Cheaper by the Dozen: A Look at Free MMOGs
We compare notes on some free-to-play massively multiplayer online games so you can decide if any of them sound right for you.
Shelling out $50 for a massively multiplayer online game is one thing, but the monthly fees that retail games charge in addition cause many a thrifty tongue to wag. As a result, online game forums, including GameSpot's own, are often overrun with the same question: What free MMOG should I play? After all, your time and bandwidth are just as valuable as your money, right? We sat down with a large number of the most popular offerings to help you--the frugal player--determine which games fit the bill.
There are a surprisingly healthy number of options available; thus, our list isn't a comprehensive inventory. There are dozens of persistent-world games that you can download and play for free, so we focused on giving you a list that spans a wide spectrum of gameplay styles. It's important to note that while all of these games are free to download and charge no monthly fee, some of them offer premium subscriptions or in-game items if you pony up the cash. A few of them used to even be full-fledged retail games with a monthly subscription fee. To be eligible for our list, a game had to meet three criteria: 1) It has to be free to download; 2) it cannot charge a monthly fee, though it may offer a premium subscription for a cost; and 3) it must qualify as an MMOG, which means it occurs in a persistent, or mostly persistent, online game world.
So without further ado, here are twelve free MMOGs that may be worth your time, if not your money. Take a look to see if any of these sound right for you and check the video on each page to see them in action!
Part 1: Sci-Fi - The Future is Now
We've all seen the typical fantasy landscapes, but too many offer the same tired old views. That's why futuristic role-playing games hold such a fascination for many. The rush of discovering an entirely new world, as well as the sights of alien creatures and otherworldly spacecraft hovering above, are the aspects of science fiction games that continually fascinate and inspire us. If the constant discovery of unknown environs stirs your senses, you may find one of these galaxies worth exploring.
Who Should Play: Trekkies, engineers, and political science majors
2001 was a memorable year for MMOGs, but not always for the right reasons. One of those games that landed in the history books was Anarchy Online, a promising and complex game that launched in such a disastrously buggy state that most players who dared to wade into its rough technical waters in the first few months threw their hands up in disgust and dismissed Funcom's sci-fi RPG as a failed experiment.
The good news in 2008 is that Anarchy Online is still complex, but it has long left its technical drawbacks in the dust. Even now, it features a large and dedicated population that would recognize the squeals of a rollerrat from a mile away. In the world of Rubi-Ka, the evil Omni-Tek Corporation battles the independent clans while a few neutral observers take advantage of the ceaseless conflict. Regardless of which of the three factions you join, you'll need to wade through a complicated character-development system, which features dozens of stats, equippable implants, and shops selling hundreds of gadgets. It's enough to cause brain freeze for even the most stalwart role player. Thankfully, the introductory tutorial functions far better than the original one did, and the game's friendly community is happy to answer questions--for whom you're bound to have many.
But it's this complexity that makes Anarchy Online so rewarding. There are a dozen classes from which to choose, infinite possibilities for avatar customization, and endless engaging missions to undertake. It's hard not to get wrapped up in the game's deep political backstory, thanks to well-written dialogue, a superb soundtrack, and great art design that shines even behind the darkness of aged visuals. You can also log in for 30 minutes and still feel as though you've accomplished something, thanks to the many bite-sized missions at your disposal. Whether you adventure on your own through the slums of West Athens or exterminate rebel scum from the streets of Rome, you'll find a lot to do and plenty of devoted players with whom to do it.Download it!
Who Should Play: Starcraft veterans who want their Zerg rushes to have political consequences
Persistent-world RPGs are a dime a dozen. Persistent-world real-time strategy games? That's something special. Upon its original release in 2001, Shattered Galaxy seemed poised to lead an RTS revolution--a revolution that sadly never came to fruition. Yet seven years later, a small but focused population carries on the game's 2D virtual war, determined to come out on top in the game's never-ending struggle to control Morgana Prime and its galactic neighbors.
Shattered Galaxy condenses your role on the RTS battlefield, letting you control anywhere from six to 12 units at any given time. If this sounds limited, brace yourself for this tidbit: To be an effective battle commander, you should choose all of the same unit type. But never fear, for while your own role in the battlefield may feel a little squashed, you'll be joined by dozens of other tacticians eager to wage war. You may have a singular responsibility, but whether you rain fire from above or plant mines to catch your foes by surprise, knowing your place in combat can ensure that you help turn the tide--even at lower levels. All that business about resource management, battlefield structures, and other RTS standards are chucked out the window. Instead, you and your teammates are solely concerned with capturing the points of contention scattered across the map using a handful of reinforcements. You know that battlefield-style tug of war in World of Conflict? Shattered Galaxy's been using a similar system since its release.
There's a lot of terminology to wrap your head around. What, you may ask, is an "eduer?" What's a "clouter?" Your fellow players will throw these esoteric words around, and they're quick to point out any mistakes if you haven't done a little research. The in-game tutorial is almost no help, so your first hours may be spent scratching your head as you watch your low-level squads get mercilessly crushed by opposing war pigeons. But perseverance pays off. You'll level up, equip new weapons on your units, and soon enough, have a powerful squad of arbalests to call your own. The action can get intense, so while the game's economy and factions have been whittled down a bit since the game's retail days--and the visuals are downright primitive--doing your part in Shattered Galaxy's alien universe is remarkably engaging.Download it!
Who Should Play: Privateers with a penchant for female flight instructors whose outfits are 20 miles south of regulation
This online flight-based MMOG is friendlier to newcomers than any other game on our list. The opening tutorial is excellent, flight controls are smooth as ice, and the varied entry-level weapons feel powerful. Air Rivals is currently in open beta, so features are subject to change, but it offers surprising tactical depth. The game combines stat-driven weapons, shields, and various handling characteristics while making use of twitch flight and targeting. You start by choosing an aircraft, or "gear," and from there, the game holds your hand until you reach level 11, when you finally choose which of Air Rivals' two factions to join.
The most appealing aspect of Air Rivals is its tactical depth. Creatures and ships have a huge variety of attack patterns: Large land walkers bombard the sky with antiaircraft cannons, fire-breathing creatures spew flames toward you, and oceanic inhabitants shake your missile lock by diving beneath the waves. You also must monitor your fuel, ammo, and shields, but if you do find yourself running on fumes, there are semiguarded field depots where you can land and resupply at your own risk. Given the variety of environments, both indoor caves and outdoor terrestrial levels, learning to optimize a gear leads to great advantage. Areas are broken up by the standard jump gate model, so you won't have a lot of downtime.
When not dogfighting, you can land on massive flying aircraft carriers and put in some boot time. Here, you interact with other players, pick up missions, sell items, and buy upgrades, although you can use quick menus to accomplish some of these tasks. Movement on the ground is a little clunky and walking areas are limited, but that's not much of a concern in Air Rivals. Flight combat fans may discover that this MMOG satiates the void that Privateer and Freelancer once filled.Download it!
Part 2: Fantasy - The Tolkien Influence
Fantasy and medieval locales are the usual haunt of most role-playing games, and there's no better environment for a firebolt-flinging mage than green-soaked lands in which elves roam and paladins ready their broadswords. The three following games have their own interpretations of these traditions, but if you like Dungeons & Dragons or the Lord of the Rings trilogy, these games will cater to your affinity for dwarves and wee folk.
Who Should Play: Fantasy lovers with a sense of humor
In Dungeon Runners' trade chat channel, you'll see the oddest items for sale. For example, you may purchase the Doom Mallet of the Bouncy Bunny or the Carviscerating Super Buckler of the Puking Manatee. One of our quest givers told us, in broken Middle English, "Afterwards, er, I shall reward thee with a goodly amount of... rewards." NCSoft's colorful, stylized MMOG may be yet another fantasy RPG, but what sets it apart is its wink-wink, nudge-nudge approach to quest design and item naming. At first, it's hard to shake the feeling that Dungeon Runners is a poor-man's World of Warcraft--what with its similar visual style and interface. Once you spend some time with the game, however, you'll find it has an aesthetic all its own, and if you don't believe us, we'll shoot you with our Cardboard Gothic Crossbow.
This kind of humor goes a long way toward making the game fresh because otherwise, Dungeon Runners is, appropriately, a pretty typical dungeon crawler. You'll create a character, choose one of three classes (fighter, mage, or ranger), and kill mythical beasts with spells, swords, or crossbows. Its basic nature is quite similar to another NCSoft RPG, Guild Wars, though it exists on a much smaller scale. It's easy to teleport from locale to locale, and getting into an instanced dungeon is as easy as a few clicks. Like with Guild Wars, battles are over quickly, and minor quests can be accomplished in nice, bite-sized chunks. On the other hand, if you'd rather group up to clear out a cavernous dungeon, you'll find plenty of meanies to mangle and players to befriend.
What elevates the usual hullabaloo is the cynical quest writing and constant stream of hysterical dialogue. Dungeon Runners doesn't take itself--or the conventions of the genre--seriously. If you really like it, a monthly subscription will give you access to better potions, more storage space for your cardboard armory, and a few other caveats. But even free players will find plenty to keep them amused, and only the most stoic of them will be able to hold in the guffaws.Download it!
Who Should Play: Teens and Tweens
Approaching this browser-based Java MMO is a daunting proposition. That's mostly because of its huge, vocal, and young player community, which may welcome you into its fold or alienate you with cries of "noob!" depending on which server you choose out of the dozens available. Yet at any given time, 150,000 or more people are logged on to this virtual fantasy world, and with such technical accessibility, it's no wonder. After all, almost anyone who can run a Web browser can play Runescape. Getting around is a simple point-and-click affair, and you can rotate or zoom the view easily with the arrow keys. A simple tutorial introduces the basics in a straightforward manner, and a few minutes later, you're burying bones--a central activity in Runescape's many kingdoms.
As you can imagine, the rudimentary visuals and sound aren't apt to pull you into the experience. What may surprise you is just how big the world is and how much there is to do. Early activities include baking bread, chopping trees, barbecuing shrimp, and mining ore. With time, the crafting can get pretty complex, and you can make pottery, jewelry, lanterns, and much more, then sell these helpful items to adventurers. The downside is that to get that far, you need to raise your various skill levels, which means putting a lot of time into chopping down trees, shearing sheep, starting fires, and more. These tasks may get repetitive, but it's nice to have more to do than simply beat up on monsters.
Of course, you can do that too, though combat involves simply clicking on your target and waiting--maybe even casting a few spells in the process. It's not very involving or demanding, which means the more interesting bits are what you do outside of combat. Random events may whisk you away to other locations, you can participate in various minigames with leaderboards, or you might even unlock new music tracks. Developer Jagex is counting on you to enjoy these tasks because with a little bit of cash, you get access to a great many more quests, the majority of minigames, and plenty of other members-only activities. If you're an MMOG veteran, this isn't the game for you. If you're new to the genre, it's a decent introduction to online adventuring, and there's a good chance you won't need to worry about whether it will run on your five-year-old eMachine.Download it!
Who Should Play: Grizzled adventurers who embrace the dark side
Shadowbane takes a C.S. Lewis "it's all good" approach to character creation: The usual suspects are available, but so are traditional villains, such as vampires, centaurs, and hawk men. And as we all know, they've never been evil--just misunderstood. There is a confusing grace period for the first few hours, and your only guides are a few cryptic messages. Once on top of the learning curve, you can look forward to slicing up pockets of creatures scattered around the map. The first few areas are protected from player-versus-player combat and monsters are easy to master. The later game is more focused on the PVP combat, which focuses on nations battling for control of virtual real estate.
Because creature parties are scattered so far apart, you are encouraged to hunt an area until the flow of experience points slow down to a trickle and then take a long trek to find new creatures. These new creatures are often no harder to battle but inexplicably fill a good chunk of your experience bar. Of course, all of this grind is just a prelude to killing other players, and the PvP system supports a large a population of gleeful player-killing misanthropes.
Even at the time of its original launch in 2003, Shadowbane hadn't broken away from the complexities of yesteryear RPGs as other MMOGs had done. The game is built around a large series of menu screens that look much like old DnD printouts. The complications are compounded by a lot of redundant button clicking--even during activities as simple as initiating combat and moving around menus. Issues aside, Shadowbane should appeal to hardcore fantasy enthusiasts who embrace the rough edges and guilds that enjoy siege battles. The combat is genuinely enjoyable, and playing as a traditional scoundrel is a liberating experience.Download it!
Part 3: Eastern Promises - A Taste of Korea
South Korea is a bona fide hotbed of MMOGs, and players eagerly embrace them with surprising fervor. It shouldn't be surprising, then, that the majority of free persistent world games hail from the Land of the Morning Calm. In fact, these games are so omnipresent that several other Korean-developed MMOGs on our full list don't even appear in this category. Most of these games feature anime-influenced character design, a uniquely Asian world design, and grind-heavy gameplay. Yet many of them are intriguing and addictive, so if a fantasy world with an Asian twist sounds up your alley, the following games may be your cup of tea.
Who Should Play: Blue-collar fantasy fans who think instruction manuals make great kindling
Gala-Net's Flyff, or Fly for Fun, combines fantasy with a dash of steampunk and the promise of flight. The early hours are admittedly tedious, but if you can get through them, you'll probably find the reward worthwhile: Flyff awards you with the gift of flight after 20 levels of ground pounding. Once you've reached that point, you can fly about the land of Roika on a hoverboard or broomstick and even take part in some air combat. Taking to the air also gives you the best view of Flyff's beautiful landscapes. Despite its limited Warcraft III-era visuals, monsters, landscapes, dungeons, and flying ships bring this game to vibrant life.
Unfortunately, instructions are rare and confusing, so the best way to learn is to experiment and work with other players. To offset the grind, progression is fast, locals are more than friendly, and monsters are abundant. Characters are given a number of free buffs until level 31, and the game's experience system keeps the pace flowing. New objectives pop up frequently, such as level-7 quests with standard kill and collect objectives. You earn some satisfying attack patterns a bit later and special chain attacks around level 15. To help you sort out the burgeoning number of skills, the game provides a generous amount of hotkey slots.
Don't be surprised when you stop gaining experience at level 15: You're required to choose a profession before you continue. Yet all in all, the experience is satisfying, especially after you take flight and soar over areas in which you previously toiled. Flyff's monetary ambitions cater to player vanity: In-game advertising is limited to the occasional offer to visit the Flyff store for cosmetic upgrades and power-up potions. So if you don't mind the steep learning curve and love fantasy, steampunk, and a little bit of elbow grease, Flyff is worth a look.Download it!
Who Should Play: Frantic button clickers, castle crashers, and gold farmers
Corum Online is not for the timid. When you first enter town, you behold a mess of player-made shops all crammed together and have no idea what to do or where to go. From there, you'll encounter the typical top-down grindfest, which requires you to click on monsters incessantly and take an occasional moment to heal. Actually, more than a moment: Corum Online's health regeneration rate is painfully slow, but you'll have dozens or hundreds of health potions in your inventory once your clicking finger gets waggling.
Why, then, would you want to play Corum Online? For starters, the click-heavy Diablo formula is still entertaining, particularly in light of the game's clever monster designs. In the first dungeon alone, you encounter ghastly prisoners that drag along the requisite ball and chain along, as well as walking treasure chests with a hobble in their gait and a glint in their eyes. The mouse-driven controls make it easy to hack and slash everything around you, and the lovely soundtrack will keep your mind soothed. To add a little complexity, you can enhance your weapons and armor with various items found in your travels, which can be an addictive microgame in and of itself.
The other big draw is the PVP component. Multiple dungeons are available for players and guilds to capture, and these dungeons become open playing fields at designated times during the day. Once the timer has counted down, guilds can attempt a siege, while the defending guild must try to hold its turf. In other words, Corum Online is for dedicated players who don't just ignore the grind--they embrace and explore it. If you've ever used the term "care bear" to refer to most MMOGs, this one may fulfill your sadomasochistic inclinations.Download it!
Who Should Play: Armchair explorers with an eye and ear for beauty and charm
Shaiya isn't the most innovative game on our list, but it may very well be the slickest. Many Korean MMOGs are downright unfriendly to newcomers, dropping you directly into their virtual worlds and giving you no clue what to do next--other than presenting you with some horribly translated dialogue and a cluttered interface. Shaiya has the same translation issues, but the end result is charming rather than exasperating. It also boasts a clean interface that makes it easy to find quest non-player characters, mission objectives, and merchants.
The quest-oriented solo play is easy to get into, but combat is the star of the show. It may be functionally similar to most other fantasy MMOGs, but busy, high-quality animations and sound effects lend a real feeling of impact, whether you're dropping a killer fox with your dual swords or blasting it to pieces with a fire spell. That sense of quality translates to every aspect of the Shaiya experience, from its effortless exploration to the helpful and mature community. The production values are equally well done and amongst the best on this list. The manga-inspired characters are detailed, the gameworld is big and pretty, and the orchestral soundtrack is lush and dramatic.
Genre newcomers looking for user-friendly fantasy fare should find a lot to like in Shaiya, but hardcore adventurers will also find their niche. Once you've leveled up high enough, you'll unlock new difficult modes. The highest of these levels penalizes you by completely destroying your character should you fall in battle--unless you're resurrected by another player within three minutes. Vicious! The unique PVP system, which rewards your faction with systemwide buffs, should also appeal to genre veterans. At its core, Shaiya is a basic MMOG, but its tight and shiny design aesthetic may draw you in for the long haul.Download it!
Part 4: Miscellany - And Now for Something Completely Different
Try as we might, we couldn't come up with a thematic thread to tie these three games together. Yet all three boast high user populations and garner their share of attention from game enthusiasts, casual players, and even the mainstream media. If you march to the beat of a different drummer--whether that means creating virtual art galleries, exploring an anime universe, or walking the plank--these games may appeal to you, even if MMOGs aren't really your thing.
Who Should Play: Virtual entrepreneurs, shopaholics, and social butterflies
Second Life is a do-it-yourself playground. "It" in this case means building it, playing it, buying it, coding it, and yes, doing it. Linden Lab's social experiment is more of a sandbox than a game, and almost every bit of content you encounter was created by other players--though there is user-created gaming to be had. Once you log in, you'll build and customize an avatar on Noobie Island. Training includes basic ground movement, free flight, and the most important activity of all: running over small rodents with Segway scooters and cars. Our first suggestion, however, is to turn off voice chat because the disembodied, reverb-heavy moaning of other players is more than a bit freaky.
You fly around from hot spot to hot spot like a superhero, though the software suffers from major slowdown when you do so. Expect to see areas erect themselves around you as you fly or to bump into invisible walls that have yet to be rendered onscreen. If you grow tired of aimless flying, you can teleport around the map. The world is vast and there are few clues as to where to go and what to do, but you'll eventually discover that the hundreds of thousands of users who log in each month tend to cluster in the same social regions. There are dance areas, card-battling areas, combat areas, sex areas, and so on, and you find them through exploring, socializing, and doing Internet research. Your best bet is to visit secondlife.com, which showcases locations of interest and other oddities, such as the fascinating Robots and Doughnuts exhibit at the Museum of Robots. There are combat zones too, where players duke it out with weapons they scripted themselves.
Once you're past the learning curve, you'll marvel at the ingenuity of fellow gamers, and one of the most satisfying ways to approach Second Life is as a tourist. There are complete re-creations of Amsterdam, aerodromes, dance halls, European castles, multistory mansions, and sprawling estates. If you're the entrepreneurial type, you have even more possibilities to explore because a little real-world cash can buy you virtual real estate and in-game advertising. Second Life is an electronic universe where players can bend the rules of physics and society in a safe environment. Depending on what you're looking to get out of it, you may find it dreadfully boring--or uniquely compelling.Download it!
Who Should Play: Kids and MMOG newcomers.
If you're an experienced online role player, MapleStory isn't for you. On the other hand, if you're looking to get your virtual feet wet, or if you want your kids to explore a safe and user-friendly online environment, this colorful game might just be the ticket. Rather than giving you a full 3D environment to explore, MapleStory combines the basic qualities of a 2D side-scroller with a colorful and charming persistent world. It just overflows with cuteness, from the childlike player avatars to the kooky gear they might be wearing. And just like with a side-scrolling platformer, you'll jump to higher levels and climb ladders to get around.
From a gameplay perspective, MapleStory keeps things simple. You'll control all of your character's actions with the keyboard, moving about with the arrow keys while using other keys to attack, jump, pick up loot, and so on. You can customize these keys, but frustratingly, you can't reassign the basic movement keys, which means you'll probably keep both hands on the keyboard and switch to your mouse from time to time when clicks are required. It's a little awkward, but once you get used to it, you'll be stabbing at spritely monsters in no time flat. In fact, there's no shortage of them, and they spawn really quickly. That's fine, though, because you'll be surrounded by dozens of other players at any given time, and you'll all be swinging madly away at the same horde of snails and tree stumps.
There are some minigames to play, such as a variant on the classic card game Concentration. But there's no real depth here, hidden or otherwise, so if you're looking for complex character customization or a feature-rich experience, you'll need to look elsewhere. If you're new to the genre and enjoy all the preciousness, MapleStory is a simple but appealing introduction to online RPGs.Download it!
Who Should Play: Landlubbers who enjoyed the films and aren't afraid to admit it
Storytelling isn't often the main focus for games in a genre more centered on monster killing and friendly adventuring than on linear narrative. Yet Pirates of the Caribbean Online bucks this trend by sending you on a long series of quests featuring surprisingly endearing cutscenes populated with characters from the eponymous films. If you can't get enough Jack Sparrow in your daily life, you'll get plenty of glimpses here.
On the other hand, it's not so surprising that this Disney-produced MMOG would be friendly to players of all ages: You must select from a preset selection of monikers for your character's name (you can create your own pirate name, but it must be approved before you can begin playing), and the community is affable enough. It's also entertaining to play. Swordfights are fun and well-animated, so you won't mind fending off the usual selection of crabs and giant scorpions. You can also take your ship out to sea, where you can set Royal Navy ships ablaze, or go after the East India Trading Company vessels for even better loot. To get the most out of your seafaring, however, you should grab a few buddies to man the cannons for you. This way, you can navigate the currents while your foolhardy crew sinks the dastardly foes that dare block your path to fame and fortune.
The catch, though, is that to play for free, you have to deal with advertisements and nag screens, and because paying members get log-in priority, you may have to wait a few extra moments before you can enter the game. You also won't have access to certain quests, weapons, ships, and parlor games that are reserved for paying customers. On the sunny side, because the game streams new content as you play, the download process is an absolute breeze, and you can expect to be playing a few short minutes after you create your account. If you think Johnny Depp looks good in beaded dreads, grab your parrot and don an eye patch because Pirates of the Caribbean Online might be right up your alley.Download it!
So there you have it, a dozen free-to-play MMOGs that could easily soak up your leisurely hours, but none of your hard earned cash. Keep in mind, though, that all MMOGs are subject to drastic changes from one patch to the next. This means that these games may be quite different a year from now than they are as of this writing. Heck, they may no longer even be available to play. Another x-factor, as with any online game, is the community. A good game can be dragged down with an immature user base, so no matter which of these games you choose, we recommend keeping a close eye on your fellow players in the early hours to get a handle on the community at large before investing in a game as time-consuming as these.
This list is just a taste of the available free MMOGs available for download and play. But as you can tell, quality gameplay can be found as long as you know where to look. Of course, time and bandwidth are valuable too, and we hope our guide assists you in your search for the free persistent world that's right for you.
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