Wizard101, released in 2008, is your standard MMORPG affair in a fantasy setting. It’s, for the most part, a pretty bare-bones experience. But it has to be noted that the game has seen regular updates and balance changes for over 12 years. There are newer questlines introduced and graphical updates, so the game doesn’t look too dated. But some of this content, as you can imagine, is paywalled.
Unfortunately, Wizard101 is like any standard MMORPG in the sense that it is heavily monetised if a newer player wishes to get on par with the rest of the world. Honestly, I expect such inconveniences from games like Wizard101. However, I will attempt to list some titles that I can consider better, more enjoyable and fairer experiences.
Well, if we’re talking about old-school MMORPGs, then it’s only fair that we start with Runescape. Released in 2001, like Wizard101, Runescape is a game that has seen many updates, but unlike Wizard, Runescape also did heavy overhauls to the game and its engine in an attempt to keep up with the changing technology. The latest iteration is the third one in the series, and if you’re looking for a good MMORPG fix, you don’t have to look any further.
Runescape has a large and lively community of both decades-old gamer veterans and newer players who have hopped on since its release on Steam. It is interesting to see the game has managed to captivate so many for so long. To give a sense of the scale of the game’s development, it has run on every Windows since 95. With a lot of content and, sadly, there is some further in-game monetisation that is not necessary if you’re willing to grind a little.
But to be clear, it’s not a free to play title; like Wizard101, if you choose to play for free, the content and map are restricted to the player. Like a demo mode or shareware version of the game. Still, in my personal opinion, you get your money’s worth with Runescape.
2. The Elder Scrolls Online
It’s not a free to play title, but as I said before, the amount of money is usually an indicator of quality. And, of course, Bethesda already had the perfect fantasy setting and established gameplay mechanics from their 2011 hit release Skyrim and its many ports. ESO is a paid-for title that gives access to the core game content and Morrowind expansion for “free”. Additional DLC content must be unlocked either via paid currency in-game or a much more feasible method of getting a subscription.
The game has well-defined PVP and PVE. As such, all three factions are warring for control of Cyrodil, the type of your character (Mage, Warrior, etc.) is heavily reliant on which faction you choose. But it’s not a strict route you will have to follow. For example, I have seen stealth class players roaming with a great sword doing quests for the warrior guild in my limited time.
Fans of other more traditional single-player titles of this franchise will enjoy the aesthetics and atmospheric setting of the game, and many places are callbacks to quests or lore only older players are aware of. Still, this shouldn’t deter newer players from getting into the game, although I find it hard to believe gamers of this genre haven’t experienced Skyrim yet.
3. Destiny 2
Destiny 2 is a relatively newer MMORPG and features a more futuristic sci-fi setting. In my opinion, Destiny 2 strikes the perfect balance between being free to play and the quality of content. It features robust first-person shooter mechanics, fluid movement and satisfying gunplay.
Destiny 2 has an overarching narrative that can be hard to follow because the game doesn’t guide you anywhere after the tutorial. That’s my only gripe with this game. I would have liked it better if there was a proper structure of following the story because it’s honestly not that bad and brings a lot of personality to the standard looter shooter gameplay loop that the game is going for. Overall, there is tons of content to play through, equipment to loot, robust mechanics and a netcode that can put some of the AAA competitive FPS to shame. Destiny 2 is not a very hard game to recommend.
4. Star Wars: The Old Republic
Star Wars: The Old Republic, or SWOTOR, is an MMORPG, as everyone calls it, released in 2011 based on the vast universe that began in 1978. Star Wars games are usually higher quality than most Hollywood based spinoffs that gamers are accustomed to, and this title is no different. SWOTOR is perhaps the only title on the list that is completely enjoyable as a single-player experience. The game allows you to choose either side, the Jedi or the Sith and enables you to make decisions that influence the story, character progression, and even appearance of your character.
There are two broad factions and within them four classes (Tanks, Healers, etc.) to choose from and up to eight unique storylines to follow. Despite your choice of being Jedi or Sith, you can be a treacherous Jedi or a Merciful Sith, emphasising the Ying-Yang philosophy. The option is entirely up to you.
It’s not all sunshine and rainbows, though. The combat is pretty lacklustre and repetitive. If you’re a Star Wars fan, the game has appeal in its storytelling and replayability, but players who want a good MMORPG experience might have to grow accustomed to the combat.
5. Star Trek Online
Star Trek has its own MMORPG for the people on the other side of the aisle, which was released a year before SWOTOR in 2010. And just like SWOTOR, there are two factions, good and evil, but it doesn’t have the depth of the choice-based mechanics SWOTOR had. On the other hand, it is entirely possible to play this game without spending much, if at all, and the space fights are enjoyable. Well, more satisfying than the rather dull non-vehicular/ on foot quests.
Space combat might be a little overwhelming for newer players, mainly because space combat introduces a Z-axis to the battlefield different from other action settings gamers might be used to. But it is perfectly possible to play the game and having a fair fight by paying attention to the mechanics. There is no strict need to follow a meta, which is always nice as it adds variety to the gameplay and not restricting you to a specific playstyle.
Nevertheless, more content is added regularly, with multiplayer events being frequent enough. Unfortunately, the quiet in your face monetisation and loot boxes make the game feel like a gacha game. Still, the game is perfectly fine without spending a single dime, but you might not get all the gear you want especially certain ships that could be considered fan favourites are hidden behind loot boxes which is a shame.
6. World Of Warcraft
World of Warcraft was released back in 2004 and is considered the undisputed king of MMORPG, setting the standards for the genre that maybe every game on this list took inspiration from. However, this is a paid title, following a similar subscription-based model to most MMORPGs. Still, there is solace in the fact that the developers don’t seem to be greedy or out for your money since the microtransactions post subscription are mainly for cosmetics and not another paywall for legendary gear.
There are 23 factions that are under two broad factions similar to STO or SWOTOR, but like ESO, that doesn’t limit you to your playstyle but only gives you a slight advantage towards the ones you prefer. This is not a sandbox experience like Destiny 2 either, but instead, it follows a progression like a single-player game; players must complete quests in a particular order to progress further.
The gameplay loop is as you’d expect to clear dungeons and collect loot; the harder the dungeon, the better the loot. The game is regularly updated with new content, so there’s no shortage of items to grind for. There is also an in-game economy where players can auction off items they no longer need to other players. This makes for a less tedious experience as something that might be out of your reach can be bought from a higher level player that has no purpose for it anymore. If the PvE aspect gets too stale, PVP ranked lobbies and unranked lobbies give loot at the end, so it might be worth checking out.
7. Final Fantasy XIV
Final Fantasy XIV Online is another title from 2010 and is still going strong; however, unlike any other title on the list, FFXIV wasn’t a critically acclaimed title, nor did fans of previous FF enjoy it. But like a phoenix, FFXIV managed to revamp and improve itself and rose from the ashes to meet the market’s expectations from a franchise as beloved and respected as it is.
Final Fantasy, at its core, is a JRPG experience, and this is reflected in the game; while it’s wholly an MMORPG, there are traces of JRPG style in the game. However, they don’t mismatch either; in fact, they tie in together beautifully. But that’s not to say the game doesn’t have negative aspects like any other MMORPG. It’s incredibly tedious to grind for good gear, and the game doesn’t do any hand-holding or believe in any instant gratification for the player. It is also a very story-based experience, so levelling up and getting better gear is predicated on where you are in the story. Some players might enjoy the fact that they don’t have to roam around aimlessly to figure out what to do, and some might want that level of freedom to actually Roleplay however they want. Honestly, I can get behind either style when done right, but the grinding aspect is not appealing to me in any game.
The game is also not PvP centric, and while fighting other players is possible, it doesn’t have the mechanics of something like Destiny or World of Warcraft where it’s encouraged.
FFXIV is a fine example of developers not giving up and listening to the community’s feedback to better the experience. If Bethesda had followed suit, Fallout 76 could be something else entirely. (I just want a good Fallout game.)
There is no shortage of MMORPGs that have flooded the stores with improvements to the internet as a technology and the standard set by World of Warcraft. But like any genre, only the exceptional stand out. Games like SWOTOR bring their own unique spin or Destiny that has gameplay polished enough that grinding doesn’t feel boring. Mechanics like these determine the success of an MMORPG. I’ll admit it’s not my favourite genre, but the games I have listed above do more than their competitors to make for an enjoyable experience. Still, the grind is a central mechanic of MMORPGs. Until a title comes along, that revolutionises the genre with its own take, tedious grinding, microtransactions and subscriptions are just a reality that has to be accepted.