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The best free MMORPGs

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By Steven Petite


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If you’re looking to delve into the MMO world without paying upfront, there is no better time than now. Check out our choices for the best free MMORPGs on the market, so you can hack, slash, and shoot your way through the next six months of your life.

Note: Most free-to-play games have additional components and unlockables that are only accessible through premium subscriptions and microtransactions, but the free versions still offer a healthy taste of gameplay sans a hefty economical commitment. Also, we’ve only included MMOs that continue to receive updates and support from their developers.

‘Guild Wars 2’

With a 90 on Metacritic and a 90.02 percent rating on GameRankings.com — second only to World of Warcraft and three of its expansions — Guild Wars 2 is one of the most critically acclaimed massively multiplayer games of all time. Though it will never unseat Blizzard’s gaming goliath in terms of sheer popularity, Guild Wars 2 does many things better than World of Warcraft, and without charging a monthly fee.

Guild Wars‘ fluid combat system provides an excellent counterpart to the rigid, role-based combat that Blizzard began with the Diablo series and built upon with World of Warcraft. Though it lacks the kind of depth and difficulty that forces players to work together in demanding raid environments, the system in Guild Wars 2 encourages players to team up however they see fit — trying to plow through some difficult PvE content in Guild Wars doesn’t necessarily require a dedicated tank and healer, for instance.

The in-game gem store also allows developer ArenaNet to continue profiting from the game and create new content, while simultaneously allowing for new players to jump in at no cost. Special seasonal events and other content updates have added additional content, as well, such as new mounts, story events, challenges, and weapons, several years after the game originally launched.

‘Rift’

Trion Worlds’ Rift looks and plays like a carbon-copy of World of Warcraft at its core, but who says you have to reinvent the wheel to make a great MMORPG? The game was one of the most stable and expansive MMOs when it launched back in 2011, bursting with striking environments, superbly-crafted character models, and gameplay culled from some of the best aspects of similar titles. Though the early-game quests and lore are drearily dry, the game becomes more interesting as the story dissipates and you begin closing the sporadic, dimensional rifts that unleash a flurry of demonic beings into the game’s sprawling landscapes.

Rift‘s best feature is a flexible and immersive class system. Players begin by choosing one of two opposing factions — either the Guardians or Defiant — followed by one of three races and a standard archetype such as a mage, rogue, cleric, or warrior. Additionally, players take on three souls at a time, which function like subclasses, and develop their character using an elaborate skill tree. This level of customization adds to the game’s strategy and makes the accompanying co-op dungeons that much more dynamic and intriguing. The learning curve is steep, even after level 50, but the originality is there.

Rift went free-to-play in 2013, but a paid expansion titled Starfall Prophecy was subsequently released in 2016, featuring additional content that free users wouldn’t be able to see. However, it was subsequently renamed Prophecy of Ahnket and made free once again, and the game continues to be updated with additional content, including a 10-player raid back in October.

‘Star Wars: The Old Republic’

Any game built into the Star Wars universe is a massive undertaking considering the legion of devotees and die-hard fanatics that possess an attachment to the material. Luckily, BioWare’s subscription-turned-free-to-play title set in the Old Republic timeline — i.e. thousands of years before the movies — is both easily accessible and instantly recognizable. The writing and fully-voiced dialogue is excellent, bolstered by class-specific narratives and a wealth of contextual backstory that any fan of the franchise will admire. The visuals still hold up fairly well, and users can easily customize graphics settings to fit a broad range of gaming rigs. The gameplay mechanics are rooted in real-time, hotkey-based combat, and offer additional variation in the form of on-rails space combat and PvP warzones.

Though it’s online, SWTOR is an enjoyable solo experience. Players choose from one of two factions, either the Republic or the Empire, and select from one of four distinct character classes specific to each side of the force. If you choose the Republic, you’ll have access to the smuggler, trooper, Jedi Knight, and Jedi Consular, while the Empire provides options to be a bounty hunter, Sith warrior, Imperial agent, and Sith Inquisitor. The story-driven flashpoints, SWTOR‘s equivalent to co-op dungeons, offer some of the most rewarding and challenging gameplay in the entire Star Wars universe, throwing players at drifting Republic warships and distant Imperial prisons as they battle alongside others in an effort to complete the designated objectives in exchange for valuable loot.

Though SWTOR has been out for more than five years, BioWare keeps churning out new content and released the Knights of the Eternal Throne expansion in late 2016. And while the game has undergone considerable changes since its switch to free-to-play — both good and bad — it remains an incredibly vibrant branch of the Star Wars universe. Though not a full expansion, the recent The Nathema Conspiracy offers an exciting mystery for those interested in the darker side of the franchise. Read our initial review.

‘TERA’

TERA boasts one of the most dynamic and pleasing combat systems in MMORPG history. Like TERA‘s counterparts, the game offers a diverse assortment of characters and classes — from the giant-bred Amani to the adorable Popori — each of which is accompanied by a familiar set of classes available to all races. The environments are dazzling and bright, with lush vistas and sprawling plains, and the character models are a joy to look at no matter what your machine’s graphics settings call for.

While the general questing-and-crafting gameplay in the early hours of TERA is standard fare, the aforementioned combat mechanics feel much different compared to the stand-still combat that characterizes most MMORPGs. The game requires the player to engage in a variety of fleet-footed maneuvers as they dodge and jab at opponents. The result feels more like a third-person action game than a hotkey-heavy WoW-style affair. Hunting and eradicating “big-ass monsters” alongside a group of fellow players is exhilarating, as are the group dungeons, but the events and quests are all loosely connected by a story arc that barely qualifies as mundane. However, additional components, such as in-game elections and open-world PvP, add enough individual flair to make TERA a world all its own.

A massive 2014 update increased the level cap from 60 to 65 and added several new zones, all for free. Two new playable classes were also added, while smaller updates continue to roll out regularly, including new dungeons, battlegrounds, and skills for each of the game’s 11 classes. If you’re a fan of weird, superfluous content updates, TERA has added flying llamas as mounts and swimsuits for the summer weather. The new console versions continue to receive support, as well, with the Gunner class launching in June, making it a perfect choice for those without a PC.

TERA is currently available on PC, PS4, and Xbox One.

‘The Lord of the Rings Online’

Like SWTOR, the world surrounding that of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth has been one hugely solidified in popular culture thanks to Peter Jackson’s feature-length films. Fortunately, Lord of the Rings Online contains a wealth of content from Tolkien’s work, stuff that Jackson’s films never touched, and its cartoonish visuals color the rich environments of Middle Earth. The places you’ll visit are as diverse and eclectic as they are in the various books, ranging from snow-topped peaks to rolling hills, and the creation tools allow players to tackle the story as a hobbit, human, dwarf, or elf. Classes are as equally diverse, ranging from burglar and hunter to lore-keeper and guardian, but the selection is specific your race.

With six expansions out the door, the game has undergone substantial changes since its initial release in 2007, yet the core mechanics and gameplay remain roughly the same. The storyline is still epic, driving players through familiar spaces filled with recognizable figures from both the books and films, and the overall narrative gives otherwise bland quests substantial, contextual weight. Character progression and PvP combat are limited, but additional elements like deeds and Monster Play — which essentially allows you to play in the role of one of Sauron’s minions — add greater depth to the game’s seemingly straightforward approach. LOTRO is often dubbed a World of Warcraft ripoff, and perhaps it is in many ways, but it’s a hard argument to make when so much of the latter MMORPG was likely inspired by the world engulfing the former.

‘Neverwinter’

Developer Cryptic Studios combined the simplicity and combat-focused gameplay of Diablo with a more traditional fantasy setting to create Neverwinter, based upon lore from the Dungeons & Dragons universe. The combat system utilizes a computerized version of D&D’s 4th Edition by rolling imaginary dice to determine hits, misses, and damage dealt. The game, initially released in 2013 for PC but also available on Xbox One and PS4, features 10 PvE campaigns and one dedicated PvP campaign for players to experience. Though the game assumes a linear approach, the fluid, Darksiders-esque combat feels fresh — especially for Xbox One and PS4, where the game’s aversion to social interaction and traditional RPG elements feels less oppressive.

Though the game’s performance can tank if you’re in high-level zones on a console or a low-end PC, the game features excellent spell effects and sound design, two underrated aspects of fantasy games that can be make-or-break your immersion in the experience. Though some of the game’s systems, such as its lack of communication channels and an insanely expensive in-game store, seem poorly executed. Even with those faults, though, Neverwinter is a fast-paced game that provides a different feel relative to most of the MMOs on our list.

‘Dungeons and Dragons Online’

For most of us, Dungeons and Dragons has always been the tabletop game we kept to ourselves in fear of being ostracized (no shame there). However, despite DDO‘s launch woes and flawed beginnings, the sun-dappled city of Stormreach has never been so appealing. Loosely based on the D&D 3.5 ruleset, DDO is a game with extensive customization directly built into the framework. Featuring more classes than any other title on our list, the character creation tools allow players to experiment with a dynamic multiclass system wherein your character can effortlessly combine facets of skillsets. Although the latest updates still heavily cater toward group instances and the game’s rooted emphasis in tight-knit teamwork, solo options are becoming exceedingly robust, especially if you can afford to pick up an NPC “hireling” or two to back you up.

Let’s be honest, though: DDO, which launched in 2006, doesn’t hold up when compared to newer, oft-updated titles, particularly in terms of visual fidelity. While it isn’t an eyesore, the game doesn’t pack the polygonal depth and vibrant details of newer MMOs like Tera. The game behind the visuals, however, is captivating, fueled by story-driven raids and dungeons whirling around the never-ending defense of Stormreach.

‘Aion Online’

With titles like City of Heroes and the first Guild Wars under its belt, Korean developer NCSoft knows its way around an MMORPG. Aion is a tightly-polished effort, rooted in a post-cataclysm world that’s been torn asunder by two warring races. Players begin by selecting the hardy Asmodians or the radiant Elyos — each with four distinct classes that are subdivided into two more once you reach level 10 — and are then thrust into the stunning environments of Atreia. The questing and six crafting systems are linear, often requiring you to grind between lulls and recruit other players for the more populated zones.

Aion‘s true calling lies in it’s ability to balance both PvE and PvP components. Once players hit level 25, they can enter the Abyss, a PvPvE battleground in which opposing factions battle for control over fortresses. Combat is fast-paced and responsive, reliant on chain attacks and fair amounts of button mashing, and incorporates flying mechanics that are truly unique to the genre. Although most regions outside the Abyss are designated as no-fly zones, players can still glide within the regions from any elevated jump-off point. Flying in the Abyss is also limited, but the added component provides an entirely new dimension to think about while in combat since you constantly need to be aware of what’s going on at various elevations before you become exhausted and fall from the sky. Aion is an immediately enjoyable and beautiful title from the get-go, even if it does take you a while to earn your wings, and additional seasonal events and stories should give you a reason to come back even in-between larger content updates.

‘DC Universe Online’

DC Universe Online dropped its subscription shortly after launch in 2011, but the game still offers as much action-heavy MMO fun now as it did when it was a “premium” game. Based on the fictional superheroes and villains in the DC Universe, Players begin by either creating a character from scratch or one inspired by famous DC characters such as Superman, Batman, and the like. The rest of the game unfolds in RPG-like fashion, with stereotypical kill-collect quests scattered across Metropolis and Gotham City, and dungeons that break up the standard MMO grind.

The well-designed cities, NPCs, and other elements also bask in the kind of comic-esque nuances you’d come to expect from such a title, and although the visuals are nowhere near photo-realistic, they are fittingly stylized. The combat is fast-paced and responsive, too, whether you’re engaging in the game’s heated PvP matches or participating in end-game raids.

Long-term players can expect a steady stream of ample daily quests and additional endgame content once you blaze through the game and hit the level cap. While the game is not without its faults — the voice-acting is cringe-worthy at times — there is no finer MMORPG for comic book fans and those that seek a solid alternative to fantasy-blazoned RPGs like Lord of the Rings Online, and TERA.

What’s more, now is the perfect time to dive into DC Universe Online, as a June 2018 update added a “Death of Superman” mission series to celebrate the Man of Steel’s 80th birthday, including a fight against the dastardly Doomsday.

DC Universe Online is currently available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC.

‘RuneScape 3’

It’s hard to argue a game isn’t one of the best of its kind when it boasts more than 200 million accounts. Jagex’s Runescape — now in its third incarnation — has undergone a series of design and gameplay overhauls since its 2001 debut, garnering the honor of the Most Popular Free MMORPG in existence, according to the Guinness Book of World Records.

The latest version of the browser-based MMORPG doesn’t deviate much from previous renditions of the game. Set in the war-torn fantasy realm of Gielinor, Runescape is a simple and familiar take on the MMORPG. Questing and combat are straightforward and often humorous, typically requiring you to click an enemy to death and collect its loot. Thankfully, the bland repetition is offset by the end-game content and the title’s sheer amount of depth. Much of that content remains hidden behind a paid subscription, but even the free content is engaging and fun.

‘MapleStory 2’

The original MapleStory was essentially an MMO side-scrolling game with a cartoony art style that helped it stand out from the more serious and violent role-playing games at the time. Its sequel doesn’t abandon the cuteness of its predecessor, but MapleStory 2 switches to a 3D perspective, opening up a new dimension of exploration literally. You’re free to customize your world and your character as you see fit, with plenty of classes and items to choose from as you progress in your adventure.

MapleStory 2 has classic role-playing tropes like the archer and the knight, but it also has the “Runeblade,” a character class that blends magic and melee combat together. There’s also the “Berserker,” who uses inner rage to create extremely powerful attacks, and the cannon-wielding “Heavy Gunner,” who is assisted by a laser-equipped satellite.

If you aren’t interested in taking your hero into a dangerous dungeon to defeat a boss with your friends, you can always create your very own house, design a new t-shirt from scratch, compose music, or even play special mini-games with other players. Getting started will only take you a few minutes.


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