Since the days of World of Warcraft, developers have been on a constant search for the best way to monetize massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs).
Some games, like Final Fantasy XIV Online, stick with the tried-and-true monthly subscription, while others, such as The Elder Scrolls Online, charge a flat rate for each expansion. Most MMORPGs are free-to-play games, though, monetizing through in-game purchases and content packs.
In this guide, we’re going to break down the best free MMORPGs, playing close attention to games that are free-to-play rather than pay-to-win. Although all of our picks feature microtransactions in one form or another — it’s unavoidable when talking MMORPGs — you can still download and play a good chunk of each game without spending any money.
Phantasy Star Online 2
After years and years of waiting, Phantasy Star Online 2 finally came to the West officially in 2020 after a beta period. The Phantasy Star series as a whole has always been incredibly popular among RPG fans, and the first game had a dedicated player base for the time, making the wait for the sequel even more unbearable. Thankfully, about eight years later, Phantasy Star Online 2 has arrived and, despite some technical issues, it’s just as good as we hoped. It also doesn’t hurt that it is completely free.
Taking cues more from the mainline series than from other MMOs, Phantasy Star Online 2 isn’t a full-on open world, but instead it uses large hub areas you travel between. Missions are picked up from a central location, from which you then travel to one of several different worlds to complete your objective. The gameplay is very action focused, with plenty of diverse weapons and play styles to experiment with. Aside from the class system, you can have up to three weapons equipped at a time, giving you variety and versatility. Attacks are done in real time, allowing you to execute combos that inflict extra damage. This makes it one of the most satisfying MMOs to actually play.
The story of the game is that you are an operative for Artificial Relict to Keep Species, aka ARKS, which is a group tasked with adventuring to new planets and destroying any signs of the dark Falspawn forces. Honestly, though, the story isn’t what makes this one of the most popular MMOs on the market today. You don’t need to know anything about the previous games or even pay close attention to this one. Combat is the star here, along with some exciting and unique quest types, especially Urgent Quests, which are server-wide events that you have to experience for yourself to fully understand the excitement they bring.
Guild Wars 2
With a 90 on Metacritic and a 90% rating on GameRankings — second only to World of Warcraft and three of its expansions — Guild Wars 2 is one of the most critically acclaimed massively multiplayer games of all time. Though it will never unseat Blizzard’s gaming goliath in terms of sheer popularity, Guild Wars 2 does many things better than World of Warcraft, and without charging a monthly fee.
Guild Wars‘ fluid combat system provides an excellent counterpart to the rigid, role-based combat that Blizzard began with the Diablo series and built upon with World of Warcraft. Though it lacks the kind of depth and difficulty that forces players to work together in demanding raid environments, the system in Guild Wars 2 encourages players to team up however they see fit — trying to plow through some difficult PvE content in Guild Wars doesn’t necessarily require a dedicated tank and healer, for instance.
The in-game gem store also allows developer ArenaNet to continue profiting from the game and create new content, while simultaneously allowing for new players to jump in at no cost. Special seasonal events and other content updates have added additional content, as well, such as new mounts, story events, challenges, and weapons, several years after the game originally launched.
Trion Worlds’ Rift looks and plays like a carbon-copy of World of Warcraft at its core, but who says you have to reinvent the wheel to make a great MMORPG? The game was one of the most stable and expansive MMOs when it launched back in 2011, bursting with striking environments, superbly crafted character models, and gameplay culled from some of the best aspects of similar titles. Though the early-game quests and lore are drearily dry, the game becomes more interesting as the story dissipates and you begin closing the sporadic, dimensional rifts that unleash a flurry of demonic beings into the game’s sprawling landscapes.
Rift‘s best feature is a flexible and immersive class system. Players begin by choosing one of two opposing factions — either the Guardians or Defiant — followed by one of six races and a standard archetype such as a mage, rogue, cleric, or warrior. Additionally, players take on three souls at a time, which function like subclasses, and develop their character using an elaborate skill tree. This level of customization adds to the game’s strategy and makes the accompanying co-op dungeons that much more dynamic and intriguing. The learning curve is steep, even after level 50, but the originality is there.
Rift went free-to-play in 2013, but a paid expansion titled Starfall Prophecy was subsequently released in 2016, featuring additional content that free users wouldn’t be able to see. However, it was then renamed Prophecy of Ahnket and made free once again. Since then, the game has continued to receive additional updates, including special autumn-themed packs, and battle passes.
Star Wars: The Old Republic
Any of the best Star Wars games were a massive undertaking considering the legion of devotees and die-hard fanatics that possess an attachment to the material. Luckily, BioWare’s Star Wars: The Old Republic is both easily accessible and instantly recognizable. The writing and fully voiced dialogue are excellent, bolstered by class-specific narratives and a wealth of contextual backstory that any fan of the franchise will admire. The visuals still hold up fairly well, and users can easily customize graphics settings to fit a broad range of gaming rigs. The gameplay mechanics are rooted in real-time, hotkey-based combat, and offer additional variation in the form of on-rails space combat and PvP warzones.
Though it is online, SWTOR is an enjoyable solo experience. Players choose from one of two factions, either the Republic or the Empire, and select from one of four distinct character classes specific to each side of the force. If you choose the Republic, you’ll have access to the smuggler, trooper, Jedi Knight, and Jedi Consular, while the Empire provides options to be a bounty hunter, Sith warrior, Imperial agent, and Sith Inquisitor. The story-driven flashpoints, SWTOR‘s equivalent to co-op dungeons, offer some of the most rewarding and challenging gameplay in the entire Star Wars universe, throwing players at drifting Republic warships and distant Imperial prisons as they battle alongside others to complete the designated objectives in exchange for valuable loot.
Though SWTOR has been out for more than five years, BioWare keeps churning out new content and released the Knights of the Eternal Throne expansion in late 2016. An expansion called Onslaught was then released in 2019, which added a new storyline that puts the Galactic Republic in conflict with the Sith Empire, as well as the world of Onderon, a special Flashpoint activity, and an Operation to complete with friends.
Read our full Star Wars: The Old Republic review
TERA boasts one of the most dynamic and pleasing combat systems in MMORPG history. Like TERA‘s counterparts, the game offers a diverse assortment of characters and classes — from the giant-bred Amani to the adorable Popori — each of which is accompanied by a familiar set of classes available to all races. The environments are dazzling and bright, with lush vistas and sprawling plains, and the character models are a joy to look at no matter what your machine’s graphics settings call for.
While the general questing-and-crafting gameplay in the early hours of TERA is standard fare, the aforementioned combat mechanics feel much different compared to the stand-still combat that characterizes most MMORPGs. The game requires the player to engage in a variety of fleet-footed maneuvers as they dodge and jab at opponents. The result feels more like a third-person action game than a hotkey-heavy WoW-style affair. Hunting and eradicating “big-ass monsters” alongside a group of fellow players is exhilarating, as are the group dungeons, but the events and quests are all loosely connected by a story arc that barely qualifies as mundane. However, additional components, such as in-game elections and open-world PvP, add enough individual flair to make TERA a world all its own.
A massive 2014 update increased the level cap from 60 to 65 and added several new zones, all for free. Two new playable classes were also added, while smaller updates continue to roll out regularly, including new dungeons, battlegrounds, and skills for each of the game’s 11 classes. The level cap was further increased to 70 in 2019, and an update called “Unmasked” arrived in October 2019. This latest update added a new story-driven dungeon called Red Refuge, additional Guardian Legion missions, guild-versus-guild combat, a revamped Gridiron battleground, and new leaderboards.
TERA is currently available on PC, PS4, and Xbox One.
The Lord of the Rings Online
Like SWTOR, the world surrounding that of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth has been one hugely solidified in popular culture thanks to Peter Jackson’s feature-length films. Fortunately, Lord of the Rings Online contains a wealth of content from Tolkien’s work, stuff that Jackson’s films never touched, and its cartoonish visuals color the rich environments of Middle Earth. The places you’ll visit are as diverse and eclectic as they are in the various books, ranging from snow-capped peaks to rolling hills, and the creation tools allow players to tackle the story as a hobbit, human, dwarf, or elf. Classes are as equally diverse, ranging from burglar and hunter to lore-keeper and guardian, but the selection is specific to your race.
With multiple expansions out the door, the game has undergone substantial changes since its initial release in 2007, yet the core mechanics and gameplay remain roughly the same. The most recent expansion, Minas Morgul, just arrived in late 2019 and adds a new race — the Stout-axe Dwarves — two new regions, a new raid, level cap increase, the Black Book of Mordor, new crafting benefits, and new adventures to push the lore forward.
The storyline is still epic, driving players through familiar spaces filled with recognizable figures from both the books and films, and the overall narrative gives otherwise bland quests substantial, contextual weight. Character progression and PvP combat are limited, but additional elements like deeds and Monster Play — which essentially allows you to play in the role of one of Sauron’s minions — add greater depth to the game’s seemingly straightforward approach. LOTRO is often dubbed a World of Warcraft rip-off, and perhaps it is in many ways, but it’s a hard argument to make when so much of the latter MMORPG was likely inspired by the immersive world of the former.
Developer Cryptic Studios combined the simplicity and combat-focused gameplay of Diablo with a more traditional fantasy setting to create Neverwinter, based upon lore from the Dungeons & Dragons universe. The combat system utilizes a computerized version of D&D’s 4th Edition by rolling imaginary dice to determine hits, misses, and damage dealt. The game, initially released in 2013 for PC but also available on Xbox One and PS4, features robust PvE and PvP experiences. Though Neverwinter assumes a linear approach, the fluid, Darksiders-esque combat feels fresh — especially for Xbox One and PS4, where the game’s aversion to social interaction and traditional RPG elements feels less oppressive.
Though the game’s performance can tank if you’re in high-level zones on a console or a low-end PC, the game features excellent spell effects and sound design, two underrated aspects of fantasy games that can be make-or-break your immersion in the experience. Though some of the game’s systems, such as its lack of communication channels and an insanely expensive in-game store, seem poorly executed. Even with those faults, though, Neverwinter is a fast-paced game that provides a different feel relative to most of the MMOs on our list.
Dungeons and Dragons Online
For most of us, Dungeons and Dragons has always been the tabletop game we kept to ourselves in fear of being ostracized (no shame there). However, despite DDO‘s launch woes and flawed beginnings, the sun-dappled city of Stormreach has never been so appealing. Loosely based on the D&D 3.5 ruleset, DDO is a game with extensive customization directly built into the framework. Featuring more classes than any other title on our list, the character creation tools allow players to experiment with a dynamic multiclass system wherein your character can effortlessly combine facets of skill sets. Although the latest updates still heavily cater to group instances and the game’s rooted emphasis in tight-knit teamwork, solo options are becoming exceedingly robust, especially if you can afford to pick up an NPC “hireling” or two to back you up.
Let’s be honest, though: DDO, which launched in 2006, doesn’t hold up when compared to newer, oft-updated titles, particularly in terms of visual fidelity. While it isn’t an eyesore, the game doesn’t pack the polygonal depth and vibrant details of newer MMOs like Tera. The game behind the visuals, however, is captivating, fueled by story-driven raids and dungeons whirling around the never-ending defense of Stormreach.
With titles like City of Heroes and the first Guild Wars under its belt, Korean developer NCSoft knows its way around an MMORPG. Aion is a tightly-polished effort, rooted in a post-cataclysm world that’s been torn asunder by two warring races. Players begin by selecting the hardy Asmodians or the radiant Elyos — each with six distinct classes that are subdivided into two more once you reach level 10 — and are then thrust into the stunning environments of Atreia. The questing and six crafting systems are linear, often requiring you to grind between lulls and recruit other players for the more populated zones.
Aion‘s true calling lies in its ability to balance both PvE and PvP components. Combat is fast-paced and responsive, reliant on chain attacks and fair amounts of button mashing, and incorporates flying mechanics that are truly unique to the genre.
Although most regions are designated as no-fly zones, players can still glide within the regions from any elevated jump-off point. Aion is an immediately enjoyable and beautiful title from the get-go, even if it does take you a while to earn your wings, and additional seasonal events and stories should give you a reason to come back even in-between larger content updates. Even if you just want to craft your own gear or collect pets, you’ll find something great to pass the time in Aion Online.
DC Universe Online
DC Universe Online dropped its subscription shortly after launch in 2011, but the game still offers as much action-heavy MMO fun now as it did when it was a “premium” game. Based on the fictional superheroes and villains in the DC Universe, Players begin by either creating a character from scratch or one inspired by famous DC characters such as Superman, Batman, and the like. The rest of the game unfolds in RPG-like fashion, with stereotypical kill-collect quests scattered across Metropolis and Gotham City, and dungeons that break up the standard MMO grind.
The well-designed cities, NPCs, and other elements also bask in the kind of comic-esque nuances you’d come to expect from such a title, and although the visuals are nowhere near photo-realistic, they are fittingly stylized. The combat is fast-paced and responsive, too, whether you’re engaging in the game’s heated PvP matches or participating in end-game raids.
Long-term players can expect a steady stream of ample daily quests and additional endgame content once you blaze through the game and hit the level cap. While the game is not without its faults — the voice-acting is cringe-worthy at times — there is no finer MMORPG for comic book fans and those that seek a solid alternative to fantasy-blazoned RPGs like Lord of the Rings Online, and TERA.
What’s more, now is the perfect time to dive into DC Universe Online, as an open-world boss added in October 2019 lets you face off against a Metal Man-Bat. The rewards you get for completing missions offer tons of different ways to customize your hero, so you can always stand out from the crowd.
It’s hard to argue a game isn’t one of the best of its kind when it boasts more than 200 million accounts. Jagex’s Runescape — now in its third incarnation — has undergone a series of design and gameplay overhauls since its 2001 debut, garnering the honor of the Most Popular Free MMORPG in existence, according to the Guinness Book of World Records.
The latest version of the browser-based MMORPG doesn’t deviate much from previous renditions of the game. Set in the war-torn fantasy realm of Gielinor, Runescape is a simple and familiar take on the MMORPG. Questing and combat are straightforward and often humorous, typically requiring you to click an enemy to death and collect its loot. Thankfully, the bland repetition is offset by the end-game content and the title’s sheer amount of depth. Much of that content remains hidden behind a paid subscription, but even the free content is engaging and fun.
Skyforge is a self-described “AAA fantasy sci-fi MMORPG.” It ditches the high fantasy setting of most MMOs in favor of the mechanical world of Aelion, where you’ll use a sword and shield alongside heavy machine guns. The art style and graphics are astounding for a free-to-play game and truly deliver on the AAA promise. The game doesn’t as much, unfortunately, with a lot of grinding and near-endless paywalls.
That’s par for the course with free MMORPGs, though. Skyforge is varied enough to make the grind fun, and the microtransactions, although present, aren’t egregious. If you download the game on Steam, you’ll even receive a free welcome pack. It includes a permanent class unlock as well as some Premium account time, so you can get a feel for how Skyforge works when you’re paying. The game is currently available for PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.
Star Trek Online
Star Trek Online has been around for over a decade, and it’s still going strong. Over the past 10 years, developer Cryptic Studios has continually updated the game with new content. Now, there are over 160 episodes to play through featuring multiple story arcs. Star Trek Online is a must-play for any fan of the series. However, it’s also a great way to get into Star Trek if you’ve been sleeping under a rock since 1966.
Thankfully, Star Trek Online isn’t a case of a subpar developer scoring a deal on the Star Trek license. With over 100 locations unique to Star Trek and voice actors from the TV show, Star Trek Online is fan service at its finest. The game doesn’t skip RPG mechanics, either. You get to captain a ship you designed, either as one of the species from the show or one you make up on your own. You can download the game for free on PC, PlayStation 4, or Xbox One.
Eve Online isn’t an RPG per se, though it shares a lot of the DNA with the other games on this list. It’s more of a sandbox game, just one littered with RPG mechanics. In short, you pilot a ship through space. On your journey, you can choose to contribute or disrupt the in-game economy, participate in massive in-game battles, or simply explore the universe. Eve Online is whatever you want it to be, and with over 15 years of free expansions, there’s plenty to do.
“Massive” doesn’t begin to describe the game world, either. Eve Online has around 8,000 visitable star systems, each of which have four to eight planets inside. With so many players and so much room, Eve Online is the perfect playground for unique gameplay moments. Instead of asking you to stick to the script, Eve Online allows you to create your own stories organically. Undoubtedly one of the most impressive games ever released, Eve Online is a must-play, free or not. You can download it now on Steam.
Path of Exile
Path of Exile is one of those rare free-to-play games that’s had commercial success while satisfying the core community. It’s an action RPG in the style of Diablo 3, though some players say it has even more depth. With seven years of active support under its belt, we can see why. Character customization is almost limitless, there are plenty of missions to tackle solo or with friends, and the competitive scene is bustling.
The free-to-play model is at the center of Path of Exile, but in a way that always respects the player. The Steam page says it clearly: “You cannot gain gameplay advantage by spending real money in Path of Exile.” The grind is still real, and there are still microtransactions, but you can truly play hundreds of hours of Path of Exile without spending a dime. Plus, it’s available on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, so you don’t need a PC to play.
Secret World Legends
One of the more narratively grounded MMORPGs out there, Funcom’s Secret World Legends is a 2017 update of The Secret World from back in 2012. You won’t need to wrap your head around new fantasy worlds to jump into this one, as many of its locations are based on real-world places like London, New York, and Seoul. Supernatural entities inspired by the works of writers like H.P. Lovecraft have manifested around the globe, and it’s up to you to defend the modern-day world against these imaginative evils.
Secret World Legends is a game for those looking to branch out from the large fantasy settings of most MMOs. Its third-person perspective isn’t going to shake up general gameplay too much, but its reliance on weapon skills over classes and leveling makes it straightforward to jump in and enjoy. Unwieldy battleaxes and wands make way for pistols, assault rifles, swords, and good old fashioned fists. And rather than procure sets of huge armor, you can beat up the forces of evil in your everyday fast fashion instead.
Sinister monsters and familiar locales push Secret World Legends away from traditional MMORPG tropes. Instead, it’s a dark and mature title with an emphasis on horror. Quests are more like puzzles and riddles, so much so that it originally shipped with an in-game web browser to help players out in a pickle.
ArcheAge / ArcheAge Unchained
Managed by the folks over at Trion Worlds, who also publish two other titles on this list; Rift and Defiance, ArcheAge is a Korean MMO first released back in 2013, with a Western release taking place the following year. It garnered similar attention to latter games like Black Desert Online and Blade & Soul for its “next-gen” MMO visuals and exciting promises of things like real estate markets and complex, heavily involved player crafting. Upon release, it was criticized for some glaring pay-to-win aspects which ultimately affected the unique player market gameplay it was initially heralded for.
Since then, ArcheAge has continued on while attempting to fix the mistakes of its past. Many of its marketing materials have referenced its rocky start as a way to lure burnt players back in, going so far as to release a separate version of the game, ArcheAge Unchained, to scrub cash shop woes away while keeping the original version of the game intact.
Now players drawn to ArcheAge‘s attempts to create a thriving in-game civilization with housing, taxation, trade routes, deep crafting, and even a criminal justice system, have two ways of doing so: the original ArcheAge complete with questionable cash shop additions, and the single-purchase ArcheAge Unchained with nothing but paid-for cosmetics. Naval combat, swimming, and gliding make this high fantasy MMORPG stand out to this day. It even received a large graphical overhaul in 2019 to make it look like a more contemporary game.
Considering the state of the MMORPG market in the mid-2000s, it’s a miracle just how long it has taken to feature an anime-inspired MMO on the list. It won’t be the only one, but SoulWorker is our first. You might hear that the localization available through Steam isn’t as good as the custom servers you can find out there, but it holding a “Mostly Positive” rating on Steam is impressive enough to suggest it’s the 1% making smaller issues into bigger deals.
SoulWorker is a 3D MMO for the action-heavy audience. It’s an arcade hack n’ slash at heart, so if you enjoy games like Bayonetta or Devil May Cry, this one is for you. As is the case with just about any anime-inspired game out there – especially an MMORPG – expect a cash shop to offer just about any outfit you can imagine to help you live out those roleplaying dreams.
That being said, it’s post-apocalyptic paranormal sci-fi setting won’t satisfy those looking for their Isekai fix outside of their favorite weekly anime. It’s a dark game with a bleak story, so don’t go in expecting bright and colorful town markets and lush hills.
SoulWorker is available through Steam.
Albion Online stayed a bit of an outliner since its release in 2017, but it has evolved since then. Many paid the developers to get early access with a F2P release. Then the devs abandoned those F2P plans before the launch and opened up the game to the non-paying public in April 2019.
Albion Online has visual effects that may remind you of Runescape 3 instead of Rift. We will make the upfront disclaimer that Albion Online is not a roleplaying game that accurately portrays real-world people and experience. Instead, the game channels Runescape 3’s more traditional model. You get a revival of diehard MMO elements, and the gritty MMO method here is about the players themselves. You’re either gathering materials, working lands, or using materials from others to battle over territory. An interesting side note of this game is that all equipment, structures, and every-day items are creations of past players.
You have limitless possibilities for journeys upon which to embark due to Albion Online’s classless system. You’ll find yourself spending hours exploring this game’s countless paths, and you won’t regret it either because you won’t find a more original MMORPG out there. The game has Android compatibility giving players a bit of flexibility in how they engage with it.
If you live outside the US, you can expect increased lag time in your gameplay. Albion Online operates solely off one US-based server, and that’s not likely to change anytime soon. Albion Online is available through Steam.
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