the fray, drastically expanding the world of Telara by 2/3's and introducing a raft of new features, including player housing and.. err.. capes? That's right folks, Trion Worlds has figured that a vast array of back armour will entice you to crack open that old subscription and get back into the world. But is it enough? Will old players, lured away by the prospect of free play, find the smattering of extra content irresistible enough to drop their Mesmer?
Well, no. But that's not necessarily a bad thing, since Storm Legion is undeniably a content expansion pack to appease and retain the base in the nature that Mists of Pandaria was for World of Warcraft. There is very little here that applies to players who left before reaching endgame, and the elements that have been added since (such as Instant Adventure and improved PvP modes like Conquest) have already been provided in both GW2 and WoW, and while the new rifts (in the form of Water, Death etc) and gear changes are welcome, again, they are not enough to bring anyone back.
Rift has instead gone to enormous lengths to keep its community happy, over the past year constantly engaging it for feedback on changes, seeking feature requests for future patches, continually balancing PvP and introducing new variations on the Rift mechanics, particularly in the form of dungeons and raids. There have been major (free) content patches every two months or so that demonstrate this tactic, overhauling everything from gear progression to raid mechanics, adding new crafting skills and a reward system that encourages players to keep logging in every day.
Storm Legion is the culmination of a year's worth of data, requests and a cry for more difficulty. Trion Worlds has answered the call and subsequently gone all in, expanding the world by a whopping two continents (the dark and doomed Dusken and the comparatively civilised Brevane) and as such a plethora of new quests, seven dungeons, and three raids. In fact, there's just more of everything -- crafts, mounts, pets, stuff to collect, CAPES TO WEAR, and, most importantly, a place of your own to develop. Without going into too much detail, I can't fault any of the dungeon or raid content -- “Storm Breaker Protocol” was easily a standout, with any pleasant Mech-related surprises always welcome in my books.
The Dimensions feature is one of the most heralded parts of Storm Legion, and the first player housing element to be added to a Western MMO in an extraordinarily long time. As an ex-player, I was intrigued to see how this would be implemented, whether Trion had gone with the risky yet significantly more interesting path of allowing player changes to their master world, or, rather, creating a "Playstation HOME" style instance of somewhere you can spend money on virtual trinkets. Unfortunately for everyone seeking a resurgence of the SWG style housing system, it was the latter.
I just don't understand the point of a house that no one can see "from the street". Sure, you can make it public and people can seek it out, or, alternatively, you can use the (admittedly powerful and very user-friendly) building system to make some interesting puzzles or mini-games. But for all intensive purposes, your "Dimension" is essentially a cave on another plane that most other players will never see, nor will or can it be incorporated to how you play your game in any meaningful way.
What would have been interesting is if Trion had diverted a large chunk of these new territories to their players, enabling them to build their own towns, cities or fortresses to defend from the soldiers and creatures that readily drop through rifts. Sandboxes that exist behind walls aren't interesting to anyone but the most dedicated of player, so I can't imagine too many hardcore Rift raiders are itching to drop some pots and stools around some old hut within the nether. If anything, it's a nice place for a guild or group to hang out and shoot the shit before an event, but it doesn't do anything for me.
I can't fault the World Events, with the takedown of Dragon God Crucia currently the central plank of the launch schedule. Why? Because they just simply haven't stopped occurring since the game began. It's a testament to how cool it is to participate in them that GW2 revolved its entire system around their existence. Each current event sits proudly on top of your log, There are long standing "stages" that make up each part of these enormous events, and it's just plain thrilling to be a part of some of the major battles when you find yourself in the middle of one.
It's this core element that reminded me why I loved Rift in the first place, with relentless horde of invaders and the epic hulking beasts that make conscious and lasting impacts on the world. There are improvements here too; with a new "Hunt" mode that allows high level players to track down planar bosses, while Rifts themselves now explode into existence much more frequently, but a gradually dwindling player population has impacted the number of players available at lower level for them to be completed. I found myself having to ignore most of them while leveling, just due to a lack of available players to fight them with.
This problem has been solved somewhat by the introduction (before Storm Legion) of Instant Adventures, where the game will match you up with other like minded players to complete a perpetual round of quests. modifying the difficulty to suit the average level mean of all players. While this is a significantly quicker and more entertaining method than levelling alone, it's not without its problems. Quests very quickly become repetitive and boring, while the "fetch area" for each one can be ages away from the previous, meaning runs through fields of mobs or fiddling with a very erratic auto-teleport feature. I won’t even mention Carnage quests, which are just needless grinds.
It's during this 0-60 slog that you quickly realise that Rift exists in a vacuum of its own design. A last ditch attempt to hold onto the traditional river of monthly cash has all but solidified TW's hand in doing whatever its dedicated player base wants. They don't care about the stagnant early game, tired battle mechanics nor the devastatingly quiet mid-zones. They want new dungeons, new beasts and more levels. So that's what they get, at the expense of anyone daring to return to see if they can rekindle the spark. I had the opportunity to see things from both sides of the coin, and it's a very unbalanced pendulum.
But this situation isn't unique to Rift, as I previously mentioned. It's Blizzard's tactic, and it works extraordinarily well for them, allowing a title that's almost a decade old to continue to hold an almost 8 million player strong base. But what the big-B does differently is to trickle down subtle changes that improve the game for new and returning players alike; whether making levelling quicker or easier, switching up quests, streamlining grouping systems or adding new gameplay mechanics.
If you've been playing Rift since launch, whether to purchase this expansion or not doesn't even require thought. It's the content/feature pack you were promised and on that note it delivers in spades. New players, however, may find what's on offer to be woefully dated alongside a player population significantly diminished next (and due to) to the more recent competition in the market.
Whether Rift survives for the long term in its current form relies on a high risk, high reward strategy that it's now gone all in on; keeping its high level players going, no matter the cost.