While there's inevitably more chaff than wheat to be found in the fields of browser-based free MMORPGs, there are occasional rare treasures to be unearthed. Armed only with an addiction to anything vaguely resembling a Skinner-box, John Bedford set out to explore the world of free online gaming and unearth the best and worst of this indie gaming scene.
There's a startling amount of depth in the presentation of Dark Orbit that isn't apparent in any of the other games I reviewed for this article – that certainly helps to explain the developer's claim of over 44 million registered users, an impressive number even for a free-to-play offering.
The main interface is polished and easy on the eye with 3D animated units and ships. The game being a mixture of combat and resource collection, these activities take place in a separate, 2D shoot-'em-up-style environment window. Here you can either set about completing quests or simply gathering raw materials for refinement or sale.
Further down the line, opportunities exist to form clans and take on the game's harder content, but it's the option to play and grind as much as you wish that sets the game apart from the other featured titles, avoiding artificial daily barriers to progress.
What is a terrible shame is that the high level of presentation and content has been paired with such a horrifically awful, monotone soundtrack. You will not suffer this synthetic drone beyond a handful of repetitions before scrambling for the settings to kill it and savour a moment of silence. This problem aside, once muted, Dark Orbit may well steal a little bit of your life if you let it.
On that note, a word of caution. As a newcomer to the game I was delighted with the scope to grind and take as much play time out of Dark Orbit as I cared for – plus, what items-for-cash there are for me at this point seem quite unnecessary and superficial. Long-term players, however, warn of eventual character development costs running into the hundreds of dollars if you wish to fully flesh them out.
But as a player with no intention of handing over any money, Dark Orbit simply has content galore, an extraordinary interface given the business model, and there's certainly an active community to work alongside.
It's hard to know where to start with Chav Gangs. Depending on your perspective, the subject matter is either reliant on a comedy carcass long since picked clean, or just plain offensive.
What is inarguable from the moment you create your account, however, is that in order to accrue the necessary funds and points to get stuck into any meaningful gameplay, you will need to vote for the game across a number of MMORPG rating sites.
While a ploy like this certainly appeals to the more cynical and mischievous side of my nature, it's a chuckle that lasts only as long as it takes to begin playing the game proper.
Fresh on the streets of Lowestoft, your purpose in Chav Gangs is to accumulate funds and points through mugging grannies, shoplifting various low-end retail outlets, starting a benefit scam or stealing car stereos. As your funds increase you can look to invest your ill-gotten gains in the stock market where speculations can be made on the value of Mothercare, Lidl, PoundStretcher and the like.
The level of your Nerve stat is the deciding factor in how severe a crime you can carry out at any given time. A period of inactivity is required for it to restore or, if you have points available, these can be used to top up the meter immediately. Out of points and down to your last bar of Nerve? Fall back on the most basic crime of mugging a pensioner:
'You wait outside the Bingo hall waiting for an old biddy to come out. You didn't have to wait long, you punch the old cow in the face, rob her bag and run off like the little coward you are.'
This sort of thing.
Other diversions come in the form of mini-games such as Dave the Drug Dealer's interpretation of Deal or No Deal, where working through a selection of twenty suitcases leaves you with anything from £1 to £500,000 as a reward.
Whether you'll get much more out of the game than an initial, hollow laugh is not so much debatable as improbable. While everything seems fun – or at the very least silly – the first time around, that crucial motivation to bother logging in the next day just isn't there. Unless you have a particular fondness for the subject matter, stick to the far superior Mafia Returns for your text-driven cravings.
Preceding even its closest subscription cousin EVE Online, Hyperiums was released in 2001 and has a maintained a steady and loyal following ever since. On first impressions, it struck me as a rather dry version of Dark Orbit, being heavily textual.
But delve a little deeper and there's an interesting little tactical game here. Starting off with a single planet – with the option of taking a riskier or more reserved playstyle at any time – you quickly discover that this intimidating-looking title may keep you around for some time.
For starters, you'll need to assign Exploitations to your planet which haul minerals out of its surface. These are then traded on with other nearby planets with varying degrees of success – some keen to trade more, others looking for a quieter life.
As the game progresses you have the option to form alliances with other players, assign spies to infiltrate your trading planets and build up an army capable of plucking the juiciest fruit from under their noses. All built around a frankly terrifying advancement tech-tree.
If you've ever wondered what it might be like to play EVE but lack the time to undertake an evening course in PC gaming beforehand, Hyperium will provide a lively introduction to the genre of the treacherous universe, and is well worth a look.
When I can force myself to look back at the incredible amount of time I've wasted in MMORPGs, it strikes me as strange that actual role-playing has been an almost non-existent part of the experience.
It's not for want of willingness either. Instead, my radar for imminent embarrassment – honed to perfection over the last 30 years – simply holds me back.
Rather than trepidation, there's a little bit of joy to be had in engaging with the role-play element of Mafia Returns. This level of interaction is not just encouraged by the designers but by the community themselves, and it's become integral to the success of the game.
I've yet to be approached by anyone speaking out-of character and – responding in kind – the game has become a bit of a guilty pleasure for me, one that will continue long after this review's written.
So it's a surprise that one particular aspect of the interface considerably threatens the suspension of your disbelief. With all this commitment to role-playing, it seems a shame that all communications – be they from sage hobos, fellow gang members or would-be executioners – arrive in the form of in-game e-mails.
Naturally, I don't expect the game to wire a telegram message to my local post-master, but this is 1950s gangland America.
It's a small niggle really, and one that only presents itself because the rest of the game – the back-story, the crime selection, the community engagement – is so well executed. For a game of simple presentation with an equally streamlined structure at its heart, Mafia Returns gets it all so right by caring about the experience and encouraging its players to feel exactly the same way.
Vampires versus werewolves. If you're looking for originality of concept here, move along – but at least you know what you're in for and the execution is far, far better than you might first imagine.
Once you've chosen your alignment with the armies of darkness, your first call of business will be to explore the city and meet some of the curious characters who inhabit the world. As well as working as a grave-digger for fixed periods of time, you can undertake quests for some of these NPCs which lead you rather nicely through a tidily crafted story of the night.
Unfortunately, pretty much all activities in Bite Fight revolve around the idea that you take some work, click accept and then go and play something else for a while until the timer expires. So playing this game isn't going to make you pine for the days of Diablo II by any means.
But with that said, of all the titles reviewed for this roundup, Bite Fight is perhaps the one that succeeds because of the limitations of the format rather than in spite of them. This is perfectly realised in the way your hideout evolves from ramshackle barn to something more fitting for a master of darkness.
There's something of the Moors to the hideout and as the thunderstorms brew, defences rise and your character advances through levels there's a Hitchcock feel to proceedings – as though it only takes place when you turn your back for a moment.
For all the tens of millions of dollars spent on engaging this feeling in players in more commercial MMOs, it's commendable that it should be achieved in a low-budget title such as this.
Evony's style in terms of both presentation and construction mechanics will be familiar to any veteran of the empire-building genre. Isometric viewpoint? Check. Build and upgrade buildings and production utilities along adjacent tiles? So far, so FarmVille.
Beyond just advancing through expansion though, there's a very enjoyable and constantly replenished questing system that will hold your hand through the game, while the Achievements offer broader goals.
While the game is fun, the biggest obstacle to your continued enjoyment comes from the unrelenting snail-pace of progress. Only one building can be built at a time. Any building upgrades that take less than five minutes can be auto-completed – anything longer and you'll have to either wait things out or buy construction boost tokens with real money. You will soon run out of the meagre allotment of these tokens given to you at the outset, and it feels a little bait-and-switch.
It's a pity, because it's clear from listening to other players that there's a well-developed game of alliances to be enjoyed here. Sadly I just couldn't see a free-to-play route to reach that point without going insane through frustration.
While enjoyable enough in its own right, Evony as a free title is simply a dish best served with a side-order of something more filling. Given enough dedication it's easy to see how you could create an empire to last a thousand years. The problem of course is that without opening your wallet, it might well take you that long just to complete it.
Your mileage across these and other titles will vary depending on your taste as well as your patience threshold. With a whole world of worlds to choose from, the key to contentment within this gaming niche comes from developing a selection of favourites to dip into.
Time is the money of free MMO gaming and to avoid becoming disillusioned with the scene, you would do well to shop around, experiment, and spend yours wisely.