Actual Game Impressions (from about 20 hours in Early Access):
The worst thing I can say about the game and pre-launch experience is the extended down-times STUNK! A large portion of prime playing time was negated by servers being down for various forms of maintenance, patching, whatnot, and each estimate was followed by an extra hour, etc etc. That had the majority of us waiting to play chomping at the bit. That said, the good news is/was that I (and apparently many others) found themselves completely addicted and anticipating our next game session.
As many others have also noted, I didn't have a single crash while playing during this period. And I was crashing big time during beta, pretty much every zone in/out. Aside from an error window popping up every time I quit the game, I had no technical issues to speak of. So from that standpoint, I was very impressed.
This game is gorgeous. I keep hearing people repeat that in guild chat when they come across a new area, and have repeated it myself on many occasions. It takes the LOTRO look and takes it a bit further in terms of depth and detail. And this is with the DX9 client only so there's more/better to come. I love the attention to detail in each of the city/town areas I've explored, and each has seemed very unique. The city graphics are just full of atmosphere, very nicely done. And then the outdoor areas, gorgeous. Best looking MMORPG to date, IMHO, possibly one of (if not) the best looking RPGs in general. Character graphics are also some of the best I've seen, the bodies are all nice to look at
The core game plays very well at the outset. The introduction portion (approx. levels 1-20) in Tortage is possibly the best beginner section in an MMORPG to date. Taking a beat from many single game RPGs, the game sets you up and gets you invested in a single player story similar to something like Oblivion. However, you are also given the option to branch out and group with friends, etc. and complete a variety of conventional side quests, also similar to a single player RPG (except for the grouping part of course). This turns out to be a great way to get into the game, you can choose to experience it solo or in a group, and in fact you are even given the option at a certain level to just bypass the storyline and move to the mainland. If it's the first time you're playing, and you are a fan of single player RPGs, though, I recommend you play through it at least once. The finale is a little underwhelming and unsurprising, but the journey through the storyline is well done. What's also nice is that each of the 4 main class branches (mage, thief, priest, warrior) experience slightly different branching storylines which all lead (presumably) to the same conclusion.
Once at the mainland, the game becomes very much like a conventional MMORPG (LOTRO or WoW), where you can choose to branch off and explore, or complete series of quests, etc. Main focus is on lots of little quests. The general feel is most reminiscent of LOTRO, but the pacing feels better to me. Each of the 3 races' town areas is filled with quests and side stories to explore, providing a relatively pain-free way to advance your character.
The X Factor
Something I've commented on a couple times now in guild chat. There's a weird factor influencing me while playing this game and I can't put my finger on it. In essence the core gameplay is pretty much exactly the same as all the other MMORPGs I've played, mixing in a bit of this with a dash of that. All the things that typically irritate me and I've criticized (fedex quests, running around all over the place, focus on levelling, limited improvements on levelling, same spells/skills on level, load screens, static NPCs) are in this game, yet none of them have really bothered me. Maybe it's just new game euphoria, but somehow I'm just content to play the game, and I constantly feel like there's a ton of stuff I want to do and I just don't have the physical time to do it. I want to complete the quests in the town I'm in, I want to explore the other towns and crafting areas, I want to learn some resource gathering skills and do craft quests, I want to visit all the major cities, I want to explore and look for instances, I want to kick more Vanir ass, etc etc etc. And all the while as I play I seem to be levelling at a very nice pace and rarely staring at my xp bar. Obviously I expect this is going to slow down at some point, but for the opening experience, I am very pleased to make significant progress with my character just by sheer nature of playing the game.
I've seen multiple people express concerns about loot, and again it's one of those things that just hasn't concerned me in this game. When I get a nice quest reward of course I'm happy and always looking to upgrade, but when I don't, I'm not thinking about it at all. I just want to keep playing and it feels like everything will come along naturally.
In terms of things to look forward to longer term, there's the horse and mounted combat at level 40, plus crafting and city building, and late game hopefully city sieging and PvP.
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So we'll see if/how my opinion changes as the days and weeks go by. Thus far I'm having a blast, best time I've had in a new release in years. What's nice is that others seem to be having the same experience, as indicated by the 10+ of us playing hooky yesterday morning, and that's always a great feeling.
Can't wait to get back to it!!!