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Some Assembly Required: Six reasons to love sandboxes in 2013

Jef Reahard

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What a difference a year makes, amirite? This time twelve months ago, I was licking the wounds brought on by Star Wars Galaxies' unceremonious and premature departure from the MMO scene. It was bad enough that a profitable title was sacrificed in order to clear a path for one of 2012's biggest disappointments, but it was worse that said title was the premier sandbox in the genre's history.

Frankly, the last few years have been abysmal for fans of non-linear MMOs and player-generated content, but thankfully, 2012 righted the ship and gave us more than a bit of hope for 2013.

Star Citizen - not our only hope
Star Citizen
I may get some flak for including Star Citizen on this list, but, well, too bad. Chris Roberts' return to gaming was a godsend for space sim fans, sandbox fans, and fans of gaming in general. The title rewrote the Kickstarter record books, blew away its original crowdfunding target, and is now deep in development with a playable alpha due before the end of 2013. Despite the fact that Roberts himself says SC is not a traditional MMO, it shares plenty of persistent-world bells and whistles with our favorite genre.

Not only that, but it's going to give players an unprecedented level of control over their experience thanks to its private server option, and with apologies to the enormous (and enormously fun) 1000-player battles supported by PlanetSide 2, I'd much rather get my sandbox on with a hundred like-minded space sim enthusiasts than with a free-for-all melting pot of gankers, griefers, and progression grinders.

Think 2003-era Neverwinter Nights with next-gen spaceships.

ArcheAge airship
I don't know whether ArcheAge will head West in 2013. I suspect that it will, simply because XLGAMES isn't stupid and it knows that there is a sizable audience of sandbox-lovers in both Europe and America who are waiting impatiently for exactly this sort of game to sweep them off their feet.

We've written exhaustively about the game's merits since introducing it to western audiences in 2010, and 2012 only served to stoke the fires of fanaticism as beta players feverishly translated Korean dev diaries and posted hours of testing footage to YouTube. We learned more about the game's extensive non-combat features and its revolutionary crime and punishment system, and we got an eyeful of gorgeous visuals that rival the genre's best.

My only real concern with ArcheAge is that it seems too good to be true in some ways. If a sandbox developer were to come to me with a massive budget and say, Jef, I want to make your ideal game and I need a features list, that list would look remarkably similar to ArcheAge. That's a lot of expectation to heap on a single title, and it's the one thing that's keeping me from going full fanboy and blathering on about how Jake Song's game is the second coming, the one game to rule them all, etc.

EverQuest Next - the same old concept art because SOE won't release any new stuff
EverQuest Next
As with ArcheAge, I really have no idea when we'll see EverQuest Next. Smedley did state in no uncertain terms that a playable demo will show its face at SOE Live next year, and my guess/hope is that early beta testing will commence prior to 2014.

Regardless of when the blessed event actually happens, though, I think it's going to be a watershed moment in the post-2004 MMO industry. Smedley is spot on when he says that MMOs are in a rut that is largely EverQuest's doing. He's also heading up a company flush with money, design talent, and the will to make creative changes to a stagnant, risk-averse industry culture. From everything that Smedley has said thus far, I think it's safe to assume that EQNext is going to be a radical departure from both EQ and EverQuest II, so much so that it may well put off traditional fans of the franchise who play MMOs for the progression and little else.

SOE surely has held on to bits and pieces of the incredible design ideas that infused Star Wars Galaxies, and the prospect of a big-budget AAA sandbox that isn't burdened by a cumbersome IP and an overbearing third party is ridiculously exciting. If EQNext turns out to be more Ultima Online than EverQuest, it could well mark the industry's return to its virtual world roots (and it would be absolutely hilarious to watch that drama unfold).

Age of Wushu sure looks purty
Age of Wushu
Age of Wushu is still something of a mystery to me. In fact, by the time you read this, I'll finally be taking my first look at the game's public beta. I can't help but get excited about the reaction to the martial arts sandbox thus far, though. Massively staffer Patrick Mackey unequivocally called it the best MMO he's ever played, and former Massively scribe Jeremy Stratton was similarly enthusiastic during his beta livestreams.

I'm hopeful that the game's delicious blend of wire-fu, mythologized real-world settings, and innovative (no, really) mechanics will add up to the sleeper sandbox hit of 2013.

The Repopulation - now with Entertainers!
The Repopulation
Next up is The Repopulation. Like AoW, I don't have any first-hand experience with the title as of yet, but the devs are saying all the right things. The game's city-building and crafting systems are incredibly extensive, and the recent reveal of an SWG-like Entertainer skill set instantly set the title apart from every other sandbox in the offing.

Darkfall - Nope, it still hasn't (re)launched
Finally, I've got to mention Darkfall: Unholy Wars here. Look, I know the reboot's beta delays are a running joke, and it is unfortunate that Aventurine seems perpetually undermanned and unable to field a competent PR team. Those facts have nothing to do with the game itself, though, and while many in the MMO community (including a few journos who should know better) love to poke fun at Darkfall, those who have actually played it for more than an hour generally agree on the game's addictive mechanics and the potential inherent in the enormous sandbox world.

I'm a bit concerned that the game's skill system has been reshaped to something approximating a class-based approach, but based on my spurts of DF playtime over the years, I'm betting that AV is again going to deliver a flawed but extremely fun MMO that's well worth a sandbox fan's time and money.

Every two weeks, Jef Reahard and MJ Guthrie take a break from their themepark day jobs to delve into the world of player-generated content. Comments, suggestions, and coverage ideas are welcome, and Some Assembly Required is always looking for players who'd like to show off their MMO creativity. Contact us!

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