There are a lot of exploration mechanics out there. Free Realms has an adventurer "job," The Secret World needs players to explore to solve mysteries, Guild Wars 2 offers experience based on discovering new areas, EverQuest II entices people to explore by offering collectible items embedded in the ground, and there are so many MMOs that allow players to gain experience just by approaching areas they haven't before.
But I have my favorites. These are games that just make me feel like an explorer.
There is no better title for explorers than Second Life. I have played it since 2004 -- nine years now -- and I am still amazed to log in to find something that blows me away. The website and much of the playerbase might make it seem there is nothing on offer but cheesy, digital sex, but the game or world or experience or whatever you want to call it is so, so much more. I have found areas that had almost photorealistic qualities, all built by hand using optical illusions and other tricks. I've discovered lush forests, massive castles, alien planets, massive art galleries, and so much more.
Linden Lab has done a mostly good job about allowing players to separate out the digital sex or other offensive materials from the G-rated stuff. Personally, I wish the developers would segregate all of the adult material into an entirely separate website and game client; that might help the game's image. Other than that, I love walking around the many worlds of Second Life and stumbling across things I have never seen. It really is still an amazing MMO; I hope it lasts forever.
The landmass of Ryzom's planet Atys is not nearly as large as those in other games, but it's a very dangerous one. Exploring in Ryzom is like taking a trip through the deepest jungles and hottest deserts: It can get you killed, but you'll surely see some amazing stuff. There is instant travel in the game, but all new characters need to visit teleportation areas, similar to unlocking flight paths in some games. In order to unlock them all, players will host lower-level players on "treks" that take them around the world while also defending them. I've gone on many treks and loved them all. They can take up an entire afternoon, but they allow a new player to see just how beautiful and original Ryzom still is while exploring with friends.
Vanguard is one of those titles that I cut my MMO teeth on. Because the world of Telon is completely open (meaning that even dungeons are not instanced), travel feels epic and time-consuming. You can skip a long walk by using instant travel, then jump onboard a boat and travel the waters and to feel like you are on a real journey. And there are beautiful lighting effects and inviting taverns in every city.
Vanguard doesn't funnel players through key areas like other mainstream MMOs do. This can often lead to the feeling of an empty world because players are more spread out, but a recent server merge might help the small community feel more active. The world of Vanguard is massive, epic, beautiful, and realistic. Find a nice spot to sit and watch the sunrise. You won't regret it.
Like Atys, the land area of RuneScape is not as large as in other games. It's so full of details, warm and glowing buildings, NPCs that hand out quests when you least expect it and so many dungeons and underground areas that you'll swear you're in one of the largest games out there. There's definitely a linear layout to the landmass, meaning that certain areas are made mostly for players of a certain level, but you won't be held back by lack of content. Thanks to the task system and the many quests that can span over the lifetime of your character, everything about RuneScape feels too large for a browser to hold.
I love to introduce new players to Wurm Online. It's a good title for people who want immersion or a feeling of escape into a virtual world. They'll complain about "no real MMOs anymore," and then they discover Wurm. The game is a jarring experience at first because it's confusing and looks odd. But just like listening to a new band or attempting to get into a new television series, Wurm might require some time to adjust to as you get used to the specific parameters of the world. Once that happens, though, exploration is not only encouraged but necessary. I've known people who will wander around the world of Wurm for hours at a time with no particular reason. The staff here at Massively even hosted a Wurm village long ago.
I don't visit as much anymore, especially since the Java scare of several months ago, but exploring in Wurm leads to a lot of danger and real consequence and the feeling that you really are walking for hours and hours. There is no travel from point A to B in this one; there's always somewhere new to discover.
Each week, Free for All brings you ideas, news, and reviews from the world of free-to-play, indie, and import games -- a world that is often overlooked by gamers. Leave it to Beau Hindman to talk about the games you didn't know you wanted! Have an idea for a subject or a killer new game that no one has heard of? Send it to email@example.com!