I used to be a big fan of Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games (MMORPGs). I spent countless hours in Everquest 2 and EVE Online, questing, adventuring, mining, exploring… For the most part it was fun, but after a while I realised that it was too much of a drain on my time, and personal relationships with friends were suffering. I decided to jack it all in and save money on the subscription costs.
However, recently I have found myself at home alone with not much to do and no real way of meeting like-minded people, so I figured I’d try out a few free-to-play (F2P) MMORPGs in the hopes of recapturing some of the excitement, and maybe making some new friends along the way. There are a plethora of F2P MMORPGs out there, but I was looking for a polished experience, with a multitude of quests and stories. For this reason I decided to avoid any Korean or Korean-influenced games. I hate just killing monsters endlessly with no in-story reason for it (known as “grinding” for obvious reasons), and the Korean games have a reputation for being a relentless grind.
My plan was to select about five different MMORPGs and play the “early levels” story arcs (generally this means levels one through twenty), to see what was the most enjoyable experience. The games I tried out were: Everquest 2, Age of Conan, Rift, Star Wars: The Old Republic, and Defiance.
Bit of disclosure here – Everquest 2 (EQ2) was the MMORPG I played most heavily back when I was playing these games, but that was a long time ago, and a great amount has changed. As I played I was trying to see things from the perspective of a new player.
EQ2 used to be a subscription only game, which followed on from the success of the original Everquest (one of the first truly popular MMORPGs). At some point however, Sony decided to switch to a F2P model, allowing people to play for free, or pay small amounts to access certain features (this microtransaction model is how most F2P games earn their money). You can also pay a monthly subscription for unlimited access. Set in a traditional high-fantasy world of orcs, elves, sword and sorcery, it’s an age old tale of good versus evil, light versus dark, with no real middle ground. Fans of J. R. R. Tolkien, Terry Brooks et al. should know what to expect.
The download was great – a small installer preloads a bit of initial data, enough for you to start creating characters and access the very first areas, and then carries on downloading the game in the background. I was in the game in minutes, which was a pleasant surprise, and goes in EQ2’s favour.
All my old characters were still there even after all this time, but I created a new one to review the experience. There are a plethora of different races to choose from, including Wood Elves, Dark Elves, Humans, Dwarfs, the lizardmen called Iksar, even Fairies and their evil counterparts, the Arasai. Likewise, there are tons of different character classes to choose from, including Guardians, Berserkers, Assassins, Swashbucklers, Templars, Necromancers… There were two classes I was not familiar with from my time with the game, but these needed payment to unlock. I decided to create an Iksar Fury, a healer who was also handy with a sword.
Character creation is very good. There are a plethora of ways to customise your character, from skin colour to hair styles (or in the case of my Iksar, spikey skin styles), and a variety of sliders for scaling various features. You can also pay to unlock additional customisation options. Having decided on a name, “Luhrstaap”, I was ready to begin. As Iksar are evil, I was given the choice of starting my adventures in the cities of Gorowyn or Neriak. I chose Gorowyn as it was mostly unfamiliar to me.
The game is getting on a bit now, as when I appeared in the game I was told I had earned my “ten year veteran bonus”, which made me feel like I was also getting on a bit. However, it has certainly grown old gracefully. While the graphics do not exactly compare to more modern games, there are times when the game looks absolutely superb (and with the graphics on the maximum settings it still gave my computer a beating). There are a few things which look a little rough around the edges, but the characters and monsters, as well as spell effects all look very pretty.
The starting quests lead you through things such as basic combat, crafting, etc. and give you a feel for playing the game, introducing you to concepts such as levelling up, alternate advancement etc. In Gorowyn, these quests form a loose storyline surrounding a war between the dragon-kin Sarnak and the aviak Hoaraerans. The quests have a fairly coherent plot and are reasonably varietous.
I believe this staring storyline was designed to take me through to level 20, at which point I would be ready fior the quests at the Butcherblock mountains (as that is where the quests lead you), however I was only level 18 when I finished them, which made the Butcherblock quests a little tricky. That wasn’t much of a problem however, as the travel options allow you to sail to pretty much any part of the world, so I was able to find a zone suitable for levels 10-20 which added some variety.
So the game looked nice, and it had some reasonably interesting quests, but – and this is a big but – because the game is so old, most of the players have been playing for a long time. Consequently, they’re mostly a much higher level. This in turn means that the lower level areas are pretty much devoid of players. The quests have been designed for solo play, but solo play was not why I signed up. The community were still friendly, however, so at least I could chat while I played, but honestly if you’re looking for social interaction at the lower levels, you’ll need to bring a friend along with you.
Pros: Fast download, quick access; huge selection of races and classes; reasonably good looking; fun quests; friendly community
Cons: graphics not optimised in places, can slow down; very few low level players to group with
Age of Conan
Age of Conan is based on the works of Robert E. Howard, and is set in the mythical Hyborean Age. It’s classic low fantasy – there’s plenty of sword and sorcery, but there’s less of a clear distinction between good and evil, and the bad guys are mostly human… albeit with a few demonic influences. You play the role of a slave who was shipwrecked off the coast of Tortage and is now looking to recover the memories of his or her past.
The download process for Age of Conan was a simple one, but it required a download of the full game (about 25GB) before I was abkle to play. I left it downloading overnight and came back in the morning. This was a shame, as after EQ2’s fast downloader I was expecting to hop into the action quickly.
Once the download had finished, however, I got straight into it. Character creation was very easy. There are a number of different races to choose from; all of them human, but hailing from different parts of the world. Each race has access to different class-types, so the race you choose has a bearing on your play style. I created a Stygian Tempest of Set – a priestess to the God Set, who has healing abilities and command of lightning.
There were a reasonable set of customisation options, but I found it difficult to really made a difference on my facial features without changing the hairstyle or facial tattoos – the changes from the face sliders were a little to subtle. Conan’s character selection has the dubious ‘honour’ of being the only MMORPG character creation to feature sliders for breast size and butt size. I guess the creators of the game should be lauded for such variety in customisation options, but even on the lowest slider settings, my characters breasts were still gargantuan. I guess they’re trying to appeal to the mostly male audience (or perhaps perpetuate it?)
Once I was in the game, there was a good selection of tutorial materials available. When you encounter something new, a little icon appears which allows you to click to fine out more information, or dismiss it. This would be great for people who already know the game, but are creating a new character, as there are few things more frustrating than unskippable tutorials when you already know it all.
The quests form a tight storyline surrounding you as a slave, finding your way to the city of Tortage, gaining your freedom and eventually escaping to your homeland. The very first part of the game, which introduces you to basic combat and casting, is single-player only, but very soon you reach Tortage, which is a multi-player area.
I was pleased to see a number of people running around this area, and the general chat was lively. There were a few spammers in the channel trying to get us to buy things at their online store, but they were easily added to the ignore list. On the whole, the community was helpful, and I managed to get into a few groups to take down some more powerful enemies as part of the quest line.
The combat in Age of Conan is slightly different to most MMORPGs. rather than clicking a bunch of icons to cast spells or abilities, in close combat you have the option to attack to the front, to the leftm or to the right. The enemies defences are shown with translucent brackets around their character, and they shift dynamically in response to your attacks. if you pummel them from the right, they’ll fortify that side, but that will leave them open to attacks from the left, so you can then shift your attack for more damage. It’s a good system and adds some tactics to an ordinarily stale formula. Of course, my character was a caster, not a fighter, so close combat didn’t come into play much for me, meaning I was mostly doing the old fashioned icon clicking.
There are two parts to Tortage – night and day. During the day, you can quest with other people, and pick up a variety of quests which are not directly related to the main storyline (but which do form storylines of their own). During the night, you embark upon the single-player only “destiny quest”, which is the main storyline for your character. This is an interesting way of proceeding and I’m not entirely sure it works. Again, the reason I wanted to play was to meet people and have fun with others. I understand that putting coherent stories together involving multiple people might be difficult, but it’s not impossible. The day and night quests saw me all the way up to level 21 and off the island of Tortage.
Conan is not as old as EQ2, but it’s still fairly old. However, graphically it still impresses. Things run nice and smoothly and the scenery is breathtaking. The animation on the character models is well done, and the enemies have interesting designs. However the spell effects are less than spectacular. There were a number of times I was left wondering if my spells had connected, as it didn’t really feel like I was calling down the wrath of the lightning god at all. However this is a minor point, as I imagine a great many people will play the game as a melee based character anyway.
On the whole I enjoyed my time in Age of Conan, and managed to team up with a few friendly people (although such unions were fleeting and I rarely grouped with the same person twice). If you’re looking for a fantasy based game with a slightly different combat system you may want to gibe it a go.
Pros: interesting combat system; great to look at; lots of low level players to group with
Cons: HUGE initial download; lacklustre spell effects; little variety between races
Rift was a game I’d not heard of until I started my search for F2P MMORPGs for this little round-up. It follows an interesting premise – Your people are close to destruction at the hands of a rather nast demon and in order to save them you must travel back in time to prevent that future from happening. As you do so, rifts in space-time randomly open in the world and start spewing out demons, so to seal the rifts you have to take them out. The setting of the game is a sort of sci-fi fantasy, reminiscent of the late ’90s Final fantasy games.
Rift is installed using a download manager called “Glyph”, which handles a number of other titles published by the same company (one of which, Defiance, is reviewed below). It was another case of leaving it downloading overnight for this one. It was a fairly straightforward download, however.
Character creation in Rift is more limited than other games, but it’s still possible to come up with some fairly unique looking characters. There are two factions to choose from, the Guardians and the Defiant. Each faction only has three different races, however. Where the character creation comes into its own however is in the class selection. There are four main “callings” – these are the typical fighter, mage, cleric, rogue archetypes – but within these there are a mutitude of sub-classes to choose from. So many, in fact, that it is easy to become overwhelmed and not know what you should choose. I went for a Dervish, a dual wielding, high damage output class.
The first thing that struck me about the game was the interface. Not because it was innovative, but because it was a copy of the World of Warcraft (WoW) interface. I don’t mean it was influenced by it, I mean it was a direct copy. Right down to the font. However, the interface wasn’t the only thing lifted from WoW. Combat, quests, character interactions – the way pretty mcuh everything worked was identical to WoW. This had an impact on my enjoyment of the game. You see, I played WoW for a while, but I didn’t enjoy it much. I found myself not enjoying Rift for much the same reason.
That said however, the graphics in Rift are to my eyes superior to WoW’s. There’s a nice graphical style, and the character models look nicely detailed, although stylised to fit in with the feel of the landscape. Special effects and animations look great and it really felt like I was doing damage with my attacks.
The quests leading me through the first few levels were reasonable enough, following the loose storyline about me being sent back in time to save the future. Initially there was only the main quest line, no side quests, but once I’d gone through the time portal, there were plenty of side quests to choose from. In addition to the side quests, there were also the thing which made the game stand out: Rifts.
Rifts appear randomly across the world (in much the same way as Oblivion Gates did in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion), and monsters come pouring out in waves. After a number of waves, the rift boss will appear. Kill him, and the rift will be sealed. It’s not uncommon to see people charging towards the rifts, and it was easy to just get stuck in and lend a hand. The rifts proved pretty good meeting points.
However, the people I met were… well let’s just say that Rift did not have the greatest community amosphere I’ve experienced. In general chat there was frequent racism and misogyny, which led to me simply ignoring it and hoping nobody would talk to me – which rather defeated the purpose of playing the game in the first place. This was merely the nail in the coffin of this WoW clone.
Pros: Huge array of classes; non-standard fantasy setting; random rifts provide great adventuring opportunities
Cons: direct copy of WoW’s game mechanics; terrible community; uninspired gameplay
Star Wars: The Old Republic
The Star Wars universe should really need no introduction here. It’s been the “gateway drug” into geekdom for countless people, and will no doubt continue to be, despite the fact that only three of the films were actually any good, and even those aren’t particularly good sci-fi. It’s a massively developed sci-fi universe set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.
Star Wars: The Old Republic (SWTOR) was developed by Bioware, as their first MMORPG. Bioware are no strangers to Sci Fi games, being the developers of the Mass Effect series. They also have a strange pedigree of Star Wars games, in the form of the Knights of the Old Republic series. There has been a Star Wars MMORPG in the past, called Star Wars Galaxies. For a time, this was heralded as the best MMORPG ever by its players, but there was a grave disturbance in the force, and the game’s developers, SoE, overhauled the combat system, causing many people to leave the game.
Galaxies was clearly an influence on SWTOR, but it’s also apparent that Bioware did not want to merely recreate what was done before. SWTOR is set as the name suggests, in the time of The Old Republic, long before the clashes of the Rebellion and the Empire seen in the movies. You won’t be seeing Luke Skywalker, or Darth Vader, or even an X-Wing fighter in the game, as they do not exist yet. However, the universe is still a rich, vibrant place, filled with Smugglers, Bounty Hunters, Jedi and Sith.
Like EQ2, SWTOR allows you to download a small section of the game, enough to get you playing, and then downloads the rest in the background. However, after an hour or more of choppy graphics and broken cutscenes, I decided to just let the damn thing download completely overnight. It’s a shame, because the system worked really well in EQ2, not so much here.
Character creation was my first introduction to the second-class-citizenship which being a F2P player in SWTOR affords you. There are a large number of races to choose from… but if you want to be anything other than a human or a cyborg, you need to pay. Initially I was shocked by how few class choiced there were, but I realised later that the class you choose at character creation merely sets your class archetype – you get to specialise later on in the game. This is similar to how EQ2 used to do it many years ago, and it’s a system I really like. other MMORPG developes could learn from this.
There are a huge variety of character customisation options, from face structure to complexion, to facial scars etc. You can also set body size. What I really like about this is that you are able to create large characters. I don’t mean musclebound behemoths, I mean you can create overweight characters if you want. This option is usually unavailable in games, but I feel it’s a welcome addition – why shouldn’t you have access to the full range of appearances?
I created a cyborg bounty hunter on the Imperial side. It’s worth noting at this point that choosing to side with the Empire does not automatically make you evil, and siding with the republic does not automatically make you good. You start off neutral, and decisions you make in game will affect how good or evil you become. It’s a nice system, as I generally love playing morally ambiguous, politically neutral characters.
As a bounty hunter, I started off on the planet of Hutta. An arid desert planet similar to Tatooine, Hutta is the stage for a turf war between two Hutt gangsters (if you remember Jabba from the movies you’ll know what to expect). The storyline goes that I have been hired for something called “The Great Hunt” – it’s a bounty hunting competition organised by the Mandalorian Enclave (of which Boba Fett was a member), and there’s great accolades and prizes to be won. The main storyline missions revolve around obtaining sponsorship from the great hunt, and eventually led me off Hutta and to Dromund Kaas, seat of the Imperial capital. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The storyline missions were hands down the best I’ve played in any MMORPG. Introduced by the typical Knights of The Old Republic/Mass Effect style cutscenes, along with a variety of dialogue choices which actually affect how other characters perceive you, they are well written, superbly voice acted, and flow very well. These storyline missions will take you all the way up to level fifty in game too, although I only played up to level twenty.
However I was soon to learn that it’s not just the main story misisons that have these cutscenes. ALL the in game missions do. And what’s more, if you’re grouped with someone, they get to take part in the cutscene with you as well. It’s masterfully done, and adds a whole new layer to the game.
Unfortunately, I was less enthusiastic about the combat. It follows the time-worn “click icons to use abilities” method as seen in countless other MMORPGs. It’s not necessarily bad, but it’s been done so much before it would have been nice to see something new. The combat led me to my second encounter with the F2P second-class citizenry. After a while I found I had too many skills to fit on my hot bar. No problem, I thought, I’ll just open a new hotbar and… Oh. I have to PAY for additional hotbars? Wow, that sucks.
The game looks spectacular. I was able to run on ultra high detail settings, but even on the medium settings, it still looks beautiful. The art style is sleek, capturing the atmosphere of the universe perfectly. The look of the armour, other weapons, the spacecraft is all entirely faithful to the movies, and different planets have hugely differing terrain, from deserts to bogs to ice worlds. This adds an extra dimension to planetary exploration and on-world missions.
The on-world missions are not the only things available to you however. There are also space combat missions. These take the form of “on-rails” shoot-em-ups, similar in gameplay to the old Rebel Assault games. They’re pretty enjoyable, but it’s a far cry from the fully involved space combat of Freelancer or Vendetta Online.
On the subject of the second-class-citizenry, you really are crippled if you don’t pay. Here are some things you suffer as a F2P player:
- reduced experience gain
- some loot is unusable
- you are unable to trade with other players
- you are unable to send mail in game
- only two hotbars available
- most character races are locked
- you are limited to three space combat missions per week
- you are limited to 1 message in general chat every minute
I can understand they’re trying to earn money here, but that’s a pretty long list of crippling disabilities in-game, and it’s not even exhaustive.
However, I was not the only F2P player in the game. There were tons more. And I mean TONS. It’s been a long time since I was in an MMORPG with such a vibrant community. finding a group was easy (even without the aid of SWTOR’s great group-matchmaker feature), and the people were friendly, helpful and enthusiastic. After one night of hilarious adventuring with some people I’d met which involved countless deaths, I was invited to join a guild. Once in the guild, we had more opportunities for group missions, and we even took down The First, the mighty world-boss of Dromund-Kaas.
On the whole I really enjoyed SWTOR, largely due to the interactions with other players, but the story missions were great too, and the game looks wonderful. Definitely worth checking out if you’re looking for a sci-fi based MMORPG
Pros: looks beautiful; excellent community; superb story missions; good variety in mission types and worlds
Cons:lacklustre combat; F2P players are crippled
Defiance is an interesting concept. The game is a counterpart to a TV show of the same name, and features characters from that show. However, the show is also influenced by players actions in game. It’s a novel concept. I’ve not watched the show, however, so I can’t comment on how well the synergy works.
Defiance is different to the other games reviewed here as although it is most certainly massively multiplayer, it is not a roleplaying game in the strictest sense, but a first person shooter (FPS). However the game does feature a lot of the same elements as MMORPGs, such as experience gains, gear upgrades etc.
The story goes that at some point in the future, Earth is a horrible wasteland filled with mutants and alien hellbugs. While there are many people dedicated to trying to fix the world, many people are just trying to survive. Amongst this madness, people search for alien technology in the ruins of alien space craft known as Arks. These Ark-hunters as they are known, are motivated by a variety of reasons. Some want to save the world, others want a bit of profit, but they all want to find the alien technology. You play the role of an Ark-hunter, and have a cybernetic implant called EGO which grants you special abilities and allows communication with an AI which guides you.
The download of Definace was another case of sit-back-and-wait, but it was a lot smaller than Conan. As with Rift, Defiance is installed through the Glyph download manager. Account creation was easy and once I was in the game I went straight through to character creation.
As Defiance is a classless game system, your choices at character selection merely affect your appearance in game. There’s a reasonable amount of customisation you can perform, and you have the choice of either a human or a votan, a humanoid alien race. Once I created my character I started the game on board a space craft, which as luck would have it, was attacked and crashed down to earth.
The graphics were great to look at, and main characters look very similar to their real-life counterparts in the TV show. The voice acting is, as you’d expect, top notch. After the initial cutscene I was left on the Earth with my EGO tolling me what to do next.
The EGO tutorial was not bad, but there were times when things were not particularly well explained. After a while however I soon got the hang of the controls, and then I noticed something. Remember when I said about Rift stealing the interface from WoW? Well Defiance appears to have done the same thing, only it’s taken the interface from a similar game, Borderlands. Borderlands is a multiplayer FPS, but it is not specifically an MMO, so definace does differ from it. I was still left with that nagging doubt though.
Regardless, I set off on my adventures with a friend I know in real life who had played the game extensively before. The way missions work in Defiance is different to most MMORPGs, as they just seem to trigger when you enter the relevant area, and they take the form of short, fast paced operations. This works in the context of the FPS really well, as there’s no messing about with mission journals or trying to keep track of objectives. However it does mean that if you return to an area where you’ve previously completed a mission, it will trigger again and play out in exactly the same way, which can get tedious.
The character development options are interesting. You start off with a main EGO boost – either a damage bonus, stealth ability, decoy or charge – and then as you level up you can improve these primary abilities or add additional “perks” to improve your performance. All of the perks are arranged in a grid, and as you unlock on, the surrounding perks become available for unlock. It adds a lot of customisation options, but it would be nice if the perks were visible before unlocking the adjacent perks, as it would allow me to plan my character a little better.
One of the most fun aspects of the game was the addition of Arkfalls, which are chuncks of the Arks which fall from space at random locations on the map and begin spawning enemies, in a similar way to the rifts in Rift. As in Rift, these points become a focus for players to congregate and stave off the waves and waves of attackers, and they actually provide some excellent entertainment value. Sometimes while driving to a mission location I would spot an Arkfall on the map and make a beeline for it in the hopes of stomping some hellbugs and finding decent weapons.
The community in Defiance was mostly silent. Possibly due to the fast-paced nature of the game, most people seemed to be more interested in shooting nasty space-bugs than chatting. This sort of makes sense, but it does add a sense of detachment. I don’t think I would have enjoyed that game so much if I didn’t have my friend there with me.
On the whole, defiance is worth playing if you want an MMO which is slightly different to the standard fare. It’s got a decent setting and a variety of different weapon types, but I can’t help thinking I’d have more fun with a few friends in Borderlands than with a ton of strangers in Defiance
Pros: fast paced combat; great to look at; reasonable storyline
Cons: can get repetitive; difficult to plan progression; silent community
There’s not much to say here that hasn’t been said above. All the games reviewed have relative benefits and drawbacks, and the one you end up playing will be dependent on what you’re actually looking for in the game. Rift was the only one I really didn’t get on with, but if you’re a fan of WoW, you’ll probably love it. If you want high fantasy adventures and are willing to put in some extra time to reach high levels, EQ2 is probably the one for you. If you’re looking for something with decent melee combat and a friendly community, go for Age of Conan. If you want a great story driven sci fi adventure, look no further than SWTOR. If you find MMORPG combat to be too slow, you’ll definitely want to check out Defiance.
If I was to continue playing any of them, it would most likely be SWTOR, although if I did decide to continue playing, I would pay the £11.99 per month subscription fee, to be free of the horrors of F2P crippling. Will I end up playing it? Probably not. I have too many books to read, models to paint, places to explore.