Few things in gaming are as bittersweet as reminiscing about your favorite MMOs that are no longer around. You can always pick up an old single player game and the same is true for most multiplayer games provided their developers haven’t shut down the master server or the community hasn’t dwindled away. But MMOs? Those tend to just disappear into the ether once shut down. It can be pretty heart wrenching, especially if you’re still firmly part of the community when it happens. Still, it’s fun to remember the good times, so let’s take a look back at some of the best (now shut down) MMOs of all time.
#5 Tabula Rasa
Tabula Rasa didn’t affect me as deeply as my experiences in other MMOs, but it will always be memorable to me as a unique experience in a genre full of “me too” games. Richard Garriott had some novel ideas for the game, combining elements of a shooter with RPG combat in an MMO. It was somewhat clunky in execution, but overall, I enjoyed it. What made the game truly stand out to me at the time though was the dynamic feel of the game world. MMOs were (and still are) often very static, but Tabula Rasa’s world felt alive. The way enemies spawned in via dropships and the fact that NPC outposts could be attacked and taken over by invading NPC forces really spiced up the experience. The game’s final update was bittersweet, as it introduced pilotable mechs to the game shortly before it was set to be shut down. Fans of the game who were already upset that the game was canceled too soon were essentially teased by what could have been if the game had the chance to realize its potential.
#4 The Matrix Online
I already know I am going to be in the minority here, and that’s OK. MxO’s Interlock combat system, while flawed, was unique to the genre and was an excellent way for the developers at Monolith to convey Matrix-style combat in a genre that still wasn’t ready for action combat due to technical limitations at the time.
Beyond that, The Matrix Online was a roleplayer’s dream. Monolith’s Live Events Team was a compelling way to get players involved in the game’s ongoing storyline. The game’s story would progress from month to month, partially shaped by players’ actions, and the game world would visually change to reflect whatever was going on in said storyline. The aforementioned Live Events Team had Monolith staff play the part of various iconic Matrix characters and interact with players to help drive that storyline forward. It’s not every day that you get to join together with the top leaders of your faction for a secret underground meeting with a character like Niobe. Or rush to Morpheus’ aid as he’s assailed by the Machines (and Machine-aligned players), escorting him up the stairs through a skyscraper in a dramatic rooftop escape.
Active players were sometimes given a nod in future quests, too. For example, my guild, Archimedes Lever, was eventually written into the game's canon with a small mention in one of the main story quests. It was an unexpected but enjoyable surprise that helped cement that feeling of being connected to the game's world.
#3 Warhammer Online
Warhammer Online launched a disaster. The only reason I don’t remember its launch worse than I do now is because even as bad as things were, it paled in comparison to the true disaster that was Age of Conan only a couple of months earlier. Despite all the issues, WAR was still a compelling experience as a follow up to Mythic’s Dark Age of Camelot. DAoC players understandably found the game’s RvR lacking in comparison, but for someone who had never played DAoC, WAR left a lasting impact on me. I don’t think I ever really cared about PvP until I experienced the realm pride of playing for the Order faction. Flawed as it was, the RvR campaign was still a whole lot of fun. Eventually getting to the point where we had the opportunity to capture the enemy capital and kick players out of their city was completely worth it. The victory lap of running through the city, tearing it down, and looting it made winning the campaign that much sweeter. Of course, players whined about having actual consequence to the campaign, and Mythic dialed things back, but that wasn’t the true shame of WAR.
Over time, Mythic slowly improved Warhammer Online by adding new content, stomping out bugs, and most importantly, refining the RvR experience. What was bizarre to me was EA’s business approach to the game. WAR hemorrhaged most of its playerbase even as Mythic chugged along improving things, but EA never really full heartedly tried to rescue it on the business side. Free-to-Play was just starting to really become a thing in the West and yet EA’s tepid response was to only allow players to play the 1-10 experience for free, instead of going in all the way as it did with Star Wars: The Old Republic. It came as no surprise to me that WAR eventually shut down. There just wasn’t any will within EA to truly attempt to save it.
#2 City of Heroes
Paragon Studios came out of nowhere in 2004 with an MMO that wasn’t only novel in its theme, but completely unique to the genre in its gameplay. In City of Heroes, players could create their own characters utilizing the most expansive character creator in gaming and live out their fantasies of just about any comic book character archetype they fancied.
For 2004, the combat was action packed with awe inspiring visual effects. Paragon Studios continued to push the technological envelope with the game over the years, incorporating PhysX effects to really enhance feel of powers and add a level of destructibility to the world (particularly in Mayhem/Safeguard missions). Only in COH could my character explode into a fiery nova and launch gangsters down city blocks every which way. Between the awesome combat and huge variety in character possibilities, it was one of the few MMOs to hold my interests for years and years at a time.
#1 Star Wars Galaxies
Like Ultima Online, Star Wars Galaxies realized the promise of what MMOs could be: living, breathing, virtual worlds, where players could be and do just about whatever they wanted. For me, this is what I always wanted from the genre, but it was a double win in that it all went down in a Star Wars universe. As a fan of the Expanded Universe, there was always more to Star Wars to me than the notion of being a Jedi and swinging a lightsaber. The EU authors built a vast Star Wars universe in their many works and SWG truly capitalized on tapping into all that Star Wars lore that existed outside of the films.
The breadth and depth of gameplay options ranged from being a politician managing a player city, to creating awesome creatures as a bio engineer, to bounty hunting, and even taking to space as a starfighter pilot. SWG truly had everything.
The interdependence between players combined with the vast size of the game’s many worlds promised endless adventure and fostered interaction between players. I won’t soon forget the lasting relationship I built with a pair of armor and weaponsmiths who provided me with gear early in my travels and later on asked me to help them get their harvesters to dangerous spots on worlds like Dathomir in exchange for free or discounted services. I fondly remember going on a massive newbie raid on Endor with a bunch of other players. And who could forget the attempts to conquer Ft. Tusken? Stopping to camp to lick our wounds and regroup, joke around, and play music offered much needed pauses between high moments of action (or frustrating bouts of defeat). It also gave players a chance to learn more about the people they were fighting beside, and really build the bonds of community that are a unique strength of the MMO genre.