The Game Archaeologist and the Girdle of Anarchy: My expedition

I have a confession to make: Returning to Anarchy Online was the driving force behind starting The Game Archaeologist. Oh sure, I pretended to be all business-like when I approached my boss and said, "You know, Señor Schuster, we are doing a disservice to some of the older MMOs and their fans by not covering these games, and I think, nay, insist we remedy that immediately." But of course, what I was thinking was, "Pay me to engage in hardcore nostalgia, dude!"

It worked. *cue rubbing hands together and laughing maniacally*

You see, Anarchy Online was my very first MMO. It wasn't my first MMO love, mind you -- that was City of Heroes. But AO holds a special place in my heart as the game that introduced me to the wonderful world of online RPGs. It was tough, near-incomprehensible, and quite buggy at the start, but I've never lost affection for the world of Rubi-Ka.

So after my looking back at Anarchy Online's history, asking you to share your stories, and talking with Funcom's devs, it was time for me to return and see if this world still holds magic... or if it has lost its way.%Gallery-102015% A little n00b in a big universe

What always appealed to me about Anarchy Online was that it dared to be a scifi MMO long, long before it was trendy to do so. While every other MMO in the fledgling market stuck to the safer confines of fantasy, AO was slinging laser rifles and nano programs to the crowd. The conceit for the game is that you are a colonist in the far future who lands on Rubi-Ka, a planet full of rare resources and ruthless factions fighting over them. Some of the world felt shiny and super-tech; some represented the jury-rigged ramshackle Clans; some was the wild frontier of beasts and hidden surprises. You pick a side (or, hey, stay neutral) and then head out to make a name for yourself.

My return expedition to AO instantly flooded me with strong memories, even though I haven't been in this world since 2003 (oh, I was so much younger and more virile back then!). This was a testament not only to the legacy of the game, but also to the fact that little seemed to be different between back then and now. That was a little disappointing, particularly when I had to figure out the clunky controls and get used to the blocky graphics all over again. Funcom's been promising a graphical update to the game for a while now, but I won't be holding my breath. To tell the truth, Anarchy Online needs more than just a visual overhaul -- it needs several of the features that have since become standard in MMOs as well (such as a better on-screen map).

I still feel overwhelmed when I consider all of the class choices in the game, especially since it's a bit hard at the start to tell what, exactly, they do. Anarchy Online almost requires that you do your homework ahead of time in planning out a class, because if you don't, you'll almost certainly gimp your character, especially the first time around. For my expedition, I decided to play through both the Rubi-Ka introductory zone as an engineer and the Shadowlands newbie area as an adventurer.

This Saturday night we're sending you back... to the future!

Jumping into Anarchy Online from a modern MMO perspective is a shock to the system. Many of the small things we've come to take for granted, like symbols over quest-givers' heads, just aren't there. I actually had to go up and talk to any NPCs I saw to see whether they had missions for me or just wanted to make small talk. On a positive note, the slower pace of the conversations that NPCs have with you actually made me pay attention to the story and specific quest instead of just speeding to the bottom and clicking "Accept!"

I'm not a big fan of the default UI arrangement in Anarchy Online. The chat box is in the bottom center, tiny vertical tubes represent health and nano, and largely useless "wings" of buttons took up chunks of screen real estate. Happily, the game allowed me to turn off elements I didn't like, turn on replacement ones (like an easier-to-read stat box that held my health, nano and XP bars), and move everything to a more-or-less traditional MMO arrangement. At this point I have to say that AO's UI may not be sublime, but it is attractive and functional, which is exactly what I required.

I felt more helpless starting out in the shoes of both of my characters than I normally do in other MMOs. I guess this was because I wasn't handed a huge suit of armor right away, and because I had to spend a lot of time figuring everything out. Anarchy Online has a deep system of buffs ("nanos") that harkens back to the older style of MMOs, and if you don't utilize them, then you'll be in for a miserable play experience. AO also came before the rapid health/mana regen branch of thought, so you either sit every once in a while to get it all back, or you die.

I also felt weak because my action bar consisted of... well, just an "attack" button and little else that I could do in combat. Fighting in AO, at least in the beginning, is a pretty tedious and non-interactive affair. You find a mob that hopefully won't kill you on sight, trigger an attack, and go make a sandwich or write an article for Massively while it resolves. There just isn't a lot to do during it, other than perhaps pop a heal from time to time. Both of my characters got pistols that enabled them to use a "fling shot" ability that amounted to an extra attack every 20 seconds or so, but that was about it. Auto-attack for the eventual win, I suppose.

Still, it was kind of engaging to slowly level up, find parts to sell, and be able to afford that awesome new piece of armor or nano deck or weapon I was craving. And while the combat didn't rock my socks off, I was just grooving to the music (Anarchy Online's score is absolutely splendid) and feeling an old school RPG vibe come on. You know the ones, back when you'd endlessly grind mobs just to be able to afford better gear at NPC vendors?

Best friends forever!

While I tried to keep my eye out for any guilds (organizations?) that were recruiting or people who needed help, things were pretty quiet in the newbie frontier. However, I did one have great social experience I wanted to share.

I was in the Shadowlands starter zone when I bumped into a guy who was grinding the same mobs. He sent out a team invite and I joined, and we proceeded to plow through the area while chatting back and forth a bit. Once he found out I was new (or, at least, newly returning), he told me I had to ditch my starter pistol and get something a bit more beefy. So he took me on a scavenger hunt around the zone, collecting a series of parts that he crafted into a set of energy pistols that seriously boosted my DPS. It was a small thing, but for a player to be kind to a lowbie stranger like this speaks volumes for the community.

The netbook MMO?

One aspect of older MMOs that tends to be overlooked a lot is that they are very system-friendly -- even on ultra-portable netbooks. In fact, I've been on a half-hearted quest to see what MMOs I could get to run on my two-year-old Eee netbook, and so far that list has grown to include World of Warcraft (including the Lich King expansion), Guild Wars and, yes, Anarchy Online. Because AO doesn't need a lot of heavy-duty graphical processing power (after all, it doesn't even do anti-aliasing) and the UI is fairly minimalistic, it strikes me as ideal for netbook gaming.

During a garage sale I held a couple weeks ago, I brought my netbook out with me and spent a few hours adventuring in Anarchy Online without any noticeable performance loss. Sure, the screen was a lot smaller, but it played smooth as silk. Perhaps Funcom could remarket this game for the netbook crowd? I could even see an iPad version as a possibility.

Expedition: Success!

While my month of Anarchy Online may be coming to a close, I'm planning on keeping it installed on my computers to revisit as time permits. I know that I've barely brushed the surface of the potential here, and if Funcom makes good on its word to give this decade-old game an overhaul, then I'd love to be on board for that renaissance.

Next week we're heading into October and a new MMO -- but instead of picking the game myself, I'd like to hear from you. What older (pre-2004) MMO should we cover next month? Let me know in the comments, and we'll let democracy run its course!

When not clawing his eyes out at the atrocious state of general chat channels, Justin "Syp" Olivetti pulls out his history textbook for a lecture or two on the good ol' days of MMOs in The Game Archaeologist. You can contact him via email at justin@massively.com or through his gaming blog, Bio Break.

This article was originally published on Massively.