Summer is a great time to sit back and relax. For me, that's often with a game, but unfortunately summer can also be a bit slow when it comes to game releases. That makes it an excellent time to try out a new MMO, or revisit an old favorite that may have undergone a facelift since you last played.
There are a lot of really excellent massively multiplayer experiences on the table right now, so here are five that you should definitely put at the top of your list:
Neverwinter (Free to Play)
Neverwinter launched last month, and after playing it a fair bit during the beta period it left me with an overall pleasant impression (even though I initially had pretty low expectations). While Neverwinter isn't exempt from a lot of the things that can be grating about MMOs (kill 10 x, fetch 3 y...) the dungeons have a lot of personality. Additionally systems like companions/pets, comprehensive character customization, as well as user-made quests mean that there's a lot more to this game than first meets the eye.
If you're looking to give this game a shot I would recommend starting with a Rogue or a Wizard, which are by far the most engaging classes to play in my experience. Both have flashy effects, fun powers, and they make combat feel like much more than mashing skill buttons on a hotbar.
Aion (Free to Play)
Aion is the oldest game on this list, and though it started off as a subscription-based game it's since gone free to play. Aion's highly anticipated 4.0 update recently dropped, which includes new areas as well as two awesome looking new classes, the bard (above) and the gunner. I'm eager to test out both of these classes, especially because Aion's character customization, equipment, and world are all exceptionally beautiful.
Phantasy Star Online 2 (Free to Play)
Phantasy Star Online 2 came out a year ago in Japan, and though there were promises it would be localized for America there's still no reliable ETA to satisfy fans. Thankfully for those of us interested in playing adorable cybernetically-enhanced mages and badass mechanical marksmen, this game's fans aren't terribly patient and have created numerous English language patches and guides to help English-speaking players try the game for themselves.
PSO2 relies on instanced battles and kickass robots for a rather unique experience, so if the same old fantasy worlds aren't your style you may want to give this one a shot instead.
Rift (Free to Play)
Rift is another previously pay-to-play game that's recently become free to play. Though it didn't impress me at launch, Rift has since implemented a player housing system called Dimensions, which allows players to design and build up their own little slice of space. The decorating tools are so flexible that a community has sprugn up around carefully styled Dimensions, a lot like carefully curated regions in more open-ended virtual worlds like Second Life. If you'd like to see more, a quick search on Youtube reveals the incredible variety that Dimensions makes possible.
Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn (Purchase and Subscription Required)
I desperately want to love the reboot of Final Fantasy XIV, an MMO that floundered during its initial release (for a variety of reasons) and has been redone from the ground up. Having played both, I'm comfortable saying that A Realm Reborn is significantly better than its previous incarnation. Character customization is robust, the UI and gameplay has been refined, the world is lush and detailed, equipment is unique and appealing... It's even one of the few MMOs where the jewelry on your character is actually visible on the avatar itself.
Even though nearly all of my friends are enjoying it, I'm still fairly neutral. I don't have much fondness for the Final Fantasy franchise, so its possible that this game just may not be for me. There aren't many nostalgic Final Fantasy feelings in the back of my mind for it to tap into, and that might be keeping me from enjoying it on the same level that they are. If you're a fan of Final Fantasy (or even just a rabid virtual fashionista) you should absolutely make this game a priority, even though it has yet to really hook me. Personally, I'll be giving it a few more chances before I decide how I feel about it one way or the other.
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Iris Ophelia (@bleatingheart, Janine Hawkins IRL) has been featured in the New York Times and has spoken about SL-based design at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan and with pop culture/fashion maven Johanna Blakley.