My initial foray into MMORPGs was, to put it nicely, quite ungraceful. I wasn’t even aware that they were a thing until about the year 2000, when I started to notice EverQuest and Asheron’s Call boxes on the shelves. But stories about addiction from friends and the seeming obtuse nature of these games kept me from trying… until fall 2001, that was.
That’s when I saw a sci-fi title lumped together in this unknown category, and I had liked Funcom’s The Longest Journey so much that I thought I’d take a chance on this odd online game. My subsequent experiences in Anarchy Online were fragmented, ignominious, and confusing as all get out. It was so weird, in fact, that I needed a “redo” of City of Heroes several years later to properly get onto the MMO bandwagon (and I haven’t fallen off since!).
So what was it like being a total Anarchy Online — and MMO — noob back in the day, feeling out this game from a position of complete ignorance? Glad you asked, friend, because I’m going to tell you all about it.
1. Launch day (month) was unplayable
Anarchy Online’s launch has gone down in online history as one of the most spectacular trainwrecks that players have witnessed. I think there have been worse since then, but it was definitely bad, as the game was neigh unplayable, even if you could get through the faulty account support.
Me? I managed to log in for a whopping two sessions to enjoy what I quickly termed “Slideshow Online,” thanks to the one-frame-per-seven-seconds visuals. Obviously, I couldn’t get anything done other than very, very, very slowly meander around the opening area. I wrote the game off as a loss and tossed it in the closet, unaware that thousands of other players were dealing with similar frustrating issues.
2. The game wasn’t much fun on a dial-up connection
Honestly, in 2000 I didn’t even know cable internet was a thing. Heck, having a personal dial-up connection was fairly new to me, as I had only gotten my own back in 1999, so that’s what I was getting used to. And for most internet activities, it was fine, but MMO gaming? Ha. I just didn’t have the machine or connection for it, which was another reason I dragged my feet a lot on MMOs.
3. The soundtrack was oddly engrossing
Despite an aborted start to my journeys on Rubi-Ka, there was one thing I really liked: the soundtrack. Anarchy Online’s score was eerie, alien, and so incredibly engrossing. Even to this day, I consider it one of the most immersive soundtracks that is intimately connected with its in-game environment.
4. Shadowlands was a great intro for a new or returning player
A year or so later, I saw that Anarchy Online had put out an expansion (Shadowlands) and I thought that the game deserved another shot. So I picked it up and got things working a lot better this time around then initially. It helped that Funcom had ironed out a lot of the more severe issues by then.
Shadowlands proved to be a perfect introductory experience, offering a much more linear path through a world that was hanging in the skies above Rubi-Ka. I didn’t feel as lost this time around as I grooved on the far-out visuals and tried not to fall off the edge. It was a long way down to the ground, I found.
5. I played it safe with Adventurer
There were a lot of classes from which to choose, and back then I wasn’t as passionate about my pets as I am today (or otherwise I would have gone with a Bureaucrat, Engineer, or Meta-Physicist). Bewildered by all of the options (what the heck is the “grid?”), I kept playing it safe by choosing an Adventurer. It seemed like a good jack-of-all-trades class that had the added bonus of being able to heal itself and, supposedly, turning itself into a dragon. I don’t think I ever got to experience the latter.
6. The level-up system was inscrutable and unforgiving
One more, I have to remind you just how little I knew about the game and understood it. Was there a manual? I don’t recall ever reading one. I was just feeling things out in-game and pretty much drowning because of it.
Leveling up was an anxiety-producing experience, because instead of how MMOs these days slap your hand away from any stat choices, AO was totally fine with letting you assign your stat points the way you liked. And believe me, there were right and wrong ways to do it. Again, I wasn’t aware. I didn’t know. Swimming stat? Seemed useful. I couldn’t fight worth a tinker’s dam, but if the Olympics ever came to town, I was going to get the gold in freestyle!
7. Combat was a more abstract exercise
It was a good thing that this whole “online” and “persistent world” thing was so gripping, because if I was to base my excitement level on the game’s combat alone, I think I would have fallen into a coma. Unlike the JRPGs I’d played on console and CRPGs on PC, Anarchy Online’s combat was an abstract exercise in which what was happening visually didn’t often line up to what was going on with the timing and damage. You’d see characters flailing about, but for the most part it was better to ignore the screen and look at the combat box to see what was actually happening.
Also, this was the era of “auto attack forever, special attack key once in a blue moon” combat, so I got used to sitting there and doing a lot of nothing while my character theoretically was battling for his life.
8. Leets were really endearing
I’ve always loved the leets in Anarchy Online, especially how they’d chitter at you in 1337-speak. Oh, it might be so passé these days, but it was kind of snarky and endearing back then. I even bought a leet in The Secret World to remember those mascots.
9. The random mission system was neat in concept, forgettable in execution
I did fiddle about at some point with one of the game’s big selling points, its random mission generator. Like most pre-World of Warcraft MMOs, Anarchy Online didn’t exactly plan for you to level all of the way to the cap from questing but instead from about 90% grinding mobs. The mission generator was a sort of halfway compromise, giving players repeatable randomly generated content that didn’t provide a lot of lore and context but at least was another avenue for XP.
10. I failed to tap into the larger community
From start to finish, those months in Anarchy Online were a fully solo experience for me. I hardly ever grouped up, I was never invited to a guild, and I didn’t think about looking on the forums or at other websites for more info. Maybe I was being completely naive and trying to figure things out alone, but nothing ever steered me in those directions either. And it’s a shame; I might have stayed a lot longer if I had connected with others and had a mentor to explain things to me better.
But disappointing as it was because of this, Anarchy Online was my first — and you always remember your first fondly.