A variation on the theme of Lyriana, now with 100% more Razorbeast.
I got in the dreaded single hour of time with the Rift beta over the weekend - long enough for any thinking person to form an opinion and short enough for anyone who disagrees with that opinion to dismiss it as too hasty. Overall, I'm reasonably convinced that there's at least a month's worth of high quality entertainment there, but I did not see anything to alleviate (or exacerbate) my concerns about the game's longevity.
Smooth purchasing experience
Within two hours of clicking "purchase", I had received my game serial number, been invited to the ongoing beta event for the weekend, and downloaded the client. (Direct 2 Drive's only contributions to this transaction were undercutting the official Trion store by 20% and offering up the 18 MB installer, which got the remaining files from wherever it gets them.) That might not be quite as fast as you can enter Norrath or Azeroth with the respective streaming clients, but I'm still reasonably impressed; games have launched with worse account creation infrastructure.
On the downside, like many MMO companies, Trion requires billing information and consent for recurring billing as a condition of letting you have the 30 days you paid for when you bought the game box. At least the "remove payment method" button works as advertised.
I can also confirm that you remain eligible to sign back up for the multi-month "founder's" subscription rate if you cancel your subscription, which means that you should be able to change your mind about which plan you want up til the March 15th deadline (and will then have the next two weeks before you're actually billed to decide to go back to month to month). Personally, I'm not sure that even $60/6 months is a gamble that most players are going to win, but at least you're not irrevocably locked in/out the minute you sign up.
Not in Azeroth Anymore
In Azeroth, the exclamation point is not as shiny, and doesn't get to be enclosed in a green circle.
As promised, the first hour, which is basically what I got to see, is a linear series of quest hubs. I rolled up a Defiant Bard/Ranger/Nightblade and got to level six, at which point Sarah Connor sent me back to save
The comparisons to Warhammer make a lot more sense now that I've seen the game. The art style definitely reminds me more of that game, and the interface when you enter a rift almost identical to the Warhammer PQ interface (except without the option to join open groups, since Trion has yet to implement these). The rifts I saw - one as part of the intro questline, and a second right next to where you zone in afterwards - were also very similar to PQ's, though the more experienced players say that these aren't "real" Rifts.
Unlike Warhammer, though, the solo PVE content is actually fun to play on its own merits. (Unfortunately, also unlike Warhammer, Rift has implemented the scourge of NPC class trainers who demand nominal amounts of coin in exchange for training players in "rank 2+" of skills - see Zubon's KTR commentary on this topic.) The rift content could fall flat on its face and I'd still be fine with paying to play as much of this stuff as Trion can release.
Dabbling in souls
Because I was really pressed for time, and because the character is going to be wiped at the end of the betas anyway, I decided to save some indecision by rolling up a bard named Lyriana (as is traditional).
Bards are the Rogue archetype off-healing spec; by level 6, my default attack was automatically regenerating my (solo) party's HP. Unfortunately, like LOTRO's minstrel, most of these skills require the playing of a brief musical tune that is sure to get old eventually.
Next, I added the Nightblade, a more traditional melee rogue with some elemental attacks mixed in for flavor. This was a large disappointment. Similar to Warhammer's mastery system, all your class abilities scale with the total number of "soul points" you have invested in that soul. As a result, my fully upgraded bard abilities were always a better choice than my baseline melee attacks. Also, the Nightblade doesn't actually get the stealth ability until four points into the tree (level 12, further than I was going to get this time out), so that choice was basically useless.
With my final soul pick of the newbie area, I added the ranger, which is your stereotypical archer with pets. Again, I never actually used the bow attacks because my (now self-healing) bard songs were more powerful, but the baseline boar pet was more than capable of holding aggro, and I never seriously felt threatened after that.
The last experience highlights my general concern with the soul system - when developers offer a ton of options, some of them are going to end up significantly and obviously more powerful than others, making the remaining choices much less interesting. Yes, I'm free to deliberately choose something different for the sake of challenge (e.g. my latest WoW alt, a Disc Priest who wears the statless festival outfits for armor), but it's nice if the game doesn't cease to be fun as a punishment for making good decisions.
There's also the question of my "incorrect" choice of the Nightblade soul. Perhaps I would have found a good way to use it somewhere down the line, when paired with later acquisitions. Perhaps it won't really matter because everyone will eventually gain all eight of their archetype's souls anyway. Perhaps the bard/ranger combination is so good for solo content that there's nothing you could put in the third slot that I would care about. In the short term, though, I was left feeling that I had chosen poorly due to limited newbie information.
At the end of the day, there was more good than bad in this first, limited experience. The game appears to actually deliver what it promises at the low end, and I'll definitely be curious to see how NPC invasions play out in practice. I'm still concerned that souls will be horribly unbalanced and invasions will get old quickly (Ravious @ KTR already writes about wondering if there's an end in sight during a long rift-closing session). Even so, many games don't get far enough for the long term to matter, so this is progress.