Shortly after Anarchy Online hit store shelves, its publisher Funcom issued the following statement: "As for reviewing the game: we will send out review copies soon, but we would like to ask that you hold back on a full review until we have solved these problems."
In the burgeoning Persistent Online World genre, you judge a title as much on the quality of its ongoing service as its gameplay. It's not encouraging, then, that Funcom feels their product is ready for you to buy but not evaluate. A month after release, some of "these problems" have been corrected, while many remain. Perhaps in light of this, Funcom has yet to grant their official blessing to reviews, so consider this opinion entirely unsanctioned.
Anarchy Online is a "science-fiction" Everquest. What this means, more or less, is that the developers have taken familiar fantasy terms and then, in a sort of futuristic version of Mad-Libs, replaced them all with science-y sounding words. For instance, "magic" has been supplanted by "nanotechnology." Instead of "casting spells," you "run programs," though running these programs still involves making magical arm movements and having colored sparks shoot out of your hands. No space travel is included, and virtually all journeys are still accomplished on foot. Cars are available, but they're incredibly expensive and, therefore, rare. So in a lot of ways it's not quite as futuristic as, say, 1974. The setting is really only expressed in surface details.
The user interface is well designed, customizable, and is generally an evolutionary step forward for the genre. One especially nice feature is that you can drag any item into the chat window to have its name included in messages. Other people can then click on the name (which appears in blue text) to bring up a window that shows the object's complete stats. It makes buying and selling items easier, and represents the kind of small, logical interface enhancement that has a real effect on gameplay.
Visually, no game, online or off, has so successfully captured the feeling of wandering through an outdoor environment. Between the ever-changing weather patterns and day/night cycle, it seems as if you never witness the same sky twice. The horizon stretches as far as the eye could really see. If lost, you can actually climb to the top of a hill and try to find a landmark, such as the towering walls of a city, even if they're several miles away.
In an effort to reduce the "camping" style of play prevalent in EverQuest, Anarchy Online includes a system that features private missions, which are randomly generated areas open only to you and your party. In theory, it's a good idea, but the missions are all too simple and similar to hold your attention for long. And although the terrain graphics are beautiful, the interior areas in which almost all missions take place are cramped, boxy, and generally unappealing; they honestly look like the uncomplicated environments of the Wolfenstein era.
The missions also feature some of the game's most annoying bugs. Enemies several rooms away can attack you through walls. You can attack them back, but any illusion that you're in a real place is completely shattered. Lag is also a huge problem in the missions. You frequently (during peak hours, really frequently) are "disconnected" for thirty seconds to several minutes, during which time you can move around, but nothing reacts to you. The blandness and instability of the missions has resulted in many players preferring to simply camp at public respawn spots, bringing things full circle.
Lag is even worse in populated areas such as cities. Even on a powerhouse system, the framerate in these urban centers will often drop to below one frame per second, rendering the game unplayable. You can "fix" this bug by staying away from cities or by staring at the ground at all times. But these are absurd measures that you shouldn't have to take in the first place.
It's a common trait among online games that they all stink during the first few months. Since Funcom has raised the bar for monthly fees to $12.95 (almost a one-third increase from the de facto genre standard of $9.95), you might expect a corresponding increase in stability and service. Instead, Anarchy Online is arguably less stable than were its competitors during their respective launches. It features great graphics, a slightly modified version of EverQuest's gameplay model, and lots of frustrating problems. True to its theme, you should only consider playing it in the future.