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In anticipation of the MMO's two-year anniversary this fall, ZAM is returning to WAR to cover the substantial changes and new features added since early 2009

Despite an exciting launch in September 2008, with a respectable number of players, Warhammer Online's subscriber base took a substantial hit just two months later, when Wrath of the Lich King dropped in November. An abundance of gameplay bugs, balance problems and client issues didn't help WAR's hemorrhaging player base either, as we noted in an editorial last summer. However, a lot has changed since the MMO's launch in 2008; new classes and content were added, bugs were squashed and entire game systems were revamped. Last year's Land of the Dead content update helped retain many of WAR's already-devoted players, while Mythic's free-to-play "Endless Trial" system is attracting more new players every day.

In anticipation of the MMO's two-year anniversary this fall—as well as the substantial changes and new features added since launch—ZAM is returning to WAR! This new feature series examines WAR from the perspective of players who left the game in early 2009, like many original subscribers (either to explore Northrend in Wrath or because they weren't satisfied with WAR's early development). In this first installment of our "Return to War" series, we offer our initial impressions of the new features and gameplay changes. During the next few months, ZAM will dig deeper and explore certain aspects of today's WAR (solo/group PvE, open RvR, Scenarios, City Sieges) in more detail, including the occasional interview with Mythic's game producers. Continue reading the first part of our "Return to War" series after the jump, and leave your comments or questions for future installments—including our Q&As with Mythic—in the dedicated Return To War forum thread.

Many of us at ZAM are big fans of Games Workshop's Warhammer franchise, which spans multiple platforms, from tabletop miniatures to desktop video gaming. Today's "next big thing" is the recently-announced Warhammer 40K: Dark Millennium Online MMO from Virgil Games and THQ, which garnered huge attention this summer at E3. But in early 2008, a similar crowd of gaming fans eagerly awaited Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning, the first MMO based on the Warhammer Fantasy franchise. Developers at Mythic Entertainment (Dark Age of Camelot, Ultima Online) hyped an innovative design that would launch PvP to a whole new level in modern MMO gaming, while providing a unique and accessible PvE experience via "Public Quests" and other features.

To some extent, WAR succeeded in its quest to "break the mold" when the market was overrun by World of Warcraft clones and dozens of uninspired, free-to-play MMOs. Beyond WAR's slick graphics and well-established lore, Mythic developed a robust Realm vs. Realm (RvR) system—built upon the foundation of its earlier Dark Age of Camelot—that rewards players as much, if not more, than typical PvE gameplay. One of WAR's earliest selling points was the concept that players could level up their characters all the way to max rank purely via RvR combat. Catering to both solo-and group-oriented players, WAR strove to be the best MMO in its class for PvP gameplay.

Unfortunately, most early players never had the chance to experience the full potential of WAR's ambitious RvR; instanced "Scenarios" and open RvR were inherently flawed due to faction imbalances and low-population servers. The basic "combat and careers" system was often bug-ridden and ridiculously lop-sided, while game client instability during large battles frustrated players even more.

Many of the server-related problems worsened as more players left the game, because WAR is an MMO that thrives in a player-rich environment. That's why one of the most important things we noticed when we returned to WAR earlier this month was the reduction in the number of North American servers. Mythic spent the past year merging servers, one group after another, whittling them down to just four in all: Badlands, Gorfang, Iron Rock and Volkmar (we've also heard rumors that another merge or free character transfer is on the way).

now that Mythic is more concerned with player retention than saving face, the problems stemming from low-population and imbalanced servers aren't nearly as severe as they were last year. In fact, it's never been easier for new players to find around-the-clock RvR action since Mythic launched its "Endless Trial" system, which essentially converted Ranks 1 to 10—or "Tier 1"—into a free-to-play MMO. (To learn more, read our "Tour of WAR's New User Journey, Endless Trial" published late last year.)

Returning players of all ranks should notice a vast improvement in Scenario queue times, as well as open RvR activity, such as Keep Sieges, Battlefield Objectives and even City Sieges. However, because the majority of active players are Tier 1 and Tier 4, there's still a bit of progression disparity from ranks 11 to 31. On any given day and time, we usually had no problem finding open RvR and short Scenario queues in Tiers 1 and 4. Activity waned a bit in Tier 2, especially on low-population servers. We had the most difficulty in Tier 3; unless you're on the high-population Badlands server, it's tough to find open RvR and Scenario activity during non-peak hours, depending on your faction.

Fortunately this "inverted bell curve" of player ranks doesn't pose as much of a problem as it would have in the early days of WAR, before we had access to all the new tools and features introduced throughout the past year. All Scenarios are available to every Tier now, while the least-popular were removed from the pool. In addition to PvE reward currency, Mythic introduced a new "Scenario currency" in February's patch 1.3.4; these tokens can be earned as early as Rank 1 and are used to buy rare and epic gear, potions and talismans.

Mythic also streamlined character progression and increased rewards across the board, in both RvR and PvE gameplay. For example, the Empire and Chaos paired continent is the "default" PvE path for now, which prevents each server's population from spreading too thin throughout the world. Players of any race can still access their home continent and zones via Flightmasters (and those zones are still being developed for improved quest flow), but for now, Mythic is nudging us closer together to give us more opportunities to find groups and enjoy all those Public Quests.

Many core game systems have also been upgraded or entirely revamped and, depending on how long they've been gone, returning players will find new careers and PvE/RvR content like Land of the Dead. Literally dozens—if not hundreds—of convenience-related issues were fixed and new mechanics added, spanning from inventory management to dungeon encounters.

When we returned to WAR with one of our higher-rank characters, we were a little worried about being able to find our bearings and get back on the progression track. Jumping in with a Tier 1 character is one thing; there's a whole new tutorial in the "New User Journey" to help the noobs. But surprisingly, many of those features are available to characters of any rank, like the handy "Advice" chat channel. The "War Report" is another useful feature that displays real-time updates of open RvR for each tier; the report also indicates zones with a high player concentration, and you can even use it to teleport directly to those locations (with a few hours of cooldown).


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