'Warhammer Online'

With a well-known franchise at the core, years of development and hype, and the marketing power of Electronic Arts behind it, "Warhammer Online" represents the most aggressive challenge yet to "World of Warcraft's" dominance in the high-risk/high-reward massively multiplayer online category.

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With a well-known franchise at the core, years of development and hype, and the marketing power of Electronic Arts behind it, “Warhammer Online” represents the most aggressive challenge yet to “World of Warcraft’s” dominance in the high-risk/high-reward massively multiplayer online category. “Warhammer” matches its competitors in most categories and even exceeds them with its pervasive social options. Unfortunately, that advantage is outweighed by a steep learning curve that makes getting started a chore. Unless and until that and some technical problems are addressed, “Warhammer Online” will have a tough time drawing players away from the competition.

As of its opening weekend, the game suffers some terrible lag and occasional stability issues. Hopefully, these are launch problems that will be ironed out in the coming weeks, because they make it nearly impossible to play the larger battles — arguably the core of “Warhammer Online” — in any meaningful way.

The Warhammer franchise began 25 years ago as a set of rules for two people at a table, each with their own army of painted miniature figures. It has endured as a grittier counterpart to Dungeons & Dragons, set in a dark world of religious heresy, mutants and demons: Imagine if the Inquisition came to Tolkien’s Middle Earth.

The new MMO version from developer Mythic Entertainment mimics many of the key features from the ultra successful “Warcraft,” which boasts 11 million subscribers around the globe. Players take on quests, fight monsters, win treasure and become more powerful. Repeat ad nauseum, while paying a monthly fee.

One of the key reasons “Warcraft” has been so successful, however, is the way it smoothly eases players into a streamlined but deep online word that quickly becomes addictive. “Warhammer Online,” however, is distinctly unfriendly to newcomers. Instead of quests moving players along a single track of advancement, there are multiple ways to advance on multiple progress bars. There are influence, renown, masteries, morale, tactics, chapters, tiers, SCs, PQs, RvR, and BOs. It’s easy enough to puzzle out eventually, and it’ll prove particularly gratifying to long-time MMO players eager to sink their teeth into a meaty new game. But the steep learning curve will alienate some people who would more easily take to “Warcraft.”

The tradeoff is that “Warhammer Online” is a much more social experience, designed to throw players together in groups, often fighting against other players. In most MMOs, these “player vs. player” activities tend to be the stuff of the endgame, accessible only to those who have spent literally hundreds of hours leveling up their characters and winning powerful magic items. They tend to require an intimate understanding of the gameplay mechanics and class balance, and often a regular group of dedicated players. But in “Warhammer Online,” it’s a pervasive part of the gameplay, slickly built to be accessible and constant, whether a player logs on for five, 15, or 50 hours a week.

There are plenty of solo missions, but many are designed to throw players into the fighting or cooperative missions where players join forces against computer-controlled enemies. In either case, it’s easy to join via an “open group” panel, which shows nearby gatherings that aren’t yet full. This is a much more inviting way for players to help each other than the typical MMO system of having to find a group by typing into the chat channel esoteric acronyms like “WH14 LFG T2 Bos”.

Like most MMOs, there isn’t much of a storyline beyond the usual excuses to gather troll ears, talk to specific computer controlled characters, or deliver doodads. But the “Warhammer” universe boasts a rich lore, neatly arranged in the game’s “Tome of Knowledge,” where players track their progress through the world and tick off accomplishments.

At the outset, would be “Warhammer” denizens can choose to join any of six races, or factions, grouped into opposing pairs: dwarves vs. orcs, elves vs. dark elves, and good humans vs. evil humans. Each has a capital city that can eventually be captured by the opposing faction, temporarily changing the balance of the entire game.

“Warhammer Online” is full of evocative artwork for the imaginative characters and locations, shot through with clever touches. There is a generous variety of visual styles for each of the six races, ranging from the stately elves to the intolerant human inquisitors to the sniveling goblins. While it’s full of detail, however, there’s a shortage of scope. Unlike other recent MMOs that play out against grand vistas, “Warhammer” constantly takes place in valleys or is socked in by fog.

Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning

Production

An Electronic Arts presentation of a game developed by Mythic Entertainment for the PC. Rated T. $50, plus $15 per month
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