Putting a final score to Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning is a little like trying to comprehensively evaluate, for example, last February. On some level, everyone had the same experience of that fine month - the same number of days adding up to the same number of weeks, with roughly the same weather. Everyone probably had more or less the same number of good, bad and indifferent days. As a structure, February was pretty much the same for everyone. Within that structure, however, are as many different personal experiences as there are people to have them.
So while the edifice that is WAR is the same for everyone, it's quite possible for any two players to experience it in vastly different ways. Further than that, it's extremely likely that anyone playing WAR will have wildly different experiences from day to day. Monday evening could be an 8, Tuesday afternoon a 6, Friday night a 9, followed by a depressing 5 on Saturday morning. What, then, does that number down the bottom actually mean?
Let's call it the number that indicates what kind of experience most people are most likely to have, more often than not. In this case, we're going to consider 'most people' to be those who can generally spare 10 or so hours a week to put into the game, who have a friend or two that they might play alongside every now and again. Guild membership is an optional extra and WAR is a game, rather than a lifestyle. This is not to, in any way, devalue those people who plough many more hours a week into the game, head their own 100 player guild and who arrived at Rank 40 two weeks ago. It's just that we can't review that hardcore experience of WAR, because that's not how we played it. This is, in effect, a review for those who are up for a good game no matter what shape it comes in but are probably a little hesitant when it comes to monthly subscription fees.
Rather than recapping all the basics of WAR, allow us to gently prod you in the direction the first impressions posted a few weeks ago. While there have been constant tweaks and updates since then, it's still fundamentally the same game. It's a very young MMORPG, just nudging 6 weeks old at the time of writing, but that's certainly enough time to get a good sense of where WAR is heading.
WAR remains a game very much at the mercy of its population size. When it hits the sweet spot, with sufficient numbers of players in Public Quests, stalking the Realm vs Realm battlefields or leaping into Scenarios, it's unique, refreshing and remarkably grind-free. The Scenarios are a great way to scoop up armfuls of XP while having fun and RvR adds a deliciously tense, watch-your-back vibe to proceedings. A good, cohesive group hacking away at a Public Quest is one of the best and most easily accessible illustrations of the way co-operative multiplayer gaming between strangers can work.
The sticking point, though, is that elusive sweet spot. Frankly, it just doesn't happen as often as it should. The Tier 2 PQs on the Oceanic Darklands server have been sad affairs over the past few weeks, either abandoned completely or featuring a few lonely players grinding through the (at times interminable) first stage of a PQ, only to be quickly thwacked when the second stage kicks in. Players tend to focus on PQs that are close to towns and warcamps, which makes sense when the respawn points for some of the more distant PQs are right back across the map, requiring a trudge back to the action, often past other PQs. In gameplay terms, this means that if you want to see a PQ through to the end, you'll generally be playing the same one over and over again. You can, of course, get proactive, organise a party and head off into the wilds, but this does go somewhat against the idea of PQs being something you can simply fall into on your travels.
Credit where it's due, though. Mythic are working tirelessly to keep server populations healthy, offering XP and Renown bonuses to players who fire up a character on a server with an under-represented Realm. Free character transfers from low to high population servers are also imminent and they no doubt have other plans underway to keep WAR working as well as it should. Also, nights and weekends naturally see more players on board and provide a much more fertile playground.
And it's definitely a playground, more than a world. WAR isn't really a place for dawdling around in and taking in the sights. It's not that the game engine doesn't offer up some eye-catching scenery - it has a particularly attractive way with misty forests and burning horizons - but that there's far more emphasis on what you're doing than where you are. It doesn't have the Behold the (Noun) of (Verb)! allure of, say, Lord of the Rings Online. There's no real sense of life outside the game mechanics in WAR. This isn't necessarily a criticism, and may actually be a blessing for those looking to simply get into the action. As long as you don't expect to be immersed in a fantasy world while bludgeoning skulls, WAR should be a comfortable fit.
Endless combat - or Eternal Waaaagh!, if you must - lies at the heart of Warhammer Online. The focus is very much on an ability bar stocked with various spells, moves, buffs, debuffs and so on that can be fired off as needed, either with a mouse click or via the keyboard. There is some thought required to make the most of your abilities - it's a good idea to tenderise your victim before sinking the boot in - but we found that firing off everything we had as often as possible usually paid dividends. Beyond the basic common sense rules of the battlefield, such as staying away from frontline tanks if you're a backline healer, combat is simple and straightforward.
Too simple, maybe? It's puzzling how engaging it can be, once you realise that you're mostly just hitting a number key when the right icon lights up on your ability bar, and stabbing at a health potion when needed. The one-on-one encounters that occur when wandering through RvR areas are - for us, at least - much more entertaining than the caught-in-an-exploding-fireworks-factory feel of the larger battles. Keep sieges can be spectacular and exciting but also messy and chaotic, not unlike throwing four dozen cats into an enclosed space and seeing what happens. It's sometimes difficult not to feel that ultimate victory has less to do with smart tactics and cunning use of abilities and is more about which side goes to bed first.
The PvE side of the game is still something of an also-ran, hanging around like the bookish older sister to PvP's sparkly prom queen. In practice it serves to fill in the downtime while waiting for something more interesting to happen and provides a certain amount of background and story to the Warhammer world. While it's a perfectly acceptable addition to the game, anyone looking for a good, story driven dose of solo questing will find themselves underwhelmed.
Possibly the biggest pothole in the road to WAR, from an Australian perspective, is the increasing cost of a monthly subscription. At the moment, a US$14.95 monthly sub will set you back about AU$22, and in the past few days has veered perilously close to AU$25. With the fluctuating exchange rate, Australian gamers are potentially going to face some steep monthly fees and that's undoubtedly going to put a dent in populations of the Oceanic servers. There's very little Mythic can do about this but it's a simple fact of life that playing WAR in Australia could end up costing more than many people will be willing to pay.
Still, who needs money, hey? And there's no doubt that time we've spent so far in WAR has been fun and engaging. The highs have largely outweighed the inevitable slumps, and Mythic's outstanding support of the game is encouraging for anyone looking to make a long term commitment. When WAR is firing on all cylinders, there are few MMOs that can match its accessible, exciting gameplay.