This was a prototype of a feature I wanted to run on Resonance called Freeplay, which would explore free online games as an alternative to pay monthly games like Warcraft and Everquest. This was the only article written for that feature however.
Unfortunately the formatting on the blog isn't great, so I urge you to try and see if Resonance is functioning and read the article there before attempting to read it here.
Freeplay is a new irregular feature on Resonance Gaming, looking into the different experiences available in the ever increasing market of free online gaming. Freeplay is not a review. Five hours is far too short a time to experience enough of these games to say for cover everything. Team experiences and PVP are two of the most notable things that won’t be covered at all, and other parts might only be touched upon. Although opinionated, Freeplay is simply a log of my experiences playing the first few hours of game, the ideas behind it, and how it feels for someone that’s used to paying for their MMORPGs. In short, don’t expect miracles.
I decided to kick off with Anarchy Online because unlike most other Freeplay MMORPGs, Anarchy has had a very long and somewhat patchy history with its players. It was initially released as a pay monthly game in 2001, when Everquest was still dominating the market, and the older 2D Ultima Online was still a very popular alternative. The idea of 3D, Everquest style gaming with a science fiction setting turned on a whole new group of gamers to the idea of MMORPGs; those uninterested with the fantasy based settings that had been offered previously. Unfortunately, many of those early adopters were very disappointed with the reality.
Unlike the near perfect gameplay offered up by Everquest, Anarchy was an incredibly buggy release. From the patching system to the end game, Anarchy had problems included but not limited to issues with equipment, clipping, frame rate, lag and many more minor bugs that alienated a community that had to pay for the privilege of not being able to play their game. Although Funcom worked hard on fixing these problems, the damage had been quite severe, and Anarchy had made somewhat of a name for itself as the “buggy” MMORPG, despite many reviews at the time noting its incredible potential. The game continued on regardless however, releasing very competent expansion packs, increasing content and refining gameplay. Eventually, newer, better looking games entered the marketplace, and Anarchy Online could easily have ended there, a small and somewhat jaded footnote in the history of MMORPGs.
Rather than watching the game slowly die out, Funcom announced a Freeplay program in 2004, which allowed users to play the original game minus all of the expansion packs for one year without any cost at all. People flocked to the game, and its success has prompted a renewal of the system every year, so far. The game remains free today, packaged with the Notum Wars expansion pack. Gamers who enjoy the content can then pay monthly for the additional Shadowlands, Alien Invasion and most recently, Lost Eden expansion packs which add a significant amount to the game.
hour1b_400 Downloading Anarchy is totally painless process, with plenty of mirrors available that don’t require registration or queues. I actually left the download on overnight, but it only took around an hour. Installing is also very quick and easy. Registration is no harder than registering for anything else on the internet, and requires no credit card or any financial details, although it does ask for your address.
It’s a shame that patching was much more frustrating process. The actual downloading was very quick, but the patch system seems antiquated and buggy. During the first half of the patching, it asks you to confirm every time it wants to restart, which it does very often, so you can’t just wonder off and watch TV while it gets on with the boring business of updating files. At some point the client seems to update so that it doesn’t ask you anymore, but it then has a habit of not closing down (or loading two patching clients up at the same time, I’m not sure) so that patching results in a permission error and you have to restart it and try again from the last point. On top of all this, the progress bar only shows the progress of whatever file it’s patching at the time, so you have no idea on any sort of time frame for when it will be done, short of finding out what the latest patch is and figuring out what patch it’s currently working on yourself. Not exactly user friendly, but you should have plenty of time to do that.
Overall the patching process was still faster than Warcraft and many other MMORPGs, but its constant babysitting was a frustrating experience. Luckily after patching I was playing the game within seconds, and I shouldn’t have to go through it to that extent ever again. Interestingly a minor update patch actually occurred been sessions, and it both downloaded and installed within seconds.
Character creation begins as soon as you log on to the server for the first time. There’s fair amount of races to choose from, but limited information. Because you are introduced to the races before the classes, I wasn’t exactly sure what I wanted to be, so I choose the human looking race, who according to the game are good at everything in equal measure. After moving through the very limited aesthetic customisation (choose your head, are you thin, are you tall?) the class selection screen presented itself. After deciding upon the nanotechniacian (I’m reminded of the b5 technomages), I went back to the starting screen to choose nanomage as my race, as they appear to have some advantages in the field. It wasn’t a big frustration, but it would be having been far nicer to have all these options on one screen. Still, I was quite impressed with the amount of classes available. How differently they play from each other is a subject for a far more in depth review.
hour1a_400I let the random name generator choose a nickname, and after a few duplicate name errors, I was thrown into the world of Anarchy Online. My first thoughts were that of being utterly overwhelmed by a confusing interface heavily reliant on multiple small windows, and no immediate access to a proper tutorial. Visually, the game looks as good as you’ll ever expect a game that’s nearly 7 years old to look, but after maxing out the view distance and visual settings, it actually isn’t anywhere near as bad as I was expecting. Everything is sharp and the animation is choppy at best and comical at worst, but in general, the world looked alive and detailed enough for its purposes. Spaceships flew overhead, and animals wandered around on simple but not entirely flat beech landscape.
The game starts you out on a ‘newbie island’ separate from most of the game world. My first hour was spent trying to get my head around the different features of the game. The Interface, which after an hour I was still trying to get my head around. The control system, which while not bad is very different from what I’m used to in more modern mmorpgs, and the game itself, which seems like an awfully complicated place. The game uses a ‘nanotechnology’ system that works very similar to magic in fantasy games. Different classes appear to use them for a variety of tasks, but as a Nanotechniacian, I use them as my primary means of attack and defence, and just about everything else as well. It’s very interesting and as easy to use as clicking a button, but the ideas behind it seem a little bit more involved than simply gaining a new spell every couple of levels.
It’s not long spent doing newbie missions when I level for the first time and am giving a huge number of ‘points’ to be spend on the games skill system. This is quite daunting as an entirely new player, so I run through some of the different skills. Many are immediately understandable, while others I have no clue about quite yet. The main attribute skills that are common to many RPGs work slightly differently in Anarchy. You can spend as many points on these skills as you like, but instead of strength adding directly effecting your character (i.e. increasing your HP) it becomes a factor in many of your other skills, so when you train skills that might require strength, your strength attribute determines how dramatically your stats change. This system seems quite intelligent, and it seems there plenty of different skills to choose from. Even better, the game offers automatic levelling and a colour coded system to point you in direction of the most useful skills for your class.
As I venture further afield in search of a new NPC I’m directed towards, I take a wrong turn and end up running around with these passive but interesting looking tripod type enemies. One of the striking things about Anarchy visually is that what it lacks in graphical ability, it makes up for in design and imagination. Evehour2b_400_01n on the starting island, you face some very unique looking opponents. It’s certainly the same old idea of starting the game killing local wildlife, but the alien world of Rubi-Ka seems to offer some strange definitions of both the words ‘local’ and ‘wildlife’. Intrigued and a little trigger happy, I target one of these tripod guys and seconds later realise that my nano energy (think mana) has been depleted, and I can’t actually put up much of a fight. I desperately try to shoot at the thing with my newbie pistol, and then I die.
It’s what happened after I died that Anarchy Online players should be more proud of than anything in the rest of this article. A player by the name of Adriun came up to me as I returned to the area of my demise. He told me not to fight with a pistol which I assured him I only did as a last resort. After introductions, he then proceeded not only to give me an overview of my class, but also offered to take me to my intended NPC, showed me shops, explained a few questions I had, and then told me to send him a private message If I needed any further help. It wasn’t a lot, and whole exchange lasted no more than twenty minutes, but to see someone so willing to help a new player – a non female player, no less – is a very good sign that Anarchy Online has a strong community spirit. To see someone suddenly just offer help without asking you to join a guild or group with them for hours is a very refreshing experience. After being introduced to some of those things that overwhelmed be earlier, I set out to complete some of the other missions on the Newbie Island.
The area isn’t actually all that large once you’ve been wandering around for a while. Wandering around is something I managed to do quite a lot of on the newbie island while running various quests. Initially at least, you don’t run all that fast, and the map is nearly entirely useless in locating mission objectives. As you leave the island, you receive better instructions on the map system and you learn that mission waypoints can be uploaded into your map system. Of course, I didn’t know any of this at the time, and it’s a little bit disablinghour2a_400 to only have vague directions to rely on. Plenty of requests for directions in local chat only served to prove I wasn’t the only one having a spot of trouble with navigation.
It’s around this point that I finally got used to the camera and control system, although there’s still a lot of Warcraft to shake out of me, Anarchy seems to be reasonably configurable and I’ve messed about with the various windows and menus to get them a little more to my liking. It doesn’t remove the rather antiquated and boring interface, but it does disguise it. The control system and camera seem to be growing on me more though. One of my favourite camera features is just how far it zooms out while still looking very impressive for a 7 year old game. Minor graphical glitches are quite common, especially in tight environments like the islands tunnel to the upper levels, but they haven’t so far ruined the experience or contributed to my death.
I managed to reach level 8 before I decided enough was enough and the Newbie Island felt a little small. As an experience, it was generally positive, although the game system of popping up ‘hints’ whenever you do something for the first time isn’t very interactive, and not a fun way to the learn various features of what is turning out to be a surprisingly complex game. Aduins advice and help was certainly more useful than anything offered by the game, so if you are lucky enough to find a helpful member of the community to answer your questions, I’d certainly recommend it. And so, after two hours, I set off to leave the Newbie Island.
As I try to leave, I’m told I need an access card. To get one of these I have to sign up to one of the games two major factions. As with most MMORPGS, Anarchy Online hahour3a_400s more of a ‘setting’ than a plot that progresses at any great speed, but it does the job as well or better than many fantasy games, free or otherwise. The two main factions in the game are the hypercorporation Omni-Tek who control the entire planet- cyberpunk style - and the rebel clan who are angry at Omni. The game itself doesn’t seem to go into great detail on this point, but it does say that Omni started with good intentions but over hundreds of years turned a bit more fascist on its workforce – there’s plenty of reading material available on this outside of the game). Centuries ago, Rubi-Ka was a wasteland, until it was discovered to be the only source in the universe of Noctum (think spice) a substance that eventually creates the nano technology that is used in the game.
Basically then, you’ve got ‘the man’, and you’ve got the people fighting against ‘the man’. You can also choose to be neutral. I’m not qualified to talk about the exact differences between the factions, but I know that they are used in the games main PVP element, as well as determining your starting location and which equipment you can use. During the course of my stay on the Newbie Island, the choice between the two seemed just as much a source of argument and debate as the choice between alliance and horde normally turns out to be on Warcraft forums. The game stays in characters when talking about both sides, so other players are your only real indication of how choice will affect gameplay. Ignoring what felt like a somewhat subjective argument, I sold out, signed the Omni forms and left the Newbie Island behind on a one way trip to “Rome”.
Arriving on a large road just outside the city, I’m greeted by a few carry and fetch quests which actually explain more about the intricacies of the game than any of those on the Newbie Island did. There’s plenty of wondering about involved here ahour3b_400s well, but 3 hours too late I’m introduced to a proper map system and some very useful shortcuts. There’s not a lot of quests available though, and reasonably soon I’m directed to the ‘subway’, which appears to be a major area for leveling at reasonably low levels.
It’s at this point I first start feeling the grind, and it’s about as enjoyable as it can ever be in an MMORPG. Something a 5 hour article is never going to be able to cover is exactly how well the game deals with grind. It has a lot to do with how interesting levellng is, how many different environments there are, and perhaps most importantly, the type of people that you meet and interact with in your travels. I’m a little disappointed in a rather dull subway area being the first place I’m going to be leveling in, especially considering the much prettier and interesting environments of the city and it’s outskirts above.
After leveling again, I wander around the main part of Rome in search of nothing in particular. It’s a little large and that overwhelming feeling returns somewhat, but there are plenty of guides spotted around that can give you advice, and often floating cubes which can be clicked to explain different machines. You’ve really got to put the effort in order to understand many of the finer details, but once you do, it seems to fit into place quite well, and if you do get stuck, asking in the game chat normally results in a fast answers.
While spending some time in the subway killing a variety of shady looking people and creatures, collecting loot and gaining experience, I’ve had plenty of time to read the games main chat channels. One of the arguments I’ve noticed several times in my short time tends to revolve around new people who are playing the free game, and veterans who are paying to play the game. Honestly, most people seem perfectly happy to play alongside ‘fr00bs’ (If you haven’t guessed, it’s the Anarchy word used to describe ‘n00b’ players on ‘free’ system), but some seem to be angry that they havehour4a_400 to pay for a server that is inhabited by people who pay nothing.
Although I avoided contributing to any of these arguments, I can’t really understand where these people are coming from; without fr00bs the game would lose a good portion of its user base, and surely it’s better to have server full of people playing for free than one that is nearly empty. Paying for the game gets you more than the right the gloat anyhow; the expansions packs that your money buy offer huge new play areas devoid of any free players at all. Honestly though, if people need find a scapegoat when the server lags, that’s their choice. The main chat and individual players are easy to ignore.
The lag isn’t actually all that bad, although I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t noticeable. Swapping equipment and dealing with transfer of items in general is where it seems to show the most, but there’s also a rather frustrating wait between killing a mob and being able to loot it. However, I played these five hours on different days and different times, and at no point did the lag get bad enough to put me off playing. Considering the very active presence of GMs and Funcom’s obvious continued support,hour4b_400 it’s very likely that any large issues with lag would be sorted out quite quickly.
Although I haven’t had any more direct experiences with other plays besides a few quick heals, the community in general is quite mature and intelligent. Warcraft players know how bad general chat can get, but Anarchy’s chat was friendly and open the vast majority of the time, with only a few people occasionally causing trouble. Perhaps Anarchy’s more ‘adult’ setting attracts an older crowd, or perhaps the lack of the latest graphics has lead to less trolls paying attention to the game. In all honesty, the biggest contribution here is probably the games GMs, called arks, which seemed to be high in number and very visible presence in the game. I even saw a few notices for ‘tours’ conducted by these guys, a level of interaction with the community you rarely see in MMORPGs that don’t have any particular emphasis on role-play.
As my time in Anarchy draws to a close, I’m left feeling like I’ve barely even touched upon most of the game, yet I still feel a certain affinity with it. Even through the weak graphics, menus that drown you in windows and can’t decide if you need to click or drag and occasional graphical hiccups, I find myself growing more fond of the game by the hour, and a quick final run around Rome and the surrounding area after leaving the subway for the last time only confirms what I already knew; that Anarchy is a big world full of big ideas that in the most part it seems to pull of brilliantly.
The best thing about playing Anarchy Online is that you never actually feel like you’re playing a free game. Certainly, the game shows plenty of signs of its age, but unlike most free games, it doesn’t waste any of your time reminding you that you should be paying for the privilege. You forget because the experience is right up there with what you’d expect to have to pay money for, and that’s really something. Obviously, Anarchy Online’s past as a game designed for subscription plays a big part in this, but I had a go at Anarchy when it first came out, and the game is thankfully entirely unrecognisable now.
The games root do remain though and an important thing about Anarchy is that despite many years of patches sorting glitches, balance, PVP and expanding the game world, Anarchy Online is still a game created in 2001, when the MMORPG idea was infinitely beardier than it is today. A generation that has grown up with a far more accessible, far more mainstream market is going to experience a fair amount of culture shock in the first few hours of the game. Those willing to put in a bit of work and time are going to find something that’s potentially deeper than anything we’ve seen even in recent times. Anarchy Online is a dirty and gritty as the world it’s set in, and if you’re looking for something that’s going to hold your hand, you should look elsewhere.
It’s easy to recommend Anarchy Online to just about everyone else, though. It feels even more complete than some pay monthly MMORPGs we’ve seen following Warcraft’s success. As mentioned, I’ve not been able to cover the long term effects of the grind nor the games PVP system, but I have seen a quality of gameplay and support that other games are charging considerable amounts of money for. There are no huge real-world advertisements, no lasting problems with lag and no players able to buy the best equipment with their own real-world money, a satisfying thing to see for people interested in free games that are totally fair for everyone.
Anarchy might not be enough to convince most people to cancel their current subscriptions to higher budget, modern MMORPGS, but any game that not only survives but thrives after seven years in such a volatile and changing market is worth paying some serious attention to.