Page last updated at 12:00 GMT, Thursday, 18 September 2008 13:00 UK

Stepping into a world of hurt

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Warhammer: Age of Reckoning promotional film, courtesy of Mythic Entertainment.

Anyone who has played role-playing games with pen, paper and dice over the last 25 years will be very familiar with the name Warhammer.

On 18 September the name will reach many who do not know it when its newest incarnation, the massively multiplayer version Warhammer: Age of Reckoning (WAR), is officially launched.

At first blush the PC game, set in the same quasi-medieval setting of the Warhammer fantasy world, resembles many other massively multiplayer online games (MMOs).

Playing it involves creating characters that carry out quests (go here, kill this, find that) that gradually turn a weakling into a hero.

Battle history

The current king of MMOs is World of Warcraft (WoW) which, its creators claim, has more than 10 million regular players.

Tabletop battle, Games Workshop
Warhammer started as a tabletop gaming system

Since WoW debuted in the US in 2004 many MMOs have been released and, so far, none have significantly dented its success.

But, said Paul Barnett, Preston-born creative director at WAR developer Mythic, much effort has gone into trying to make its title stand out.

The history of Warhammer itself, he said, has helped with this distinctiveness. Warhammer started out as a rule set for those who run tabletop fantasy battles with miniatures.

In the 25 years since that debut Warhammer has expanded to become many different things, but Mr Barnett said, it had retained its Britishness and that feel has been carried over in to the online game.

"It's got that British sensibility, that essence of Englishness running right through it," he said.

Mr Barnett explained that the different races in the games were based on cliched conceptions of certain types of British people.

He said orcs were essentially football hooligans that have no long-term plans and like hitting things, usually other people, with sticks. Dwarves were a crude caricature of Northerners in that they live down mines, drink beer and have no money. High elves were posh Brits and their arch-rivals, the dark elves, were posh folk that have taken lots of drugs. "Think Byron," said Mr Barnett.

Fight to live

The WAR game world is based around endless and eternal conflict between the humans, dwarves and high-elves on one side and on the other dark elves, greenskins (orcs and goblins) and humans corrupted by chaos.

Scrrenshot from Warhammer: Age of Reckoning - Mythic
WAR is all about a world in constant conflict

By coming late to the MMO space WAR has also been able to spot and do away with some of the drudgery or grind that seems to go hand-in-hand with many online games.

"We tried to take the suck out of it," he said. "It's got the greatest hits of MMOs - 80% of what you know but 20% is new."

Ditched in WAR has been item damage which sees weapons and armour degrade in quality as they are used until they break. Also gone is the need to ghost run from a graveyard back to a corpse when a character is killed. From the start everyone also gets a bag big enough to hold all the loot they gather.

The novel elements in WAR were aimed at the players that, before now, many games have failed to cater to.

Work done by game designer Richard Bartle in 1996 likened the different types of players to the suits in a deck of cards, said Mr Barnett.

Hearts are those that are all about socialising and grouping in guilds or on quests. Diamonds care about treasure and finding stuff in a game. Spades are all about digging deep into the lore and rules. Clubs are those that like hitting people with one.

"What WoW tends to be is a very heavy club game," he said. "It's become so big and dominant that all games go that way.

"But the other suits? That's pretty much where we have gone."

By concentrating on the club-type player WoW resembled a single-player game that many people just happen to play at the same time, said Mr Barnett.

Play together

By contrast, he said, WAR aimed to reward people for grouping together and helping their faction achieve its aims.

Scrrenshot from Warhammer: Age of Reckoning - Mythic
In Warhammer, orcs are only interested in hitting things

Characters carrying out quests in their zone contribute to the overall effort of all the players in their faction to beat back opposing forces. Sufficient success by one side gives control of that region or realm to one side and earns rewards for those that helped, said Mr Barnett.

Many of the quests in the game are known as public quests open to a small number of players at the same time. They are a quick way for small groups of players to band together to achieve a small objective - be that defeating successive waves of invaders or a marauding dragon.

Players that join guilds will be able to claim territory and build strongholds that they will then have to defend from other players and computer-controlled forces. Their success or failure will contribute to those larger regional, or realm-versus-realm, conflicts.

The idea, he said, was to encourage people to join up to complete a common goal - often in defiance of their natural instincts.

"Many people are very nervous about playing other human beings," he said. "Our rewards are for grouping and doing things for people. That's what public quests and the realm-versus-realm conflict is built on."

Also, he said, anyone playing WAR did not have to wait until they get a very powerful character before they can join in the group quests or feel like they are contributing to a bigger objective than just killing a few orcs or dwarves.

WoW and many other MMOs, said Mr Barnett, were all about taking a character to the most highest level, aka levelling, so they can survive in the tough dungeons where the best loot is found.

These locations are off limits to weaker characters and those that tackle them often run through them many times to perfect their raiding abilities.

"WoW is making levelling faster and faster," he said. "The end game is the overall aim of playing. But an MMO should not be about having people play one style and getting to the end and then having to learn another style to keep playing."

The constant conflict of a world at war means that there was no closing section for WAR, said Mr Barnett.

"WAR is a 10 year project," he said. "We do not have an endgame - we have an endless game."


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