The best MMOs

 The best story-focused MMOs 

With such an emphasis on huge worlds and freedom, telling a coherent story in an MMO isn't an easy thing. All those pages of pointless quest dialogue are, more often than not, tossed to the side in favor of just getting the job done and moving on to the next task. So when an MMO manages to build a world and tell a story worth listening to, it's a rare thing indeed. Listed below are the best MMOs to play if you just want to immerse yourself in a rich story instead of getting all wrapped up in the vain pursuit of grinding for new gear or leveling up. 

 The Secret World 

Release Date: June 19, 2012
Developer: Funcom
Payment Model: Free-to-play with DLC

When it comes to telling a great story in an MMO, the entire genre has something to learn from The Secret World. Not only does it abandon the generic fantasy aesthetic for a gritty contemporary one, it also ties so many different themes together—from the illuminati to vampires—that it shouldn’t make any damn sense, but miraculously it does. Not too many MMOs can say they've borrowed from the pages of Lovecraft and The Matrix and made it work. And like Lovecraft's best, The Secret World is a bizarre page-turner that will have you digging deep to unravel all of its mysteries.

That love of a tale well told is best demonstrated in The Secret World's investigation missions, which require donning your detective hat to search the internet for clues to decipher puzzles. You'll pour over Wikipedia pages and through backwater websites hunting for that one piece that will make the whole picture come together. Earlier this year, The Secret World relaunched as The Secret World: Legends, revamping a lot of the game's weakest systems like combat. The overhaul doesn't necessarily fix everything, but it does go a long way to making The Secret World more enjoyable for newcomers.

 Star Wars: The Old Republic 

Release Date: December 20, 2011
Developer: Bioware
Payment Model: Free-to-play with DLC

Early in its life, The Old Republic had a kind of identity crisis that initially turned many away from playing. It wanted to be both a followup to the cherished Knights of the Old Republic while also giving World of Warcraft a run for its money and, at the time, did neither very well. But just like its setting, those days are long in the past and the Old Republic of today is far more enjoyable thanks to a refined focus on what it's always done best: telling a great story.

Where most MMOs offer only a single overarching narrative, The Old Republic has eight different class stories to experience in the main game, and all of them are exciting and fun. Whether you want to sex your way across the galaxy as a seductive imperial agent or just murder everyone as a Sith warrior, The Old Republic has some of the best storytelling ever seen in an MMO. Bioware spent a lot of money making sure that the voice acting was top-notch and it really paid off. The Old Republic's presentation is unparalleled.

In recent years, The Old Republic has expanded on that foundation with a series of expansion packs. The latest, Knights of the Eternal Throne, packs in a KOTOR-worthy cast of characters and a dramatic story that stands tall among the best tales ever told in an MMO.

Final Fantasy XI 

Release Date: May 16, 2002
Developer: Square Enix
Payment Model: Subscription with DLC

Early in its life, Final Fantasy XI was criticized for not being branded a spin-off when many assumed that the MMO wouldn't have a proper story—a core focus of every Final Fantasy game. Well, those people were wrong, Final Fantasy XI's story is actually one of the best that Square Enix has ever done. It uses the expansive framework of an MMO to tell tales that are massive in scope yet, at times, painfully intimate. Appreciating those stories, however, will require putting up with some poorly-aging graphics and a rather tedious menu system.

While Final Fantasy 14 is undoubtedly the better MMO overall, FFXI's old school sensibilities and its epic story is still worth experiencing. Each of its several expansions is a self-contained tale that demonstrates the kind of heart-felt and sweeping storytelling that Final Fantasy is famous for, but none more so than Chains of Promathia, which on its own feels like the best of Final Fantasy wrapped up into one episode. Recent updates have made progression much easier and more enjoyable whether you play alone or as a group, so experiencing Final Fantasy XI's nostalgic approach to storytelling is easier than ever—really, just ask anyone who tried leveling (and wound up de-leveling on death) when the game first game out.

Lord of the Rings Online 

Release Date: April 24, 2007
Developer: Turbine
Payment Model: Free-to-play with DLC

Turbine's Lord of the Rings Online is often overshadowed by more popular MMOs, but writing it off as a mere clone of World of Warcraft would be a mistake. Though they share similar combat and questing, The Lord of the Rings Online uses both as foundations to explore Tolkien's Middle-Earth more intimately than any video game before or after. As you follow in the fellowship's footsteps, the world of Middle-Earth comes to life in wonderful clarity, adding a kind of depth to Tolkien's work while still respecting what makes it so honored to begin with.

Even if you just enjoy the movies, The Lord of the Rings Online is practically a must. Each realm that Turbine brings to life is done with a careful understanding of its history and place within the greater world. That kind of love for the source material just isn't found in MMOs based on other media. If you've ever read any of the books and felt that ache to exist in Middle-Earth, The Lord of the Rings Online is a journey worth taking.