MMORPGs have never been about graphics—at least not in the way that most video games chase after the cutting edge. Instead, they've always been about the ability to transport us from our computer chairs into magical realities where we can interact and explore. But, that said, no one in their right mind is going to refuse to play a game on the sole point that it looks too good. Graphics might not be the end all, be all of MMORPGs, but if you're going to spend a thousand hours exploring a world, it might as well be easy on the eyes.
While visuals are always going to be a personal choice, I've taken a bit of my own preferences and checked them with a wide range of opinions to compile a list of MMORPG bombshells. These are games that, for one reason or another, really stand out from the pack. For some, it might be the sheer cutting edge graphics, others might utilize gripping art direction, and most will be somewhere in between. So, in no particular order, here are some of the most visually striking MMORPGs currently available.
Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn
Barring but a few exceptions, visuals in games tend to become overly familiar with time. That is to say, though they might enchant us at first, it isn't long before we begin to notice the subtle imperfections and the graphics begin to lose their lustre. Final Fantasy XIV has been defying that trend for almost three years now. I still cannot walk through Limsa Lominsa on a sunny day without gawking at how gorgeous the whole game looks.
In terms of visuals, Final Fantasy XIV is a tour de force in many ways. Technically speaking, the game makes excellent use of lighting to produce scenes that are vibrant and lively. But even looking at the art direction, it isn't hard to see why this series has been captivating our minds for decades now—Final Fantasy is gorgeously realized. Everything from the armor, weapons, spells, monsters, and the world they can all be found in is a pure visual treat.
Though the world of Eorzea might be a largely static place, heavily segmented by XIV's generous use of loading screens to break up the maps, the graphics alone make it come alive. There are so many vistas to see, places to explore, and all of them contain that hint of majesty that instills a sense of living in a wondrous world. Final Fantasy XIV is, without a doubt, one of the most gorgeous MMORPGs ever created.
Think about this: Planetside 2 was so pretty that the developers had to scale it back to make it less of a graphics card destroyer. Okay, that's a huge oversimplification of the problem, but there is a kernel of truth there; Planetside 2 is stunning. You might be too busy shooting Vanu Republic forces to realize it, but if you've ever found yourself hoofing it to the next battle, you'll know that those long minutes can easily melt away when you start to take in the surroundings.
The four continents that Planetside 2 takes place on are all so diverse and unique that sometimes you'll feel the need to switch to a new one just to get a change of scenery. From misty swamps, where lances of light peak through the boughs of giant trees, to sandy deserts where whole bases are tucked in the crevasses of massive canyons, everything in Planetside is a joy to look at.
If anything, the majesty the worlds you fight on adds an almost ethereal beauty to everything. You don't feel like you're battling on some distant replica of earth, but rather a wholly alien planet with its own wonders and sights to see. And that is a real accomplishment. Planetside 2 is certainly all about explosions and violence, but if you lower your gun to take a look around, you'll realize you're fighting in one of the most gorgeous looking online worlds.
This one might be a bit controversial because, in many ways, Wildstar already looks like a much oldergame. But even if it doesn't boast the cutting edge technology of dynamic lighting or tessellation, Wildstar is a joy to explore because of how animated the whole world is. When people talk about Nintendo games, they often make references to how the quality of the art lends a sense of timelessness to them. Sure, you can play Mario 64 and appreciate that the game is incredibly old, but you also don't really care because it still looks so inviting. Wildstar somewhat accomplishes that same feat.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying Wildstar looks like a Nintendo 64 game—just that the quality of its animated characters is so charming that the game doesn't need to rely on cutting edge graphics. The world of Nexus feels like it was pulled from the pages of a Pixar animated film. But Wildstar looks even better in motion, as the animations are all expressive and entertaining.
Wildstar is the game on this list that shows us that have all the visual bells and graphical whistles doesn't mean much without a whole lot of soul. And Wildstar certainly has soul. Now if only the game ran at a decent framerate…
EVE Online is the oldest game on this list, yet, to this day, few can really deny that it isn't one of the most gorgeous MMORPGs ever created. Now, if we're going to get picky, EVE Online has a much easier time of it than others. While a typical MMORPG has to worry about constructing a huge world and then populating it with everything from grass to castles, EVE has comparatively very few assets. I mean, space is pretty empty.
But it is surprising just what CCP has manages to do with such a sparse world that truly makes EVE worthy of being on this list. Over the last few years, constant refinements have been made to both the ships and the space of New Eden, making both more realistic and simultaneously awe-inspiring than ever before. The massive nebulae that populate the background of each region in space are easily the most catching part of EVE's visual offerings, but there is a ton of subtly to be found in just about every aspect of the world. Travelling to a shattered wormhole system, for example, will grace you with the humbling sight of entire planets gouged, their earthly remains hanging listlessly in space. But EVE Online also manages to find a certain beauty in combat. Images of massive fleet engagements are always amazing to look at as thousands of ships coalesce into a teardrop of metal and laser fire.
All of this makes the common moniker "spreadsheets in space" all the more apparently false. Sure, EVE Online might be more logistical than most players can stomach, but that doesn't mean it isn't a beauty to behold.
The Secret World
Honestly, this one was a tough choice. There are a lot of really great looking MMORPGs out there, but none of them even touch on what The Secret World does with its visuals. While most MMORPGs occupy some space on the spectrum between far-past fantasy and far-future science fiction, The Secret World plops itself right smack in the contemporary age. That alone gives the game some merit because too few MMORPGs have ever let us tackle Cthulu-like beasts wearing headphones and a leather jacket while wielding a katana.
But that The Secret World manages to blend so many distinct aesthetics together, yet keeps them surprisingly coherent, is what really sets it apart. It's a mosaic of different cultures, themes, and pop culture inspirations that blends into a game that is wholly unlike anything else you could play. Each zone is bursting with its own atmosphere and personality, and that is all tied together by how visually stunning so much of the game is. That said, The Secret World is also a bit of a dud when it comes to performance. The world looks good, don't get me wrong, but it doesn't quite add up to how much the game can under perform from time to time. But, at the end of the day, I just cannot help but forgive it anyway.
Graphics aren't everything in an MMORPG, but playing a good looking one can go a long way. But, perhaps even more important, is having one that immediately stands out from the crowd due to its striking visuals. The ones listed above were chosen because they do just that. Some of them find unique twists on familiar elements, like Final Fantasy XIV and its take on medieval fantasy, while others, like Wildstar, focus their efforts on creating a world that comes to live more through the animation and absurdity rather than realism. What about you? What MMORPGs do you feel really stand out with their combination of art design and graphical fidelity? Do you agree or disagree with any of the ones mentioned above? Let us know in the comments!