It might not be a platform in the traditional sense, but massively multiplayer games have become such an important part of the gaming landscape - and so distinct from everything else on the market - that this year, we've decided to treat them as a platform in their own right rather than grouping them in with PC games as a whole. After all, there are plenty of PC gamers who simply don't do MMOG - and probably quite a few MMOG players who simply don't do other games.
Expect this year's MMOG landscape to continue to be dominated by, and to some extent defined by, World of Warcraft - whose first expansion will also probably be the biggest game of the year in this genre. However, there are plenty of other very promising games on the horizon, and with millions of new players switched on to MMOG play by WoW's success, the floor is open for rivals to Blizzard's dominance to emerge in 2007...
Eurogamer's Top Picks
Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures
Developed by the team who created the fascinating but terribly flawed Anarchy Online, Age of Conan is a game set in the universe of Arnold Schwarzenegger's classic Conan The Barbarian - so as you might expect, it features rather a lot of burly men, broadswords, axes and bloodshed. Trailers for the game show off huge battles, town sieges and buckets of gore, as well as extremely good-looking one-on-one combat, which seems to have an emphasis on actual swordplay.
Graphically, it's a fantastic looking game; while the character designs won't be to everyone's tastes, the environments are lushly depicted and the scale of the whole affair is suitably epic. In that respect, Conan is an ideal universe for an MMOG to some extent, and Age of Conan promises to capitalise on the appeal of the movie without making this into a fans-only affair for a film which is, after all, more a piece of cult cheese than anything else.
One of the most interesting aspects of the game is that it seems willing to dispense with MMOG conventions; the early segment of the game is actually a single-player RPG (although it's played while connected to the game servers), and the MMOG experience comes after that, which should significantly reduce the "noob" factor in the game. Whether Age of Conan will be able to drive its foes before it and hear the lamentation of their women isn't certain - and the memory of Anarchy Online makes us a little wary - but the game certainly looks the part, and is one of this year's most interesting releases in the genre.
The Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar
- Developer: Turbine
- Publisher: Codemasters
We're honestly not sure whether this is the MMOG that should not be, or the perfect completion of the circle - but the adaptation of Tolkien's epic literary works into massively multiplayer form will be open to all in 2007, regardless of whether it's sacrilege or not. It does make sense, of course, to convert the work which has inspired so many existing MMOGs into an MMOG of its own - but Turbine must be under no illusion about the huge pressure they're facing to deliver an incredible game. Lord of the Rings fans don't forgive easily.
The zones which we've seen so far are promising, and they definitely look great - inspired mostly by the original novels, but also heavily influenced by the styling of Peter Jackson's superb movie trilogy. The graphics engine is impressive, the artwork is extremely solid, and videos suggest bags of custom animation to bring everything to life. As representations of Middle-Earth go, this looks set to be second to none.
However, questions over the gameplay are deserving of answers, and so far not a great many have been forthcoming. It's not clear what timescale, exactly, the game is set in, or how it's going to remain true to the lore of the Lord of the Rings series. Developers Turbine have plenty of fantasy experience with Asheron's Call and the more recent D&D Online, but the muted reception to the D&D game in particular suggests that the firm may make significant changes to its game model for LOTR. In other words - we're completely in the dark, but we're excited and we know it looks gorgeous (last time this happened, we were in Amsterdam and paying by the hour).
- Developer: Destination Games
- Publisher: NCSoft
Richard "Lord British" Garriott (who is from Texas and isn't a hereditary peer of any nature, but that's the wacky world of RPGs for you) is one of the legends of the role-playing world - he basically invented modern role-playing videogames with Ultima, and many years down the line, basically invented modern MMOGs as we know them today with Ultima Online. So it's quite a CV that he brings with him to the development of Tabula Rasa, an oft-delayed MMOG which he is developing with his new studio, Destination Games, and which should finally appear near the back end of 2007.
Despite having made his name with fantasy games, Garriott has turned to science fiction for inspiration for this latest game - and hopes to make a radical departure from traditional MMOG gameplay which will have an impact on the industry on the same scale as Ultima Online's. The look and feel of the game substitutes ranged weapons and high technology for swords and sorcery, and battles waged over ravaged, alien-looking landscapes look like they owe a debt to squad-based FPS titles as much as to other games in the MMOG genre.
However, precise details of Tabula Rasa are being kept under wraps to a large degree - not least since the game has reportedly been redesigned several times over the course of the development process, which has caused significant slips to the release date. Garriott is obviously determined that this game should not hit the shelves until it's right - and publisher NCSoft, one of the only companies to specialise entirely in MMOG titles, seems willing to back him to the hilt. That alone makes Tabula Rasa into one of the upcoming MMOGs we're keeping a very close eye on.
Vanguard: Saga of Heroes
- Developer: Sigil Games
- Publisher: Sony Online Entertainment
With development headed up by Brad McQuaid, a man whose name is synonymous with EverQuest, it's unsurprising that there's been a high degree of interest in Vanguard - and it's apparent that the team at Sigil have enormous ambitions for the game, with features planned both at launch and later on in the game's lifespan which stand head and shoulders above anything else being talked about by MMOG developers.
The question, then, is whether Sigil can actually pull it off - if their grand vision works out, Vanguard will be a superb game and a serious challenger to WoW's dominance, but ambitions on this scale look very hard to achieve. Among them are a giant world with realistic, real-time weather systems, 17 races with hugely customisable appearances, 15 classes, over 40,000 crafting items, an entire sub-game focused on building up your skills as a diplomat, user-ownable houses and shops, boats ranging from skiffs to sailing ships, naval combat...
The game's lengthy development process hasn't been without problems - at one point, the game was intended to be hugely hardcore-focused, but incredibly negative beta feedback and the success of WoW forced the developers to bring it back to the drawing board, while comments from beta testers using early versions of the game have built up a negative perception in some quarters. Sigil don't have long before launch to get everything working, but even now the game looks gorgeous and is incredibly rich in content; if they can get it tweaked and polished for launch, this could be the biggest new MMOG of the year.
World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade
- Developer: Blizzard
- Publisher: Vivendi Games
It almost goes without saying that Blizzard's World of Warcraft expansion pack is going to be the most popular game of the year in the MMOG category. Available from today, it will be snapped up eagerly by millions of utterly addicted WoW fans - and even those who haven't been hooked on the game too deeply in recent months will undoubtedly come back for a run around in the expansion pack content.
For the uninitiated, The Burning Crusade extends World of Warcraft's already formidable universe in a number of different ways. In one direction, it adds content for players who have reached the top level in the existing game by giving then an extra ten levels to power through, a whole new continent-sized area to explore (with flying mounts in it, no less) and a large number of new raiding dungeons for guilds to get their teeth into - so the hardcore players will be happy.
Perhaps even more importantly, though, Burning Crusade extends the experience at lower levels vastly by introducing two entirely new races, the Blood Elves and the Dranaei, complete with new starting cities and areas, and a host of new quests for them to complete - so there'll be tons of new content available for players for whom raiding is a bit too hardcore, and just questing and adventuring is more entertaining. What's more, Burning Crusade is only the beginning - Blizzard are planning another expansion every 12 months. The World of Warcraft juggernaut rolls unstoppably onwards.