The time has come to take off the training wheels. Massively multiplayer roleplaying games, from EverQuest to World of Warcraft, from Guild Wars to Lord of the Rings Online and everything in between, have become the definitive PC genre.
Yet most of the new ones feel like clones; merely the next incremental step. We've yet to see a truly next-generation massively multiplayer game - a game that binds epic quests, amazing landscapes, deep and rich character development - and really funny hats - with the potential for huge battles between opposing factions.
Here comes a game with an incredible licence: a game that looks set to explore the richest, silliest and most entertaining fantasy world that exists. It's going to remain absolutely faithful to the tabletop games, books and comics it descends from, but let players run around their favourite places, meet their favourite characters, and kill and crush their most hated enemies. It sounds like an almost certain success.
But the developers of Warhammer Online are taking an extraordinary risk: one that could draw players to their game in droves, or scare them away. Warhammer Online is all about the War at the front of its name - an unremitting clash between two factions that impacts absolutely every facet of your time inside its world.
The risk: will players brought up on a diet of soft cuddly progress and happy fun dungeoneering parties adapt to unremitting warfare? The draw: if and when they do, they'll never stop playing, never stop competing against each other, never resting. And do you know what? This could be the best thing to happen to MMO gaming since orcs.
To understand what Warhammer Online is bringing to MMO games, you need to understand the history of its developers, Mythic. This storied company has masses
of experience in developing MMOs: from text-based games on early Bulletin Board Systems (a slightly crap precursor to the web), through to Dark of Age of Camelot, a well-regarded 3D MMO that emphasised castle sieges, massed armies and giant scraps over and above single players punching kobolds in the face.
Warhammer Online is Mythic's attempt to match, and better, World of Warcraft. It's going to do everything WoW does. Such as quests, for single or group play. Instanced dungeons for up to five players. Big, 40-man raids. Tradeskills and experience points, levels and equipment upgrades. It's not going to mess with a formula that has proven wildly successful.
It has, however, a very big hammer to wield: it builds on Mythic's battlefield experience, bringing a sense of meaning and purpose to the endless grind of monkey fingernails, honour badges and equipment upgrades that MMO gaming is so cursed by - via a system dubbed realm versus realm.
Warhammer Online's six races - Empire (humans), Dwarves (short), High Elves (sexeh!), Greenskins (orcs and goblins), Chaos (madmen), and Dark Elves (dark) - fall into two factions: Order and Destruction. Every quest you complete, every battle you win, every dungeon, every enemy player you stamp on, contributes to your faction's current 'victory points' - an overarching persistent battle that ends with the winning side sacking their opponents' capital city.
Josh Drescher is an Associate Producer at Mythic, responsible for day-to-day WO development. As he explained to us, this realm vs realm system isn't just a case of pandering to the twitch-addled, aggressive teenagers of online gaming. It's more a way of providing incentive.