Best MMO Settings

by Tyler Edwards, May 21, 2012

If you're a big MMO player, you probably remember the first time you logged into your first MMO, and the feeling of awe you felt as you entered a massive virtual world. One of the great appeals of the genre is the ability to enter an imaginary world and truly immerse yourself in it. As a result, a strong setting is one of the most important factors of making a good MMO; it can be a crucial part of what makes people play a game and stick with it - or abandon it. For this list, I'll be going through some of the best virtual worlds ever created for MMOs. Regardless of the quality of the games themselves, these worlds are all memorable and spectacular.

the secret world environment

5: Our world... almost (The Secret World):

It may seem a bit presumptuous to praise a game before it's even been released, but to be fair, it's hardly an uncommon event in the world of MMOs. It's too early to say if Funcom's dark fantasy MMO The Secret World will be a good game or not, but it's already intrigued plenty of people with its strange, spooky setting.

The Secret World breaks from the mold of Tolkien-esque high fantasy that dominates so much of the MMO world and is instead set in our own world and time. Almost.

In The Secret World, everything is true: every myth, every conspiracy theory, every urban legend you've ever heard. And they are all tied up in a hidden conflict waged between a trio of secret societies - the Templar, the Illuminati, and the Dragons. It's a world filled with zombies, demons, and beasts out of nightmare, and even without playing the game, it's easy to feel the aura of dread exuding from the game's eerie locales.

We won't know for sure if The Secret World is a good game until its release in June, but it's already obvious that it will offer up a very memorable and engaging setting.

middle earth environment

4: Middle Earth (Lord of the Rings Online):

J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings are among the most popular books of all time. A large part of this is due to the amazingly vast world of Middle Earth that he created - a setting with a history almost as deep and rich as the real world's, but more badass because it has Elves, Orcs, and Balrogs.

In short, if the thought of exploring the Middle Earth doesn't send your pulse racing, you should probably hand in your geek card, give away your action figures, and join a fantasy football league.

It's the immense popularity of Middle Earth that Turbine Inc. banked on when they made The Lord of the Rings Online. The game itself is a largely a standard MMO, with little in the way of major refinements to the traditional formula of the genre. But for many, that doesn't matter, because the ability to traverse the world of Middle Earth and experience its history firsthand is more appealing than any new gameplay feature. The same rich universe that made Peter Jackson a household name and has kept the original novels in continuous print since their publication provides a great hook for an MMO.

The game is a bit hit and miss about how it makes use of its source material - at times presenting an epic story worthy of Tolkien's legacy, at other times settling into a standard MMO grind. But still, for many, just the experience of being in Middle Earth is a pleasure.

star wars the old republic environment

3: A galaxy far, far away (Star Wars: The Old Republic):

Much like Middle Earth, the Star Wars universe is something that any self respecting geek would step over their own mother to experience firsthand. Most people remember watching the movies when they were kids - either the original trilogy or, God forbid, the prequels - and mentally placing themselves in the roles of characters like Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi. And that kind of nostalgia is gold to an MMO developer.

Enter Bioware and Star Wars: The Old Republic. SW:TOR's detractors often mockingly refer to it as, "World of Warcraft with lightsabers," and in all truthfulness, they may be right - the game is hardly any more innovative than LoTRO. But perhaps that's all it needs to be. For many people, the Star Wars setting is more than enough to make the game a must play.

I'll confess that I was never a terribly big Star Wars fan, but even I couldn't help but feel a surge of geeky glee as my Jedi flew his speeder over the vast metropolis of Coruscant, weaving between skyscrapers and starships.

The game also does quite a good job of making use of its setting. The quests immerse you in the Star Wars mythos as you make shady deals with Hutt crime lords, engage in intense lightsaber battles, and further the struggle between the Light and Dark sides of the Force. It does feel very much like living the movies (the original trilogy, not the prequels).

azeroth environment

2: Azeroth (World of Warcraft):

World of Warcraft is by a wide margin the most successful MMORPG in history. There are many reasons for this, including simple inertia, but its colorful and unique setting of Azeroth is one of the bigger ones.

The WoW universe - with its goofball plots, cartoonish graphics, and ludicrous shoulder armor - is something that provokes strong reactions in everyone who encounters it. Some love it, some hate it, but everyone has an opinion.

Every aspect of the Warcraft universe exudes its own unique, over the top flavor. You will never mistake WoW for any other game. Its roots may be in the traditional high fantasy genre, but it has since evolved into something wholly different, incorporating elements of numerous world mythologies and cultures, science fiction, and steampunk. From the brutish fortress cities of the Orcs, to the exaggerated Caribbean accents of the Trolls, to the "werewolves of London" charm of the Worgen, this is a world packed with personality. Another impressive thing about the Warcraft universe is its vast size and diversity. Already huge at its release, its numerous expansions have expanded the game to create a world that truly fits the bill of "massive," incorporating every kind of landscape and region imaginable - as well as a few you probably couldn't imagine.

Azeroth is ripe with homages and pop culture references, but while few of its individual elements are original, they combine to create something that is like nothing else you will ever see.

aion environment

1: Atreia (Aion):

Although it is yet another high fantasy setting, Atreia, the world of Korean MMO Aion, nonetheless manages to set itself apart from the pack. From the ground up, its universe is equal parts different, enchanting, and surreal.

The most basic elements of Atreia are unique. Like the real world, Atreia is a globe, but the livable areas cover the inside of its hollow sphere instead of the outside. The globe is not whole, but instead divided into two broken shells. The upper shell houses Asmodae, a cold nation that sees little light and is thus extremely harsh. The lower half contains the nation of Elysea, a warm and bright country teeming with life and radiant with beauty.

These different lands each gave rise to very different cultures, the game's two playable factions: the Elyos and Asmodians. The Elyos are light-worshippers, and they believe the bounty of their land shows they are favored by the game's titular deity, Aion. The Asmodians are brutal and Spartan, hardened by their bitter land, but the game goes to great lengths to demonstrate that the harshness of their environment also led to a strong philosophy of "all for one, and one for all." They are as devoted to each other as they are vicious to their enemies. It's a rare level of complexity for an MMO faction.

Each nation is lavishly realized in game, with beautiful graphics and whimsical landscapes. Most Asmodian zones are snowy or bleak, whereas Elysea is filled with lush forests and other welcoming landscapes. Both contain many fantastical creatures and sites that add to the game's alien aesthetic, but despite their strangeness they also manage to feel homey and welcoming.

The game's backstory tells of how the two nations were once held together by the crystalline Tower of Eternity, home of Aion. The Tower was shattered by the evil Balaur in ancient times, creating a terrible rift in space called the Abyss. This hellish void comprises a third region of the game and is the center of its player versus player versus environment battles. The surreal Abyss stands in stark contrast to the beauty of the rest of the game and adds interesting visual variety.

Aion is a game of many flaws, and while solid, its gameplay is ultimately nothing to write home about. Its setting, however, is second to none in its beauty, its originality, and its sense of wonder. For that reason, Aion and Atreia earn the top spot on this list.