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The List: Five Dead MMOs with Potential

Column By Michael Bitton on May 07, 2012

Ah, it’s fun to travel down memory lane. I often ask myself, “What could have been?” about a great many MMOs. Unfortunately, we’ve only got so much space in this week’s The List, so we’re going to narrow it down to five dead MMOs that exhibited great potential.

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Dominus

We don’t know too much about this one, but Dominus had the MMORPG.com community particularly excited. At its most basic, Dominus was a sci-fi sandbox MMO with three-faction RvR. There really isn’t much to say more than that when it comes to a community who frequently herald Dark Age of Camelot as having the best PvP in the genre and often has a particular affinity for sandbox games.

The Agency

This curious MMO shooter by SOE Seattle was to be the first to tackle the ‘spy-fi’ genre.  The game would let you fulfill your fantasy of playing a secret agent. Whether this meant the suave classic James Bond type or the bombastic Mission Impossible type, the choice was up to you. The Agency employed an interesting “You Are What You Wear” system that would allow players fairly limitless flexibility in approaching tasks by simply switching out to necessary equipment.  Combat was from either the first or third person perspectives and featured your typical shooter trappings.  The game was to be hub-based, but the variety of missions, including vehicular segments, appeared quite promising. Most striking was The Agency’s unique yet comic book-esque visual style that really popped and brought the game’s characters and environments to life. The Agency was simply a breath of fresh air to look forward to after being inundated with fantasy and standard sci-fi MMOs for many years.

Tabula Rasa

You had to know this one would make the list. Richard Garriott’s most expensive failure, Tabula Rasa was an ambitious MMO that originally appeared as some sort of space fantasy game before being redeveloped from the ground up as a straight sci-fi MMO shooter. While Tabula Rasa certainly had its flaws, it was one of the first MMOs where the content often came to the player. Coming upon a human outpost only to watch alien ships dropping off troops who proceeded to assault said outpost wasn’t an experience you’d find in your typical night of World of Warcraft questing. The combat system was also an interesting hybrid of MMO combat and third person shooter mechanics. In a true sign of the game’s potential, NCsoft added pilotable mechs as part of an update during the game’s final month of service. To this day, I truly wonder where the game could have gone.

The Chronicles of Spellborn

Spellborn was a game I’d hardly heard of before being assigned to review it back in 2009. While I ultimately gave the game a 7.7 due to myriad issues holding it back, I could easily see the game’s potential as I was surprised with how much fun I actually had with it despite its flaws. Questing in Spellborn wasn’t your typical grab a ton of quests and run out affair. The quests often required a bit more thought, sometimes employing puzzles, and definitely requiring you to read the quest text (oh the horror!) in order to figure out what exactly you needed to do. What really impressed me though was the game’s extremely deep combat system and convincing AI.

Combat in Spellborn was action combat before TERA did it and involved a unique tumbler-like hotbar comprised of multiple decks that rotated as you used different abilities.  Skills often played off each other, which meant that coming up with combos that created optimal synergy was key to surviving in battle.

One of my first encounters with the game’s AI made me wonder if I were fighting other players at first. The mobs would try to kite me and even send their tank-like enemies in first to try and block off the ranged attackers.

Oh, and the game was beautiful. It wasn’t the most technically beautiful game, no, but the art style was particularly striking.

The Matrix Online

The Matrix Online could have been the perfect MMO. After all, the setting of the story features people ‘jacking in’ to a virtual reality. I can’t really think of a licensed IP that could have more potential than The Matrix. Unfortunately, the Wachowski brothers had to go and bone up the sequels to the smash-hit original film and by the time The Matrix Online was ready to go out the door, interest in the franchise had waned. Too little, too late, I suppose.

The game’s story picked up after the events of the films and plugged along with monthly chapters featuring well-crafted cinematics and set pieces that changed the actual game world to coincide with the events of a particular story arc. The Matrix Online wasn’t without significant issues, but it turned out to be an ambitious MMO that employed the use of a Live Events Team to really bring players into the on-going story.  Players who were heavily involved in role-play could find themselves deeply embedded into these storylines and even shape them in part by participating in activities put on by the Live Events Team.

For my part, I can fondly recall taking part in under the cover of darkness meetings with Morpheus (before he was killed off) at the top of one of the game’s many enterable buildings, frantically escorting Niobe in order to secure her extraction, and even taking part in secret underground meetings with my faction and other key characters to discuss our plans. With three different factions of humans (those loyal to the Machines, Zion, or the Merovingian) there was a lot of plotting going on and some really great RP to be had. Unfortunately, this system really only shined for those who were dedicated to role-playing, and could be almost invisible to some of the larger populace that didn’t particularly care for it.

I’d be remiss without also mentioning the game’s fun but flawed combat system. The Matrix Online featured an ‘Interlock’ combat system that achieved the cinematic martial arts and gun-fu combat of the films, but paid the price by essentially limiting those who participated in it to one-on-one fights. It was possible to involve multiple players in Interlock, but the combat system basically slowed to a crawl and fell apart as players ended up having to wait for their turns. Interlock posed huge problems for PvP as well, since ranged classes (including mage-like Hackers) could attack other players involved in an Interlock fight.

If The Matrix Online had launched while the IP was still hot and developers Monolith (and eventually SOE) figured out how to solve the Interlock situation, the game could have fared a good deal better. Unfortunately, hindsight is always 20/20 and we’ll never know if any of the games on this week’s List, MXO included, could have ever reached their potential.

What are your top five picks for dead MMOs that had tons of potential? Share ‘em in the comments below!

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