Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning doesn't give you a pony to ride. When you first enter the game, you won't be greeted by a smiling, reassuring Elven woman who will tell you that you are the chosen one. You won't get a chance to frolic in the meadows of your pristine home, allowed to playfully learn to fight.
No, in Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning, war is everywhere. The local village is already burning to the ground when you first start the game. The non-player characters are all gruff Germanic characters that don't have time to teach you the basics-they simply need another body on the frontlines. You need to grab your weapon and dispatch the invading Norsemen and try to do something about that rampaging giant. The captain is dead and the king's messenger has gone missing. Welcome to the war, kid. This isn't your mother's MMO.
Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning is a massive multiplayer online game that is a darker, more frenzied flavor of fantastical combat than you're probably used to. Mythic's Realm vs. Realm combat system, first pioneered in Dark Age of Camelot, brings new life to the mythology of the popular tabletop game Warhammer for which the MMO is based upon. Thanks to a rich story and a heavy emphasis on combat, Warhammer Online hacks its way into distinction in the MMO genre.
The plot is classic and approachable: The forces of Order, headed by the human Empire, are under attack from the forces of Disorder, led by the dark cults of Chaos. To help the humans, the ancient races of High Elves and Dwarves have answered the call to arms. Meanwhile, Dark Elves and Greenskins (Orcs and Goblins) have come to the aid of Chaos in their war against Order.
The player has six races to choose from, divided between order and disorder. Each race has its own four different careers to choose from, effectively breaking down into the "tank," "Damage Per Second (DPS)," "Ranged DPS," and "Healer/Support" roles that are often found in MMOs. I played as the High Elf tank, the Swordmaster, and later as a Dark Elf Sorcerer, a ranged-DPS character.
As your character gains experience, they'll gain new career abilities, equipment, and eventually, access to new areas. The game enfolds through quests that piece together into chapters of the game's story; meanwhile, your character's renown and experience will grant them equipment and the ability to see new lands, unlocking the vast world and its many battlefronts.
Of course, with any MMO, there's plenty of level grinding to be had. Quests are given by various non-player characters (NPCs) and fairly standard fare: go here, collect this, kill x number of this creature, etc. Some of the quests will thrown you into other aspects of combat, which is great, because the quests themselves aren't anything exceptional and will likely disappoint players if that's all they seek. There's loot to be had, but the game's economy isn't as complex as other MMOs and so you won't find much to grab from your fallen foes to then sell to vendors or opposing players.
Where the game really shines is when you play with and against other players. Think of Warhammer Online as a Dark Age of Camelot spiritual successor, especially when it comes to the later levels of combat. Starting out, you'll be able to participate in public quests with your fellow players. I joined in on a mission to put down an abomination that had been created due to a botched summoning ceremony and later a mission to clear a town of infected demons. Depending on your performance, you'll be given a certain share of the loot. The public quests reset themselves after a certain amount of time, which makes sense but also reveals a bit of the game's raw seams.
Later, you'll be able to answer rally calls to join with your fellow forces as they seek to defend or invade a territory on the map. Dozens of fellow players will square off in combat, hoping to secure objectives. You'll love being able to test your abilities against live opponents and its great to feel like you're actually contributing to the overall war effort; but you'll grow bored with the standoff nature of initial battles. Two armies taking pot shots at each other while no one advances can get boring fast.
To break up the deadlocked nature of some Battlefields, I hopped over to a couple Scenarios where I faced off against the opposing faction in a small map setting where each side vie to capture and hold objectives and gain points before time runs out. The game automatically levels the playing field so you won't have players at a higher level dominating lower level players.
Later, you'll be able to participate in Campaigns where you can capture land, keep castles for your specific guild, and really take advantage of Mythic's Realm vs. Realm combat system. You won't be able to enjoy this latter function until you're past the first tier of experience (capped at around level 10). After you've passed the first tier of experience, you'll be able to travel to other lands through Dwarven Flight Masters and their Chaos equivalent.
Warhammer Online explodes out of the gate with its intense first few quests and its unconventional choice of throwing the player into the thick of combat immediately. But the middling quests and pedestrian level grinding may turn away some users, which is a shame because there's a lot to like about the freedoms afforded to advanced players. If you put the time in, you'll find yourself witness to the most well-balanced, complex, and epic player vs. player combat out there. Simply, you don't just feel like your participation in an army is important, you can see it as lands change hands and the tide of war seems to shift. While Warcraft can make you feel like you're the chosen one by granting you unrivaled gear and character customization, the combat system doesn't have the same sense of weight to it.
So is Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning going to redefine the MMO genre? No, but it doesn't have to. It's a different, more frenetic and yet focused form of fantasy combat. There's more of a focus on the epic conflict between the two sides and the mythology that surrounds that battle; from the start you're part of this conflict and you really can't journey anywhere in the world where it's not omnipresent.
Now, there are definitely ways for the game to improve. The inclusion of Skaven, Lizardmen, Wood Elves, Chaos Dwarves, Dogs of War, Vampire Counts, Bretonia, and other Warhammer armies would do great things to flesh out the complexity of this world. Warhammer suffers from a flaw common to many MMOs-the terrain and environments are varied, but the areas seem to play identically. When you enter a new zone, you can expect to get certain quests from characters that follow the same formulas; Mythic has wisely had the RvR combat impact the larger world, but increasing those changes and random encounters would keep players constantly exploring the evolving world.
On my 2.66GHz Core 2 Duo MacBook Pro, I found the graphics to be pretty compelling, if not spectacular. You'll see some gorgeous battles and well-rendered, realistic characters. The fog of war can get irritating, effectively robbing you of some truly expansive landscapes, but at the same time adds to the atmosphere of dread in certain areas.
Macworld's buying advice
During my first hour of playing Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning, an NPC giant knocked over some trees and began attacking the windmill I was charged with defending. The beautiful, shocking scene was completely scripted but still completely hooked me. There are enough jaw-dropping moments in the beginning levels to grab your attention while quietly teaching the basics of the world. While the middle-levels will push away the quest-centric player or the more casual gamer, the later PvP abilities promises to richly reward players who stick with it. The scenarios and public quests are fun, but the Battlefields and Campaigns that directly respond to your contribution make you feel like a soldier on the front lines. I've yet to encounter a better game to offer complete immersion into a huge war; while the game has its flaws, the level of escapism is pretty staggering.
[Chris Holt is a Macworld assistant editor.]
This story, "Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning" was originally published by Macworld.