Massive for nothing

In just a few years, the world of free MMOs has grown from a 2D ghetto of suspicious foreign ZIP files into a full-fledged gaming subgenre of international scale. Yet it’s still a wild, ungoverned field, with far-flung nations like Korea and Malaysia flooding the web with more and more no-fee games every day - many of which are archaic, incomprehensible, or just plain bad.

But there are plenty of gems out there if you know where to look. We spent dozens of hours whittling a list of nearly 60 of the highest-profile free MMOs down to a mere nine. The games we chose represent the field’s high points in terms of audiovisual quality, new-player friendliness, addictiveness, and overall quality and variety of content. None will cost you even a penny - the makers will just give them to you, in the hope that you’ll pay for custom in-game items and premium membership benefits - but they’re all worth your time. (With additional reporting by Kristen Salvatore)

Crime Craft

Being bad feels pretty good, which is why indie developer Vogster axed the good-guy half of its upcoming MMO, Crime Craft. Now, the third-person shooter RPG is all robbers versus robbers, and though it’s still early in development, we recently got the first-ever look at the first free MMO to use the Unreal 3 engine and aim for DX10 graphics. While the city scenes we saw weren’t entirely fleshed out - they’re still ghost towns devoid of hustle and bustle - the architecture was certainly superior to that of any free game we’ve seen before, not to mention refreshingly different from the high-fantasy leafiness of most games in that category.

Crime Craft’s once-prosperous metropolis has undergone economic strife and chaos - the classic backdrop for gang violence and urban warfare. “Based on this urban setting,” explains Executive Producer Matt McEnerney, “we can give tons of choices in terms of what you buy and wear, what kind of items you can have, and what you can do. It’s a hybrid between a fantasy game and something more realistic.” Quests are based on committing crimes, “whether it’s taking a hit on someone or loan-sharking - it’s not necessarily always violent crime.”

As in any MMO, “our goal is to get people to socialize,” says McEnerney. But here, players form gangs instead of guilds, and plot nefarious deeds like bank robberies in gang hangouts instead of tribal halls. Once you’re in a gang, items in your inventory can be made available to your fellow hooligans - built-in voice chat means you can ask a pal to borrow his shotgun before you head out to wreak some havoc. Sixteen players at a time can enter instanced spaces in 24 different maps, where they’ll take on bots or other groups in typical shooter matches, such as deathmatch and capture the flag. Combat is an intriguing mix of shooter and RPG skills - aim completely away from a target and you won’t hit it, but aim at a target and whether or not you hit it is determined by an RPG-like dice roll.

McEnerney describes a fairly intricate crafting system that will allow players to make clothes and weapons, and where appearance will indicate level - “you should be able to see visually how much [in-game] money you’ve spent.” Of course, you can also earn the same weapons or items, but it’ll take longer. In keeping with urban living, also expect “performance enhancements - we don’t call them drugs” that will deliver standard potion effects. McEnerney was cagey about exactly how enhancements will work, and it’s yet to be determined whether juicing will have negative affects as well.

As with most free MMOs, microtransactions for in-game items will support Vogster’s venture, although McEnerney notes the grand opportunity that an urban setting provides for contextually reasonable in-game advertising. “We can put signs anywhere, whether it’s on a lamppost or bus stop… if [lots of] advertising comes in, we’ll lower the prices of microtransactions.” Crime Craft isn’t due out until early next year, so we’re hoping for a chance to pop caps in a few asses in a preview build sometime in the months leading up to release.