It used to be that we could count ourselves lucky and check for the coming of the End of Days when more than one new offering to the MMO genre released in a single year. These days, we see a handful or more come and go in that same timeframe. But often all the glory is left to the games who can afford a robust advertising budget. In the spirit of rooting for the little guys, here's a list of games that may come up and bite us in the collective rear end this year... should they make their proposed release dates.
#5 Allods Online
It's not too often in this gaming world that "Free-to-Play" and "Quality" are uttered in the same sentence, and yet that's exactly what the makers of Allods Online are hoping to change. From Astrum Nival, a Russian developer that's been in the business for ages, Allods seeks to combine the quality of a triple-A MMORPG with the value of the F2P market. Based on the cult-favorite Rage of Mages series, Allods Online sports impressive visuals (though they may be reminiscent of a certain game), a blend of Sci-Fi and Fantasy trappings, a unique aerial combat mechanic for warring factions, mini-game based professions, and the no-NDA beta has the blogosphere abuzz with anticipation.
For a game players need never bust the wallet out for, it looks better on paper and in screenshots and video than most games they charge $50 and a monthly fee for. The key will be whether it plays as well as the press-releases might indicate. Luckily, there's not a long time to wait before everyone will know. Runes of Magic has proven that quality doesn't mean paying for a retail box, and Allods Online just might continue that trend.
#4 Mortal Online
From Swedish company Star Vault, Mortal Online is slowly gaining the attention of hardcore gamers for its proposed sandbox-styled gameplay. Many gamers that have been around a while are craving for a game that reminds them of the early days of Ultima Online, and Mortal Online is shaping up to be a likely candidate. Donning a first-person perspective and combat mechanics that are akin to the Elder Scrolls series, Star Vault's game bares more than a passing resemblance to Bethesda's money-maker. And that's certainly not a bad thing. An open-ended skill-system, shared traits across characters on one's account, a wide-open player-controlled world... these are the things that have many a player hoping Star Vault can deliver the goods.
#3 The Agency
Okay, so this entry on the list isn't exactly coming from a small development studio. Sony Online Entertainment is no stranger to big MMO releases. Still I think this title deserves mention based simply on the fact that its premise is so unique. Similar to the recently released Global Agenda, The Agency is hoping to seamlessly blend the mechanics of a shooter with some of the more familiar features of an MMORPG with a focus on subterfuge and stealth alongside all the bang-bang and boom-boom.
Players will play the role of a either a James Bond style spy (U.N.I.T.E), or a lethal tool of destruction and unconventional methods (ParaGON). From there the game is reportedly focused on private encounters of several different types, stemming off from a central "hub-like" overworld where players congregate. Add in the ability to switch roles between the different classes in the game at will, a focus on heavily scripted missions and several modes of PvP for the competitive types, and you have the potential makings of a sleeper hit. The big question mark for most will be whether there's a subscription to play or not, given its similarity to another recently released shooter MMO.
One of many in a wave of Sci-Fi games releasing this year, Earthrise is currently on track for a Q2 2010 release. A classless game, Earthrise sets players out to Enterra, an island rife with the friction between several different factions and two major encompassing groups: Continoma and Noir. And while there may be a large focus on the factional PvP, developer Masthead Studios is promising a compelling quest-based PvE portion as well that is perfectly suited to the solo player. Players will also be able to advance their character while offline (especially in the financial department through the game's robust player-driven economy and crafting). In my own opinion, it sounds a lot like what Richard Garriott's Tabula Rasa could have been but never was. And we don't have long to wait to find out if that's true.
Probably the only title on this list that won't see light of day before the calendar year is up, Copernicus is the code name for whatever it is 38 Studios is crafting behind their brick walls out in Massachusetts. Who is 38 Studios? Oh, it's just that entertainment company founded by pitching legend Curt Schilling all by his lonesome developing that MMORPG with the story crafted by R.A. Salvatore and the art direction led by Todd McFarlane. While recently there have been whisperings that this title might never see the light of day due to funding concerns, the geek in me has to hold onto hope that all will be well.
Sure there is already a reigning king of the fantasy MMO in Blizzard, but who doesn't want to see what Salvatore and McFarlane come up with? Schilling is an avid online gamer himself, and a huge fan of EQ2 and WoW. While this might lead some to believe he's probably funding nothing more than a clone of either or both, I like to hope that a studio with such talent would know better. But the truth is no one knows what the formerly titled "Green Monster Games" people are working on. With a tentative release set for 2011, maybe that will change soon.