Or perhaps it's more accurate to say that the Rift Beta is fun, as the game has not yet actually launched. And that's a serious compliment, because I've played MMOs in the beta stage that were fun when they worked as intended, but half the time were bugged or broken.
However, as someone who's been playing MMOs since 1999, I do not believe that Rift should be classified as a "Next Generation MMO". That's a big claim and it writes a big check that this game in its current incarnation can't cash. If we ignore for a moment that there are not clearly defined rules for what defines an MMO generation, I think it's safe to say that a "Next Generation MMO" has to do everything that previous generation MMOs did well, improve upon those things where possible, and removing or altering those things that were done poorly. In some respects, Rift does this to a small degree, but the majority of the time this is not the case, and in some areas (like crafting) is still way behind the games which set the standard back in 2003/2004.
Okay, so there's not much you can do in the realm of combat to save us from the point, click, keyboard number pressing. AoC taught us that trying to break away from this system, while commendable, was ultimately futile. I'm tempted to give Rift a pass on this, but it still would have been nice to have an additional layer added to the combat system that would have required a bit more thought beyond what is currently available in the MMO market today.
Rift should be commended for its Soul system and the unique nature of each individual character. No doubt we will see some unique soul combinations that will let people experiment quite a bit.
As far as crafting goes, this is one area where Rift falls down. Games like SWG and EQ2 set the standard for crafting as its own separate activity that was integral to the world. The arrival of grinding for gear in instances ruined this practice, and people either forgot or most commonly, never experienced, what it was like to have an economy that actually functioned properly and never became hyper-inflated because crafted gear was either the only gear available or it was the best gear available. More importantly, the development of crafting systems as a mini-game (or in the case of SWG on equal footing to the combat aspect of the game) did two things of great value to the MMO community:
1. It made the buy-in time consuming enough that not everyone and their mother was a master crafter
2. It made crafting enjoyable, worthwhile, and gave you something else to do besides the repetitive combat that could burn you out
As it stands currently, Rift's economy will eventually become like WoW's. Hyper-inflated and largely a commodities market, particularly if there is no way for crafted and looted items to decay or leave the economy completely. That's not a point where anyone should disagree. It is a simple consequence of not needing to replace what you buy. Whether or not you think this is a good thing or a bad thing (newer players tend to like selling low level crafting materials at high prices for example), it will happen. Therefore I don't think describing the crafting system as "robust and comprehensive" accurately describes the process of simply gathering materials, finding the appropriate crafting station, and hitting the "create" button. There are some variations (fortunately) that can be made to items, but the crafting process itself is quite basic.
The Rift system is a unique idea and the consequences for not containing Rift's are pretty severe when you consider that most MMO players become quite angry when they can't play the game how they want. In fact, I'm very surprised at their severity since there will likely be a lot of frustration from new players at not being able to complete quests when and where they need to. As far as I'm concerned, that's not a bad thing. Maybe it will help recover the community spirit which is so lacking in MMOs these days. More importantly, the Rift system creates a living, breathing world that's constantly in flux. A persistent, unchanging world is fine for a single player game, but for an MMO, we should expect that our actions have a measurable effect on the world. It would be nice to see this concept expanded upon outside the Rift system to other aspect of the game.
Although people debate player housing, there's simply no good reason to deny people the ability to have their own home. After playing SWG for so long (which debuted in 2003) no game that launches without a robust player housing system, to include player controlled and operated cities, can call itself "Next Generation". So far, I've seen these arguments against player housing:
1. It will take development time away from other aspects of the game
2. It will empty the NPC cities
3. It will harm the community by creating cliques and separating guilds away from other players in the community
4. It's just fluff and doesn't do anything
None of these arguments are reasonable, and others are just plain inaccurate. First, it's not fair to say that developing a player housing system will take away from other aspects of the game. You could make that same argument for almost any aspect of Rift, but ultimately this argument rests on the view that player housing isn't important, and therefore can be dismissed completely on those grounds alone. The second argument is inaccurate as long as NPC cities have unique things that require people to visit them. More importantly, who exactly has the right to tell someone how to spend their time? The third point is also inaccurate because cliques and guilds will do their own things regardless of housing. Many guilds in WoW and other MMOs that lack player housing simply designate an area in the game world as their territory and meeting ground, which is often isolated. Again though, ultimately this argument rests on the idea that the game should actively work to force people into concentrated areas for no other reason than to give the impression of a populated world. The fourth and last argument is also false. Housing in the MMOs which have it actually provides more than storage space. Many allow for private vendors and crafting areas. More importantly, a house is a status symbol. Need proof of that? Go make a trial character on ANY existing SWG server and check out all the player cities and housing spread throughout the world. It's not just a fluff item that no one cares about. Do it right, and it allows extreme creativity and brings life to what can quickly became a stale game world is there's not much to do but mash buttons on your keyboard.
Rift needs player housing. It should have player cities, and those cities should be faction based and on the PVP servers, should be open to sieges. Add that aspect to the game, make territory conquerable by faction, and you'll have a constantly changing world where nothing is every quite the same.
Overall, my impressions of Rift from the beta are positive, but ultimately I'm not drawn into the world like I would expect to be in an MMO. I've felt far more attached to non-MMO worlds such as the Fallout series than almost any MMO that has been released since 2004. Rift is fun, but there's just not that much to do beyond the simple act of fighting NPC monsters. However, there's a lot of potential here, and if the game does well, a lot of room to grow. Some things are not likely to change (like the crafting/economic system) but still a great deal of potential, provided it's exploited before most players burn themselves out on the combat and decide to cancel their subscriptions.