We've now had the first two entries in a new feature series on Eurogamer MMO: the Ten Level Test.
Ten Level Test is a knockout competition for MMOs. We round them up, pair them off, play them for ten levels each and then - based quite simply on which we had the most fun with - decide on a winner. The loser gets uninstalled, while we point at it over the desk, frowning, like some kind of rat-punching Sugar or Trump.
Once we've been through them all, we'll progress to a second round where we play the victors off against each other from levels 10-20, and so on until a champion emerges.
In each battle, our decision will be influenced not just by the quality of the game, but also by the friendliness of the community, the luck of the draw, and how attached we get to our character - because these things matter just as much to an MMO player.
For the first Ten Level Test, we're pitting eight games from what you might call MMO's second division against each other: EverQuest II, Vanguard: Saga of Heroes, Lineage II, Final Fantasy XI, City of Heroes, Star Wars Galaxies, Guild Wars, and Dungeons & Dragons Online.
The reasoning behind this choice is that, if we threw a wolf like World of Warcraft or Lord of the Rings Online into that pack, the outcome might be somewhat predictable. This is a chance for a former champion or unlucky contender to step back into the limelight. Also, we haven't written as much about these games lately as we have new blood like Warhammer Online and Age of Conan, so we wanted to see how they're getting on. Future Ten Level Tests might look at more recent releases, or delve deeper into MMOs' past.
Round One: Western fantasy
In the first test, two totally traditional fantasy epics face off, both from the Sony Online Entertainment roster. EverQuest II is the one-time crown prince of MMOs that was KO'd seconds into its first fight - with a dark horse called World of Warcraft. To make matters worse, its stubborn old predecessor EverQuest didn't want to vacate its throne. The younger Vanguard was a promising upstart whose early career was destroyed by injurious bugs. Has it regained enough fitness to take on its richer, slicker stable-mate?
WINNER: Vanguard: Saga of Heroes
Round Two: Eastern fantasy
With some 1.5 million players between them, these are easily the most popular games on this list - but most of those players are on the other side of the world, and can't help them now. NCsoft's Lineage II still dominates Korea along with its predecessor, but never gained a foothold in the West. Final Fantasy XI did - but its pre-WOW heyday is a long time ago now, and at over 6 years on the market, it's the oldest game in the Test. Have these warhorses changed their ways enough, or will they wash themselves out in a surfeit of petticoats and grind?
WINNER: Final Fantasy XI
Round Three: Short-form fantasy
Guild Wars vs Dungeons & Drgaons Online
Otherwise known as the Five Level Test round, because these less conventional games have much lower level caps (20 and 16, respectively). Both eschew huge open worlds for a tighter design with heavy use of instancing; Guild Wars is NCsoft's glossy player-versus-player specialist, DDO a dungeon-crawler from LOTRO creators Turbine. Guild Wars, one of few MMOs to make a successful career for itself in a post-WOW world, has to be the favourite - but after two years in virtual obscurity, DDO is an unknown quantity. An upset isn't impossible.
Round Four: Not fantasy!
Star Wars Galaxies vs City of Heroes
The third entrants from SOE and NCsoft took the path less travelled - the one that had no dungeons or orcs at the end of it. Superhero stalwart City of Heroes has good form, but it's making a last stand before Champions Online and DC Universe make their bids for its ceremonial cape. Star Wars Galaxies has a chequered history of mistakes and mistaken attempts to correct mistakes, and it similarly hasn't got long before BioWare's The Old Republic and Cryptic's Star Trek Online arrive to try and wipe it from the memory. Two trailblazers looking for recognition just as the rest of the world realises that, just because it's an MMO, it doesn't have to have a dragon in it.
The rules are simple. Our character will always be called Tenlevels, or as close to that as the game's naming conventions will allow. We'll always play on the highest-population English-language EU server available, with a preference for PVE rulesets to allow us to see more of the game more quickly. If you spot us, say hi!
We'll always try to play the latest content in the most up-to-date version of the game available. For example, in Vanguard we'll use the new Isle of Dawn starting area; with Lineage II, we'll be playing with all the improvements included in the Kamael expansion.
In games that have multiple levelling paths - combat and crafting, say - we'll level up in combat since this will be the one common factor between all the games. But we'll have a look at the alternatives and note their contribution to how appealing the game is overall. Where multiple formats are available (i.e. FFXI), we'll use PC.
Ten Level Test isn't right - but it is fair
Ten Level Test isn't an infallible test of a game's quality. That's what reviews are for. While we firmly believe World of Warcraft is the best MMO out there, its first ten levels could quite easily lose in a fight with LOTRO, Warhammer Online - or even Age of Conan. What's more, a round could be swung by factors that are completely out of control of the game's designers and support staff; it will work in a game's favour if we end up in a great group or make a new friend. And then there's raw luck; a game's fate could rest on a roll of the dice, a random loot drop.
This vital aspect of the MMO experience is one it would be unfair to reflect in a review, which is one reason we've created Ten Level Test. This is as close to real-world conditions as an MMO critic can get. Other apparent inequalities are actually balanced; in games with low populations, players will be thin on the ground, but communities will often be friendlier and more open to newcomers. A game with faster levelling will drag less and give a great sense of progress, but have less opportunity to involve us in its world. Every disadvantage is an opportunity - and as this week's test shows, there's no predicting the outcome.