PAX East 2018: Hands-on with Pantheon Rise of the Fallen

Those who have read a fair amount of my work will know that nostalgia is something I tend to rail against pretty hard. I’m a big advocate for constantly spot-checking your nostalgia in the cold light of reality and asking yourself if your memories are accurate.

This is not because I don’t feel any nostalgia. It’s exactly the opposite. It’s because I am wildly aware of how powerful a force it can be as someone who often will spend extended amounts of time working in elaborate mythology gags for character traits based on old roleplaying, to the extent that one of my characters has a particular class as a reference to an old game no one else I know actually played.

All of this is a long-winded way of pointing out that Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen already had a bit of an in with me when I sat down to play. Because while I wasn’t personally familiar with the game that it was referencing, I am personally familiar with that game’s close cousin, and I have a fair amount of familiarity with the playstyle. And it’s a playstyle MMOs have, in large part, moved beyond.

This is not something that happened overnight, I’d like to stress. Even back in the early days of World of Warcraft I can remember dungeon runs in which the strategy was clearing up to a room, then making a brief camp in that room, then trying to pull a few things at a time to winnow down the opposition.

We’ve largely moved on beyond that because, well, it doesn’t exactly produce lots of neat and memorable fights so much as it feels like creeping about the edges and slowly whittling your way through things. But this is also exactly what Pantheon is interested in reproducing. It’s about creating the fun of creeping along together, pulling carefully, and using varied abilities in concert to deal with a mess of different situations.

And in my hands-on, I’m happy to say that it does hit that goal solidly.

Some of that was just a matter of setting the stage correctly. I was playing as the Rogue of the party, while my host was serving as the tank as a Monk. He explained that Monks weren’t really supposed to be main tanks, but that’s what we were doing here, which of course brings back plenty of memories of “well, that’s sort of a tank, we’ll make it work.” We also had an Enchanter, a Shaman, and (I believe) a Cleric; my focus was more on my Rogue arsenal, so I admit to missing certain nuance.

After a bit of examining my abilities, we headed into the keep to start smacking our way to the first boss. This consisted of battles that… well, should feel familiar to any old-school player from a similar era. Find a secluded space to beat the enemies up, rotate your abilities calmly, do your best to temporarily disable adds while following targets called out by the tank.

This sort of beating.

I’m happy to say that everything animated smoothly and felt enjoyable; the biggest balance issue I found was that I always felt as if my resources were running low with no real way to manage them. (Then again, “periods of inactivity” also matches the era being emulated quite nicely.) My main kit consisted of a backstab, a basic attack, a self speed buff, and a pair of DoT effects. If pressed, I was also able to temporarily disorient a target as needed, which came in handy on several fights.

The actual journey in didn’t have much in the way of distance; it was slowed mostly by the relentless number of enemies, each of whom had its own particular tricks that, yes, needed to be carefully managed to make sure we didn’t wipe. Some targets had to be designated as high priority, others could be more easily controlled, and so forth.

If you’ve gotten used to dungeon runs in more modern MMOs, this sort of thing would feel almost entirely alien. No running forward and using AoE to smack things down; you hack away at single targets and might be able to hit two things at a time if you’re quite lucky. It’s a very different experience, and one that may shock players with a preference for newer combat.

For my part, I was enjoying myself. Not necessarily because it was the greatest combat I’d ever experienced, but because… well, familiarity breeds familiarity. I knew what I was doing. This felt like slipping on a comfortable old pair of shoes.

Eventually, we made our way to the first boss, and here is where the whole experience felt really old-school. I was warned ahead of time that this particular boss might well lead to a wipe, and in fact the past few runs had done exactly that. The goal was to control her with stuns until her adds were down, then focus on her before she bursted down the tank.

Needless to say, everything went wrong pretty quickly. I got her stunned with a smoke bomb to the face, and we went to work on the normal adds, but a couple of other patrols ran by to join the fight, followed by a resisted control spell from the Enchanter and a moment before I could re-stun her. She also had two abilities aside from a tank buster, an AoE sleep spell that persisted through her smacking people and a group-wide thrash that hurt badly.

My muscle memory said that we should all be drinking Poison Potions and grouping up for Curaga when needed. Wrong game, right thinking.

This is the chamber where the party will die.

A couple of us did wind up dropping, but we managed to pull things back together and controlled things down to the point where we could get ourselves back on track and get the adds down. My temporary stun got a workout to keep her locked down, and when we were finally on to just fighting her, we managed to avoid any massive catastrophes to bring her down.

I was told this was an unusual event that rarely occurred. Whether or not this was true and my experience with this gameplay type helped or it was, in fact, relatively common will be a mystery for the ages. My ego won’t let me assume that I just happened to be good.

The real test of Pantheon is always going to be how it’s received among the general audience. As I mentioned, this is the sort of gameplay style that games have largely moved on from, and that means some people are going to bounce off right away, while others are going to set up camp and make it a home. You can argue whether or not they’re right to do so, whether it’s better to have engaging single fights or an engaging process of exploring and pulling.

But if you’re eagerly awaiting the game and hoping that it brings back the muscle memory of the old days? It does that, it looks pretty while it’s doing that, and it does it with panache. I definitely had fun with it, and while I might recognize that it was relying on my nostalgia centers, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a success.

Massively Overpowered was on the ground in Boston for PAX East 2018, bringing you expert MMO coverage on everything (and everyone!) on display at the latest Penny Arcade Expo!
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Denice J. Cook

Er, didn’t McQuaid run off with all the Kickstarter money, then con a bunch of volunteers into making this thing for him anyway?

*shudders*

I’m really surprised anyone trusts him any further than they can throw him.

skribe
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skribe

No. This simply is not true.

His Kickstarter failed, so he found venture capital. The game is funded by both venture capital and packages sold directly by the site. I do believe that, in the very early days, some people were volunteering time–of their own accord–but they have long since been paid. It’s fine not to be willing to pay for packages for a game you have no faith in, but nobody is forcing anyone to, and McQuaid has done nothing controversial with this game while being very candid about his previous mistakes with Sigil Games. He also isn’t the one that runs this company, so nobody really has to trust him anyway.

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skribe
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skribe

So by, “ran off with the kickstarter money” you actually mean, “used a portion of unrelated funds to actually fund the development of the game before the requested amount was fully obtained.” Got it. Isn’t that what the money was for? Did he buy a boat or something I’m unaware of? Clearly he made good on his promise to continue supporting the project, since the project is presently functioning well–and funded. The Kickstarter money was refunded, which is what you were talking about. What you’ve posted here is unsubstantiated social media rumors about completely unverifiable private transactions.

It’s no secret that Pantheon, as a project, was started on very shaky ground. But when you accuse someone of “running off with” the crowdfunding intended for that project, it implies that they abandoned the project that the money was given to them for and used the money on whatever personal matters they deemed fit. Not that they paid themselves a small salary and continued working extensively to bring the project to fruition. The entire premise of that article, and the reddit thread (yes, the *reddit* thread) that it was sourced from, is that the project had, at the time, “failed.” But that is objectively not true. Whatever doubts one might have had four years ago about whether or not Pantheon would ever be developed should, at this point, have been settled. It is a real thing, and the company is now funded. To the extent that anyone paid McQuaid as an early investment in the project (and I’m not convinced there is any credibility to these forum threads to begin with) they should be quite happy, at this point, with the results.

Regardless, McQuaid does not run VR. So this four year old point is moot. McQuaid is a creative executive, at this point, in no small part because of his lack of business acumen, and has nothing to do with the financials of the company. The rest of the company should be evaluated as a unit, independently of Brad McQuaid. Pantheon has, quite frankly, grown beyond him.

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Crowe

Conceptually it sounds interesting but the videos I see make the combat look more dull than a chemistry class at 8am. I think that the pace of combat is going to be way too slow to appeal to many including myself. I’ll give it a try but each new video released is more discouraging.

skribe
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skribe

Right. I mean, I don’t think they’re aiming for the widest possible audience. They’ve acknowledged that they’re comfortable with the fact that this sort of game has a particular niche. The people who enjoy 1-sec cooldown click-fests like WoW aren’t going to be drawn to this sort of game. EQ also had much slower combat, but a much wider range of abilities and spells. Different strokes for different folks.

Personally, I’d much rather focus on *what* spell I should use in a given situation and what mob I should use it on than making sure that I adhere to a fast paced rotation. Pantheon is aiming to be more strategic than twitchy.

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Kickstarter Donor
thalendor

it doesn’t exactly produce lots of neat and memorable fights so much as it feels like creeping about the edges and slowly whittling your way through things.

For me, it’s just the opposite. I can remember several individual dungeon runs from EverQuest, early WoW, and even the “Heroics are hard” era of Cataclysm. But once everything becomes a big AoE fest, every fight feels the same and it all becomes one big mushy soup in my memory. This is one of the reasons I am looking forward to Pantheon.

Excellent article though! I really enjoyed reading about your experience with the game,

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JP Andrews

EQ was my first love. I had some experiences in that game that I still look back on fondly, and I have friends I made in that game, people I’ve never seen in RL, who I still talk and play with.

But there are things I don’t want back:
Being forced to find another character to bind my soul.
Having to learn to swim.
Hell levels
Total gear dependance.
Massively complex crafting that ALWAYS has a 5% chance to fail. Honestly, all WoW had to do to get my attention is say “If you know the recipe you can’t fail” and I was in.

Things I do want back
I want the complex fights back.
I want CC to be meaningful.
I want utility and buffing classes to be valued.
I want complex fractions and alliances to consider.
I want discoverable crafting recipes back.

There were a million things that EQ did right, and at least half a million that it did wrong. My biggest fear is that Brad and Co haven’t figured that out yet.

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Kevin McCaughey

You say we have moved on from this type of gameplay, but just look at the number of progression servers for EQ1 &2 and now Rift. I think the old systems in EQ were far better and so do lots of others. VR is going to be turning out copies of Pantheon like hotcakes. It will be huge. There are so many of us just waiting for deliverance.

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rufty

EQ and EQ2 are good examples of this style of gameplay but I think Rift’s progression server uses a more modern style of gameplay that it had at launch. Although an old school rule set server for Rift would be amazing! :-)

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Arsin Halfmoon

I spoke to them at PAX too and I asked them about monetization I was surprised they were going to go with a sub model too. I was really hesitant, but optimistic about it at first, but when I read this article, im a little more worried because Im not sure enough people will sub for this game with it being so niche.

I wanted to be blunt about it and tell the dev about my concerns but I didnt feel it was my place. I did, however, specifically cite how small Shroud of The Avatar’s community is and felt that they took the right approach with their business model, but theyre apparently expecting to work with a much bigger population

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Kevin McCaughey

SoTA monetization stinks bigtime. People are Lords and Kings before it even starts – it’s sick. I will never play it. PTW nonsense. I think they should do $5 subs. They would have many people subbing to more than one game then and not cancelling because they are not getting value for their $15.

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Benjamin Dean

Hi Arsin,

Please, NEVER feel it’s not your place to bring up your thoughts and concerns. We would have loved to have talked to you about it at PAX. We rely on you guys to keep us on track. We can’t possibly think of everything!

On this particular issue: we are aware of these concerns. People much smarter than me have been thinking about this since day one. What I can tell you is that with our infrastructure and today’s technology, it takes MUCH less to keep the servers up and running than it would have 10 years ago.

As of today we’re certain the numbers work, but we are always weighing other options too.

We will never go the way of pay-to-win. It’s not in our DNA.

Ben Dean
Producer, Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen
Director of Communications, Visionary Realms

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Jens Gotfredsen

Even Blizzard realized relatively.. late on that the majority of their profits did not come from their subscriptions, it came from people’s need to stand out and thus their merchandize/cosmetic cash shop came into being.
– Now people are discussing whether it is a p2w cash shop because they are selling level boosts and that is the kind of cash shop you want to avoid.

Introduce a cash shop that features cool mounts, pets and other cosmetics that does not give players an advantage and you will have people throwing money at you as if their lives depended on it.
I know it may feel like taking advantage of peoples vanity, but really its none of peoples business how others go about spending their hard earned money.. If they get a kick out of it, they get a kick out of it.. And a lot get a kick out of fanciful costumes..

I mean… TSW didn’t survive for so long because of it’s amazing Patron “subscription” giving you in-game advantages.. It survived because of its extensive cosmetic cash shop.

But please, no bunny, kitty or dog costumes… Keep it within the confines of the game and you have a very happy community.. I promise.

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Arsin Halfmoon

Sweet, thanks for putting those concerns to bed. I’m super hyped to give the game a try honestly!

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Chosenxeno .

The only issue I have with this game is the decision to make Raids Non-instanced. I could live with just the dungeons being open world. Non-Instanced Raids are a mistake which is why most games that had them eventually moved to instances. The thought of paying a Subscription to watch other people gear up is too much for me to overcome. I just can’t see the thrill of Raiding when the other guys let you vs Raiding at a set time that’s great for my guild as a whole. I’m to old for bat phones.. Everything else I’m good with. Even the immersion breaking exp loss(I never understood the purpose. It penalizes for practicing and exploration.)

So many people want to make New EQ. I’ll be glad when someone decides to make a “New” Vanilla WoW. It was just Hardcore enough without shutting you out of anything and allowing you to decide when you wanted to do the big stuff…on your time…While still being a great social experience.

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Loyal Patron
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rufty

A new classic wow style game would be really good but I can’t think of one in development. Which is a shame!

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Chosenxeno .

It’s because the people making the “Retro” MMORPGs want to model themselves after EQ when WoW(Vanilla through TBC) has already proven that you can have Challenging gameplay, social elements and great lore with instances and a carebear death system. People forget that “Hardcore” WoW is what surpassed EQ. Not the more streamlined versions we see today. Pantheon is checking off a lot of the boxes for me. I’m just disappointed that they went with Open Raids. They can’t change that decision because they went with Donations or whatever. That won’t stop me from trying!

skribe
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skribe

EQ killed EQ. Or, rather, Verant’s bad decisions killed EQ. WoW honestly had little to do with it. IT was already losing subscribers before WoW released. And vanilla wow made plenty of changes to the EQ model that folks like myself are really hoping companies avoid.

Solaris
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Solaris

Nice observations. I think this game is going to be a nice surprise for a lot of people.

hamblepants
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hamblepants

Great article Eliot, i like reading detailed descriptions of player experiences, and this was that done well.

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SeedEve

Great read and can’t wait to be immersed in the world of Terminus.

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Kickstarter Donor
squid

Pretty sure I’ve immersed myself in the world of Terminus in at least three other games already. Zero points for originality.