Runes of Magic is a free to play MMORPG that has the potential to easily compete with subscription based games like World of Warcraft. With the quality of its content, amazing list of features, and steady implementation of new content and patches, Runes of Magic is not an experience to be missed. Anyone willing to shrug Runes of Magic off purely because it's free to play, will be missing out on one of the best MMORPG experiences ever created. Perfect World International was an impressive free to play game, but it still played like a free to play game. Runes of Magic on the other hand is a free to play game with the gameplay and features of a subscription based game, and the big boys have reason to be scared of it. As such I will be reviewing Runes of Magic as if it were a pay to play game, because it deserves that much at least. I will get this out of the way right now though, the interface is influenced heavily by World of Warcraft. It's very similar, so much so that it's been called a World of Warcraft rip-off, but it was a good move on the developers part instead of making a completely unintuitive interface just to be different.

Since the release of Blizzard's amazingly popular World of Warcraft and its expansions, it's been impossible for new massively multiplayer online role-playing games to avoid the inevitable comparisons. That's probably for the best in the case of Runes of Magic, for while the aforementioned games have some superficial similarities to this one, their core designs are far different. Runes of Magic, for better or for worse, hearkens back to the older days, when in-game death was more than just a slight annoyance and groups camped for bosses that rarely spawned. But by doing its own thing, Azeroth be damned, Runes of Magic sets itself apart, thanks to complex features and being a completely free to play experience. It's also rough around the edges, exhibiting all the bugs and glitches of a game not quite ready for release. Yet Runes of Magic is quite friendly to genre newcomers, and has enough rewarding gameplay to please experienced adventurers willing to overlook its technical hitches.

In Runes of Magic, home is the world of Taborea, which features eight huge regions and cities, one playable race, and six classes. While the choices may seem limited, you are able to use a primary and secondary class, with most of the combinations fitting archetypes and group roles familiar to anyone who's played an MMORPG before. The Knight is your usual heavily armored tank, while the Warrior is a well equipped weapons melee specialist. The Rogue is a stealthy backstabbing melee specialist, while the Scout is a long ranged bow and crossbow specialist. Priests take up the role of healing, and Mages use their arcane powers to destroy enemies with impressive power. There are a good number of ways to modify your avatar's physical appearance, so you could easily spend quite some time deciding on the look and purpose of your character. Once in the game, a system of pop-up messages guides you through an optional beginning tutorial instance, then you're off to explore, quest, and level. The starting quests are genre standards familiar to anyone who's played an MMORPG before, but once you've gained a few levels, you'll find just how daunting Taborea can get.

The first and obvious challenge once you are around level ten is that you need to get a secondary class. That isn't to say its required, but consistent grinding without one is a good way to get quickly frustrated. If you're mainly a solo player, you may get frustrated later on regardless if you have a secondary class or not. Some quests are obviously designed for groups, even if they're not necessarily identified as such in your quest log, and soloing what should seem like a simple mission can result in quick death if you aren't careful. Even with a full group, some areas and dungeons can be a time-consuming challenge, particularly because Runes of Magic features some instanced and some open areas. As a result, you might need to wait a while before the boss you need to vanquish reappears after the last group's battle. Multipart group dungeons may take a few hours to get through, and even with a good party, a simple mistake can cost you your character's life.

That cost can be pretty high, since resurrection entails experience loss, training loss, and a trip back to your tombstone, assuming you want to regain some of that experience. You may choose to ignore your tombstone, but at higher levels, the amount of time you need to put into regaining all the lost experience is intimidating. In any MMO, returning to your tombstone in a monster-infested dungeon may be next to impossible, and the additional loss of experience often makes the penalty even more frustrating in Runes of Magic. There's no experience loss by falling to the sword of another player on the player-versus-player server, which eliminates the need to retrieve your tombstone but means your killer can potentially loot equipment you're wearing. On the PvP server, PvP is "open". That means there are only a few limitations on who can be attacked and who cannot. Through your PvP achievements, your character gains (or loses) reputation and can move either way to become a Hero, fighting for Good or an evil Demon, slaughtering all in their wake. Along with the usual duels and arenas common to the genre, that's the only PvP content Runes of Magic offers so far. Battlegrounds and Guild Wars are in development though, but who knows when we'll see their release.

But if exploring Taborea is riskier business than we're used to seeing in MMOs over the last few years, playing a character in Runes of Magic is even more unique. Much of this is thanks to the dual-class system, giving Runes of Magic 30 unique class combinations for players to choose from. Each combination becomes more its own when your character reaches fifteen in both classes and obtains its first elite skill. Elite skills are combination specific abilities that ensure a unique experience with your combination. The combat in Runes of Magic is satisfying and fun, as some spells and abilities can be triggered only if certain criteria are met. For example, a stunned opponent may open up an attack not normally available. Because those attacks can be powerful, managing your skills and available source(s) of energy adds some welcome strategy to your choice of abilities at any given time. Class combinations and group chemistry make battles feel dynamic, especially considering your character doesn't need to stand still to perform most skills.

Runes of Magic supports add-ons, but also has some amazing built in gameplay enhancers of its own, similar to some of the most popular add-ons for WoW. The quest log contains a wealth of information, guaranteeing you won't get lost while traveling to the next stop in a quest line. The compass shows harvesting nodes with appropriate icons, as well as tracking dots for mobs and environment triggers needed in quests you have in your quest log. When you hover over a mob that is required for a quest, the tooltip will tell you how many more are needed. There's also a quest tracker, a point and click auto-travel feature, an NPC and monster search function, an extremely in-depth macro system, and many other useful additions that the developers cared enough to have built into the game right from the start. Although these features are great to have built right into the client, the add-on community support for Runes of Magic is extremely impressive. There are hundreds of useful add-ons for Runes of Magic, many of which are usually updated a few hours after a patch.

There's also plenty of crafting and harvesting to do, and making a finalized and useful product is a task similar to the system in World of Warcraft. Creating a single item requires a recipe, ingredients, and a particular workbench. There are four levels of skill involved with crafting and harvesting; apprentice, craftsman, specialist, and master. You can learn as many professions as you wish on the apprentice rank, can become a craftsman in six trades, be a specialist in three and ultimately master one profession. Additionally, progressing in crafting can be expensive for the required recipes of a particular profession. For example, if you want to pursue a harvesting profession, you would need to buy certain recipes from the appropriate NPC in order to convert higher tiered materials into usable ingredients for the crafting professions. Recipes can get quite costly at later tiers, especially since the only useful recipes are rarely dropped from enemies in the wild. Because of this, you'll find yourself looking for recipes at the Auction House more often than you'd like. It's an involved process to be sure, but producing a useful product is rewarding.

Runes of Magic's most unfriendly characteristic is its overall lack of polish. To its credit, it launched without a hitch with an updated website, forums board and patch, and server disconnects are relatively uncommon. Unfortunately, a number of bugs infest the game, while some other features are completely absent. Getting stuck in geometry requires you to use your recall ability, unless you've already used it which forces you to wait an hour while the skill cools down. Much of the game is also silent, with a noticeable lack of music, ambient noise, and sound effects for a majority of the content in Runes of Magic. Broken quest triggers, unexplainable lag, and other frustrating issues have popped up frequently since release. Lag spikes will hold up combat for several seconds, or even cause an action in progress to stop while still costing you the time the skill requires.

Surprisingly, though, some of the missing features don't have much of an impact on the beauty of the visuals. Many of Taborea's areas are stunning, from both an artistic and technological standpoint. The detailed settings and colorful desert surroundings of Dustdevil Canyon is one notable example, but exploration in all of the areas reveals plenty of dramatic landmarks. The splendor doesn't translate evenly, though. Some of the environments are inconsistent, and many of the dungeons and enemies are graphically uninspired. And as pretty as most of it is, the game engine seems to keep up pretty well. A mid-range system can see Taborea in all its glory, but even on a high-performance PC Runes of Magic may lag while trying to load each and every character within a city. When adventuring outside of a city area though, you'll be running at a stable framerate.

The soundtrack is attractive when it's playing in the background, but most of the time you'll be trapped in a void of silence. When you can hear the musical tracks, they sound nice but don't necessarily reflect the local environment well. The few combat and ambient noises that can be heard are what you would expect, although some enemies are eerily silent when attacked. Also, don't expect the pleasant NPC chatter from EverQuest 2, or witty WOW-ish quips; NPCs in Runes of Magic are mute, though the quest descriptions are full of personality.

Features like player housing, guild halls, and arenas will extend Runes of Magic's life for players approaching the top level of 50, and even with plenty of room for future questing content, there's a lot to see and do. But Runes of Magic is undoubtedly not for everyone. Multiple bugs, class balance issues, some forced grouping, and a vocal player community sensitive to criticism and change currently keep players looking for an easygoing adventuring experience at arm's length. But Runes of Magic gets a lot right, and the engaging combat and nifty features are more than enough reason for genre enthusiasts to give it a shot. Sure it's a free to play game, but put the monetary transactions aside for a moment. A subscription fee doesn't automatically make an MMO great, so why should the lack of a subscription fee make an MMO trash? A great game is a great game regardless of the fee it requires, so give Runes of Magic a try. The only thing you have to lose is some time and bandwidth, though I highly doubt you'll be disappointed.