Saturday, May 26, 2007
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Power Up | Massive reasons for gamers to cheer

By Dennis McCauley
For The Inquirer
Massively multiplayer online games include Lord of the Rings Online, above, which has great visuals. Pirates of the Caribbean Online, below, will roll out later this spring.
Massively multiplayer online games include Lord of the Rings Online, above, which has great visuals. Pirates of the Caribbean Online, below, will roll out later this spring.
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Along with some eight million other gamers around the world, I'm hooked on World of Warcraft. But the $15 I spend monthly for the privilege of questing in the mythical lands of Azeroth is far from my only online vice. Before WoW, you see, there was World War II Online and before that, Everquest, The Sims Online, Star Wars Galaxies and Asheron's Call.

Yes, massively multiplayer online games are an ongoing expense on the balance sheet of my life, as well as a time sink. But they're a lot of fun, too. It's a blast to play with - or against - thousands of live gamers in all of their unpredictable glory, a trait that no artificial intelligence has come close to replicating. That's why I'm excited about several new and upcoming massively multiplayer online games, or MMOs, as they are known to the gaming cognoscenti.

One game to rule them all?

Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar (PC, $49.99) hopes to capitalize on the Tolkien revival sparked by the great Peter Jackson film trilogy of 2001-03. Let's hope it's not too late. While the game's visuals look great, I'm a little concerned that the LOTR craze may have jumped the shark. Consider that late last year, mega-publisher Electronic Arts, a company known for squeezing every last drop out of officially licensed properties, gave the chop to a high-profile Rings-based role-playing game project. It's unclear whether the MMO crowd will embrace Lord of the Rings Online. (www.lotro.com)

Also of concern is developer Turbine's ability to pull it off. Although their first MMO, Asheron's Call, was groundbreaking, Turbine's last two efforts have been disappointing. Asherson's Call 2 never captured the magic of the original and was shuttered in late 2005 after just three years of operation. Last year's Dungeons and Dragons Online has its devotees, but has yet to really make an impact.

Disney is preparing to roll out Pirates of the Caribbean Online later this spring. The new MMO will be based on the popular film series and will offer a two-tiered membership plan. At the basic (i.e. - free) level, players will be able to access ad-supported portions of the game. Paying customers will have unlimited access to game features, including what Disney is calling "premium" content. I had a look at the beta version recently, and while it still looks as rough as Jack Sparrow's whiskers, the team at Disney Online will surely have it polished up by launch. (http://disney. go.com/pirates/online/)

Seeing Pirates of the Caribbean running in beta reminded me that yet another buccaneer-based MMO is on the horizon. Pirates of the Burning Sea (http://www.flyinglab.com/pirates/features.php) is also in the beta stage and from here looks to have more yo-ho-ho authenticity and less Johnny Depp than the Disney offering. Could be a tough choice for fans of the pirate genre, arrrrrr. . ..

Looking ahead, one of the most-anticipated MMOs of all time is scheduled to arrive late in 2007. Futuristic RPG Tabula Rasa is the brainchild of Richard Garriott, also known as Lord British, creator of the famed Ultima role-playing series. (http://www.playtr.com)

Beyond what is publicly known, several juicy, MMO-flavored rumors have surfaced in recent days. Most exciting are whispers that a massively multiplayer version of LucasArts' classic Star Wars role-playing series, Knights of the Old Republic, could be on the way. There is also talk of a console version of World of Warcraft following reports that publisher Blizzard placed help-wanted ads seeking programmers for a "next-gen MMO."

Free is good.

Last time, I wrote about Travian, a free city-building MMO with a medieval flair. In this week's column, I'd like to help you waste some more time with Desktop Tower Defense, a free, browser-based affair that challenges players to build a system of defensive towers to stop an ever-advancing horde of monsters. The game, which pays homage to the tower defense maps of Warcraft 3, is unbeatable but nonetheless addictive. Check it out at: http://www.handdrawngames.com/DesktopTD/


Contact Dennis McCauley at dmccauley@phillynews.com.

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