Massively's Top 5 Sci-Fi MMOs

Samuel Axon
S. Axon|11.27.07

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Massively's Top 5 Sci-Fi MMOs
Orcs and Elves are all well and good, but some of us are more attracted to a mythical future than to a mythical past. Sci-Fi is trendy again, in case you hadn't heard. From Tabula Rasa to Star Trek Online (we hope), the future belongs to, well ... the future. But what about the past of the future? Sorry; this is getting more verbally confusing than a Voyager time paradox episode. Let's put it this way: click through the jump to see Massively's top 5 Sci-Fi MMOs to date!

Can you think of any tragic omissions? To paraphrase a character from pop culture, "Science Fiction is neither Science nor Fiction. Discuss!"

5. Earth & Beyond
Earth & Beyond was not a perfect game. It's the only one on this list that is no longer operational. Whether you attribute its failure to misguided design decisions or to EA's disregard for the project after the Westwood acquisition, the game is still deserving of a place on this list because it was different.

Players of Earth & Beyond could earn XP along three tracks -- Trade, Exploration, and Combat. Some games dole out tiny amounts of XP for exploration, but it's almost unheard of to make it one of the three central modes of gameplay. That's unfortunate. Out of all of Richard Bartle's MUD/MMO-playing personality types, "Explorers" are the most shafted by current industry trends. If only more games would make exploration something more than a side note like Earth & Beyond did.

4. Anarchy Online
At launch, Anarchy Online could have fairly been described as a Sci-Fi EverQuest. That was nothing to complain about at the time, but over the years AO has become much more. The expansions have introduced robust PvP scenarios, player-built towns, and other features that thrill players accustomed to the old-school, pre-EQ ways of doing things.

The game was groundbreaking in small ways before the expansions too. It was one of the first mainstream games to use instances. Players could (and can) even customize their instance experience and take on missions at the exact challenge level they wanted. AO also features a highly customizable advancement system that is, again, not unlike the pre-EQ way of doing things. Even though players gain levels, skill points make up the real heart of the advancement system, and those skill points can be spent on absolutely any skill, regardless of class, as long as players are willing to pay a higher price to train skills not associated with their chosen professions.

AO's player base expanded a great deal when Funcom made the core game free to players willing to live with in-game advertising. Today it remains an exemplary title for a niche market, even though its business model generates a unique set of problems.

3. PlanetSide

Some readers will consider PlanetSide to be the most unusual choice on our list, since it's an FPS rather than an RPG. It didn't get its act together until a while after its launch, and it's quite small. So why are we putting it at number 3 on our list? Because it's a good game, and because it deserves credit for being one of the first high-profile attempts to expand the MMO beyond the RPG.

pits three factions against one another in 24/7 Sci-Fi first-person combat. At first it was difficult for players to find the action, but that's changed. Players can pilot a variety of vehicles and wield several weapons as they fight over capture points spread across ten planets. Rewards are given to those who perform well on the battlefield. Despite the rewards, though, PlanetSide is not much like traditional MMORPGs.

That's not a bad thing. In terms of diversity of experiences, the "massively multiplayer" genre isn't all that massive. It rarely engages new genres. We commend the developers of PlanetSide for trying something different.

2. Star Wars Galaxies (pre-NGE)

Star Wars Galaxies is one of the most controversial MMOs yet made. It's the only title on our list that's included with a disclaimer; "pre-New Game Enhancements."

The development of the original incarnation of SWG was helmed by famed game designer Raph Koster, who was also the lead designer for Ultima Online. Koster's SWG was ambitious. It featured 24 professions, 10 planets, and 10 races at launch, as well as a robust crafting system and completely open-ended character advancement. It was a challenging game; players could become Jedi, but only through a controversial mega-grind that was different for every character, and after all that, Jedi characters could permanently die.

The game was improved upon with the Jump to Lightspeed expansion, which added flight and combat in space. Player housing was added and later followed by player-built towns with mayors and city planning. The SWG of that period is the game to which we are awarding the number two spot.

About a year after Jump to Lightspeed, SOE responded to falling subscription numbers with the New Game Enhancements. The NGE drastically changed the game by eliminating several layers of complexity and making Jedi a starting class. The community responded negatively and SWG has never fully recovered. There might still be hope on the horizon for Star Wars fans, though.

1. EVE Online
We're willing to bet that no one is surprised that EVE Online is in the number one spot. EVE Online is so extraordinary that someone suggested that it's the cure for all the ills of the industry. That's a stretch; even as the game evades typical MMO pitfalls, it digs its own holes to fall into. Nevertheless, it's an outstanding game, and many of its features (like its advancement system, which allows players to develop their characters' skills while offline) should and probably will be inspiration for future generations of online games.

EVE Online can best be described as "open." It has open markets, open PvP combat (in low security systems, at least), and it's even going to have a faux democracy soon. Today's industry trends are all about controlled experiences with little risk. EVE Online is our number one because CCP has embraced risk. In doing so, it's produced a completely unique massively multi-player experience; imagine that! That makes EVE exceptional in every sense of the word.
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