It's difficult to say for certain exactly what it is that makes an MMO ruthless. Unlike notoriously tricky single-player RPGs (yes you, Dark Souls), the defining mechanics of a typical MMO don’t always lend themselves to skill-based success.
Instead, wealth, success and happiness in an MMO is more often a result of the time and dedication that players are willing to pile into their grinding sessions. But there are some stand-out exceptions that require hardcore commitment and intense skill.
The following ruthless MMOs can be perceived as such due to the time and/or effort that they demand in comparison to others in the genre. The depth of the mechanics, the intricate combat system, the unforgiving punishments upon death and the familiarity of death all play a part in bestowing legendary status on single player games like Dark Souls, and these MMO titles are no different. These are the games that, once you ‘git gud’, you can’t escape.
The sequel to the community-created Defense of the Ancients, which began as a Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos mod, starts our ruthless MMOs hotlist partly for its competitive edge. Generally known as a harder MOBA to master than its even more famous counterpart, League of Legends, the free-to-play title from Valve has often been lauded for the rewarding nature of its comparatively steep learning curve. But it is also its status as the most lucrative esports title that makes this game a true nail-biter.
Dota 2 holds the accolade for the largest single-tournament prize pool for any e-sports event, with ‘The International’ tournament offering over $34m in 2019 - a number which has increased every year since 2011’s modest $1.6m prize pool. Just imagine the pressure that comes with having $34m hanging over your head as you fight tooth-and-nail for survival.
Naturally, for the vast majority of us noobs and fanboys, this won’t be an issue. But is it not the dream of any serious gamer to earn vast sums of wealth for your gaming efforts? Or is that just me? Regardless, to face off against teams who may have that particular carrot dangling off the end of a proverbial stick can only breed some a-game level competition.
Beyond the pressure of the prize pools, there is a mountain of fans’ reviews on Steam desperately dissuading potential players from allowing this highly-addictive title to consume their lives. Which is both terrifying and overwhelmingly tempting all at once.
Granted - the majority of World of Warcraft's gameplay is not generally known as being particularly difficult nowadays. When speaking on the difficulty of the MMORPG godfather, many wax nostalgic about the ruthlessness of Vanilla WoW rather than its modern, expansion-laden counterpart, a.k.a. ‘Retail’ WoW.
While WoW Classic has successfully reanimated distinctive features from the original in the name of pure nostalgia, many believe that the original challenge of Vanilla WoW has been lost. Forgetting the fact that laggy PCs, low bandwidth and a general novelty surrounding its original release perhaps contributed more to its perceived difficulty than we care to admit, the challenges of some aspects of modern WoW cannot be understated either.
The current Mythic+ level dungeons for end-game players have undoubtedly unleashed a whole new world of challenging gameplay on its many, many veterans. These dungeons are, of course, the setting for WoW’s Mythic Dungeon International tournament - the PvE alternative to the PvP Arena World Championships - which speaks to their difficulty given that teams race to clear Mythic Dungeons for a share of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Like our previous entry, that’s got to bring an edge to the PvP gameplay.
While these dungeons are entirely optional - thus allowing filthy casuals to enjoy a more forgiving base game - it provides an opportunity for MMO masters to push their limits to the extremes. Guilds are picky in their recruitment of Mythic level members and for good reason - only the best of the best can take part. So go hard, or go home.
Source: Project 1999 Forums
As one of the oldest MMO games still running and the first commercially successful MMORPG to employ a 3D game engine, EverQuest conveyed that ‘back in my day’ level of difficulty borne by retro mechanics that would undoubtedly frustrate today’s newer gamers. There were, for example, a distinct lack of instances - which were introduced later on as the devs had enough of mediating between guilds who each laid claim to a single raid boss.
Before an inordinate amount of time spent on a single raid was considered an unhealthy practice to encourage, the limits of difficulty were routinely pushed by the developers as often as there were guilds to test them - and there were plenty. EQ hosted the first ever 3D raids and its most notorious example was that of the Sleeper - whose whole deal was to be literally invincible. Unsurprisingly, the MMO gamers of yore harboured the same tenacity as today and conclusively proved that you can achieve anything with enough time, dedication, and resurrection spells.
Nowadays the game is still thriving off the nostalgia, with a player base that rarely falls below the age of 30. While EQ has evolved with the times (by speeding up the notorious raids for example), the ever-increasing level cap to keep its loyal fans engaged broadens the gap between diehard EQ players and those who just want a gander at what MMOs were like in the olden days. This means that if you enter the game as a newbie now, good luck finding that all-important group required to tackle the mobs and raids that the big boys can now tackle solo.
Back in 2002 Final Fantasy XI flaunted two methods to make players run the gamut, both in the world of Vana'diel and IRL. The game initially required a veritable mountain of PS2 paraphernalia including an external harddrive and a network adapter. Players would then have to set up their PlayOnline account and download individual files for the game before buying your character slot. It was a time-consuming process, and one which lazy gamers (like me) were not prepared to tackle. After all, falling at the first hurdle = no more hurdles.
However, for the more dedicated Vana’diel was a beautiful but cruel mistress filled with mobs that could annihilate you without warning partly owing to the lack of visible difficulty rating. Trial and error, or extra help in the form of Alliances, was a necessity, leading many headfirst into one of the game’s most lauded aspects: its tight-knit community. Not only that but death penalties are a notorious aspect of FFXI, resulting in a loss of XP that scales in brutality based on your level - one of many factors that lead people to name this as one of the most ruthless MMOs available.
Among the game’s more notorious raids were that of Pandemonium Warden and Absolute Virtue back in 2008. The bosses took 18 hours to tackle. It even caused physical illness in the players of one particularly gung-ho guild known by the particularly apt moniker ‘Beyond the Limitation’. Either way, a game that causes you to physically throw up obviously isn’t 'playing around'.
The biggest kick in the teeth was that the game would remind you to take breaks. The same franchise brought us the 72-hour Adamantoise boss in FFXV. What the hell, guys?
A universe that holds no hands and relies on human-to-human relationships to shape the future; sounds a lot like real life - and as we all know, nothing is more ruthless than real life. Just like that moment when you leave home and start life as an independent adult, players are instantly thrown in at the deep end, with no conventionally linear gameplay to introduce you to new mechanics as you go. Have you ever complained that you weren’t taught about paying bills, taxes, and other necessary life skills at school? Well Eve follows the same curriculum.
The sci-fi giant is somewhat notorious for its steep learning curve - woe betides gamers without spacefaring experience in similar titles, and even veterans will find their mettle tested within the first moments of gameplay. It’s not that EVE doesn’t come with an informative tutorial (or that Google doesn’t exist, for both Eve and real life alike) - but more that its sheer depth of gameplay looms over a new or casual gamer like a Titan. You could be playing the game for a year and still be clueless in certain areas.
It takes time and effort but if you find that Eve’s player-based economy and true sandbox experience is your kind of MMO then it is certainly worth it. It is entirely skill-based with skill point investment rarely inflicting imbalance between players (including those who pay for boosts) as long as you have the prowess to outmaneuver an opponent in a PvP showdown.
But most of all - if you suck, expect that truth to be relentlessly hammered into your skull by the game itself until you don’t. And that's why we consider it to be among the most ruthless MMOs. So Congratulations Eve Online, you have ruined us again and again, and we applaud you for it.
It goes without saying that there are the hardcore gamers out there who might look at all MMO’s as being a little bit too easy - in particular those who remember the days before widespread nerfing. But are there any ruthless MMOs that we haven't mentioned? Make sure to let us know!
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