6 Best MMOs for Exploration

by Tyler Edwards, December 14, 2013

Part of the fantasy of an MMORPG is being given the freedom to explore a new world, to delve into forgotten ruins and strike out across unexplored frontiers in search of treasure and adventure. But for all that, not that many MMOs put much effort into exploration as a gameplay style. Their worlds are more like guided tours, with little options for venturing off the beaten path and fewer reasons for doing so. But a few MMOs have remembered the joy of exploring the unknown. These offer players good reason to not get tunnel vision on quest objectives, and a few even make exploration a core part of gameplay.

rift landscape

6: Rift:

Most MMOs in the genre of "Warcraft clones" follow in that game's footsteps and offer little or no reason to explore their game worlds beyond wherever quests take them, but Rift makes a decent effort to make its world more than just a setting for major quest lines.

For one thing, there are its titular dynamic events. Rifts constantly pop up all over the world, giving players a good motivation to take note of their surroundings and venture beyond the standard questing areas. With a little determination, one could probably spend most of their time chasing rifts.

Another impetus to explore is Rift's collection system. Collections are sets of rare items hidden throughout the game world. If a player can complete a set, they'll receive a reward of some sort. These rewards aren't spectacular – usually being more cosmetic than functional – but they're a decent carrot for the completionists among us, and collecting them helps to build a sense of history for the world.

Rift probably isn't the game for those who want exploration to be the bread and butter of their gameplay, but it's a solid game in other areas, and if you're just looking for a little exploring on the side, it could be a good choice.


5: Vanguard: Saga of Heroes:

These days, MMO worlds seem to be getting smaller. Maybe not in geographical size, but the days of vast open worlds seem to be fading. These days, heavy instancing is common place. If you pine for the good old days of vast virtual worlds, Vanguard: Saga of Heroes might be the game for you.

Vanguard's world is enormous, spanning three continents, and it's utterly seamless. There is virtually no instancing in this game; everything takes place in the same immersive world. Even dungeons and raids are integrated into the main game world, with nary a load screen in sight.

The world is quite detailed, as well, with many hidden temples, caverns, glades, or other places of interest hidden across its massive breadth.

If natural environments aren't enough to satisfy your curiosity, Vanguard also features a fairly powerful player housing system, also non-instanced. Many players choose to open their homes to the public, allowing them to show off their creations to the greater community.

tsw exploration

4: The Secret World:

The Secret World doesn't seem like a good game for the explorer at first glance. It doesn't have a traditional open world, and its maps are relatively small by MMO standards. But the Secret World is a place full of, well, secrets. The developers have made sure to pack every corner of the world with hidden content.

While the main missions are marked on player maps, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of hidden side quests scattered around TSW's environments. Some are easy to find in the course of playing through the main storyline, but others are hidden far off the beaten path.

It's not just extra missions, either. Lore honeycombs to expand on the game's backstory are hidden throughout the game world, some in fiendishly difficult to reach places. There's little gameplay advantage to finding these beyond a very small amount of experience for completing a set, but if you're playing TSW and don't care about its story, you're probably playing the wrong game.

And really, who would want to miss out on gems like this one, taken from the lore on the Morninglight cult: "There are new recruits chained to Betty's walls. She has their signatures. They tested as having self-image problems, as she once had. Smiling, she tells them they are all beautiful. She opens them with a knife, shows them the beauty inside. ‘Look!' she says, tears streaming. ‘We are all made of stars!' Then she practises eating stars, waiting for enlightenment to take hold."

gw2 exploration

3: Guild Wars 2:

There aren't many games that capture the spirit of adventure as well as Guild Wars 2, and fewer still that are not sandboxes. Guild Wars 2 is the ultimate embodiment of the dream of the itinerant hero, traveling the world in search of fame and glory.

There are no linear quest chains to lead you around GW2 by the nose. There's the personal storyline, but it's entirely optional, and even if you do follow it closely, it leaves you plenty of time to wander and explore.

The freedom to travel is worthless without a reason to do so, but GW2 also provides this in spades. Every inch of Tyria is filled with skill challenges, renown hearts, points of interest, vistas, and dynamic events, all of which can be of benefit to players. Completing a map by exploring all of its features also rewards a chest full of loot, including items that are generally only available from the item store for real world cash.

For the true explorers, there even a few hidden areas not marked on maps. These contain things like brutally difficult jumping puzzles and other unique challenges. These often reward chests full of gear for those brave and skilled enough to complete them.


2: Wurm Online:

Exploration isn't all about stopping to smell the flowers. A true explorer journeys into harsh, wild lands where men fear to tread. They strive against savage beasts and endure the brutal elements. For these bravest of explorers, the sandbox Wurm Online provides a worthy challenge.

Wurm is a difficult game intended to be highly realistic. Travel to a new area can entail hours of sailing or hiking – and that's when you're not being set upon by wild animals and other monsters. Nightfall or bad weather can greatly impair your visibility, increasing the risk of stumbling into something that wants to have you for a nice light snack.

All that danger wouldn't be worth it if there wasn't anything to see in your journeys, but Wurm provides that, as well. Or, more accurately, its players do. As a true sandbox, the world of Wurm can be harvested and developed by players. They can build their own homes or villages, working together to tame the harsh land.

Player creations will also decay over time if not maintained. You may stumble upon a ghost town, its timbers rotting and its fields fallow. Go away for too long, and your creations might join the lost ruins littering the landscape.

But all this building and decay means the world of Wurm is one that's always changing, and that means there's also the potential to find something new in your travels.

eve exploration

1: EVE Online:

Few other MMOs make exploration so core to their experience as does EVE Online. Featuring thousands of star systems to discover and exploit and powerful rewards for doing so, EVE Online is the explorer's paradise.

In EVE, exploration isn't just a matter of looking around and hoping you find something interesting. It's an entire playstyle and one of the underpinning features of the game, featuring complex mechanics and significant rewards.

EVE's ship pilots can venture across star systems both familiar and exotic in the hopes of stumbling upon combat encounters, hidden caches, or even wormholes that will fling them to far reaches of space. Each of these possibilities has the potential to reward an industrious pilot with valuable salvage materials or schematics. Going farther afield can yield better rewards, but crossing into the lawless outer systems puts a pilot at risk of being attacked by some of EVE's notoriously cutthroat players.

To get the most out of exploration, one will need to train their character in many different skills. Hacking, salvaging, and archaeology are all necessary skills for a player who wishes to be able harvest from any cache they come across.

In no other game is exploration as fleshed out, deep, and powerful as it is in EVE Online, and it has earned its place at the top of our list of the best MMOs for the explorers among us.