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Free for All: My five favorite MMOs for exploration


There's nothing more important to me than the ability to freely explore MMOs. Heck, exploration is the reason I got into MMOs. I remember grabbing that box of Ultima Online (man, I wish I still had that box!) from a shelf at the local game store and looking in wonder at just how vast this virtual world seemed to be. I'm still the same way, although after years of doing this, I am a bit more cynical about games. I've heard so many promises that never came true, but I know that even the worst of titles offers the chance to explore a brand-new world.

There are a lot of exploration mechanics out there. Free Realms has an adventurer "job," The Secret World needs players to explore to solve mysteries, Guild Wars 2 offers experience based on discovering new areas, EverQuest II entices people to explore by offering collectible items embedded in the ground, and there are so many MMOs that allow players to gain experience just by approaching areas they haven't before.

But I have my favorites. These are games that just make me feel like an explorer.

Second Life screenshot
Second Life

There is no better title for explorers than Second Life. I have played it since 2004 -- nine years now -- and I am still amazed to log in to find something that blows me away. The website and much of the playerbase might make it seem there is nothing on offer but cheesy, digital sex, but the game or world or experience or whatever you want to call it is so, so much more. I have found areas that had almost photorealistic qualities, all built by hand using optical illusions and other tricks. I've discovered lush forests, massive castles, alien planets, massive art galleries, and so much more.

Linden Lab has done a mostly good job about allowing players to separate out the digital sex or other offensive materials from the G-rated stuff. Personally, I wish the developers would segregate all of the adult material into an entirely separate website and game client; that might help the game's image. Other than that, I love walking around the many worlds of Second Life and stumbling across things I have never seen. It really is still an amazing MMO; I hope it lasts forever.

Second Life screenshot
I can't say that I have a favorite area in Second Life because new, cooler areas keep popping up every time I log in. Visiting the newbie area is still a thrill because there you can witness brand-new players make their way around for the first time.

Ryzom screenshot

The landmass of Ryzom's planet Atys is not nearly as large as those in other games, but it's a very dangerous one. Exploring in Ryzom is like taking a trip through the deepest jungles and hottest deserts: It can get you killed, but you'll surely see some amazing stuff. There is instant travel in the game, but all new characters need to visit teleportation areas, similar to unlocking flight paths in some games. In order to unlock them all, players will host lower-level players on "treks" that take them around the world while also defending them. I've gone on many treks and loved them all. They can take up an entire afternoon, but they allow a new player to see just how beautiful and original Ryzom still is while exploring with friends.

Ryzom screenshot
I love finding small camps with blazing fires or lakes that provide much-needed safety while on a gathering trip. Ryzom makes you feel as if you are always in danger, but it also surrounds you in wonder. I would love to visit Atys, but I would bring a lot of friends. My favorite spot is probably the homeland of the Zorai, a mysterious race with masks permanently stuck to their faces. The land is jungle-like, glowing, and rainy. It's also very, very dangerous.

Vanguard screenshot
Vanguard: Saga of Heroes

Vanguard is one of those titles that I cut my MMO teeth on. Because the world of Telon is completely open (meaning that even dungeons are not instanced), travel feels epic and time-consuming. You can skip a long walk by using instant travel, then jump onboard a boat and travel the waters and to feel like you are on a real journey. And there are beautiful lighting effects and inviting taverns in every city.

Vanguard doesn't funnel players through key areas like other mainstream MMOs do. This can often lead to the feeling of an empty world because players are more spread out, but a recent server merge might help the small community feel more active. The world of Vanguard is massive, epic, beautiful, and realistic. Find a nice spot to sit and watch the sunrise. You won't regret it.

Vanguard screenshot
I can easily think of my favorite area in Vanguard. When you leave Khal, a major city, you will sail out through a bay and pass under two massive cliff-faces. They open up to the rest of the world and an open sea, perfectly representing the possibilities that the game offers.

RuneScape screenshot

Like Atys, the land area of RuneScape is not as large as in other games. It's so full of details, warm and glowing buildings, NPCs that hand out quests when you least expect it and so many dungeons and underground areas that you'll swear you're in one of the largest games out there. There's definitely a linear layout to the landmass, meaning that certain areas are made mostly for players of a certain level, but you won't be held back by lack of content. Thanks to the task system and the many quests that can span over the lifetime of your character, everything about RuneScape feels too large for a browser to hold.

RuneScape screenshot
My favorite area is still the simple swamp behind Lumbridge castle. It's an area where newbies cut their teeth on low-level rats and learn to mine for rock and to start a fire, and the soft glow of the torches and the bubbling water seem worlds away from the bustling city that is just a hundred steps to the north. It's brilliant design.

Wurm Online screenshot
Wurm Online

I love to introduce new players to Wurm Online. It's a good title for people who want immersion or a feeling of escape into a virtual world. They'll complain about "no real MMOs anymore," and then they discover Wurm. The game is a jarring experience at first because it's confusing and looks odd. But just like listening to a new band or attempting to get into a new television series, Wurm might require some time to adjust to as you get used to the specific parameters of the world. Once that happens, though, exploration is not only encouraged but necessary. I've known people who will wander around the world of Wurm for hours at a time with no particular reason. The staff here at Massively even hosted a Wurm village long ago.

I don't visit as much anymore, especially since the Java scare of several months ago, but exploring in Wurm leads to a lot of danger and real consequence and the feeling that you really are walking for hours and hours. There is no travel from point A to B in this one; there's always somewhere new to discover.

Wurm Online screenshot
My favorite area in Wurm is still the scary island that we eventually settled and dubbed the Massively village. I took a rowboat all the way out to the distant island, avoided monsters as I slowly built up a fence to protect myself, and watched as it eventually grew into a small town. I'll have memories of that place for a long time.

Each week, Free for All brings you ideas, news, and reviews from the world of free-to-play, indie, and import games -- a world that is often overlooked by gamers. Leave it to Beau Hindman to talk about the games you didn't know you wanted! Have an idea for a subject or a killer new game that no one has heard of? Send it to!

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