Massively Overthinking: Which classic MMOs hold up the best visually in 2022?


As one of our resident fans of old MMOs, I always have to clarify that it’s the systems and ideas in old games that I like. Their graphics… not so much. I was a happy adopter of every one of Ultima Online’s post-3D clients (four? I lost count). I did not find the original client’s graphics charming then or now. So whenever I have an opportunity to play an old game that holds up well in spite of the years both in its mechanics and its visuals, I’m in heaven. Sure, sometimes the game requires some modding or tweaking to make it pretty. Sometimes it needs developer intervention with a graphical overhaul. Sometimes it needs high-res textures. And sometimes you just need to jack up all the post-processing settings, antialiasing, and water and shadow effects to levels that would’ve been unplayable when the game came out. But the end result is sometimes you can fool folks about what game they’re even looking at.

I was reminded of all this recently as I was installing some MMOs on a new laptop and had to turn all the graphical bells and whistles waaaaaay down. And that, my friends, does not a pretty old MMO make.

For this week’s Massively Overthinking, let’s talk about older MMORPGs that have managed to weather the passage of time and actually still look pretty decent in 2022. Which classic MMOs hold up the best – visually speaking – in 2022? And what do you think is the secret to their unexpected beauty?

Andy McAdams: I don’t know that it really keeps with the “spirit” of what you are saying, but WoW is pretty damn old and still looks pretty damn good. I think it’s managed to pull this off through regular upgrades to graphics but also not chasing the elusive “indistinguishable from real-life” dragon. Its graphics are stylized, which gives them even more staying power than they would have had otherwise.

In keeping with the spirit – I’m playing EQII right now and the graphics are… OK. Not great. Just OK. Except the water; I’m still kinda floored when I look out of my little house in Halas and see the waves and how amazing it looks, even now. But the model textures are muddy. The spell icons are reused and so similar that they meld together into a big blur. But it’s good enough. I have to admit, I do jack the settings all the way up across the board so it helps.

I want to say that Anarchy Online holds up well, but I’d be lying. My fondness for that game almost definitely comes from nostalgia rather than any sort of visual excellence. As Bree says, it’s the systems and ideas in Anarchy that makes me look past the “water-color painting that I left out the rain” textures and models that make up so much of Anarchy Online.

I don’t really play any other classic MMOs. Though, I imagine that some day I will find a way to give SWG a try, just to see what all the hubbub is about from Bree!

Ben Griggs (@braxwolf): Is it cheating to include games that have undergone graphics updates? Because for a game pushing two decades, EVE Online looks absolutely incredible. In fact, I’d put it’s current iteration up against any modern MMO out there.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): It was actually Star Wars Galaxies and City of Heroes that inspired this question; I had to turn all their eyecandy off just to get the laptop to run them without heating up too much (my biggest pet peeve with any laptop!). They do not look great with all their settings turned down, but that just reminded me how decent they look when run on a modern rig with all the gewgaws on (and in SWG’s case, some mods on top).

I used to think Guild Wars 1 held up well too, but the last time I poked my head in, even with the high-res textures, the landscapes were looking at little blah. It surprised me as usually with MMOs, it’s the characters that look dated first, well before the landscapes (for one example, consider LOTRO!). It certainly holds up much better than it should, either way.

Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): I’m certainly of the camp that Lord of the Rings Online still looks absolutely fantastic, especially with its natural-looking landscapes and detailed structures. Sure, all opinions vary wildly on looks, but I still hold that this is a very good-looking game, especially in its 15th year. And speaking of SSG titles, DDO is really underappreciated for its visuals, especially in some of its interiors and colorful regions.

Sam Kash (@thesamkash): I’ve never played many of the older MMOs. I just missed out on them. I was on poor dial up connections and never had a PC of my own until the mid-2000s, so my first MMO was FFXI. All this is to say that when I’m looking at the graphics of MMOs before that time, I really struggle to appreciate them.

Still, I played a lot of Guild Wars, and I think its graphics still hold up pretty well. I’m sure it’s mostly just nostalgia talking, but when I see screenshots of the locations or geared up players, I always like them.

Every week, join the Massively OP staff for Massively Overthinking column, a multi-writer roundtable in which we discuss the MMO industry topics du jour – and then invite you to join the fray in the comments. Overthinking it is literally the whole point. Your turn!
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