Monday, February 14, 2011

A Hands-On Look at a Rift Endgame Dungeon: Abyssal Precipice

Flying in the face of concerns about World of Rift and a number of media sites and fansites to their Redwood City digs to check out a chunk of Rift’s 40-50 experience. The bulk of our time was spent in Abyssal Precipice - a group-only progression dungeon for high level (45-50) players.

Abyssal Precipice is a repeatable coda for the ominous, skeleton-ridden adagio that is Ironpine, one of three overland zones beta players won't see before launch. Like all Rift zones and dungeons, it somehow manages to combine thick contrasty hues and raw beauty, otherworldly danger, and more than a hint of the familiar. Beta players that enjoyed the last stage of the Realm of the Fae will find a similar hibernal mode in Abyssal Precipice, if not the signature mess-with-visibility-to-heighten-suspense that defines that final encounter. Blues, purples, and winter twilit oranges color the craggy landscape, and snow speckles the air - the “dungeon” mostly occurs outdoors, with a few ice cave interludes. The zone is riddled with Defiant cultist baddies throughout, their telltale sourcestone generators littering the landscape.

Storywise, your group is trying to stop the cultists from freeing a powerful water dragon locked deep within Abyssal Precipice. Check out this flythrough video for a closer look at Abyssal Precipice's backstory:

Design-wise, Abyssal Precipice is a fairly linear showpiece of Rift’s 5-man dungeons, but it never quite feels linear. The path spirals upward, across spans, through caverns; often catching a glimpse of what lies ahead on the opposing cliff face.

Into the Abyss
The unlikely team of writers from TTH, Curse, Beckett’s Massively Online Gamer, Zam, and took on the Abyssal Precipice, though we were generally low on Rift experience and found ourselves holding the reins of well equipped, but totally unfamiliar, level 50 characters. Worse, Trion devs like to use these moments as their own game testing aquarium – they weren’t sharing any advice. We were on our own, with only our general knowledge of how dungeons and boss fights work to aid us.

I manned up as the tank of the group - a Dwarven warrior – and settled into a rough mix of Paladin, Champion, and Paragon. I made a few minor tweaks to my soul tree, taking points out of Paragon and swapping in some Paladin, opting for defense over damage. Not much later I realized that such well-intentioned changes were a mistake.

The first few battles, needless to say, went poorly. I mistimed a pull on a nasty roaming ice elemental and pulled a group of cultist archers and fighters. That was a wipe. Our healer raised a complaint about the spell icons for heals being unintuitive, and someone suggested she look for the golden hued explosions. That helped, and on our second go we pulled only the Kelari group and still wiped, but slower. After a quick inventory of buffs and DoTs, we found new and exciting ways to augment our base stats and scratch damage off of our opponents. I finally settled into a taunt rotation that seemed to keep the focus on me, reversed some of my paragon soul tree abilities to up my damage and keep the hate, and at long last, we steamrolled the first few groups of enemies.

Just when we thought we had things figured out, I stumbled across swarms of scarab-like creatures that spawned out of nowhere. These were never a serious threat on their own, but twice spawned at inopportune times, as when the group was in mid-pull of an enemy group. It was a nice touch of challenge for when we’d just begun to find our rhythm.

Abyssal Precipice Boss Fights
You might want to skip this section if you hate spoilers. The overarching repeatable quest – King of the Mountain – required us to find and kill three major bosses. Soon enough we encountered the first, Kaler Andrenos.

Kaler was a tough fight, especially for our ragtag crew. His nastiest attack was a line of sight insta-death attack, but fortunately this spell had a five second cast, which allowed more than enough time to duck behind a nearby pillar. Kaler’s other nasty attack dropped fiery rings of damage-over-time death on his target. Fortunately, he also knocked tanks and meleers out of the circle when he casted this particular spell. The impulse when knocked back is to charge back into combat, but Kaler had me thinking twice. He also has a lofty amount of hitpoints.

Three wipes later, Kaler was down and we were on our way up our bluff to an optional encounter. A gigantic sword was sunk into the earth and we figured the thing to do was to click on it. An ominous voice said something about Theodor’s test, and we were plunged into a ring battle against waves of skeletons. Archer skeletons, warrior skeletons, and at the end, a bloated abomination-like creature with a ton of hitpoints (this seems to be a theme) named Durak. Unfortunately, Durak wasn’t on the hit list, but he did drop a decent necklace too low to be of use to our admittedly twinked characters.

A few encounters later, past some more riptides, ice goblin and ice ogre sorts, we came to the Matterhorn of our Rift endgame experience. His (or it’s) name was Majolic. Everything started out so nicely – Majolic, in his human form, was pretty squishy and his hitpoints evaporated quickly. Then Maj went and invoked his blood deity. Things quickly got out of hand - Majolic the Bloodcaller turned out to be an anti-group missile.

In the five complete routs that followed and despite furiously scanning the combat logs, we figured out three things. One, the direct approach leads directly to a wipe – there’s just way too many hitpoints for a full frontal damn-the-torpedoes-and-scripted-behaviors assault. Two, if Majolic calls your name, you’ll be encased in a nasty 7,000 hitpoint blood crystal that quickly saps your life via a DoT spell called infected blood. Infected blood deals water damage, so maybe fire is the Three, if your group doesn’t free you, or if your healer winds up first on his shit list, your group will tumble like dominoes. In the end, our Abyssal Precipice ended the only way it could – with a lunch break.

Falling Off the Precipice
Producer Hal Hanlin warned us beforehand: this particular dungeon had caused a number of wipes among the devs a day before. Nonetheless, Majolic will haunt me until some bright day when I can face him with a stalwart group post-launch. Until then, I’m left with the impression that endgame in Rift is no joke, and will leave the toughest of players with plenty of challenge long after launch.

So, our endgame experience in a nutshell: a group of veteran MMO media types couldn’t complete a progression-level endgame dungeon in three hour playsession, and there are two tiers of expert-level dungeons above AP before players can even get access to the first of three planned raids (one will be in at launch). Creative Director Scott Hartsman also pointed out that raids and dungeons were only roughly 50% of endgame content, the rest being split among open PvP, endgame invasions, and warfronts. If, in Scott’s words, there was a tacit challenge to name another MMORPG that launched with this kind of endgame content in absolute evidence, I couldn’t.

And if Abyssal Precipice is a solid example of Rift's endgame dungeons, naysayers might do better to criticize Rift’s endgame on the basis of too much challenge, rather than not enough.


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