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.
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’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.
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.
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*
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.)