We’re setting out on a journey together, exploring online games one studio at a time. Our journey begins in the early days of MMOs, all the way back to Funcom’s Anarchy Online. For the next two months we’ll be exploring Funcom’s games from Anarchy Online to Lego Minifigures and everything in between.
A long time ago, in a decade far, far away, there was a game called Anarchy Online. And it was good, great even. Back in 2002, when I was but a hormonal teenage boy flipping up skirts and inflicting wet willies to my peers, a cousin of mine, who was a decade my senior, played Anarchy Online. I remember sitting by him, peeking over his shoulder and witnessing the majesty of such an ambient world, freshly discovered, fit for exploration by the most dedicated of adventurers. I didn’t mind being a mere observer; it was good enough just to share the wonderment of my cousin as he discovered secret after secret, surprise monster after surprise monster, and reveling at the multitude of accomplishments he completed or, for the most part, attempted to complete. After all, I was too young to even begin thinking about if I could afford it. But it was still an activity that we did for a good year, where I would forfeit a bit of my social life at times just to watch him play what I regarded as the greatest game ever made.
As we all know, all good things must come to an end, and through a series of events, our little after school activity ceased as we moved on to other things. Yet, even today, my cousin and I will always share an appreciation and love for a world we once knew, looking back at all the silly things we’ve (or he’s) done.
Fast-forward to the present and I can scarcely remember a single detail about Anarchy Online; only the awe and whimsy have remained. Imagine my surprise to see it, after more than a decade, still alive and kicking, especially in an industry where the mortality rate of young games is second to none. With stiff competition from titles such as WoW, Guild Wars, Final Fantasy, and even the semi-contemporaneous EVE, it would bewilder anybody how a game like this survives to this day. What is it that keeps Anarchy Online from crashing into a nearby planet in a million, tiny pieces? Hell, how many of you know that it even exists?
Logging into the game, I feel the familiarity of that olden whimsy – a bygone fancy that was one of the first to stoke the fires of passion for MMOs I had within me. But, at the same time, it was different; a bit too different and even, at times, alien. Naturally, since there has been a huge time leap since I’ve seen the inside of the game that there would be differences. But these dissimilarities from its former self did not prove too strong as to burden me from opening the game in the first place. I wa giddy with anticipation, dreaming of a great time long gone, imagining vividly the smiles and laughter my cousin and I once shared for it.
I was soon greeted by the vastness of space – a vacuum of nothingness that begged me to lunge into it. It can be hypnotizing in a sense, but simple and provocative. I felt that I was in for a great experience as I watched a spacecraft dock into the Rubi-ka Orbital station. Once past that, the camera took me through a series of hallways in the Rubi-Ka Orbital Station and one could easily tell that the game has aged – the polygonal walls that I would once before regale as intricate and progressive now look as plain and dull, the corridor itself looked copy pasted from a segment I’ve seen just a second before, the tiles and lights that lined said corridor were placed blandly, clearly uninspired, and the entirety is just so lifeless. At the end of that portion, I ended up gazing at the lineup of several races that I’m pretty sure existed since I last saw the game. They haven’t aged well; blocky faces and bodies, odd textures, and bad animations made choosing the breed for my character a no-brainer (a vanilla human).
As soon as I dropped into the game, I couldn’t fathom why I had initially thought that Anarchy Online would be a riveting experience. Visually, the whole package is so lackluster for 2015 or even a decade ago, to be honest. Specific details aside (to be dealt with in a formal review), the game is just so clunky, plain, and aged beyond recognition. I trudged along the metal landscape of a port I knew little about, doing one quest after another, studying what I couldn’t understand, and trying to appreciate whatever I could, usually forcefully at most of the time. I couldn’t accept that something I loved so dearly could have fallen so low on the food chain.
But I was wrong.
It only took a few minutes for me to get out of the early areas and into wider landscapes that instantly revitalized the beauty about the game within me. Sure, the visuals may be dated, but once I took in the first sight of a wide and open alien desert, the game suddenly evoked the grandness of the unknown, rekindling the passion for adventure and exploration in my psyche that so many other MMOs have tried to replicate but failed so miserably. Why do I say that? It is because the whimsy that I felt from staring far into the horizons of its plain and bleak, but evocative, landscapes weren’t at all forced. I just had this strong urge to find whatever it is I could find in its immersive simplicity, feeding passion with a fully whole experience. A quest pops up here, a hidden artifact there, and a whole slew of other things that can intrigue and amuse the dedicated gamer were the sparkling gems of this ancient game. It was this same kind of experience that led me down the path of online gaming. And then I realized that that was it; Anarchy Online’s greatest strength is in the honesty of its existence.
The game wasn’t made as a get-rich-quick project like so many modern online games today, but it was an attempt at capturing a true sci-fi immersion for its time. And even today, I daresay that it is one of a kind. With the tools it had at its disposal, it made a whole bunch of environments that are timeless immersions of the developer’s vivid imaginations that try to encapsulate a love for the gaming and for the genre. In hindsight, I now realize that that was what I felt all those years ago; the craftsmanship of Anarchy Online.
If you were to ask me what game would be the closest to Anarchy Online, I would have to say the Elder Scrolls IV: Morrowind. This is the kind of game most folks expected TESO to become but isn’t. It would take far more than aged graphics and a clunky engine to take away from the well-made, immersive environments of Anarchy. It’s still as amazing as it felt back then. But I do ask myself if this is merely the charm of nostalgia or an actual element of the game. The line between the two is indiscernible at times and can lead to some very faulty judgments on certain things. Hell, it could even be a more deep-rooted form of nostalgia since I’ve grown up on games with graphics like this and they all, due to the lack of technology at the time, relied heavily on other techniques to improve the ambience, atmosphere, and immersion of their game.
Frankly, as far as I can tell, it’s definitely a part of the game more than anything else or it wouldn’t have survived this long. Or at least, I’d like to believe that to be the case. And even if this were just a case of strong nostalgia, remember that I haven’t really played the game until this year. I could be playing some newer AAA titles for my entertainment, but I find myself drawn to this old dog of a game. For 14 years, Anarchy Online has continued on, under the radar of many gamers, becoming a home only for the MMO gamers that search for a deeper experience, normally shunned and put aside by the heavier mainstream titles. I’ve only yet to scratch the surface of the game and, already, it proves to be far more intricate than it lets on. One thing is for certain, however; this game is definitely not just a long corridor of quests.Related: Anarchy Online, Column, Funcom, MMO Catalog Tour