What's the best PC MMORPG experience? Is it one with spell-slinging and demon-slaying? Working your way through the stars as a miner or a corporate bigwig? Solving ancient conspiracies and fighing Lovecraftian horrors? Maybe it's all of them.
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Here’s our list of the best MMOs on the PC, kicking off with a few of the top free PC MMOs. You're sure to find something that will swallow up entire days at a time.
Skyforge stands out thanks to the combination of its unique class system, excellent early game and beautiful world. Incentivising experimentation and personal exploration, being able to select between any class you’ve unlocked at any time lets you dramatically switch playstyle at a moment’s notice without having to go through another hundred hours of re-levelling. The Ascension Atlas operates like a Final Fantasy sphere grid, always giving you options as to both what your next choice will be and what your goal in ten hours time is.
The early game is varied and interesting, giving you lots of things to do, options as to how to do it and plenty of rewards that let you pick and choose how you want to play. It switches regularly between solo-instanced areas that tell a linear story, wide-open zones that encourage casual teaming up in a lived-in world and group content that’s more difficult but offers better loot. While it’s gated by your Prestige number, you’re unlikely to run out of things to do and have to go grind it out.
It’s set in one of the most fetching game worlds we’ve encountered, an elegant mix of high fantasy and ludicrous sci-fi. The world of Aelion has as many robotic monstrosities as it does magic rats and Gods flying around, and it’s a wonderful place to walk through, particularly on higher graphics settings.
Want more? Here's our Skyforge review.
Neverwinter is a surprise. It's thematically D&D, taking the places, classes, spells and abilities from the tabletop game, then cramming them inside an action-based MMO. It shouldn't work, but somehow it does. It helps that there's this earnest love for the source material, and each quest feels like someone you could imagine yourself embarking upon while stilling around a table.
Lots of free expansions – which includes new races and classes – have been introduced in the time since Neverwinter launched, taking players far from the safety of Neverwinter itself, to lands like Icewind Dale, where barbarians and unpleseant temperatures are the least of your worries. It's a mostly linear MMO, but if you start running low on new content, there's always the player-created stuff, and while it's often a bit terrible, there are some real gems hidden away.
Word of warning, though: Unless you approach the game casually, you'll probably have to spend money. It's become increasingly difficult to play for free, though certainly not impossible.
Star Trek Online
Miss Star Trek on TV? Star Trek Online might just tide you over until it, hopefully, reappears on television screens. Each quest in this MMO is like an episode of the show, and each mission series is an arc, complete with the occasional filler episode.
Take a trip to Risa, visit DS9, land on planets and practise your diplomacy or get in tense space battles with Cardassians, Romulans, Borg and whoever else is causing mischief. Space fights are a bit tactical, though in real-time, where positioning your ship to get the most out of your firing arcs is key. On away missions, those that devolve into combat, it’s a squad-based third-person shooter with ability cooldowns.
Despite a rocky start, STO has grown into a gargantuan, compelling MMO; it’s frequently expanded by massive updates that add whole new storylines and a couple of years ago it introduced the neutral Romulan faction with its unique missions and ships. Speaking of ships – that’s what really sets it apart from other MMOs. You’re not just outfitting and levelling up a hero, you’ve got a whole crew and a starship to manage and customise.
Rift is more than the World of Warcraft clone it was originally pegged as. Spontaneous events, Rifts, see large groups of players band together to bring down increasingly different magical threats and gargantuan all-out invasions. Supplementing your usual quests and raids, these events make the world feel more deadly, more alive, and constantly under siege.
Rift’s class system also deserves praise. The soul system lets players choose whether to specialise into one specific role or to branch out into multiple ones, creating a class that suits their playstyle or the needs of their chums. To help with this, you can save up to twenty soul configurations which can be switched on the fly. Rift relaunched in June 2013, adopting a free-to-play model.
Lord of the Rings Online
Tolkein’s world of Middle-earth is a perfect setting for an MMO. It has great characters, a massive world to explore, and everyone is always fighting.
Humans, Elves, Dwarves and Hobbits – the good guys – make up the playable races of Lord of the Rings Online, and as hunters or burglars or one of the other classes, you'll got on your own adventure, half-following in the footsteps of the famous Fellowship. Meet ents, get lost in Moria, take long rides through Rohan – there are press quests, sure, but sometimes it's simply nice to be a Middle-earth tourist.
Expansions push the story forward, following the books, and with each major plot point comes new mechanics, like the recent addition of mounted combat. If you’ve ever dreamed of experiencing Tolkien’s world first hand, then this has you covered. Best of all, it’s free to play.
Want more? Here's our Lord of the Rings Online review.
Archeage has very traditional quests, factions and a completely forgettable story. Ignore all of that and head into the sea. It's gorgeous. You'll probably just want to sit on a boat, and just stare out at the ocean as you gently bob away. But it's more than just a great spot for a wet break.
It’s huge. To sail from east to west in the fastest ship in the game can take anywhere between 45 minutes and an hour depending on if you run into any dangers such as storms, whirlpools, sea creatures or pirates. There’s even a legendary Kraken that dwells in the northern ocean that takes an entire raid of 40+ players and ten galleon sized ships, cannons blazing, to even scratch it. Deep under the ocean you can find shipwrecks filled with delicious bounty; the hardest of which requires diving gear to reach. I’ve spent hours at a time with some friends on the ocean floor.
You can glide through the sky and build houses as well, but really, who cares when there are boats?
Want more? Here's our ArcheAge review.
Guild Wars 2
Where World of Warcraft is as traditional an MMO as they come, Guild Wars 2 is the weird, contrarian opposite. Its design can be seen as an attempt to fix and improve on every broken mechanic that online games persist in pursuing.
It has few regular quests: instead players gang together to fight in rolling events – mini storylines that playout in stages depending on how gamers perform. These get players to work together organically, and also have an impact on the region they are in, like reducing the threat of roving bands of monsters, at least temporarily.
It is heavily PvP focused: it is trying desperately to create an eSport with in-game tournaments and a spectator mode. And although it once had no raids, the Heart of Thorns expansion has brought this genre staple to the table. The expansion is also all you'll need to buy, as the core game is now entirely free.
Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn
Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn is a story of heartwarming redemption. It was originally released two years ago, but it wasn’t very good. In fact, it was terrible. This triggered Square Enix to take drastic action: ditch the old team, hire a new team and remake the game.
The outcome is A Realm Reborn. And it’s good. If you’re a Final Fantasy fan, you’ll adore Eorzea. It hits everything the series is known for: epic stories of good and evil duking it out, varied, painfully gorgous environments, over-the-top characters and flashy cutscenes.
It’s also clever: players have a great deal of flexibility within their class choice. As soon as you hit a paltry level 10, you gain the ability to switch to any of the games eight combat classes at just the switch of the weapon. The upside is that players don’t need to create alts to try out other roles. It’s also one of few cross platform MMOs, in which PC and Playstation players share the same world. Nick gave the expansion 9/10 in his Heavensward review, and John has been recording his adventures in a Final Fantasy XIV: Heavensward diary.
There’s a good chance that you’ve already heard about one of the many tales of dark bastardry that have spun out of Eve’s New Eden. It’s a game of cold-hearted betrayal, mining, economics, more betrayal, more mining and occasional thousand person space-ship battles.
With CCP’s hands off approach, the universe of New Eden is one of the most player driven MMOs in existence. Wars that span weeks if not months across multiple systems. Years of plotting and sabotage to bring huge corporations down from the inside. Reports of huge losses in ships and cargo, some reaching the thousands of dollars in real world value.
Eve Online isn’t the easiest game in the world to learn, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. CCP’s tutorial does a good job of explaining the basics, but there comes a point where everything becomes trial and error. You even have helpful communities such as EVE University who strive to teach their members advanced skills.
The Secret World
What if myths, legends and conspiracies weren’t works of fiction at all? The Secret World asks exactly that – it’s an action MMO set in the modern world: except this modern world is filled with cults, zombies, ghosts, demons and eldritch nightmares
The Secret World represents a path MMOs could have gone down, but sadly didn't, where quests were more than just sources of loot and experience, and attempted to tell compelling stories and force players to engage their brains. A quest in The Secret World is as likely to be a puzzle that makes you search through websites fake and real for the answers as it is to be one that just sends you off to behead a monster.
Leveling in The Secret World works a bit differently too. As you complete quests – which are repeatable – you can spend points to unlock thematically and weapon linked abilities on a multi-tiered circle. There are no limits. You can unlock them all, rewarding you with new costumes and the ability to craft any hero you can imagine, from a katana-wielding pyromaniac to a soldier who dabbled in blood magic.
Star Wars: The Old Republic
At launch, The Old Republic was a confused MMO, blazing a trail with tonnes of voice work and brilliant class quests, but absolutely run-the-mill everywhere else. It's dramatically improved with age, however; particularly if you're willing to pay a subscription.
The game comes with eight classes, split across the Empire and Republic. Each has a detailed, dramatic story, and they’re good. Surprisingly so. You can take on the role of an Imperial Agent, working for the good of the Empire by rooting out terrorists; a Jedi Knight sworn to hunt Sith and protect the galaxy; or even a slave-turned-Sith Inquisitor, playing a dangerous game of politics. You can play all of this for free, but as a subscriber, you can level faster and solely on the interesting class and planetary quests instead of the trite filler rubbish.
Several expansions have kept it feeling reasonably fresh, but it's the excellent Knights of the Fallen Empire expansion that really deserves to be played. With its web of intrigue, relationships and a focus on player choice, it feels more like a proper Knights of the Old Republic sequel than anything that has come before it.
World of Warcraft
Over a decade old and still the most popular MMO in the world – World of Warcraft is a bit special. During its long reign, WoW has changed a lot. New classes, races, a graphics overhaul, whole new continents... players can even travel back in time. It's huge, bewilderingly so, and you can speed through it so quickly now that it becomes easy to miss some of the surprisingly excellent story-laden quests that have sprouted up.
At times it seems traditional, the MMO that defined the modern style of the genre, but it's not above mixing things up. Take Garrisons, for instance: your base of operations in Draenor, where you command your loyal forces of either the Horde or the Alliance. They’re teeming with stuff to do, click and loot, and even NPC followers who you can send off on their own adventures.
And here's everything we know about World of Warcraft: Legion, the next expansion, from the Broken Isles to the new Demon Hunter class.
That's what we've come up with – how about you? Any favourite MMOs that we've left off the list?