In the past few years, PC game journalism has been dominated by one thing: the sheer amount of time it takes to play massively multiplayer online games. Of course, you can go off and hide in a corner, pretend to be an expert in one of the many other genres that make up the great messy corpus of PC gaming, but you'd be kidding yourself that it was going to work out for you in the long term. Editors, sub-editors, writers, readers: They all want to know what is going on with MMOGs. Hell, they may not even care to play them, but they want reviews, anecdotes and flavors to be delivered by someone. They want to see inside and get reports from those virtual places. These internet explorations make interesting times for games, and even if you're not there to see it all, you certainly expect someone else to be. That someone has, for the last three years, been me.
Now, if I were (on pain of sudden evisceration) challenged to supply one word that really summed up the experience of playing as many MMOGs as possible during a 36 month period, that word would be "overwhelming." A second word (on pain of public humiliation) would be "disappointing," and a third (just to complete the set) would be "significant."
Explaining the overwhelming part is easy: Lineage II takes over 2,000 hours or so to get to its final echelons, the level 70s. It's not quite as ludicrous for World of Warcraft's level 60, but nevertheless, the thousands of quests and 16,000 kills that are required to get to the later stages really do begin to weigh heavily on even the sternest gaming constitution. Then there's Second Life and the need to learn how to use a CAD program to get along and feel productive. Even if you don't become a builder, you'll still need to negotiate dozens of unfinished shops, unruly journalists and weird avatars trying to make 3-D porn if you want to survive in Second Life. It's all a bit much.
But then we might consider EVE Online, where you die horribly if you poke your nose into the wrong solar system, and where every transaction and mission is as stressful as refinancing your house. This is less a game, more a second job. "Bored? Why not try commanding space-logistics operations in a universe that only you can see."
And this is where the disappointment comes in. MMOGs promise a world of imaginative enterprise, but they end up failing to deliver. World of Warcraft looks, to the untrained eye, like a world of limitless fantasy adventure, but is in fact quite the opposite. It is a world of severely limited fantasy adventure. You can only kill the designated monsters, no matter how hard you might try, and you'll even end up lining up for the privilege of killing certain popular beasties; less a fantasy epic in which you are the hero and more another dose of linear Diablo-esque monster clubbing, but this time with lots of other people getting in the way.
EVE is more Space-Truckers with tax returns than it is Starfleet, and City of Heroes is a world in which all heroes can really do is mince about in warehouses, looking for weak ninjas. Most disappointing of all, perhaps, is Auto Assault. We all want to be able to live the road-warrior existence of Mad Max (in the second film, obviously) and play out post-apocalypse fantasies in our own desperate dust-caked corner of the future. But, well, let's just say Auto Assault isn't like that.