Biggest MMORPG’s of 2012: Pros and Cons

We’re still a few months from finding out if 2012 will mark the end of the world, but five months in, I think it’s safe to say that this year at least marks a new beginning for the MMORPG genre. For the first time in years, developers are producing games that seem like something other than World of Warcraft or EverQuest clones. TERA, Guild Wars 2, and The Secret World all have ideas within them that warrant some attention, and even Blizzard’s mixing things up a little with Mists of Pandaria. All in all, it’s a good year to be an MMO fan. But will these new games still be standing as tall this time next year? I’m no Mayan, but here are my predictions for how each of these games will perform in the coming months.

TERA

TERA dresses for the job it wants, not the job it has.

Working in its Favor

After using TERA’s crosshair aiming, combat in other MMOs seems excessively boring.

Although it may not be the first true action MMORPG (Vindictus, and even DC Universe Online may have stronger claims to that), it’s hard to argue that TERA’s combat system doesn’t beat out the current MMO juggernauts. After using the crosshair aiming, combat in other MMOs seems excessively boring. Enemies sometimes leap over you, which might cause you to miss a killing blow and change the course of a battle. Bosses and “BAMs” exhibit a little more intelligence than what I’ve found elsewhere. It also runs so smoothly with the graphics cranked up and dozens of players running around on the same screen that it’s tough to lighten up on other games that buckle under the same conditions (Star Wars: The Old Republic, I’m looking at you). For that matter, it’s frickin’ beautiful.

Working Against it

In its current form, TERA’s essentially a polished one-trick pony. (Ok, two tricks counting its innovative political system.) Beyond that exciting combat, TERA sports one of the dullest quest systems imaginable, complete with many quests that require nothing more between running back and forth between NPCs. Several key features, such as player-versus-player battlegrounds, aren’t even implemented yet, and judging by the apathy of the Korean development team, patches might be dangerous slow in coming unless the American team at En Masse manages to release steady patches of their own design. Even the fun of combat starts wearing off for most classes around level 40 or so, and if you’re not keen on slogging through those boring quests again with a different class, TERA’s replay value is low.

Prediction Time!

TERA will build up a strong community of devoted players over the next couple of months, but it won’t become the sleeper hit that its community hopes for. Once the majority of players reach the level cap, subscriptions will drop off — and that subscription model will thus prove unsustainable unless En Masse essentially goes rogue with self-made content. If it doesn’t, TERA will eventually move to a buy-to-play or free-to-play model.

Guild Wars 2

Beware the beta lag monster! (They’ll probably fix that.)

Working in its Favor

Sometimes, just wandering off in a random direction is a better way to find quests.

Guild Wars 2 has plenty of good ideas, the least of which are quests and kills that multiple players get credit for even if they’re not grouped, and dynamic events that keep the leveling experience from devolving into monotony. It sports character storylines that at least approach the charm of those in Star Wars: The Old Republic, and it encourages exploration by making the bread-crumb trail of quests more difficult to follow than is typical. Sometimes, just wandering off in a random direction is a better way to find quests than trying to figure out where the designers wanted you to go. It’s also a somewhat casual-friendly game, in that you don’t feel obligated to rush to the level cap or devote hours every week to succeed, and this structure complements its buy-to-play model.

Working Against it

Guild Wars 2 places a lot of emphasis on its movement-based combat, but once you consider that it’s still based on tab targeting and largely familiar abilities, you might find that its appeal wanes in comparison to games like TERA (or even WoW, if you’re still invested). I’ve also noticed that players have a tendency to slip into the roles of healer, tank, and DPS, even though one of ArenaNet’s selling points for Guild Wars 2 is that the Holy Trinity no longer applies. Its endgame also leaves too many questions unanswered, since it seems to focus almost entirely on forms of PvP and dungeon runs with comparable gear available from each. Players who want to raid will likely end up staying with other games.

Prediction Time!

Guild Wars 2 won’t be the WoW killer that so many fans make it out to be, but it will provide a strong alternative to Blizzard’s long-reigning champion for players who want control over their game time instead of adhering to job-like raid schedules. It’ll certainly be much more popular than Guild Wars 1, and it will likely attract a lot of the more casually minded (or PvP-oriented) members of WoW or Rift’s audiences.

The Secret World

You can’t go wrong with zombies — or so Funcom hopes.

Working in its Favor

The Secret World goes even deeper than Guild Wars 2 in chucking some of the conventions of the genre, complete with an ostensible lack of levels and a reliance on traditional gear. Its “real-world” setting provides a nice break from the the elves and big swords we’ve become accustomed to, and its three factions vying for world dominance provide a welcome alternative to the duality of faction warfare. Clue-based missions such as “investigations” will attract players who want a little more out of their quests than killing and fetching, and the challenges of basic combat that I saw in my time playing might entice players who dislike the ease of battle in other MMORPGs.

Working Against it

This close to its June 19th release date, there are still just too many people who don’t know about it.

The Secret World is a perfect name for Funcom’s new creation — it’s so secret that several of my non-press gaming friends still shoot me blank looks when I talk about it in casual conversation. This close to its June 19th release date, there are still just too many people who don’t know about it. At worst, this might show how many players in general are interested. I also worry that the lack of gear to build up for greater challenges will cause many players to lose their interest, since the “bragging rights” in other games won’t be as prevalent here. Getting rid of these might sound commendable, but the fact remains that acquiring this gear makes up much of the endgame experience elsewhere. Take SWTOR — many of the complaints I saw at the level cap centered not so much on the raids themselves, but how little it took to get all the best gear available at the time. Robbed of anything “better” to get, players just stopped playing. In the absence of such gear in The Secret World, they might not play at all.

Prediction Time!

One of the things I can’t stand in modern MMORPG culture is the tendency for players to yell “Free-to-play in XX months!” when a game they don’t love with all their hearts comes out, but I can’t see The Secret World remaining under a subscription model for long. Its design seems almost made for a free-to-play or buy-to-play model, and unless something changes I think it’ll reach that point sometime next year.

World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria

“How dare you call me cute and cuddly!”

Working in its Favor

Mists of Pandaria brings back a lot of the features that many of us missed in Cataclysm, including one coherent, explorable continent instead of new zones scattered about smashed-up versions of the places we’d grown to love over seven years. The bright, Asian aesthetic also signals a welcome change over the gloom of Cataclysm. A vocal group of players complain about the introduction of anthropomorphized panda characters, but I don’t think this will have as negative of an impact on WoW’s subscription numbers as the doomsayers would have us believe. After all, World of Warcraft has featured cutesy green-haired gnomes with pigtails since launch day, and the silliness of these characters far outdoes the rather stoic and dignified Pandaren. Meanwhile, Pandaria’s short dungeons recall the accessible ambiance of Blizzard’s popular (though oft-maligned) Wrath of the Lich King expansion, and new additions such as pet battles give players yet another activity besides combat.

Working Against it

It will succeed, but only in the sense that it manages to hold its own against its new competitors.

Despite all that, Mists of Pandaria still relies too heavily on the the traditional WoW quest-and-leveling structure, and its endgame appears to revolve around the usual options with a colorful Asian theme. Everything I’ve seen in the beta seems impressive enough in light of Blizzard’s past successes, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that I’ve seen all this before in different skins and different settings. In light of the fresh ideas floating around in the MMORPGs above, Pandaria seems too old fashioned, and it does too little to distinguish WoW from these other MMOs — or even from itself. Blizzard’s current design philosophy seems to focus on what worked in the past instead of working in the competition, and that may prove disastrous.

Prediction Time!

Mists of Pandaria isn’t going to kill World of Warcraft, but it’s not going to bring back the subscribers who left after Cataclysm, either. It will succeed, but only in the sense that it manages to hold its own against its new competitors. It’ll likely still be the king of the hill by this time next year, but that hill won’t be as high as it was before.

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