An MMO Overview

I sometimes get asked what titles are ‘on my radar’, so I though I’d do a little rundown of MMOs that are currently of interest to me, along with some commentary. This is not an exhaustive list and I have excluded anything not released yet as well as some important titles that have been. My opinions (and the games) are, of course, capable of change. I may make this a regular (maybe quarterly) feature.

Also included in the disucssion of each title is a recommendation, based on how worthwhile I think each game is at this time. If a game is not on the list, don’t assume I mean that it’s not worthwhile at all – it only means that I don’t have a strong opinion on it either way. Well, mostly.

Age of Conan
Funcom’s 2008 offering had a very strong launch followed by a predictable array of troubles which led to a swift decline in user base. The development team seems to be moving things in the right direction, but it took about six months for that momentum to solidify. At this point, the technical problems seem to be mostly worked out, and the chief barrier to the title is its disappointing PvP. Still, the combat system is probably the best in any MMO, and the storyline PvE content is extremely strong, if thin on the ground in many parts of the level curve. Server merges concentrated the player community and seemed to immediately strengthen the game’s position, and it may be poised to begin growing until it reaches solid second-tier numbers. I wouldn’t count on a retail expansion, but updates are providing a solid, if irregular, stream of new content.

Recommendation: Keep a close eye on this title – 2009 will be a make-or-break year for it. With luck, it’ll solidify as one of our second-tier games and have a long life ahead of it. As it stands right now, it’s a better game than Warhammer Online, regardless of what the subscriber numbers might be.

Darkfall
Adventurine’s new offering is not technically launched in North America yet, but it’s live in Europe, and is still rationing access to prevent server flooding. I haven’t tried this one yet, but it looks promising. It is not a mainstream title and almost certainly will not become one, so I think its future success depends on its sandbox potential, which will be either intensified or erased by the decisions made by the developers moving forward. Either way we should expect very significant changes to the game over the first year of its lifetime. Darkfall appears to have all the fundamentals in place to become the fantasy equivalent to EVE Online, but it’ll take at least a year or two of canny management by the development team to reach that level, and there certainly appears to be the traditional suite of launch-era technical issues to overcome as well.

Recommendation: Wait six months. By then we should have unrestricted access to the game and a better idea of what the post-launch direction is going to be.

EVE Online
EVE’s overall status quo hasn’t changed much; it’s still one of the most innovative games out there, and the one that best fulfills the potential of what a Massive, Multiplayer Online experience can be. 2008 was in some sense a disappointing year despite a couple of major additions to the game, because CCP implied that Ambulation would be appearing before the end of the year, and it didn’t. But the recent Apocrypha expansion (free, like all EVE expansions,) completed the graphical upgrade begun with Trinity, making what was already one of the best-looking titles out there look even prettier.

EVE is in a number of respects as much a simulation as it is a game, and it needs to be approached differently than other titles which provide a set of straightforward challenges to overcome. To make it work you must be able to design your own goals and strategies for meeting those goals. But it’s also among the most immersive of MMOs as well, thanks not only to its huge universe filled with player activity, but to its very strong backstory as well. The spectacular graphics and evocative music also help, as does a techy interface which is maybe not so easy to use but which is perfect for the atmosphere of the game. But EVE is also noteworthy in that its universe is big enough that you can find quiet and solitude in addition to activity, and I’ve always thought that important – and something you’ll seldom see outside of EVE or Vanguard.

Recommendation: Worth your time. EVE is complex and difficult, but offers far more options, depth and potential interactions with other players than any other MMO.

EverQuest
After a decade, it remains surprisingly strong. The experience today is rather different than it was back then, of course, reflecting the changed expectations of the audience. It’s still probably the best game to learn MMOs on – not the easiest, but that’s why. You can play it on a pretty archaic machine and it actually looks a lot better than you’d have any right to expect for something its age. But most importantly the gameplay is a lot less structured than one gets nowadays, and that’s something I can appreciate, even though I like the idea of grinding for XP more than I like doing it in practice. But more importantly, there’s a very real sense of exploration to EQ, with its vast array of zones and content.

Recommendation: Of mainly historical interest for new folks, and of nostalgic interest for those who played it years ago. But on the other hand, it’s still markedly different from the new games it inspired, and more open in some respects. Believe it or not, this is the SOE game I am most tempted by right now.

EverQuest II
I have strongly supported EQ2 in the past, but I’m going to downplay its excellence this time around. It’s unquestionably a full-featured game with many strong aspects, but it also lacks a couple of things that players have increasingly come to expect, like functional PvP. The highly zoned world and large number of similar quests also make it seem very game-ey in comparison to a couple of other titles – including WoW. The graphics, while pretty strong for a title this old, are an acquired taste, and poor software optimization makes the client much harder to run on a marginal machine than it should be. The world also lacks texture in my opinion, something I’ve called soul in previous posts, and the gameplay seems narrowly focused on quests which are mostly pretty formulaic. That said, it is full-featured, ongoing support is excellent, and there are things in the game that are really outstanding.

Recommendation: Worthwhile, but at this point I believe its place in the market as the best PvE MMO has been usurped by LotRO to some extent. I think that this is because there is little sense of the world as a dynamic place, with events big and small going on all around you. LotRO provides this through a strong over-arching narrative, and WoW does it by ensuring that there are always players around. EQ2 is strong in places in this regard, but not overall to the extent that WoW is, and LotRO is improving at a faster pace.

The Lord of the Rings Online
After the release of Mines of Moria, its first expansion, LotRO emerged as one of the leading titles in the hobby. Loaded with content, it has some weaknesses but the last several rounds of new content (including the expansion,) have played to its strengths. The biggest of those is the very strong narrative that it adapts from Tolkien’s novel, which is skillfully woven into the fabric of the game’s questing. Legendary Items, introduced with MoM, also provide a major addition to the game nicely in tune with the source material, and Turbine’s ability to add high-quality content between expansions is the best in the hobby. Blogger interest in LotRO has been surging for months.

Recommendation: Worth your time, especially if you want a well-rounded experience. One-dimensional players (like pure raiders or PvP-heads,) will probably not enjoy the game for long, but folks interested in taking their time and exploring all a game has to offer might well be delighted with LotRO. Tolkien purists will have issues with it. *ahem*

Warhammer Online
The Great Disappointment of 2008. A strong entry in some respects, but flawed, unfortunately fatally, by the fact that the developers did not seem to realize that the various avenues of play would need to be balanced against one another, so that all play would not be funneled into a single activity. Nor did they consider that server population caps were too low, making any individual shard either a queue-riddled nightmare to get into or a wasteland with nobody playing. WAR has had, hands-down, the worst server management in MMOs, and ironically it’s the game most dependent on being solid in that department. Unlike Age of Conan, to which it is largely inferior, it essentially has no PvE experience to make up for the times when the PvE and social content, both dependent on having other players around to participate in them, aren’t happening. PvP play is solid, the problem is finding it. I strongly suspect that the 300K subscriber number that’s being tossed around right now is out of date, and that the active population is closer to half of that.

Recommendation: Don’t bother. Mythic is desperately treading water right now, throwing in new content at a furious rate to keep their remaining players from deserting the title en masse. Let’s hope this works instead of resulting in an implosion. Recently announced server mergers on a massive scale may help the population issues, and this might make a difference, but it might also be too late; if WAR does not continue to accrue new players, everybody will be piled at the top of the leveling curve, leaving nobody around at lower levels to play with. And for this game that’s the kiss of death.

World of Warcraft
The Big Daddy right now and probably for the foreseeable future. Wrath of the Lich King was by all accounts a very solid addition, but the pace of overall improvement is much slower than it is in half a dozen other titles, and it also has several distressing gaps. Despite this, the immersiveness of its world is often overlooked by commentators, and one can always count on seeing other players around, at least on most servers. Amazingly, it still has new players joining, and activity in the lowest levels is still pretty robust.

Recommendation: Worth your time, though I can appreciate that many will find that it’s become stale. It’s a very solid game for PvE and for raiders, and the PvP is passable (meaning not as good as WAR’s but people are actually doing it, and WoW is not utterly dependent on it.)

11 responses to “An MMO Overview

  1. Excellent write up. I will agree with EQ2 in the sense that I might add the combat is terrible and slow.

    My same issue with LOTRO, which tends to out me asleep with its bland story telling and blah classes and imbalance at the end game.

    Otherwise, nice stuff. Conan has improved.

  2. I have no position on the LotRO endgame, not having reached it, but my feeling is that it’s a less endgame-centered title than, say, WoW. And my own preference is for a wider variety of classes than LotRO provides. But word is that the two new classes add a lot to the game, and I think it reasonable to expect that there will be more additions in the furure, as well as fleshing out the ones that it launched with. My recent venture into the game left me with a much more positive feeling about it, after having tried it and been bored by it multiples times. The change could be me as much as the game, though.

  3. I’m having the experience of visiting EQ2 for the first time after the game’s four-year mark, so my perspective is that it’s like a new game, but with many of the launch bugs and quality of life issues already solved. I can’t speak to the group content because I literally have never grouped through the mid levels, but it offers a strong solo experience, an impressive array of classes and races (some of whom are not found in Tolkein!), and a crafting system that offers more depth than its counterparts.

    As to LOTRO, players widely credit Turbine for adding content outside of paid boxes, but the flip side of that coin is that the content was not ready when they charged you for the box. I’m still feeling somewhat burned by the utter wasteland that level 40+ questing was 6+ months after paid launch, and failing to roll out the Lothlorien faction until months after the expansion (when Moria and Lorien are the two major areas added to the game) does nothing to appease my concerns. I’m definitely going to resubscribe sometime, and I’ll probably enjoy it for a few months when I do, but my experience has been that the new content doesn’t last all that long.

  4. Nice writeup.

    One thing that EQ II has over the above MMOs that you didn’t mention is the ability to level solely as a crafter. It also has the best housing system of the MMOs that you mentioned by a pretty wide margin. Certainly not for everyone, but when I play (the last time was summer during the promotion) I tend to spend more time messing around with the crafting and my house than with the generally mediocre questing game.

    @Green A: I leveled to 50 pre Foreschel in LoTRO. Never noticed the +40 questing wasteland that you mention. Did you ever go to Angmar? Even pre-revamp, there was plenty to do in there to get you to the cap, particularly if you had any intention of getting your last legendary trait. By the six month mark we had Angmar, Goblin Town/ Eeastern Misty Mountain, and Foreschel. That’s actually more 40+ content than you could hope to do on one character (unless you are a fan of running gray quests).

    At launch there was a very noticeable gap in the 30-40 solo content, is that what you meant?. The first major patch plugged that hole with Evindim, which I will agree got more credit as “free” content then it deserves. It was actually in development before the game launched, but wasn’t ready for prime time. Turbine added it a couple of months in for “free” and looked like a hero. Ironically Mythic does pretty much the same thing with four of the classes and folks bitch at them for calling it “free” content.

  5. Well written.
    I am actually shocked at the “Forget WAR but look at AoC” bent you give..
    Who would have thought that a year ago, with Funcoms massive mess, and the great push of the Mythic fanboi contingent…so much so that I exploded a blog over the “WAR” debacle.

    EQ2 just seems to keep on treading water to me. It has some interesting parts, but as a whole it does not work is the issue. The game is not overly fulfilling, Kind of empty like Chinese food…so good going in, but you feel like you need more.

    LOTRO…I guess I better keep my mouth shut…everyone gets cranky when I mention what a dry and uninteresting game this is.

    Oops

    Wish I liked Sci-Fi as it seems EvE is the most well setup, rounded and mechanics heavy game here…just not my type of game…bummer.

    WoW will always live on…the Microsoft of MMO’s.

    But, why no mention of Guild Wars? Is that your game of hate?…lol

    Anyways..

    Thanks for the write up…always appreciate it.

  6. One thing I’d like to add is that I totally agree agree with your assessment of the PvE in WAR. Quite possibly the worst of any mainstream MMO. However, if you really like battleground style PvP in an MMO (e.g., the battlegrounds in WoW), WAR is probably the best choice around right now. I don’t think it’s nearly enough to hang and MMO on, and frankly I’d rather play TF2 for free if I’m in the mood for something like that. However, I think it bears mentioning.

  7. @Yeebo: Perhaps “exactly six months” is more fair than “6+ months” – Wikipedia claims that the game launched on April 24th, 2007 and Goblin Town went live on October 24h. I may have been including the nearly month-long open beta in my maths, since I had already paid Turbine for a pre-order in order to keep my open beta characters.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Lord_of_the_Rings_Online

    At the time when I quit, which was in early October, there was no Goblin Town (Oct 24th), no revamped Angmar (Feb 13th ’08), no Foroschel (your statement is dead wrong on that one, it rolled out in Book 13, which came out for the 1-year anniversary on April 24th ’08), and no new Eregion area outside Moria (July 22nd ’08). Your choices above level 40 were the Western half of modern day Misty Mountains, grinding kill deeds in the Dwarven rep area from Book 10, and the abysmal state of launch Angmar. I did literally every new solo quest for each level as it opened, with full rested exp, and had to grind kill deeds for approximately 2/3 of each level in the mid-40’s until I quit at 48. Apparently I missed a few quests in Angmar because you had to complete a group quest that I couldn’t solo at level 48 in top end crafted gear to unlock them.

    In the game today, there is arguably more content than there needs to be in the 40-50 region. Back then, it was a mess. Perhaps Goblin town fixed the problem, I can’t say since I wasn’t playing, it was certainly fixed by the year mark. I’m just saying, it’s a problem when the state of the game’s supposed ultimate zone is so bad that the devs posted an official dev diary on the official site (sometime around Nov/Dec if I recall) talking about how badly it needed to be gutted and overhauled.

  8. Nice overview. On your comments on PvP and how “expected” it has become, I’d like to mention that there are still plenty of folks who have absolutely no interest in PvP, no matter how well implemented. What attracts me (and, I believe, many others) to MMOs is the sheer predictability of the gameplay. I want to be able to learn the systems, the mechanics and then learn to use them reliably. Playing against other players adds an element of unpredictability that I find completely off-putting.

    Currently I am playing EQ2 (again) and it does indeed have all the flaws you mention. Having played LotRO for a few months last year, though, I think EQ2 is a much better PvE game. LotRO is very much more repetetive than EQ2 and not in a good way; the real dealmaker for EQ2 is the vast amount of completely non-combat content available.

    What I really want for my next main MMO is a balance of about 80% non-combat activity with 20% PvE combat providing the contrast, rather than the opposite balance that we have had for the last 10 years. I really hope that as the market mainstreams over the next decade, the genre will expand right away from killing other entities, be they computer or player controlled, and into more peaceful goals.

  9. @GA: Apologies if it seemed like I was jumping on you. I was genuinely puzzled by your post, but it makes more sense now that you post the timelines.

    I hit 50 right around when Goblin Town launched. Between the unrevamped Angmar and the eastern MM I did have more content than I needed for the 40-50 range. April, May, June, July, August, September, October…so I was mistaken. I hit 50 at 7 months out rather than six, and you would have hit 40 a month or two earlier than I did (spent a month in the moors as a creep during the summer).

    And as for Foreschel at 6 months, yeah I was f-ing high when i wrote that yesterday. No…not really, just taking a quick work break and not re-reading my post before I hits submit (my kingdom for an edit button and all that). I meant to say I had more content than I needed at 6 months (which was actually at 7 months as it turns out), and that there is now (at +6 months) more than you could possibly get to in the 40-50 range.

  10. Oh yeah, and I did not realize how much of a difference Goblin Town made. All I knew was that I hit 50 and still had a bunch of quests left over that I had never gotten to in Angmar. I did to at least four levels in the eastern MM as I recall.

    Giving you the benefit of a doubt and assuming you didn’t miss any quests hubs, that means that 40-50 probaly only had about 60% of the content it needed for the first six months after launch. I’m prepared to lump the eastern MM in with Evindim as “stuff that should have been in at launch” in that case.

  11. One final thing. If you weren’t able to get into the eastern half of Angmar because you didn’t take your book quest far enough to get past the barrier, I retract my sympathy. There were a couple of group quests in that chain, but I had it done wearing mainly uncritted crafted gear by the ripe old age of 44-45 (can’t remember exactly). The western half of Angmar would indeed not have been much to work with . . .