Over the past several years, the traditional MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game) has lost some steam. When we first tackled this topic, in 2013, free-to-play gaming was still in its infancy. Candy Crush Saga was barely a year old, and South Park hadn’t yet lampooned the “pay-to-win” gaming model in 2014’s Freemium Isn’t Free.
In the years since, the MMORPG paradigm has shifted. Removing subscription fees and monetizing games via microtransactions and paid expansions has proven to be a successful remodel for MMO publishers. In response to dwindling subscription numbers, which can be attributed simply to the ever-growing number of games out there, many MMO developers have been forced to reduce — and in many cases, completely remove — the monthly subscription fees that once powered ultra-popular virtual universes. Zenimax’s The Elder Scrolls Online, for example, launched in 2014 to much ado, then quickly dropped its monthly subscription requirement before releasing to consoles in 2015. It seems like unless your game is named World of Warcraft, the subscription MMO business is dead and buried.
If you’re looking to delve into the MMO world for minimal cost, there’s no better time than now. Check out our choices for the best free MMORPGs on the market, so you can hack, slash, and shoot your way through the next six months of your life.
Note: Most free-to-play games have additional components and unlockables that are only accessible through premium subscriptions and microtransactions, but the free versions still offer a healthy taste of gameplay sans a hefty economical commitment. Also, we’ve only included MMOs that continue to receive updates and support from their developers.
It’s hard to argue a game isn’t one of the best of its kind when it boasts more than 200 million accounts. Jagex’s Runescape — now in its third incarnation — has undergone a series of design and gameplay overhauls since its 2001 debut, garnering the honor of the Most Popular Free MMORPG in existence, according to the Guinness Book of World Records.
The latest version of the browser-based MMORPG doesn’t deviate much from previous renditions of the game. Set in the war-torn fantasy realm of Gielinor, Runescape is a simple and familiar take on the MMORPG, laced with a familiar focus on PvE and crafting. Questing and combat are straightforward and often humorous, typically requiring you to click an enemy to death and collect its loot. Thankfully, the bland repetition is offset by the end-game content and the title’s sheer amount of depth. Much of that content remains hidden behind a paid subscription, but even the free content is engaging and fun.
Simplicity and accessibility are the game’s true strong suits. The game sports a fully-customizable user interface and an engaged community while offering quality voice dialogue and sleek visuals that were recently updated courtesy of the developer’s recent switch from HTML5 to a new C++ engine, called “NXT.” Old content remains available and backward compatible with legacy browsers. Runescape is incredibly rich and doesn’t tax your PC.
DC Universe Online
DC Universe Online dropped its subscription shortly after launch in 2011, but the game still offers as much action-heavy MMO fun now as it did when it was a “premium” game. Based around the fictional superheroes and villains in the DC Universe, Players begin by either creating a character from scratch or one inspired by famous DC characters such as Superman, Batman, and the like. The rest of the game unfolds in RPG-like fashion, with stereotypical kill-collect quests scattered across Metropolis and Gotham City, and dungeons that break up the standard MMO grind.
The well-designed cities, NPCs, and other elements also bask in the kind of comic-esque nuances you’d come to expect from such a title, and although the visuals are nowhere near photo-realistic, they are fittingly stylized. The combat is fast-paced and responsive, too, whether you’re engaging in the game’s heated PvP matches or participating in end-game raids.
Long-term players can expect a steady stream of ample daily quests and additional endgame content once you blaze through the game and hit the level cap. While the game is not without its faults — the voice-acting is cringe-worthy at times — there is no finer MMORPG for comic book fans and those that seek a solid alternative to fantasy-blazoned RPGs like Lord of the Rings Online, and TERA.
What’s more, now is the perfect time to dive into DC Universe Online, as a July update unlocked all content for all players to celebrate Wonder Woman’s 75th birthday.
Guild Wars 2
With a 90 on Metacritic and a 90.02 percent rating on GameRankings.com — second only to World of Warcraft and three of its expansions — Guild Wars 2 is one of the most critically acclaimed massively multiplayer games of all time. Though it will never unseat Blizzard’s gaming goliath in terms of sheer popularity (or cultural cache), Guild Wars 2 does many things better than World of Warcraft, and without charging a monthly fee.
Guild Wars‘ fluid, unrestrictive combat system provides an excellent counterpart to the rigid, role-based combat that Blizzard began with the Diablo series and built upon with World of Warcraft. Though it lacks the kind of depth and difficulty that forces players to work together in demanding raid environments, the system in Guild Wars 2 encourages players to team up however they see fit — trying to plow through some difficult PvE content in Guild Wars doesn’t necessarily require a dedicated tank and healer, for instance. The in-game gem store also allows developer ArenaNet to continue profiting off the game and create new content, while simultaneously allowing for new players to jump in at no cost.
Trion Worlds’ Rift looks and plays like a carbon-copy of World of Warcraft at its core, but who says you have to reinvent the wheel to make a great MMORPG? The game was one of the most stable and expansive MMOs when it launched back in 2011, bursting with striking environments, superbly-crafted character models, and gameplay culled from some of the best aspects of similar titles. Though the early-game quests and lore are drearily dry, the game becomes increasingly more interesting as the story dissipates and you begin closing the sporadic, dimensional rifts that unleash a flurry of demonic beings into the game’s sprawling landscapes.
Rift‘s best feature is a flexible and immersive class system. Players begin by choosing one of two opposing factions — either the Guardians or Defiant — followed by one of three races and a standard archetype such as a mage, rogue, cleric, or warrior. Additionally, players take on three souls at a time, which function like subclasses, and develop their character using an elaborate skill tree. This level of customization adds to the game’s strategy and makes the accompanying co-op dungeons that much more dynamic and intriguing. The learning curve is steep, even after level 50, but the originality is all there… assuming you can look past the elements cribbed from other titles.
While Trion Worlds has supplied a steady stream of free content for Rift since the game went free-to-play in 2013, the game will be getting its first piece of premium DLC, an expansion titled Starfall Prophecy, which releases Fall 2016. Starfall Prophecy will add a host of new content, including new areas, dungeons, a raised level cap, and updated gameplay features that will only be available to players who purchase the expansion. The base game and all previous updates will still remain free-to-play, however, so if you don’t mind missing out on the newest content, you can play Rift as much as you like without paying a penny.
Star Wars: The Old Republic
Any game built into the Star Wars universe is a massive undertaking considering the legion of devotees and die-hard fanatics that possess an attachment to the material. Luckily, BioWare’s subscription-turned-free-to-play title set in the Old Republic timeline — i.e. thousands of years before the movies — is both easily accessible and instantly recognizable. The writing and fully-voiced dialogue is excellent, bolstered by class-specific narratives and a wealth of contextual backstory that any fan of the franchise will admire. The visuals still hold up fairly well, and users can easily customize graphics settings to fit a broad range of gaming rigs. The gameplay mechanics are also rooted in real-time, hotkey-based combat, and offer additional variation in the form of on-rails space combat and PvP warzones.
Despite the multiplayer functionality, SWTOR is also an enjoyable solo experience. Players choose from one of two factions, either the Republic or the Empire, and select from one of four distinct character classes specific to each side of the force. If you choose the Republic, you’ll have access to the smuggler, trooper, Jedi Knight, and Jedi Consular, while the Empire provides options to be a bounty hunter, Sith warrior, Imperial agent, and Sith Inquisitor. The story-driven flashpoints, SWTOR‘s equivalent to co-op dungeons, offer some of the most rewarding and challenging gameplay in the entire Star Wars universe, throwing players at drifting Republic warships and distant Imperial prisons as they battle alongside others in an effort to complete the designated objectives in exchange for valuable loot.
Though SWTOR has been out for more than five years, BioWare keeps churning out new content and released Knights of the Eternal Throne in late 2016. And while the game has undergone considerable changes since its switch to free-to-play — both good and bad — it remains an incredibly vibrant branch of the Star Wars universe. Read our initial review.
Like the aforementioned Rift, TERA isn’t going to set the world on fire with refreshing gameplay or revolutionary ideas. Yet what it does, it does exceptionally well, setting the stage for one of the most dynamic and pleasing combat systems in MMORPG history. Like TERA‘s counterparts, the game offers a diverse assortment of characters and classes — from the giant-bred Amani to the adorable Popori — each of which is accompanied by a familiar set of classes available to all races. The environments are dazzling and bright, with lush vistas and sprawling plains, and the character models are a joy to look at no matter what your machine’s graphics settings call for.
While the general questing-and-crafting gameplay in the early hours of TERA are standard fare, but the aforementioned combat mechanics which feels incredibly dynamic and different compared to the stand-still combat that characterizes most MMORPGs. The game requires the player to engage in a variety of fleet-footed maneuvers as they dodge and jab at opponents: The result feels more like a third-person action game than a hotkey-heavy WoW-style affair. Hunting and eradicating “big-ass monsters” alongside a group of fellow players is exhilarating, as are the group dungeons, but the events and quests are all loosely connected by a story arc that barely qualifies as mundane. However, additional components, such as in-game elections and open-world PvP, add enough individual flair to make TERA a world all its own.
A massive 2014 update increased the level cap from 60 to 65 and added several new zones, all for free. Last year saw the addition of two new playable classes, while smaller updates continue to roll out regularly, including new dungeons, battlegrounds, and skills for each of the game’s 11 classes. That said, TERA still has one of the most active gaming communities of any MMO, mostly due to strong support from the game’s developers.
The Lord of the Rings Online
Like SWTOR, the world surrounding that of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth has been one hugely solidified in popular culture thanks to Peter Jackson’s feature-length films. Fortunately, Lord of the Rings Online contains a wealth of content from Tolkien’s work, stuff that Jackson’s films never touched, and its cartoonish visuals color the rich environments of Middle Earth. The places you’ll visit are as diverse and eclectic as they are in the various books, ranging from snow-topped peaks to rolling hills, and the creation tools allow players to tackle the story as a hobbit, human, dwarf, or elf. Classes are as equally diverse, ranging from burglar and hunter to lore-keeper and guardian, but the selection is specific your race.
With four expansions out the door and more on the way, the game has undergone substantial changes since its initial release in 2007, yet the core mechanics and gameplay remain roughly the same. The storyline is still epic, driving players through familiar spaces filled with recognizable figures from both the books and films, and the overall narrative gives otherwise bland quests substantial, contextual weight. Character progression and PvP combat is limited, but additional elements like deeds and Monster Play — which essentially allows you to play in the role of one of Sauron’s minions — add greater depth to the game’s seemingly straightforward approach. LOTRO is often dubbed a World of Warcraft ripoff, and perhaps it is in many ways, but it’s a hard argument to make when so much of the latter MMORPG was likely inspired by the world engulfing the former.
Developer Cryptic Studios combined the simplicity and combat-focused gameplay of Diablo with a more traditional fantasy setting to create Neverwinter, based upon lore from the Dungeons & Dragons universe. The combat system utilizes a computerized version of D&D’s 4th Edition by rolling imaginary dice to determine hits, misses, and damage dealt. The game, initially released in 2013 for PC and 2015 for the Xbox One, features 10 PvE campaigns and one dedicated PvP campaign for players to experience. Though the game assumes a linear approach, the fluid, Darksiders-esque combat feels fresh — especially for Xbox One, where the game’s aversion to social interaction and traditional RPG elements feels less oppressive.
Though the game’s performance can tank if you’re in high-level zones on an Xbox or a low-end PC, the game features excellent spell effects and sound design, two underrated aspects of fantasy games that can be make-or-break your immersion in the experience. Though some of the game’s systems, such as its lack of communication channels and an insanely expensive in-game store, seem poorly executed. Even with those faults, though, Neverwinter is a fast-paced game that provides a different feel relative to most of the MMOs on our list.
Dungeons and Dragons Online
For most of us, Dungeons and Dragons has always been the tabletop game we kept to ourselves in fear of being ostracized (no shame there). However, despite DDO‘s launch woes and flawed beginnings, the sun-dappled city of Stormreach has never been so appealing. Loosely based on the D&D 3.5 ruleset, DDO is a game with extensive customization directly built into the framework. Featuring more classes than any other title on our list, the character creation tools allow players to experiment with a dynamic multiclass system wherein your character can effortlessly combine facets of skillsets. Although the latest updates still heavily cater toward group instances and the game’s rooted emphasis in tight-knit teamwork, solo options are becoming exceedingly robust, especially if you can afford to pick up an NPC “hireling” or two to back you up.
Let’s be honest, though: DDO, which launched in 2006, doesn’t hold up when compared to newer, oft-updated titles, particularly in terms of visual fidelity. While it isn’t an eyesore, the game doesn’t pack the polygonal depth and vibrant details of newer MMOs like Tera. The game behind the visuals, however, is captivating, fueled by story-driven raids and dungeons whirling around the never-ending defense of Stormreach.
With titles like City of Heroes and the first Guild Wars under its belt, Korean developer NCSoft knows its way around an MMORPG. Aion is a tightly-polished effort, rooted in a post-cataclysm world that’s been torn asunder by two warring races. Players begin by selecting the hardy Asmodians or the radiant Elyos — each with four distinct classes that are subdivided into two more once you reach level 10 — and are then thrust into the stunning environments of Atreia. The questing and six crafting systems are linear, often requiring you to grind between lulls and recruit other players for the more populated zones.
Aion‘s true calling lies in it’s ability to balance both PvE and PvP components. Once players hit level 25, they can enter the Abyss, a PvPvE battleground in which opposing factions battle for control over fortresses. Combat is fast-paced and responsive, reliant on chain attacks and fair amounts of button mashing, and incorporates flying mechanics that are truly unique to the genre. Although most regions outside the Abyss are designated as no-fly zones, players can still glide within the regions from any elevated jump-off point. Flying in the Abyss is also limited, but the added component provides an entirely new dimension to think about while in combat since you constantly need to be aware of what’s going on at various elevations before you become exhausted and fall from the sky. Aion is an immediately enjoyable and beautiful title from the get-go, even if it does take you a while to earn your wings.
Honorable mention — Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn
Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn is a bit different than other entries on our list, as it isn’t fully “free-to-play.” Originally, the 2013 MMO featured a 14-day trial period for new users. In 2016, though, Square Enix nixed the time restriction and gave players free reign of the continent of Eorzea until they reach level 35. Make no mistake, though, Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn is one of the best MMOs available today. It stands tall as a love letter to series fans who were almost universally disappointed in its predecessor Final Fantasy XIV. And the journey to level 35, well, it’s bound to sink its teeth in and draw you into its beautiful and engaging world.
Available on PlayStation 4 and PC, A Realm Reborn tells a fairly traditional Final Fantasy narrative — the pursuit of thwarting a nefarious evil that threatens the well being of the people. Despite this, cut scenes are implemented smartly and certainly draw you in to care about the world.
Mechanically, A Realm Reborn stands out thanks to its diversified class and quest systems. Classes are dictated by the gear that your character holds, so you can switch your class with ease. Within the level 35 cap, you will be able to further advance your primary and secondary classes into jobs which unlock even more specialized traits. The quests mix from epic adventures to shorter fetch quests across the vast lands. Trial players can wade through the first 10 levels of the constantly changing test of strength that is the Deep Dungeon, and they can also head over to the Gold Saucer for Chocobo Racing and Triple Triad, a card game that originally appeared in Final Fantasy VIII.
Fans of traditional MMOs will find much to love throughout the journey to level 35 and if you get hooked enough to pay for a subscription, just know that the game’s delights ramp up from level 35 to the level 50 cap.
Update: Added Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn.