My favourite genre of games, and where some of our fondest gaming memories come from, is Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPGs). We are going to take you down our memory lane as we explore our origins playing MMORPGs from the late 90’s through to today in a multi-part series. In this Part 4, I will be moving into the second generation of MMORPG’s during the early 2000’s, starting with Anarchy Online.
Anarchy Online (AO) was released in June 2001, developed and published by Funcom. AO laid claim to some great ‘firsts’ in the MMORPG market:
- The first sci-fi themed MMORPG
- The first MMORPG to be distributed digitally as well as in a retail boxed version
- The first MMORPG to feature dynamic quests
Whilst these firsts are impressive for that time, what was not so impressive was the first six months of Anarchy Online being marred with registration/billing issues and unstable laggy servers. This led to the game copping a far-reaching negative public perception. I was still busy playing UO so I didn’t play AO at launch. A lot of fellow Australian UO players reported a laggy rubber-banding gameplay experience so I was happy to steer clear of it back then, though I am glad I’ve revisited it now.
Whether because of the negativity or a clever marketing decision, in August of that year, Funcom began offering free time-limited trials of the game. This was the first time a free trial had been offered in an MMORPG without having to buy the base game, and at the end of the trial you either paid the monthly subscription or cancelled the account. Funcom handed out free copies of returned boxes of the game at game conferences in 2002 and ultimately Anarchy Online turned around to win PC Gamer’s MMORPG of the year award.
In 2004, Funcom replaced the free trials system with the ‘Free Play’ system, and this gave AO another first in the MMORPG market – in-game advertising. As reported at the time by Yahoo Finance, in a ‘massive’ deal with the first video games advertising network, Massive Incorporated, all free players of Anarchy Online would see dynamic in-game advertising billboards in central areas of the game. Paying subscribers of the game would not see the advertisements. In the first 10 months of the free play program, more than 400,000 players had signed up for free subscriptions, and by 2006 had generated US$1 million in advertising revenue. You can start to see why the free-to-play trend is so prevalent in today’s MMORPG market and is starting to cross over into other game genres as well.
Anarchy Online would go on to release two content booster packs and three major expansions over its first eight years. It can still be played today for free on Steam which includes 2002’s Notum Wars content booster. If you want to play the expansions content, you’ll need to subscribe. With the later expansions comes more lands and graphical improvements, so it’s definitely worth looking into if this game appeals to you. I jumped in to have a look at the first sci-fi MMORPG and explore Rubi-Ka.
When creating a character in AO, you have a choice of 4 different races – Atrox (warrior/tank), Nanomage (caster), Opifex (thief/rogue) and Solitus (all-rounder). Whilst I’ve mentioned class-types next to each race, those races get stat/skill bonuses in those fields. For example, Atrox has good strength/stamina but poor intelligence/psychic abilities. Solitus was the most human-looking so I chose that. Next you must choose from one of the 14 professions in the picture above. I went with the Soldier profession and once confirmed, BallBaggins boarded the transport to Rubi-Ka. I was excited to see how the sci-fi theme felt in an MMORPG as there aren’t many in the genre, even today.
The user interface (UI) was starting to feel familiar now. Your character is centered in the screen, there’s a chat box, skills bar and compass/radar. It took me a little bit to spot the health/nano/xp bar (top left, behind the help box). I did some fiddling and it was very easy to move these UI elements around to suit your style. Looking around I saw malfunctioning cleaning robots, other players (hello Xraymachine!) and blue NPCs (quest NPC’s/vendors). There was also a light blue question mark with the words ‘Shift + Click’ under it – these are tutorials explaining the gameplay element you’re about to interact with. In this case, talking to quest NPCs.
Like in story-rich RPGs, you are given dialogue options to converse with the NPCs. You can have a bit of fun with them in AO too, as some have a bit of attitude! Rex tasked me with killing some of the malfunctioned cleaning robots. I turned around, target one and entered war mode. My character started punching and kicking the robot, cool! The look and feel made me a think I was Neo from the Matrix! That was until I died – yep, to a cleaning robot. My kung fu style kicks and punches weren’t very effective, plus your health doesn’t regen much at all, and then I died a second time to these damn robots. I learnt I had items in my backpack – one of those being a gun and another was a stimpack. However, I didn’t have enough skill points in healing to use the stimpack, so I resorted to sitting which regenerates your health faster. I finished that quest and was sent down the ramp to the next quest NPC.
This new player experience (NPE) is apparently a lot more newbie friendly than the one experienced at release. I struggled a bit as I fumbled through trying to understand what the quests/NPCs wanted me to do in parts, so am glad this is an ‘easier’ experience than the old days. This NPE teaches you how to kill robots (and not die), learn the hard way how to tell the difficulty of other mobs (yes, I died a few more times), how to use the crafting system, equip implants (items that enhance spells and abilities, like buffs) and assign stat/ability points. Later on a looted a ‘fr00b’ shirt, which designated me as a free-to-play noob, aka fr00b. After all these years of playing MMORPG’s, I have just learned a new slang word!
There are over 80 skills/abilities that you can pump your hard-earned experience points into after each time you ding a level. When you do level up, your character does a backflip and a level up sound plays. You cannot earn enough XP to max every skill on the one character, so it’s important to put points into what benefits your profession. It’s a daunting prospect looking at the plethora of skills available, even for today’s age, though thankfully there is a button to auto-assign XP into abilities suited to your chosen profession, useable up to level 20. Those players that want to delve into the customisation of their character profession could have a lot of fun here.
One quest that had me frustrated, but I can look back and laugh about, was where I had to retrieve a pet bird, ‘Lolly the Reet’, for Lorelei the Bartender. She gave me the general coordinates and a birdcage, and told me that Lolly likes peanut crackers. So, I head to the coordinates where I find many Reets (birds) but no sign of one called Lolly. I ran around for a bit and then spotted it. The cheeky bugger is fast and always manages to stay out of range of me while I was madly clicking the cage to try capture it. I ran after it for a good minute or two before thinking, there must be an easier way to do this. Turns out there is – offer it the bloody peanut cookie! Lolly is distracted and then you can use the cage to catch it. So frustrating, but I must have looked like a bloody fr00b running round in circles after it for so long. Where’s that fr00b shirt when i need it!?
I reckon I spent about 3 hours in this new player area and followed the main quest line, finding the odd side quest here and there and had a lot of fun once I got the hang of the gameplay elements. The implants and nanos system still confuses me, though I haven’t played enough to explore the depth of what these implants can do for my character. The game taught me how to craft and use them – essentially, they are buffs and skills you can use to enhance your combat. Things like buffing your trade or combat skills, one is a damage shield, another gives me bonus damage when I use a pistol, and so on. I can see a lot of customisation as you find more ingredients to make more advanced implants.
Combat was a little dull with just a simple auto attack button and that was pretty much it until the monster dies. The difficulty of the monsters was shown at the top of the screen when you select them with green being easy, yellow hard, orange challenging and red will kill you pretty quickly. When I died I would respawn at an insurance pad which is basically the same as the lifestones binding system from Asheron’s Call. I could have continued grinding mobs and doing side quests in this area but I wanted to explore more areas of the game, so made my way to the zone exit. This teleported me to the ICC HQ in the Andromeda zone.
I found there were about 20 other players running around in this area so there is still a fair player-base playing the game today. They were helpful too when I wasn’t sure where to go next and they taught me more about nanos and other quest areas to head to in a few levels time. I came across some funny monsters too, such as this Deranged Shopper in the subway who bought a pillow to a gun fight, with matching pants to boot!
Later in the game you will experience dynamic quests which were the first of their kind in MMORPGs. Like normal quests, you will obtain the quest and head to the location to interact or kill the required mobs. In MMORPG’s of this era, if you are killing a monster, you have effectively ‘tagged’ it as yours. This mean that if someone helps you kill the monster after you started the fight, they will not earn XP and they cannot loot it. The same happens in reverse, if someone starts the fight and you help, you don’t get anything. This becomes annoying when someone runs ahead of you and tags all the mobs you need for your quest, forcing you to wait for them to respawn.
With dynamic quests, you and your group members are taken to your own instance of the quest hunting area – lets say it’s a cave. You will enter the cave and no one else can enter your instance of that cave. Therefore, you can take your time and you are guaranteed to get full XP and items from everything you kill in that instance. Once you finish the quest, you leave that area and you’re put back into the open world. This was a great gameplay element for AO back then and I wish more MMORPGs in that era had it as there were many frustrating times that people ‘stole’ our mobs. Nowadays anyone can help you kill everything and you all get XP and loot items from it, which has simplified the system a lot.
As I started to level up, killing tougher mobs and looting more implants, nanos and weapons, the game was starting to look and feel a little bit like Deus Ex, toying with different augmentations in this sci-fi themed world. This was short-lived though as I was starting to struggle to know what to do next. I eventually found some more quests to do but they were located a couple of zones across from the ICC HQ. I did try venturing beyond the city however the monsters were too high level. I asked one of the nearby players what to do and they said to go fight monsters in the sewer. I said, ‘ok, then what?’ They responded, ‘just grind it out until level 25 and then you’ll be fine to head out of the city.’ It had just taken me 2 hours to figure out a plan and go from level 8 to 10, so level 25 looked like a daunting grind ahead of me. I enjoyed experiencing this game and loved the sci-fi theme more and more as I played. It’s definitely worth a look if you’re looking for a nostalgic free-to-play MMORPG on Steam.
As was the case with Ultima Online, EverQuest, Asheron’s Call and Anarchy Online, whichever MMORPG was your first would give you the most memorable experiences to look back on. For me that was Ultima Online, but I have really enjoyed going back and revisiting these other MMORPG’s that pioneered the genre.
If you have great memories of playing Anarchy Online, I’d love to hear about them! Join the Game on AUS – God Mode closed Facebook group where you’ll be welcomed and we can reminisce the old days. In part 5, I will be reviewing 2001’s Dark Age of Camelot which introduced Realm versus Realm, a new team-based form of PvP combat.