Apart from how their developers dress them up, most of today's massively multiplayer online role-playing games offer fairly similar gameplay, influenced primarily by DikuMUD (and Everquest, which built on it). In addition, many take place in very similar worlds, populated by elves, dwarves, magic, and dragons. A long, hard, process of evolution and player preference has helped establish generally accepted standards of gameplay for MMORPGs (often shortened to "MMOs"), such as clearly defined progression and roles, and a lack of nonconsensual player vs. player content.
The ten games we look at here, however, offer something different, in one or more areas. They cover a wide range of play styles and tastes. Some are little known and underpopulated; others are huge and financially successful. Most follow a "freemium" (free to play, with a cash shop) model or a two-tier (free player and subscription player) system, or have a free trial period that gives you enough time to determine whether it's worth paying for. For a convenient linked list of these downloadable games, see our MMORPG collection.
Battleground Europe: Formerly titled World War Two Online, Battleground Europe debuted in 2001, with a familiar litany of problems. Launched too soon, due to financial concerns, it suffered from numerous hardware and software shortcomings and lost momentum, preventing it from building a large audience. Nonetheless, a decade later, it is still trying to attract and retain new players. Battleground Europe is designed to be relatively realistic simulation of WW2 combat, set on a half-scale map of much of Europe and featuring complex vehicle and gear damage models. Crouching, stealth, and choosing the right weapon for the job are very important. Some players may find the game's low population, sluggish gameplay (you can spend 10 minutes running across a landscape, and then die from a single gunshot), dated graphics, and preference for realism over fast action to be drawbacks. A 14-day free trial lets you test the water; after that you may choose from among various subscription options, ranging in price from $18 for a single "non plan" month (a higher rate than at any other MMO I'm aware of) to $13 per month for a one-year plan.
Darkfall Online: Darkfall Online has a well-defined target audience: people interested in hardcore PVP (player vs. player) gaming. Even the basic quests against NPC (nonplayer character) monsters, are unforgiving to a careless or unlucky player; and when you die, all of your gear--except a virtually useless basic weapon--stays on your corpse, so you must run back naked to try to retrieve it (which may prove to be impossible, depending on where you died). Any player who happens upon your body can loot it, of course, though not all players do. Because Darkfall lacks an auto-target system, you have to click repeatedly on the monster you're trying to kill, and it won't obligingly stand still to make the task easier; the game physics require you to aim arrows ahead of moving targets, and so on. Also, game statistics such as weapon skill (which you increase through practice) come into play; and finding appropriate weapons and armor is important. The real focus of the game is on player combat, however, in association with the construction of player cities and clan-on-clan battles. Getting started without others to aid you can be quite frustrating; but when you do finally succeed, you feel as though you've earned it. Darkfall Online has a 14-day free trial period, and the site charges a $15 monthly subscription after that. Until very recently, players also had to purchase a digital copy of the game.
Fallen Earth: Fallen Earth has a fairly rare setting for an MMO: a post-apocalyptic, mutant-filled, wasteland. Like Darkfall, it relies on player targeting to attack, and it has a free-form, build-your-own archetype skill system. Though it does have a PVP component, the bulk of play is PVE (player vs. environment). The game offers plenty of quests (of the usual "go kill me 10 mutant chickens"variety), but you'll also find a wide-open world that permits free roaming and exploration if you'd rather make your own way. The early levels are a study in gritty browns and grimy grays, but the world--and the game's color palette--expands quite a bit once you've learned the ropes. The game's interface is straightforward, and you aren't brutally punished for dying; but the multiplicity of options, choices, statistics, and possibilities may daunt some players while infinitely tantalizing others. Fallen Earth is a freemium game--it's free to play, but a system of micropayments and a subscription option can unlock items or make play smoother.
Free Realms: Free Realms is probably the best-known game on the list. It's from Sony, and the company claims to have registered "millions" of accounts for it, though how many of those represent regular players is anyone's guess. Free Realms targets younger players, and the graphic design might cause insulin shock in anyone over the age of 15. It's interesting because of the wide range of dynamic play styles that it supports: When you undertake a particular task or microgame, your character's costume and skills change to match it. The sheer breadth of game modes--from fairly standard button-mashing combat to interactive cooking--means that you're likely to find something appealing, at least as a diversion. Unfortunately, despite its name, Free Realms imposes some fairly strict limits on nonpaying customers--for example, you can't advance any job past level 5. Furthermore, players must endure the most obnoxious, in-your-face advertising and upsell pitches of any freemium game I've ever played. Games from much smaller companies, working under far tighter budgetary constraints, offer more to free members and are less intrusive about trying to collect cash. Free Realms can be fun in a candy-colored way, but ultimately the experience is like watching your favorite Britcom on PBS during pledge week: Whenever you start to relax and enjoy yourself, here comes the beg-a-thon...except that in this case, instead of receiving a tote bag for your pledge, you get a unicorn.
NEStalgia: If someone had hit on the MMO idea in the late 1980s or early 1990s, and had built one using 8-bit console graphics and game conventions, they might have come up with something very mch like NEStalgia. It's free, with a ridiculously low annual optional payment that unlocks some classes and extras. NEStalgia has recently added character skill trees, companions (pets) to travel with you and assist you in battle, and some noticeable graphical improvements (within the limits of its classic 8-bit look).
Puzzle Pirates: Virtually all MMOs supply some kind of connection between what your avatar is trying to do and what you see while playing. You swing a sword, you gesture, you root in the dirt for plants, and so on. In Puzzle Pirates, though, you pump the bilge or sail the seven seas by playing various sorts of puzzles that make no pretense of modeling--even abstractly--the action being performed. This is a game where skill matters, but that skill doesn't involve fast reflexes. If you've frittered away too many hours playing Tetris or Bejeweled or other pattern-matching puzzle games, you'll be well prepared for this MMO. Puzzle Pirates adopts a freemium model, with basic play free but with some aspects of the game requiring buying to unlock. (Some puzzles, for instance, are free on one day, but require you to make a purchase in order to play them whenever you want.)
Ryzom: Ryzom emphasizes crafting and role playing, though not to the exclusion of traditional monster-bashing. Ryzom puts significant power into players' hands; you can design spells, combat maneuvers, crafting actions, and gathering actions by combining elements (such as increased damage or accuracy) and balancing them with drawbacks (such as increased stamina costs). The world of Ryzom is alien, with neither elves nor standard Earth animals. Despite the game's age and minor-league status, I found plenty of activity in the starter zones, and it clearly has a dedicated fan base. Ryzom is free without a time limit, but character advancement is capped. To lift the advancement limit, you must subscribe at a rate of $11 per month.
A Tale in the Desert: Unique among the games described here, A Tale in the Desert has no combat system--even against NPCs. Set in ancient Egypt, the game--now on its sixth "Telling" (each iteration of the game has players working toward complex goals, and then restarting when the goals are finally achieved)--has as its main focus crafting and building. Players accustomed to crafting that consists of "click a recipe, watch a progress bar, get an item" will find A Tale in the Desert far more involving. (One early quest involved building a flax comb, which required thorns, bricks, and wood; bricks required straw (which required grass to be dried) as well as clay and a brick rack; a brick rack required boards; cutting wood into boards required a plane, which required a slate dagger, which required slate, and so on.) Though A Tale in the Desert focuses on group projects and cooperative play, when I was testing, I found it virtually abandoned, with plenty of (empty) player-constructed buildings but rarely more than one other person on hand. The few people I met were helpful and friendly, however. A Tale in the Desert is free for the first 24 hours of play (that's "time played," not "24 hours after initial log-on" and costs $14/month after that.
World of Tanks: World of Tanks diverges from the strict definition of an MMO: It's massive and multiplayer; but instead of a persistent world, it consists of battlefields and scenarios that you spawn into. In it, you play a tank--or rather, many tanks, as you upgrade your skills, unlock new vehicles, and customize them with increasingly advanced technology and weaponry, from World War I clunkers to modern war machines. The graphics, sound effects, and feel of the tanks are good; they're both sluggish and powerful. Gameplay is aim-and-shoot, but it requires more precision and less twitching. World of Tanks is free, but with a premium shop that lets you purchase superior weapons and gear. The community is what you'd expect for a game that emphasizes tournament-style competitive play.
Wurm Online: Wurm Online is another sandbox game. Character creation is a snap: You simply pick a name--no skills, no race, not even a choice of physical appearance. Your avatar is identical to everyone else's. But Wurm Online excels in the degree of player control of the world. It's like a hybrid of Darkfall, A Tale in the Desert, and Minecraft. Crafting is very detailed, and objects have weight and size--no fitting 10 suits of armor into a pack with 10 "slots." Damage is dealt to individual body parts, not just to a pool of hit points; and most interestingly, if you use the right tools, you can dig anywhere, eventually striking rock and excavating a mine or cave below ground. Animation of action is as minimal as avatar detail, and I repeatedly ran into problems with disconnections. The use of photographic textures on low-polygon objects creates an odd air of unreality and shows that the game's developers dedicated their budget to producing mechanical systems, not visual ones. Once the tutorial is over, you have a choice of venturing to PVP or non-PVP regions. You can play Wurm for free, but you can't advance your skills beyond level 20 or go to Premium servers without paying. Premium access is available month-to-month through real-world money or through silver coins, which you can buy with real-world money or acquire by trading with other players in the game.