Checking out RIFT 4.2: Celestial Storm

    
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Being back in Azeroth might be a little more reassuring.
Summertime does seem to be ripe territory for MMORPGs to release sizable content updates in the hopes of keeping players occupied and luring back in the bored and nomadic in the larger community.

Making a pitch for your attention today is RIFT, which has just released the latest segment of its Prophecy of Ahnket expansion cycle with Patch 4.2: Celestial Storm. As players head into the newest endgame zone of the MMO, what will they discover?

A few words on that: Beauty. Challenge. Epic feuds. Rewards. And a crapton to do.

Rock, meet hard place

Vostigar Peaks joins the “comet club” in Ahnket, taking its place at the northern end of the map. It’s a rather sizable zone that manages to be both visually striking and a war zone. You know those high-level MMO regions that are so ugly or oppressive that they make your eyes bleed? Vostigar takes the opposite approach, creating a land that’s mostly a fantasy alpine wonderland, with patches of snow cover interrupted by striking gold grass and red ferns.

To be honest, not all of it is resort quality; there are areas where Ahnket has sucked the power from the area, turning it all death-like. But Vostigar looks like a great place to explore, with long sight lines, a wicked jumping puzzle (what happened in developers’ childhoods to cause these?), and plenty of artifacts stashed away among the landscape and flora.

The concept of the zone is that former RIFT baddie Crucia has returned to siphon some of that sweet comet energy — and she’s butting heads with Ahnket, who has plans of her own for the region. When two villains spar on this scale, it’s a scary situation for anyone who stumbles into the midst of it.

You shouldn’t have to be told, but don’t expect this zone to be a cakewalk. As the current cap to the Prophecy of Ahnket questing experience, Vostigar is incredibly challenging with mobs that hit like a truck and have special mechanics of their own. The devs shamelessly said that they “dialed it up to 11” in the area to keep players on their toes. However, if you’ve done the full 4.0 storyline, you should be able to survive long enough in Vostigar to gear up with the new rewards.

Summer break’s over, you’ve got work to do

The Trion Worlds team made it clear that it hopes and expects to occupy its players’ time with a lot of juicy content. Celestial Storm’s feature list is quite long as a result, and includes a full storyline with around 80 main quests, several raid rifts, tons of side quests, artifact sets, achievements, two dozen new rare mobs, and the aforementioned jumping puzzle.

On top of all of that, the update is throwing in four new souls (sub-classes) for the Primalist calling. All current Primalists will get these souls for free, and they should go a long way to adding more variety and options to the calling.

While the devs were reluctant to quote a number of hours that it expects the average player to spend getting through the content (because there are always faster players who will crow about it and use it to insult the team), they did say that most players should expect to spend a week or so on the main story before turning their attention to all of the other offerings that 4.2 contains. There’s even the return of the Tartaric Depths raid with a new “normal” difficulty that should run high level players through their paces.

The carrot dangling on the end of this stick is a whole bunch of shiny rewards. In a demo, the devs showed a really neat jetpack that goes above and beyond (pun intended) your standard mount with several abilities that will help players in their travels. The best part is that this jet pack is the final reward of one of the quest lines, so everyone should have a fair shot of attaining it.

Other rewards include costume pieces and weapon skins for Asha Catari, the headlining character of the expansion. By leveling a character through Vostigar’s storyline, you’ll even unlock Asha’s skin for Atlas Reactor as part of a quirky crossover.

It was apparent that Trion had a blast creating Vostigar Peaks, with each developer listing a different aspect of the zone — from prototyping to the tail — as being his or her favorite.

Free is as free does

Patch 4.2 comes along with the announcement that Prophecy of Ahnket is now completely free, which means that everyone can jump into the latest expansion without worrying about an upfront cost. (And as for that name change? The team said that it “definitely was a learning experience” when all was said and done.)

Trion said that when it first gave away the expansion as part of a promotion back in May, it saw a “huge uptick” in players. The subsequent announcement saw a second surge of returning veterans and newbies come to partake in the fun. Hopefully with Celestial Storm, the momentum will continue.

And if the patch isn’t enough content to keep players busy, there’s always the return of Summerfest, which also comes out this week. The devs have included a lot of new goodies for this in-game holiday, particularly cosmetic sets (like coral armor) and even a marshmallow-on-a-stick weapon. Want to club a raid boss to death with a marshmallow? Now you have your chance!

RIFT is perfectly balanced (not)

Toward the end of the tour, I addressed one of my primary concerns about the game, which is that RIFT used to be a great deal more friendly in terms of its gear requirements and build flexilibity while adventuring through zones, whereas these days you get pressured into playing an optimized build and chasing certain gear just to make questing less of a slog.

This sparked a long discussion that the devs had concerning class, mob, and zone balance. The problem that came with this expansion started with Planetouched Wilds, which some players said was too easy and the mob density was too sparse. This prompted a shift of the pendulum to the other side with Prophecy of Ahnket, creating much tougher mobs and more of them.

Another issue is that as RIFT keeps adding more gear and better skills is that the devs have to ratchet up the world difficulty to match or else see the game become trivially simple. Ahnket has many more avenues than just raiding to acquire great gear, and the overworld had to become challenging as a result.

But what about classes? With over 4,000 potential build combinations in the game at this point, balancing is a never-ending task. The devs claimed to prioritize fun over a perfect balance, saying that they are OK with the game never being completely in alignment. RIFT’s strength is in offering a class system that has freedom of choice, and so the team doesn’t want every soul to function the same way in order to make perfect balance happen.

We talked of my frustration over certain optimal builds that feel like the default of the questing experience, and I heard that the devs often play sub-optimal builds for both the perspective and because they’re more enjoyable — even if the time-to-kill is higher. There was no happy conclusion on making the game better in this regard other than vigilance and play testing, a task that will continue in the post-4.2 landscape.

So what’s next for RIFT? Naturally, the team was incredibly coy on the subject other than to hint that a lot of discussions and internal work is going on for the promised challenge servers. All we know right now is that the first release of these time-limited servers will focus on a “fresh start” experience.

Celestial Storm might not have the “new expansion” or “big launch” status that some other games are sporting this summer, but it could be the sleeper hit of content that you are craving. If you check it out, let us know what you find by joining in the discussion below!

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