There’s this prevailing sentiment among video game players that there is an objective ruler upon which you can evaluate all games. For the rest of us that live with at least one leg firmly planted in reality, we realize that art and entertainment are never that simple. Some games do very well financially to little critical acclaim, while some critical darlings go mostly ignored by the masses. Some games may not even register on your average Forknife tween’s radar, but they may still have had a profound effect on the people who enjoyed them.
MMORPGs are especially difficult to discuss like this due to their temporary nature. Despite what game publisher PR departments want you to believe, you can never go home again, at least not to Azeroth or Telara. MMOs are designed to constantly be in flux, relying heavily on player engagement to make the experience feel whole. I mention this because one of my favorite games of all time was what some in more niche gaming scenes might consider a failure, a fly-by-night World of Warcraft clone that did little more than distract fans until the next expansion by Blizzard.
This summary couldn’t be farther from the truth, as Rift did much more than temporarily steal a portion of WoW’s audience. Trion World’s debut MMO invited gamers into a rich fantasy world with an emphasis on player expression, exploration, and cooperation, at a time when World of Warcraft was dealing with massive blowback from its community about the difficulty of Cataclysm content compared to the WotLK expansion, among other things. Telara wasn’t just Azeroth 2.0, instead offering a welcome alternative that pushed the experience in other directions. While WoW’s cataclysm was revitalizing how traditional questing was done, Rift stuck to a more familiar formula and tried expanding on the core MMO experience instead of reinventing it.
Rift was developed at an interesting time in MMO history, one most memorable for the string of game publishers trying to cash in on the WoW craze just as WoW was waning in popularity and trying to revamp itself. A big complaint gamers had about the streamlining of MMO design was that it often leads to players AFKing in one or two major cities, stopping only to queue into a dungeon or check their auction house sales. Rift’s answer to this was it’s namesake Rifts that opened up throughout the game and offered players an incentive to explore Telara and cooperate with other players to defend it against invading forces.
On paper, this idea sounds revolutionary. In reality, it ended up playing like a slightly more engaging group quest from other, similar titles. But, what it lacked in mechanics it made up for in atmosphere and worldbuilding, both of which are paramount to my experience playing an MMORPG. Sure, you could theoretically ignore the invaders and go about your business, but for those playing for the sake of adventure, it provided a great distraction from the more basic questing system.
Rifts weren’t the only thing keeping players engaged, however. In between the planar invasion and rifts opening up, players could also (eventually) click a button to immediately be grouped together with other players and thrust directly into a group quest, jump into dungeons, raids, and smaller raid-style encounters. They even eventually offered more casual players access to raid content through more intimate encounters using similar assets and environments. Essentially, if you were a PvE MMO fan, Rift probably had something for you.
That being said, it did leave a bit to be desired in terms of Player versus Player mechanics. World PvP never seemed as lively as it should, perhaps because the open-world provided much more interesting endeavors than PKing unsuspecting newbs (An Ex Por, y’all), but there were plenty of instanced opportunities to kill your fellow man. Thankfully, I was more than happy to dip my toe in Warfronts before returning to my much more comfortable time murdering A.I. controlled monsters en masse.
For me, Rift was perfect because I was pretty disappointed with World of Warcraft at the time and found a fresh, yet familiar approach to a game genre I had thoroughly enjoyed for more than a decade at that point. It was obviously not for everyone, but I hope that people give the game a chance despite the fact that it will probably never live up to my fond memories of time spent in Telara.