Edit: My views haven't changed, but I've rewritten the second half to give some clarity to some common complaints I've heard about this review.
How about some balance?
Well, this isn't the easiest review to write. Rather than a "thumbs up" or "thumbs down", this is sort of "thumbs horizontal" I guess? There are very strong positive aspects to this game and very negative ones as well.
Typically, anything that markets itself as "discount [game]", is pretty much going to be "horrible [game]". So, Titan Quest is discount Diablo II, Demigod is discount Dota, etc. In this case, Rift is not so much "discount WoW", but "alternative WoW". Now, I've played WoW for a very extensive amount of time from the vanilla to Cataclysm, so I'm pretty familiar with both by now. From what I've seen, there aren't actually any "downgrades". What WoW players complained about lacking for a very long time were pretty much stocked to begin with, if not pillars of the game itself. These included:
Regional events that keep areas changing and make it more interesting to live in, which includes their gimmick, rifts (portals from another realm that launch invasions on nearby towns).
1-2 player dungeons and easier match-making for full five player dungeons. In fact, because of how build classification works (tank, DPS, heals, support), you are assured that every party will be pretty balanced for what you encounter, since every party must have a tank, a healer, a support, and two DPS.
Guild quests and better guild management.
Mentor level - You can scale your power down to a lower level if, for example, you have a friend join the game and don't want to be grossly overpowered when you play with them.
Sidekick (which I don't agree with) - If you are the lowest level in your guild (which is the only explanation I can imagine) and everyone but you is doing some dungeon, you can temporarily raise your level to the party's rather than being left out of the event.
Instant Adventure - particularly useful if you are just going to be on for ten minutes and don't want to get into the game too deep.
Better UI elements like selling grey items and auction house price trends.
Change classification on the fly - Basically, the skill points that you first chose that got you to whatever level you are can be changed, easily. There's a huge amount of flexibility when it comes to how you play your character. A rogue can be played how you expect it to, relying on range or pets, or it can be turned into an assassin, it can be made into a make-shift tank, or it can be a healer. Even when it comes to a make, which is typically a glass cannon, there's flexibility about whether you want a nuker-pyro or an AoE damage like stormcaller or AoE heal like chloromancer, you can even have a melee mage. The way you play your character has huge amounts of flexibility with both how you play and how you look, I may never see another game with this range of possibilities. Even though this strategy really only works once you've reached level 60 and unlocked all of your skill points, this is where Rift draws a lot of its strength and it's an awesome dynamic.
Warfronts (medium scale PvP) used to be broken and not match players up very well based on class and gear, but now they seem to be doing better, a few more tweaks with healing and I think I won't have anything to make note of there. The games are pretty good.
Conquest (large scale PvP) is a cluster. And honestly, I don't think a lot people enjoy it because you kinda have to play with your leader holding a gun to your head saying "move when I say move, ♥♥♥♥♥". Well, no one enjoys that, but most people do it because the rewards are high enough to justify it. It's more about leader strategy and numbers than anything you do, personally.
The theming for the original game is great. It definitely loses it and goes off in strange directions when you get into the first and second expansion pack, and that's mildly disappointing, but hey, don't let it get to you.
As has been described elsewhere, the only thing you cannot do without spending money is using the auction house and all of your potential bag slots - and as little as five dollars unlocks those. This is ridiculously cheaper than the $15/mo WoW charges for the privilege of the same service. That said, the devs still need to pay rent, so a real money store is available in-game. 90% of the items are cosmetic; the other 10% are basically broken into two categories: Spend a small amount of money to get a slight boost to gold, exp rates, etc. Spend an exorbitant amount of money to get significant boosts or an item outright. In, literally, all cases, you may not purchase any item in the store that you cannot get some other way in the game.
Sounds great, but how can you vote down something you've played for over 400 hours for free?
I donno, how can you work at a job for ten years, say you like the work but simultaneously hate working there?
The players suck. No really, they honestly do. I would take Dota people over these guys in a heartbeat. I have never in my life seen such a hostile group of folks in a game. It's kinda hard to get immersed in the environment and experience that I just described when there are fifty people at any given time complaining about how much they dislike the latest patch changes or the expansion systems or how their support ticket wasn't answered in the same day they submitted it...every single thing that the devs do is just a life-threatening crisis. Over a period of time, this really starts to affect your mood. But it's an MMO, a platform that is supposed to be around social constructs, communication, and collaboration. It's possible to turn off the chat and play completely alone, but dear god why should I have to do that?
On the free hours I'm so ungreatful for: Like I said, I support some sort of substitute for a subscription requirement in order to bring new players in and pay the dev to continuously add new content, since they continuously need food. I've supported substantively in that regard to the tune of about $60, which I find to be reasonably fair for the time I've gotten out of it. To say that I'm shooting down this game without chipping anything in is factually false and irritating to hear.
Ultimately? You should NEVER log in out of a sense of duty or sunk-time fallacy. There's a difference between "logging into relax and have a good time" to "logging into a stressful environment of conflict because of your virtual obligations". It seems like the hostile environment originated by the development team allowing themselves to be treated as punching bags, but changing their mind and punching back. Hard. So, the forums are dev/gamer flame wars, and the in-game world is nothing but passive aggressive condescending tones and internet-♥♥♥ kickings to the minority of people who agree with the devs.
I think where I differ from most people (unpopularly) is that I'm willing to say that the developers are equally as bad as the consumer.
Running a game you've created for a hundreds of thousands of people is challenging and every machine and gaming instance will be different. People will find bugs and as a dev, there's no hintbook or place you can just google that says how to fix it. Problems take time and experimentation and there's no promise of success. However, allowing a hostile and combative atmosphere serves no one and just lets people feed off of each other's hate. But adopting the same combative attitude as a dev? Is simply abhorrent.
As a player who has no stake in the matter: I got my 400 hours, the devs got their money, and now it is time for us to part ways. If I had known what I do now, I would not have enjoyed it nearly as much originally, which is why I can't enjoy it now. Those two sentences may be the most reasonable justification for a review decision you're going to find.