Category Archives: Top X Lists

The Best MMO Settings (That Aren’t Fantasy)

As we’ve discussed before, fantasy MMOs heavily dominate the genre. Even if you’re a fantasy fan, it can start to feel a bit stale after a while. Maybe you want to try something else for a change.

Though they are a minority, there are some solid non-fantasy MMORPGs out there. These are a few of your better options for an MMO with a different sort of setting.

Star Wars: The Old Republic

The Dyson Sphere Iokath in Star Wars: The Old Republic

I almost didn’t include SWTOR on the grounds that it is still pretty much fantasy. Little if any of the technology in the Star Wars universe has any connection to real science, and the Force is simply magic by another name.

But it is at least a slightly different flavor of fantasy, even if it’s just a different skin on the same tropes. Sometimes that’s all it takes to change people’s feelings; I’ve known sci-fi fans who love Star Wars while decrying the fantasy genre. So while it may not make rational sense, SWTOR may still feel refreshing to those bored of traditional high fantasy.

WildStar

A space scene in WildStar

WildStar is another game that incorporates a lot of fantasy elements into its sci-fi, alongside a certain Western feel and a strong dose of humor. The end result is an eclectic setting that exists somewhere between World of Warcraft, Firefly, and Bugs Bunny.

If you really want to leave the world of magic and mystery behind, it might not be enough to satisfy you, but it’s definitely not your standard high fantasy, at least, and you can’t deny it has a very unique character. One thing WildStar has never lacked for is personality.

Star Trek Online

A Romulan starship crew in Star Trek Online

Another MMORPG based on a popular science fiction IP, but this one hews much closer to traditional science fiction than does Star Wars. Obviously, if you’re a Star Trek fan, STO is worth a look, but even if you’re not familiar with the source material, it may be worth a try as a welcome departure from the tired fantasy formula used by so many other MMOs.

STO is particularly appealing in this regard because the difference in setting is also reflected in the game mechanics. Whereas SWTOR plays like any other fantasy MMO, Star Trek Online has space combat that feels quite different from anything else in the MMO genre and captures the feel of the shows and movies very well.

Fallen Earth

A promotional screenshot from the post-apocalyptic MMORPG Fallen Earth

But maybe space ships aren’t your thing, either. Perhaps the gritty texture of a post-apocalyptic setting is more your speed. There aren’t as many options on this front as there should be, but one possibility you can consider is the sandbox Fallen Earth.

It’s an older game with a small following, but it can definitely provide a breath of fresh (if radioactive) air for those seeking relief from the endless parade of sword and sorcery.

Destiny/Destiny 2

A promotional image for the MMO shooter Destiny 2

Another strong contender on the sci-fi front are Bungie’s Destiny games, depicting a far future where humanity clings to existence amidst the ruins of Earth’s solar system. It’s got a larger than life feel similar to Star Wars, but hews a bit closer to traditional sci-fi.

They’re also another option for breaking away from traditional MMO gameplay as well as traditional settings. Both versions of Destiny take the form of first person shooters (with some RPG elements) rather than the standard action bar set-up of most MMORPGs.

DC Universe Online

A villain broods over Gotham City in DC Universe Online

It always amazes me that superhero games don’t make up a larger share of the MMO market. Given the power fantasy nature of the genre and the popularity of superheroes in general, it seems like a perfect fit.

Nonetheless, superhero MMORPGs are for some reason a rarity, despite providing arguably the best fit for an MMO of any non-fantasy genre. One of your few good options on this front is DC Universe Online. It captures the comic book feel pretty well, it boasts fantastic combat, and it has maintained a steady level of popularity for many years now, with significant updates still coming on the regular.

Whether you’re a big superhero fan or just want something far away from the realm of Elves and wizards, DCUO is one of the better options.

EVE Online

Exploring deep space in EVE Online

The notoriously convoluted game mechanics and ruthless community of EVE Online are the sort of thing you either love or hate, but one thing it definitely does deserve credit for is being one of the longest running and most successful MMORPGs that isn’t leaning on the crutch of high fantasy.

And unlike many other entries on this list, EVE is also not based on popular IP from elsewhere in the media. Its sci-fi setting of New Eden is entirely original, a wild frontier where aspiring starship pilots can find fame and fortune… or death and ruin.

Secret World Legends

The tutorial sequence from the horror MMO Secret World Legends

Surely one of the most inventive settings ever seen in the world of MMORPGs is that of the bizarre and terrifying Secret World, a torch now carried by its rebooted successor, Secret World Legends.

Combining elements of countless real world mythologies and conspiracy theories, Legends is best described as a horror game, but it also draws elements from many other genres, including sci-fi and, yes, fantasy. But even the fantasy elements have a completely different feel from the traditional Tolkien-clone MMO settings.

Unfortunately, Legends carries a lot of baggage related to its messy transition from its predecessor, The Secret World. There was a lot of dishonesty on the part of the developers and a lot of hurt feelings among fans, and so it’s difficult for me to give an unequivocal recommendation to the game as I might have in the past.

Nevertheless, if we’re judging the caliber of settings, neither incarnation of the Secret World can be beat. If it’s not something you’ve experienced before, you have no idea what you’re missing. The originality, the ambiance, and the depth are without equal.


8 Good MMORPGs to Play With Friends

I’ve slowly come to an important realization. The time in my life where I could truly dedicate myself to a single MMORPG has past. It sounds like a bummer for someone bearing MMO Bro as a moniker, but it’s not so bad. My only complaint is the difficulty it presents when it comes to socialization. Spending time to build up friendships in a game I might not play in a few months is tough. Fortunately, many a gaming friendship has persisted throughout the years (both of the online and offline variety). For that reason I’ve been looking more into good MMORPGs to play with friends. These are either games I can start off soloing and bring friends in later or join an existing friend who’s really enjoying themselves.

Just like players who prefer solo vs. group content, what makes an MMORPG good to play with friends is highly subjective. The key aspects to me are some form of level scaling or horizontal progression, a focus on group content, alt encouragement, and bonuses to playing with a consistent group. The below list is roughly ranked from 8th to 1st, but I’ve avoided a true “top 8” this time around because of the inherent subjectivity.

Neverwinter

neverwinter good mmorpg with friends screenshot

Neverwinter is a Dungeons and Dragons inspired MMORPG. Thus, it unsurprisingly includes dungeons and dungeon offshoots called skirmishes as a primary method of advancement. These can be tackled by groups of five players and make for a fairly balanced challenge. Players can also create their own dungeons using the Foundry system so tabletop players may also enjoy making and sharing their scenarios with friends.

There’s also some form of downleveling for friends who want to play Neverwinter with their lower level pals. Unfortunately it’s only available for dungeons and not the shorter skirmishes, with the exception of a Call to Arms event. The Calls to Arms skirmishes allow players of practically any level to play together in a special event. They just don’t tend to run for very long. The level scaling isn’t super well balanced either as higher level players maintain their improved skill ranks. This can lead to the lower level player feeling somewhat useless. Nonetheless, the wealth of group oriented content in Neverwinter with some option for players of disparate levels earns Neverwinter a spot on this list.

Play Neverwinter for free here.

Elvenar

Elvenar playing with friends

The vast majority of city builders revolve around killing other players. These leads to two issues – paying to actually win and elimination of friends from the world. Elimination doesn’t really make for a very good MMORPG to play with friends. Elvenar solves these issues for players who want something casual to play from their browser but still enjoy the interaction with others. Elvenar is a purely PvE city builder with a multitude of options to assist other players.

Neighborly Help is one such concept that will reward you with gold for donating resources to another player. Of course that means others are also encouraged to donate to you. Moving outside of the city building and into combat, Elvenar recently added Fellowship Adventures. Players can assist each other in an asynchronous adventure where each player conquers challenges individually. The game’s turn based combat strikes a good balance between browser simplicity and tactical challenge. It is sadly missing any sort of real time cooperative element. Hopefully one day the developers will tack that on too. While Elvenar is far from perfect, it’s a good option for friends seeking a lower time commitment browser MMO.

Play Elvenar for free here.

Final Fantasy XIV

final fantasy xiv good to play with friends image

There’s no doubt that Final Fantasy XIV is a great game. However, most of that is geared towards story or playing with a consistent group of equally dedicated players. There is downscaling for dungeons, but I don’t find this as rewarding as other MMOs. The real reason that I think Final Fantasy XIV is a good MMORPG to play with friends is because of the game’s job system.

This is one MMO game that has basically eliminated the need for alts because players can change jobs (i.e. classes) at the drop of a hat. There are base job level requirements for many advanced jobs, which encourages players to “start over” with a lower level job. There’s a little more to it than that, but the system is easy to explain. More experienced players can dedicate a lower level job to playing with particular people. Eventually those jobs levels will manifest in usage either through subclassing or flexibility for higher level content.

Buy Final Fantasy XIV here.

Rift

rift good mmorig play with friends image

Rift has always struck an interesting balance between group and solo play. A lot of content revolves around the game’s titular rifts that require players to work together to close. They’re fun but can deliver a samey experience after a while. That community system has evolved over the years into instant adventures which provides level scaled quests for up to twenty players. It’s a very appealing feature when typical MMORPG group caps of 4 to 5 just don’t cut it.

In addition, Rift offers a mentoring and sidekick system. When enabled, this will scale grouped players up or down based on the zone’s content and the party members’ levels. Some will really appreciate that Rift allows for level scaling for those who want it without necessarily forcing it upon everyone. The ability to play with a large group of friends without relying on endgame raids is also fairly unique among MMORPGs.

Play Rift for free here.

Warframe

warframe mmorpg with friends image

What makes Warframe so good to play with friends is very similar to Final Fantasy XIV’s appeal. There is no level scaling in this game, but there is a plethora of warframes which play differently in a manner similar to MOBA characters like in League of Legends. Each warframe has it’s own level, but there are a number of factors that separate this approach from simple alt characters.

The biggest of these factors is the existence of mastery ranks. These are metalevels gained from ranking up companions, weapons, and warframes. Higher mastery ranks grant access to more tools, increases starting mod capacity, and raises many daily limits. It’s also a bit easier to increase mastery ranks with fresh warframes and weapons as they level up faster. Speaking of weapons, those also level up in this game, which increases mod capacity. If all of that isn’t enough, players can also reset a warframe’s rank to change polarities (which alters which types of mods can be slotted). These features can make Warframe feel like a grindy MMO at times, but on the bright side there’s a lot of flexibility for friends seeking an MMORPG to play with one another.

Play Warframe for free here.

Guild Wars 2

guild wars 2 mmorpg to play with friends image

Guild Wars 2 launched with a mission not to waste people’s time with grinding for items and levels. Though that’s arguably a core concept of the genre, Guild Wars 2 has largely succeeded in eschewing the common progression treadmill. Levels come fast and, thanks to zone downscaling, allows players to explore low level areas without sacrificing some semblance of challenge. But leveling up together in zones is just part of what Guild Wars 2 offers friend circles.

World vs World (WvW) is an ongoing massive struggle between three servers that resets weekly. Servers of players will rank up or down according to the results. Upon entering WvW all players are bolstered to max level. Small groups can often be effective in contributing to the war, but there’s plenty of reason for your small group to join a larger one. Now, GW2 is not only a very good MMORPG to play with friends who like PvE or PvP combat but is also great for those who like exploration. The lands of Tyria are littered with jumping puzzles that can be fun to solve together. There’s a little something for everyone to experience, and it can all be done as part of a team.

Play Guild Wars 2 for free here.

Eve Online

eve online good mmorpg to play with friends image

For the group of friends that would rather kill another group than kill AI controlled critters, I present Eve Online. This an MMO that’s great for friends because of the skill system and combat structure. It takes almost no time for a player to effectively pilot a baseline frigate. While these light ships can’t compare to cruisers or capital ships in terms of sheer firepower, they have their own roles in battle. They’re also speedy and make for great pirate ships or guerilla tactical strikes. A band of friends can easily have a blast as a group of frigates roaming the vastness of space.

Another core feature of Eve Online is that the skills train in real time. More casual players won’t fear the sensation of getting lapped by their more hardcore companions. For groups that can’t always play on the same schedule, it alleviates a lot of anxiety that can come with getting into a new MMO. Eve Online is all about an endgame that starts immediately and everyone is welcome to join in. The PvE features aren’t really the most exciting though so be prepared to fight against others sooner or later.

Play Eve Online for free here.

Elder Scrolls Online

elder scrolls online good for friends image

Late last year, Elder Scrolls Online made a huge change that’s completely altered the accessibility of the game. One Tamriel went all in on level scaling by adjusting lower level players up to the game’s soft level cap. This level scaling was in effect all the time and meant that with the exception of a few higher level dungeons, anyone could go anywhere at any time. In my opinion, the game shifted into a much stronger Elder Scrolls feel that rewarded exploration. At the same time, it opened the doors for friends with different interests and different time commitments to play with one another.

There is a ton of content to discover in Elder Scrolls Online: solo dungeons called delves, public dungeons, skyshard hunting, questing, instanced dungeons, three faction PvP, and more. And all of it can be played alongside one’s buddies and/or significant other. I’ve been able to attract a lot of people to ESO, and that’s largely due to One Tamriel. In my mind, Elder Scrolls Online is not only good, but is the best MMORPG to play with friends right now. But like I said before, it’s all subjective.

Buy Elder Scrolls Online here.

Friend Up!

Some of the above titles also offer refer a friend programs. If you find a new MMORPG that strikes your fancy, do a little research. You might find that inviting friends can bring rewards for both the inviter and invitee. And of course if you feel like there’s a game missing from the list, add it in the comments. We are talking about MMORPGs that are best played with friends after all. The more the merrier!

 


Six Greatest MMORPG Character Creators

If you’re anything like me, you can get lost in MMORPG character creators, spending great lengths of time perfecting every detail of your avatar. MMOs are games that you may end up playing for months or years, so it’s incredibly important your characters look just right.

But of course, not all character creators are, ahem, created equal. Some offer very limited choices, while others go to absurd lengths to give you total control over every aspect of your appearance.

We’ve put together a list of some of the strongest MMO character creators, so you too can create your ideal avatar.

Elder Scrolls Online

A Dark Elf templar in Elder Scrolls Online

ESO’s character creator is weird. It has a great many options, but it still doesn’t feel entirely satisfying to me as a character creation freak. A lot of the options don’t seem to make as much difference as they should.

That said, I’m still going to give it a nod simply because it has a few features that most other character creators lack. The most interesting is an age slider that lets you adjust the apparent age of your character independent of other features, allowing them to be anything from a fresh-faced youth to a wrinkled crone.

Star Trek: Online

A Romulan character in Star Trek: Online

Despite being an older title nowadays, Star Trek: Online is still holding its own as a strong contender in the character creation field.

Its strength lies in the sheer wealth of options. It might not have quite as much fine detail as some others, but it does allow you to customize nearly every aspect of your character’s physical appearance in at least some way, as well as their uniform and gear. Even your character’s idle animations and general body language can be customized, which is something I dearly wish more MMOs offered.

In keeping with Star Trek’s style, you can also choose from a rather extensive list of playable alien species (though all humanoid, sadly), and even create your own species by selecting the option for a custom alien and mixing and matching visual details and racial abilities.

Guild Wars 2

A Charr engineer in Guild Wars 2

One downside to a lot of MMORPGs with strong character creators is that they usually limit you to playing only humans or very human-like races. This is understandable, as adding detailed character creation options for a variety of diverse races is a big technical and artistic challenge. Adding just one race that requires totally different creation options essentially doubles the workload, and it only gets worse from there.

Still, it can be disappointing as a player to be limited to only basic humanoids, and that makes Guild Wars 2 something of a breath of fresh air. It does offer a variety of races, and several are quite exotic, from the feline Charr to the plant-like Sylvari.

The character creation options in GW2 are perhaps not quite as impressive as in some other games on the list, but they’re still pretty robust, and it’s just about the only game that offers both interesting racial choices and major visual customization, so it deserves major props just for that.

Champions Online

A player character in Champions Online

Fighting crime is important, but looking good while doing it is more important still. Champions Online understands this, and it has the character creator to match.

The options for your avatar’s physical appearance are solid, but it’s when you factor in the costume options as well that the options become truly staggering. Whether you want some traditional brightly colored spandex or a more gritty, modern hero with realistic armor, there is a plethora of options.

A large number of CO’s costume pieces are unfortunately paywalled, but even if you never pay a cent, there’s still a massive selection.

Black Desert Online

A Maewha character in Black Desert Online

Black Desert is a strange case.

In many ways, it’s unequaled in the field of character customization. The amount of control you’re given over the smallest details of your avatar’s appearance is simply amazing. You can tweak every little aspect of their face. You can add highlights and lowlights to their hair or adjust its length in whole or in part. You can choose the color and shape of their pupils.

Black Desert is the first game I’ve played where the character creator has a learning curve, and I mean that as a compliment. You can truly get lost in this thing. It’s almost a game unto itself.

However, there is one major drawback to Black Desert’s customization that keeps it out of the top spot. Each class is not just gender-locked but locked into a specific physical archetype. Your warrior can never be anything but a mountainous beefcake, for instance. You can play as an older man with the wizard class, but there’s no female equivalent. And so on.

It could also stand to have more hairstyle choices. Those are surprisingly limited.

Aion

A character in Aion

It’s been years, but I still haven’t seen an MMO with better character customization than Aion.

Aion has a slider for everything you can imagine, and probably at least one or two things you can’t. It’s a game that gives you almost total freedom to make exactly the character you want.

Above, I said that MMOs with good character customization are often very limited in racial choice, and that’s true of Aion, too, but it doesn’t really matter because the character creator is so powerful you can pretty much make your own races. Want to be a three foot tall pixie with pointed ears and purple hair? That’s an option. Or if you’re prefer, you could be a seven foot tall meat mountain with gray skin and grotesquely disproportionate facial features.

In Aion, the greatest limitation is simply your imagination, and that’s why it deserves the top spot on our list.


Four Things Eastern MMOs Can Learn from the West

A few weeks ago, we looked into ideas that Western MMORPGs would do well to borrow from their Eastern counterparts. Now, it seems only fair to do the reverse, for there are also areas where the East would do well to take some cues from us.

The Odessen Alliance in Star Wars: The Old Republic

To address an elephant in the room, a lot of people will highlight grinding and overbearing monetization as the chief sins of Eastern MMOs, and I won’t say that’s entirely wrong as those are common problems in games from Asia, but I don’t think it’s a universal truth, and plenty of Western games are grindy or greedy too. I don’t see it as a black and white issue.

Either way, the idea of Eastern games being tedious and “pay to win” has been beaten to death, so I’d rather focus on other areas where Eastern games would do well to take some lessons from the West.

Putting More Effort into Story

I wouldn’t say that Eastern games are lacking good lore or the potential for interesting stories. I’ve been saying for years that Aion’s lore is really fascinating and far better than it ever gets credit for.

The problem, though, is that in most Eastern games I’ve played, the story still feels like kind of a background element. There isn’t a lot of effort put into developing it or helping the player experience it in a dynamic way. It’s usually bland quest text.

In the West, we’ve seen MMO games make great strides toward better story-telling in recent years. Voice-acting, cutscenes, and story events have greatly increased in both quality and quantity. Games like Star Wars: The Old Republic, The Secret World (RIP), and Elder Scrolls Online have shown that MMOs can offer stories as strong as anything in the single-player realm, and often treat story as meaningful content in its own right, equal to raiding or PvP.

You generally don’t see this kind of thing in Eastern games, and even when you do, it’s usually hampered by poor localization. Again, there just doesn’t seem to be a lot of effort being made.

The grim realm of Coldharbour in Elder Scrolls Online

The one notable exception to this, at least that I’ve seen, is Final Fantasy XIV, but it’s gone to the opposite extreme. I never thought I could play an MMO that spent too much time on story even for me, but Square Enix found a way. So… many… cutscenes…

Better Racial Choices

One thing that always bugs me about Eastern MMOs is that a lot of them don’t offer a selection of playable races, and even when they do, their racial choices tend to be severely underwhelming. You can be a human, a tall human, a human with cat ears, an Elf analogue, or for some reason a prepubescent girl.

I think this is a trade-off for how much more powerful the character creators in Eastern games tend to be. It’s a lot of work to design robust customization options for a variety of strange and exotic races. But Guild Wars 2 did a pretty good job of balancing both, so clearly it can be done.

Western games don’t always have as much racial variety as I’d like, either, especially when it comes to more recent titles, but even so it’s safe to say we’ve got the East beat in this regard.

World of Warcraft lets you be (among other things) a giant cow, a zombie, a panda, a werewolf, or a space goat with tentacles. GW2 lets you be anything from a giant Viking to a cat monster with horns to a talking salad. I don’t even have space to list the staggering variety of oddball races the EverQuest games let you play as.

Armor that Deserves the Name

“Realistic armor” probably isn’t the right term, seeing as MMO armor is almost never realistic, but there’s a line between “adding some artistic flair because it looks cool” and “you’re literally fighting dragons in a pole-dancer costume.” Most Eastern games have soared so far past that line they circled the Earth and passed it again.

A paladin character showing off her snazzy armor in World of Warcraft

Putting aside the obvious sexism, I just can’t take a game seriously when even high level armor leaves all major organs and arteries exposed. It’s just dumb. And the fact that the aforementioned little girl races usually end up in stripper costumes too just adds a whole other level of wrongness.

TERA general chat is still the most disturbing thing I’ve ever seen in an MMORPG, and I played The Secret World as my main game for years.

The West definitely doesn’t have a spotless record when it comes to the “female armor” issue, but things have certainly gotten better over time, with most sets in most games now being about as revealing (or non-revealing) for either gender and armor in general making at least some effort toward verisimilitude. And even at our worst, we never quite equaled the absurdity of gear in many Eastern games.

Consistent Settings

Eastern games often seem a little too eager to throw immersion out the window when the mood strikes them. I remember aways back TERA added a police car mount completely out of the blue.

A police car. In a secondary world high fantasy MMORPG.

That’s an especially egregious case, but it seems to be pretty common for Eastern MMOs to randomly through in cross-overs with totally unrelated games or other obvious anachronisms that just don’t make sense in context.

This is another area where the West definitely doesn’t have a perfect track record, either. You can find the Hellbugs from Defiance in Rift for some reason, and World of Warcraft’s events tend to echo real world holidays to an uncomfortable degree, but I’m not sure we’ve ever gone to quite the same extremes the East has.


Five of the Best MMORPG Level Scaling Systems

Level scaling in an MMORPG is a wonderful thing. It makes the world more immersive, it effectively expands the available content, and it breaks down social barriers.

I am a firm believer that having level scaling is almost always better than not having it, but not all level scaling systems are created equal. The ideal level scaling system is easy to use, rewarding, and liberating, without entirely erasing a player’s sense of progression. Let’s take a look at some of the best systems in currently running MMOs.

EverQuest 2

A screenshot from EverQuest 2

EverQuest 2 doesn’t have global level scaling, but it does allow players to “mentor,” lowering their effective level for a time.

As the name would imply, the system is mainly intended for use by high level players who want to assist their low level friends. Mentoring grants bonus experience to the person being mentored and also allows the higher level player to gain some rewards from content that would otherwise be trivial to them, though their XP gain is reduced while mentoring.

EQ2 players can also “self-mentor” by visiting an NPC and paying a small fee. This allows them to lower their effective level in five level increments. You can cancel the self-mentoring at any time, but to reactivate it you’ll need to return to the NPC.

It’s a bit of a clunky system, but it’s better than nothing.

Guild Wars 2

A mesmer character in Guild Wars 2

Guild Wars 2 is by no means the first MMO to feature level scaling of some kind, but it is arguably the MMO that put the concept on the map, as least as far as the modern era of MMORPGs goes.

GW2 made its global level scaling a core selling feature of the game, focusing on its potential to aid socialization and keep the entire game world relevant.

In GW2, each zone effectively has a maximum level. Anyone exceeding that level is scaled down to it, though they will still receive experience and loot commensurate with their actual level.

It’s a pretty good system, but it’s not perfect. While improving your skills and gear can still make some difference, the rather strict level cap on each zone means that you’re not going to feel that much more powerful as a level eighty in a level ten zone. But at least it does deliver on its promise of helping people group together and keeping the whole game world relevant.

Star Wars: The Old Republic

The planet Ziost in Star Wars: The Old Republic

SW:TOR uses a system that’s similar to that of Guild Wars 2, but I would argue it’s a little better.

Like GW2, each of SW:TOR’s zones has a maximum level that all players will be scaled down to, but in this case the max level is slightly above the intended level range of the zone. Therefore, when you return as a high level character, you’ll be noticeably stronger than you were when playing at-level, but not quite enough to totally trivialize the content. And of course you’ll be getting rewards equivalent to your actual level.

For me, this hits the perfect balance of rewarding progression without making older content completely toothless or irrelevant.

Rift

A promotional screenshot from Rift

Rift’s level scaling comes in the form of a mentoring system similar to EverQuest 2’s, but it’s much more flexible and easy to use.

Mentoring in Rift can be used to exactly match the level of another player, and is applied automatically in certain types of content, like Instant Adventures. Players can also mentor themselves down at any time by simply clicking their portrait and selecting the option. In this way the player can set themselves to any level below their own, while still receiving rewards equal to their true level.

The beauty of this system is that it puts a lot of power in the hands of the player. Not everyone enjoys level-scaling, and in Rift they need not be subjected to it if they don’t want to. If you do enjoy scaling, you have a lot of flexibility when it comes to when and how to use it. You can set your level equivalent to or even below the recommended level of the content you’re doing if you want a challenge, or set it slightly above if you want things to be a little easier.

Elder Scrolls Online

A battle on the sea in Elder Scrolls Online

So far all of the level scaling systems mentioned in this list have one thing in common: They only scale you down, never up. Elder Scrolls Online is a rare and welcome exception.

Actually, saying it can also scale you up is over-simplifying things a bit. Really what ESO does is scale everything — from players to mobs — to a single effective level across the entire game. This system was dubbed “One Tamriel,” and that’s actually a pretty good tagline, as it unifies the entire game into a single cohesive world in a way few MMOs ever accomplish.

In ESO, you can pretty much do anything, any time. You might have a little trouble getting raid invites as a level one character in white gear, but short of that, there really aren’t any limits. Faction restrictions on content have also been removed, so you truly can go anywhere and do anything whenever you want.

Obviously this makes group play a lot easier. If you’ve played since launch and your friend just joined, you can still group together while both being challenged and rewarded. It also makes leveling alts a lot more appealing, since you can take an entirely different leveling path, even if both characters are the same faction.

It also doesn’t entirely erase a sense of progression. Leveling up provides you with more skill points to expand and enhance your build, gear still increases your combat performance, and the Champion Points earned after reaching max level can have a significant impact on your character’s power.

In a perfect world, One Tamriel would be the example upon which all MMORPG level scaling systems are based. It’s simply excellent.


Four Things Western MMOs Can Learn from the East

I’m not a fan of the favoritism some people have when it comes to Eastern versus Western MMORPGs. Historically, I’ve spent more time in Western games, but I’m not going to write off a whole hemisphere because of it.

An enemy encampment in Blade and Soul

Ultimately, I think both regions’ design philosophies have their pros and cons, and both could benefit by taking lessons from the other. This being an English language site, I’m guessing most people here have a pretty good idea of what Western games have to offer, so let’s start with a look at what the West can learn from Asian games.

Strong Character Creators

These days the gap between Western and Eastern character creators isn’t as stark as it once was, but the best MMORPG character creators are still found in Asian titles like Aion and Black Desert. These games let you tweak virtually every aspect of your character’s appearance in excruciating detail, allowing you to create the avatar of your dreams.

Western games just don’t quite match up. Even those that do offer a lot of options, like Elder Scrolls Online, don’t offer the same fine touch as something like Black Desert. Just because there’s a slider for your character’s nose doesn’t mean you can get it looking exactly the way you want.

Some may find such things frivolous, but for those for whom it matters, it matters a lot.

More Imaginative Settings

Both Western and Eastern MMOs are perhaps a bit too hung-up on the high fantasy genre, but it seems to me as if there tends to be a bit more flavor in the settings of Eastern games.

A flight path in Aion

There’s a certain alien feeling to the worlds of Eastern MMOs that you don’t just find anywhere else. The creatures are stranger, the landscapes more otherworldly, and the cultures more fantastical. There’s often a strong magitech influence that you don’t see as much of in Western titles, which hew closer to traditional fantasy archetypes.

This may simply be another set of cultural tropes that only feel fresh because I’m not as used to them. This is definitely true in cases where the MMOs draw on quintessentially Eastern concepts, such as wuxia MMOs like Blade and Soul. Either way, though, the settings of Asian MMOs often feel like a breath of fresh of air.

Part of the reason I tend to hold a relatively high opinion of Aion despite it being a fairly generic game is that I found its world so enchantingly strange.

Better Combat Animations

One of the stranger differences between Western and Eastern MMOs is how much effort is put into combat animations. Our developers here in the West just can’t seem to make them anywhere near as good as their Asian contemporaries.

It’s not just that Asian games use more and bigger particle effects when it comes to combat abilities, although they certainly do, and I definitely appreciate it.

But even at a more fundamental level, the animations are just better. They’re faster, they have much more of a feeling of weight behind them, and their sound effects are much more dramatic. If I hit someone with a sword in Rift, pretty much the only feedback I get is seeing their health drop. If I hit someone with a sword in TERA, I feel it.

We’re starting to see a little more effort put into combat animations in Western MMOs. Neverwinter’s are pretty weighty, and World of Warcraft has improved their animations a lot in the most recent expansion. But overall the West is still lagging far behind the East on this front.

Scythe Classes

A reaper character in Kritika Online

If there’s one thing I love in Eastern games, it’s the opportunity to play classes that fight by swinging a giant scythe at their foes. You can’t tell me that’s not awesome, because it objectively is.

Examples include the oracle of Dragon’s Prophet or the Reaper of Kritika Online, both classes who can slice through their foes like so much dry wheat.

This is an experience that for whatever reason Western developers simply don’t offer. If scythes appear at all in Western games, it’s usually just a staff skin for caster classes, a mere stat stick that isn’t actually used in combat.

That’s not good enough. Just having a scythe is not enough. I must be able to slice through my foes like the Grim Reaper himself.

On that note, Eastern games tend to offer a lot of weapon choices and archetypes that are often neglected by the West.

Spears come to mind. Classes that favor a spear as their preferred weapon, such as Final Fantasy XIV’s dragoon, are fairly common in Eastern MMOs, but often neglected by their Western counterparts. It’s pretty strange when you think about it, as spears and polearms were one of the most popular weapons of history. Swords, by comparison, were relatively rare.

I can think of a few other archetypes that seem more common in Eastern games: martial artists, archers without pets, gunslingers… Again, this may simply be a different set of cultural tropes, and perhaps from the perspective of someone in Asia Western games feel like they have better class choices, but I enjoy the variety. Perhaps developers in both hemispheres should just try to expand their class choices in general.

Especially where scythes are concerned.