Ah, wishes and horses. Both are full of poop! But if wishes could be horses, I'd love to have some time to go back and play Anarchy Online hardcore.
I don't know what it is about this game that keeps calling me back with its retro appeal. But every year I go through a phase when I download the client and re-enter the world of Rubi-Ka for another attempt at mastering this 11-year-old title. It doesn't stick, but the fondness and desire remains. Why do I play it? I'm going to be coy and make you work for the answer.
People tend to have a ridiculous fondness for their firsts: their first kiss, their first video game console, their first boy band, their first tax audit. Tack on "first MMO," and you'll see gamers light up as they rush to tell you about how special that title was -- even if it wasn't that great in comparison or in retrospect. Our virgin experience in virtual worlds means something.
For me, my first MMO was Anarchy Online. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing or why everything played like a slide show (yes, I tried to start during the game's launch because that's the story of my life). I didn't know any of the other hundreds of pieces of info that we take for granted as veteran gamers. I just knew that I liked science-fiction more than fantasy, and in 2001, there wasn't much in the way of options in that regard.
Shadowlands was when I really got into the game, although I still felt perpetually lost, broke, and alone. Yet it felt magical to me. The otherworldly setting, the demanding learning curve, and the allure of RPG mechanics kept me logging in to see how far I could get my weakling Adventurer. Anarchy Online was a game where you could easily gimp yourself without a plan for your skills. I'm sure that my character was probably an embarrassment of horrible choices, but hey -- I could swim really fast!
Without a clear quest system to urge me on and reward me, I spent most of my time simply grinding until I could afford better gear and survive in the next area. It's funny to look back and say that that right there had huge appeal, but it really did. Even though I had played sophisticated RPGs like Chrono Trigger and Baldur's Gate II, it felt like a completely different ballgame when I was in a persistent world with other actual players. MMOs got a lot of leeway in early years because of those two factors.
Why I play: Science-fiction, baby!
For my money, there aren't enough science-fiction MMOs. I'm excited about Guild Wars 2 like most of you, but there's a sad part of me that whimpers, "Dragons? Giant spiders? Big swords? Again?"
Science-fiction to me is such a wider field with greater possibilities than the tired tropes of high fantasy. It can be spaceships or cyberhackers, intergalactic conflicts or local mining disputes. While fantasy titles have poured in over the years, sci-fi MMOs have come by the trickle. Fortunately for those of us who love this genre, Anarchy Online's been there for us practically since the beginning.
The world of Rubi-Ka is interesting to me. We don't see a lot of the greater universe around us but instead are asked to focus on this frontier planet that's equal parts corporate shilling and wilderness. Funcom's art team went for something definitely unique instead of aping Star Wars or Star Trek, and I like the end result.
Even though you can argue that "nanos" are a thinly veiled analogue to magic, the game does its best to sell you on the concept and make it understandable. It's not vague mystical forces that create protective shields but small robots that are under our control. Semantics, maybe, but a great difference in tone.
In any case, it's a world with robots, laser rifles, and alien invasions. Good enough for me!
When I look at Anarchy Online objectively, there's not a lot going for it these days other than a decade or so of development and a free business model. The graphics are aging (and most likely we won't see the engine update anytime soon), the combat very boring and visually bland (what you see on screen is almost never lined up with the actual number crunching), and it remains a highly complex title that serves as a ward against the inquisitive.
Yet it's hard to be fully objective because there's this intangible quality about the game that makes it more than the creaky sum of its parts. It's got a quirky sense of humor as evidenced by its Leet rodents, the sounds are oddly engaging, and the way you build your character offers a high degree of customization once you get used to it. It's probably the only game to have a Bureaucrat as an actual class or a giant floating eyeball as an attack pet.
While the game has a smaller community now than it did at its peak, my last journey there revealed that the ones who have stayed behind are wonderfully friendly and enthusiastic about the title. There's a group of players who take it upon themselves to police the newbie area and answer questions in person to those of us stumbling through the mechanics.
It might forever be known as "that game with the worst MMO launch of all time," but Anarchy Online is so much more than an initial misstep -- and that's why I play it.
There's an MMO born every day, and every game is someone's favorite. Why I Play is a column in which the Massively staff members kick back and reminisce about all their favorite MMOs. Whether it's the new hotness or an old fan favorite loaded with nostalgia, each title we cover here tugs at our heartstrings and keeps us coming back for more.