"They asked me if I wanted some open beta keys for our staff," says the Games Workshop representative as the mass of European games journalists, GOA T-shirt-wearing helpers and hangers-on mill into the main hall of a Paris museum. "But I told them that I didn't want them. I didn't want any of them. Can you imagine the damage they would do? Our staff wouldn't do any work!"
He's right, I think, as I wait for EA Mythic to hit the stage and deliver a presentation on the hotly anticipated Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning. MMOs are like that. They're life-draining, relationship-destroying, health-sapping games. And no doubt when WAR is finally released, some time in Fall 2008, for many thousands of people - there have been over 600,000 open beta applications - it will be the be all and end all of their gaming lives. Hell, for some, it will be the be all and end all of their lives.
But I also find myself thinking something else - the same thing I think whenever I sit down to try out a new MMO: why should I stop playing World of Warcraft and start playing this, another class-based fantasy role-playing MMO with orks, elves, and humans at war? As senior producer Jeff Hickman and associate producer Josh Dresher take to the stage, I whisper to them: "Go on, convince me. I want you to."
I do strongly believe that there is a desire from millions of lapsed WoW subscribers - the ones who keep paying Blizzard but don't actually play the game - for a viable alternative. Plenty of publishers have chucked cash at developers to try and come up with that viable alternative since WoW "opened up the market" three years ago. The harsh reality is most of them have failed.
And so I beg EA Mythic to convince me to stop playing WoW and start playing WAR. Over the course of the presentation I'm told things, and I see things, that go a long way to satisfying my desire. Perhaps most appealing is the Tome of Knowledge, which feels a bit like Mass Effect's codex on steroids. It acts as a record of your past achievements in the game, gives you background on the present and teases on your future. You have the ability to track current quests and work out why, exactly, you need to kill 30 Squigs, but you can also have a look at quests you've completed. More interestingly, the Tome provides an evolving, in-depth background to the lore of Warhammer. Click on an orc for the first time, or a noteworthy individual, and a small pop-up will appear in the top-middle of the screen indicating a Tome unlock. Click through and the Tome will open, turning to the page with a short essay on the green-skinned race or the VIP.
Nice enough so far, but the Tome has one final trick up its sleeve which could make it a game breaker - it's a meta game in of itself, with its own set of Tome quests, unlockable achievements and character-enhancing Tome tactics. For example, you'll unlock an achievement for looting corpses, or killing tonnes of a certain type of enemy, or even for completely random things like climbing to the top of a mountain in some obscure area of the map, or for using the Tell command 50 times, or for killing a chicken as a chicken. Really.
We're shown a Tome quest in action - an NPC appears, one which only pops up between the hours of 12 and 1pm every other day. You follow him into a tent and overhear a conversation revealing him as an Empire traitor. He intends to meet a traitor Wizard in the Wizard's Tower, a building you would never normally be able to access. You kill the man and loot the Wizard Tower key, transporting you inside. There you kill the traitorous magic-wielder and complete the Tome quest.
The idea behind Tome unlocks isn't that they should encourage a grind-fest. The idea is that they should be a cool surprise, an unexpected reward for simply being observant and curious. They grant titles that help differentiate you from other players - where WoW players inspect gear, in WAR the intention is that players will inspect your gear as well as your Tome unlocks. And that's the key. But don't expect all the achievements to be desirable - die 100,000 times and you'll get a title that will mock you (don't worry, you can turn the titles off).
The Tome will no doubt be of great interest to WAR junkies, those who play the table-top game and love it. But it should also be of great interest to fantasy role-playing fans of all descriptions. The Tome could help players engage with the world of WAR on a much deeper level than any MMO so far released. As it's described to me by Carrie Gouskos, associate producer in charge of the Tome, "it's designed to ruin your social life".
The Tome of Knowledge however isn't the only unique feature WAR has in its considerable cannon which helps differentiate it from "that other MMO". The six major capital cities, including Altdorf for the Empire (Dwarves and High Elves make up the rest of the good guys) and The Inevitable City for Chaos (Greenskins and the Dark Elves finish the bad guy set), will be the centre of attention for end game RvR, or realm versus realm play. Unlike "that other MMO", the capital cities will be more than simple social hubs. They will be the pinnacle of WAR's PvP.
In keeping with Dark Age of Camelot, EA Mythic's previous MMO, WAR will be an RvR centred game. This will take the form of open world combat in designated areas of the game world, but players will also get it on in Keeps, ala DAoC, where guilds can capture and earn special rewards. That's just the appetiser though. The main course is siege warfare. Battering rams can be used to knock down city gates, burning pots of oil can be poured over attackers from high defensive positions and catapults can be manned and fired. Entire six-man groups can come together to use siege weapons. Taking on the opposing realm's capital city, we're told, will take the combined effort of multiple guilds, not just to force their way in but to battle the other players, NPCs and to burn the place to the ground. It will take a monumental effort, and won't happen every week either. EA Mythic imagines it will be a rare event, perhaps occurring once every few months.
Cities will also be organic, ever changing places. At the beginning of a server's life the two capital cities will be in poverty, or at the lowest rating. As the realm versus realm combat starts to kick in victory points will start to funnel their way into your side's capital, enhancing its reputation and improving its look and services. EA Mythic hopes the state of a server's two capital cities will become a matter of pride for players, and worth preserving - an invading force can reduce a capital city rating, thus undoing all the hard work.
Once the enemy capital city is captured, players friendly to it won't be able to use it. Instead they'll only have access to essential items in a refugee style camp - black market traders will provide the basics. Essentially you've been booted out. EA Mythic is still undecided on how long exactly it will be before the game starts resetting the city, but we get the feeling it will probably be about 16 hours or so. Long enough to give the controlling force a shot at the ruler of Order or Destruction - an instanced encounter which will provide the ultimate, and hardest, task in the whole game. It all sounds supremely savage of course. I can't wait to pour burning oil over scores of invaders. And work out how to cope with it when I'm part of the invading force.
So, we've got the Tome of Knowledge and city sieges blazing a trail for WAR. But it doesn't stop there. I absolutely love the idea of Public Quests, too. When you enter a new area in WAR which has a public quest running you'll automatically be offered the opportunity to join in the fun. PQs run in stages, the first might be a collective effort to kill a certain number of monsters, usually culminating in a player versus environment battle against a double-hard computer-controlled boss (there are currently 300 PQs in the game, resetting every 15 minutes). The point is everyone in that area will be working towards a common goal, a goal which will have benefits for your realm, as well as dishing out big fat loot.
I love WAR's high concept ideas, the city sieges, the Tome of Knowledge and the Public Quests. However, this enthusiasm was dampened somewhat by the hands-on time I received with the game. I, along with a pack of journalists, snagged pre-made low level High Elf and Dark Elf characters to get a taste of levelling. This played out in an extremely similar fashion to WoW, with quests obtained from NPCs to kill a certain number of monsters, return, gain experience and items. My character class - the Shadow Warrior, played similarly to WoW's hunter, with the emphasis on ranged attacks with a bow. I found myself "kiteing" (stunning your opponent so you can damage from a distance) and spamming special abilities with hot keys in much the same way as I have done for more hours than I care to admit in WoW.
I'll balance this by saying WAR promises more classes than WoW to play around with, and while many of them are similar to the class types typical in most fantasy role-playing games, there are some interesting choices. In WAR, the Mastery System, which supplements progression through the 40 levels with 15 levels of its own, provides the opportunity to customise your class further. A Morale system, which carries up to four tiers, is built up over the course of a successful fight and, at the highest level, provides some of the most powerful attacks available. And, to top it off, through the Tome you'll be able to unlock Bane Tactics, which are PvE or RvR specific buffs. EA Mythic is keen to stress that WAR will provide a level of character customisation unseen in previous class-based MMOs.
I also got the chance to get my MMO trigger finger dirty with some High Elf versus Dark Elf battleground-style PvP action, called Scenarios in WAR. Again, it felt unnervingly similar to battleground combat in WoW, with capture the flag and take and hold game types. I left with the impression that WAR, Tome of Knowledge notwithstanding, won't really show its differentiating spots until players near or reach the level cap, and thus get a shot at the city RvR.
With an autumn 2008 release date scheduled WAR also runs the risk of going head to head with Wrath of the Lich King, WoW's upcoming expansion. This potential fantasy MMORPG heavyweight head-to-head could make things very difficult for EA Mythic's game. But don't count WAR out just yet - this underdog is one of the most polished WoW alternatives I've seen. At this stage it sounds better than it plays, but soon enough we'll get the chance to sink our teeth into what we're all dying to taste - city sieges, Public Quests and the chance to pour burning oil over those snotty High Elves.
Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning is due out in Fall 2008.