Despite over a decade's worth of MMOs, one area where [developers] have consistently failed to maximize their games' potential is letting the player explore the world freely. Whether it's through features like invisible walls, or traditional "kill 10 rats" quests, these devs seem to think we want to follow the path they scripted. Why? Hand holding is for young couples in love, not a player and their MMO. Barring a full sandbox environment, there should be ways in this day and age to offer more options to the player. World of Warcraft had the right idea by designing the world to be seamless, thus allowing players who wanted a different experience to hike their asses to another part of the world map entirely and start on a journey of their own making.
That was in 2004.
Since then, hundreds of millions of dollars have been poured into MMOs to make sure they're played exactly how someone wants us to play them. They haven't advanced. Rift and SWTOR both have this problem; static starting worlds, limited actual choice but instead the illusion of it, the aforementioned invisible walls, the list goes on. My mind feels greasy and bloated after a few hours in a game that's supposed to be the ulitmate multiplayer experience, but in reality, I've spent that time running around looking for people to play with and having generally the same experience they had.
Two conflicting opinions I've had over SWTOR, for example, center around the fully voiced dialog and the options therein. On one hand, I feel that the developers made a good effort in disguising what is essentially Point A to Point B questing. It's new, it's fresh for a while and some of the answers your character can give are really freaking funny. Don't want to let that scumbag Imperial get away? Shoot him in the back! My friend, who was with me during that story mission where I chose cold blooded execution, couldn't stop laughing. I think he should be given those dark side points.
On the other hand, do I really think they should be rewarded for loosely covering up a flawed system? Apart from a good old fashioned dish of cold vengeance once in a while, SWTOR doesn't offer the most variety in story, and for the most part, you go exactly where the last person who played your class went. To do the same missions. I was at the point where I could barely make myself log in because of it. There's no real depth, and only the illusion of true choice, and that bothers me.
Rift is the same way. As is Aion. If I want to start out in a completely different starting area, I think I should be able to. I don't want to run the same hours-long warm up for every character I roll just to get to the point where I have a choice how I want to start my adventure. It's lazy design, and since WoW, a game released in 2004, was able to get that aspect of it right, there's no excuse for games being released in 2011/2012 to fail to match up.
Some promising 2012/2013 titles, however, look to take a note from Blizzard's behemoth (I feel this starting area feature is one of the things that keeps people rolling new characters), so we'll just have to wait and see if there's more variety in the future or if it's all just meaningless dialog choices and fluff.