Maple Story is an anomaly in the current MMORPG market. The graphics consist of flat, 2D images on a sidescrolling field. Its characters are cute anime caricatures, rather than the grimy orcs, hulking warriors and top-heavy elf women we've come to expect from the genre. But perhaps its biggest differentiating factor is that it's a 100% free download - at least, according to the ads and the website.
Starting up in Maple Story is as simple as hopping over to the Nexon website, registering and downloading the game's software. Since Maple Story is a pretty simple title, it should still perform well on a PC that's not top-spec. Once you boot it up, you'll be prompted to create a character from very limited options that you'll be able to change down the line.
From there, gameplay is easy to dive into. You run and jump around the 2D environments, pounding on enemies and snapping up the loot they drop. You can form parties with other players, take on dungeons, set out on quests or go shopping in towns. When you gain levels, you can boost stats and skills, and eventually change into different classes - Magician, Thief, Warrior and Bowman - and various subclasses of each.
Unlike other MMORPGs, many special items in Maple Story can't be earned in-game. Instead, they're purchased at the "Cash Shop." The Cash Shop's stock includes clothes and cosmetic enhancements, as well as expendable items and special companion pets. The cash shop takes NX Points instead of in-game currency, and 1,000 of these points cost $1 in real-world moolah. The average piece of clothing will set you back around 3,000-5,000 points. Ouch. Doesn't seem quite so "free" now, does it? True, compared to other MMORPGs, Maple Story is still cheap - but if you want to build a sizable wardrobe, expect to plunk down a pretty penny.
More worryingly, after you play for a while, the gameplay in Maple Story starts to lose its charm. There's no backstory behind the game's world, unlike the rich histories of World of Warcraft or Final Fantasy XI. Leveling up is tedious at higher levels, and the class system is limited. Quests given by NPCs lack variety - objectives are usually variations on "kill X enemies" or "bring me X items." But perhaps the biggest oversight are no Player vs. Player options, which we've come to expect in MMORPGs by now.
And then there's the "community." Our experience with other players in Maple Story was absolutely awful. As a newbie, it was an uphill battle to get other players to chat with us. Only a few responded in a friendly manner, and of those few, most just wanted to know where we got our pet. Others mocked us, ignored us or were downright hostile to us - even if we hadn't tried to talk to them first. It's not just conversation, either - kill-stealing runs rampant, hacking is common and you can often see solicitations to raise or lower a player's Fame ranking for in-game money. Worse yet, it seems like the GMs are never around.