Tuesday, May 31, 2011


I picked up Rift’s free trial mode after the link was published in Penny Arcade, played for a couple hours, got frustrated by the tutorial and starting zone, and turned it off. After talking with Austin and Matthew about it, I decided to give the game another shot, this time making it several hours in (level 12) before real life intervened. I don’t particularly feel the need to sign back on, although I might try to see a full-scale invasion (which I mostly missed because I was questing at the time). So this review is not exhaustive; then again, there’s a good reason for that.
Final Verdict: Rift is a cover band who finally made it big, with a slick record deal and a professional engineer. It looks great, it runs very well on my mid-grade PC, and virtually every genre feature that everyone has said, “I wish that were present in game X!” about is present and accounted for. This puts it several steps above most other online games, but from my interior perspective, it just means I’m not seething in frustration. Everything is fairly polished, although the basic feedback loop is rather slower than I’d like. Everything is executed adequately, and no further than adequately. I would recommend this in a vacuum over World of Warcraft, simply because it is newer and shinier, but there is absolutely no reason to double up between them unless you have friends in both places.
For Non-WoW Players: Rift is a Western MMO, a “Massively Multiplayer Online” game, extremely similar to World of Warcraft (WoW). This means you will spend several dozen hours doing menial labor to build up your character, either alone or with a small group of friends. Virtually everyone you talk to will have a task for you to complete, such as “Those wolves are killing our sheep. Kill six wolves and bring me their pelts!” or “Our supplies of leather pants are running low. Sew a dozen pairs for me and I’ll pay you!” or mostly, “Vorenclex the Wicked in his futile but bitter feud with Alvala of Ergeron has cursed our beloved trees. Pray at these three shrines to shine the holy light of cleansing upon them!” Each of these actions rewards you with increasing amounts of experience and loot, and slowly lead you to explore the enormous map and build up your character into a unique and special snowflake. (Or, more realistically, you will be Legolas Knockoff #47913.) Meanwhile, several thousand other people are doing the same thing at the same time, so you will often pass them in the wilderness, helping them out of a jam or waiting for them to finish killing wolves so you can take your turn. This creates a mindless but entertaining feedback loop during which you can easily listen to background TV, talk to friends, or just numb the pain of an uncomfortable existence by escaping into a world where your actions are always positive and someone pops in every hour or two to announce that you’ve earned some new toy. Like Facebook, the only real value in this game is being a social lubricant. If the idea of signing up to kill some demons with Bob and Linda, or with 4 people you’ve never met, is an exciting way to help people out while relaxing, Rift is an excellent tool for this purpose. It’s very easy to join a group either formally or informally, and your computerized allies’ incompetence creates frequent opportunities to save them from the slavering demon hordes, so enjoy. If you want something you will be having deep thoughts about in the car tomorrow morning, look elsewhere.
For Current or Former WoW Players: Rift is virtually identical to WoW, except it looks prettier and the titular “rifts” are semi-random, optional opportunities to join a temporary group to fight in a miniature dungeon. There is absolutely no reason to recommend it unless you quit WoW for reasons unrelated to the game itself (stopped being single, grew apart from your friends, etc.) because it is only slightly less tedious than what you’ve already seen. There are no evolutionary leaps forward here; it earns a solid B for “Meets Expectations” in every category.

Timothy Zahn - The Conquerors Trilogy

This trilogy represents Zahn at the peak of his popularity and power, with his trademark mix of space opera, diplomatic thrills and military action, plus an ambition to prove his wildly popular Star Wars books weren’t just a flash in the pan. It’s largely successful, and I couldn’t put it down even on a third reading, which marks this series as one of my all-time favorites. Plus you’ve gotta love a series where at least one person per book pulls out a diplomatic carte blanche and it’s a bigger deal than being shot at.
Story: The basic premise involves a war between humans and the alien Zhirrzh, both of whom refer to the other guys as “The Conquerors”. Both sides are set up as a mirror image of the other, with a large and well-connected family on each side and various political higher-ups playing a central role in the conflict, and a pervasive fear that the other guys are unbeatable. The plot starts with first contact and quickly breaks into parallel lines following a human POW, a daring and illegal attempt to rescue him, an occupied border world hiding a piece of the top-secret human superweapon, a second feuding pair of alien races with ulterior motives, a high-ranking politician with a grudge against our heroes, and a journalist being pursued by Military Intelligence – and that’s just book 1. There are lots of sudden revelations and subtly foreshadowed plot twists, leading into a climax with upwards of a dozen major characters on three planets, all on the same interstellar conference call, trying to negotiate a cease-fire before the fleet reaches Earth. This is the rare space-military story where everybody involved would rather not be fighting, and much of the labyrinthine plot ties directly into world-building features that leave you feeling like these events are totally natural and explainable. It’s a great ride, basically, and I noticed my heart rate speeding up towards the end, which is a big accomplishment.
Design: Zahn’s simple prose and complex plot doesn’t leave much time for character development or visual descriptions, but propels you along so quickly you won’t notice. The central conceit of the trilogy presents the first book, Conquerors’ Pride, from the human perspective as they struggle to understand the alien culture, and the second, Conquerors’ Heritage, from the alien perspective, with the third book, Conquerors’ Legacy, switching rapidly between them as the two sides meet. Unfortunately, it’s clear that Zahn tried to cram a superb four-book series into three books, resulting in some very rushed portions and virtually no chance to ask what the characters are thinking and feeling. A modern publisher, having learned that books sell well no matter how many pages they contain, would have given Zahn the space he needed to avoid skipping all the falling action, for instance. I also found the use of language and neologisms to make the aliens sound less human (like saying “cyclic” instead of “year”) to be aggravating, although you might find it a charming way to reinforce cultural differences.
Best Feature: The alien Zhirrzh are one of the best humanoid aliens I’ve ever read. They’re a genuinely new idea, and their civilization and attitudes are well thought out considering their physical and technological differences from humans. Even the names are instantly readable but unpronounceable tongue twisters. By the end of the series, I found myself rooting for the Overclan Prime, plucky scientist Thrr-gilag, and amateur spy Prr’t-zevisti more than the humans.
Worst Feature: Too much foreshadowing. The camera almost never cuts away as a secret is revealed or a plan is detailed; instead, the reader usually knows more about what’s going on than any individual character. At its best, this works like a Greek tragedy. At its worst, you are left impatiently tapping your foot while the cast smells something fishy, then decides to investigate, then finally discovers something you’ve known about for 500 pages.
Overall Verdict: I picked these up off Borders’ used book section for a total of $3.50. At that price, it’s hard to say no. Although if you prefer a little angst and soul-searching in your sci-fi, you should definitely look elsewhere; Zahn’s characters are too busy evading pursuit atop a sentient vine.