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.