Every year we see the release of new free to play MMORPGs like Divine Souls by Games Campus, the folks behind Fiesta Online. MMORTS games are much rarer though. The earliest MMO real time strategy game was Shattered Galaxy, by KRU Interactive. Originally released as a pay to play game, it now offers an unlimited free trial.
Unfortunately, Shattered Galaxy is very old and shows it. It is a two dimensional game with dated graphics. Many newer developers have tried their hand at releasing a free to play, micro transaction supported RTS but have had mixed success. Saga, but Silverlode Interactive is one example. Set in a medieval fantasy universe, Saga makes heavy use of instancing. It allows players to experience single player missions and multiplayer battles. It also has TCG elements as players must purchase booster packs containing new units.
Another fantasy themed MMORTS called Dreamlords was developed by a studio called Lockpick Entertainment and briefly published by Aeria Games. It allowed players to control a demigod-like entity called a Dreamlord and command armies of mortals. The goal was the conquer territory by defeating both AI controlled armies and other players. It didn’t perform well and was quickly closed down by Aeria. The European developer still hosts the game and it is playable.
In 2010 a new MMORTS was released that finally gave the genre the fresh start it was looking for. Company of Heroes Online is developed by Relic Entertainment and published by THQ. THQ first tried its hand in the free to play market with a game called Dragonica Online. It was a 3D side-scroller with action oriented gameplay. The studio that published it was called THQ Ice, but the license for the North American service for Dragonica Online was eventually turned over to Gravity Interactive’s WarpPortal – which also has Rose Online and Ragnarok Online
But Company of Heroes Online is a totally different game. Set in World War 2, it allows players to train small squads and vehicles including tanks to battle for control of strategic points. The gameplay in COHO is very similar to Warhammer 40K Dawn of War. Both games stress fast paced action over resource hording and base turtling. Players still have to construct buildings in Company of Heroes Online, but its not a major part of the game. The game is almost identical to the retail version originally released in 2006. The game garnered enormous praise and is one of the top rated strategy games of all time. The free to play online version includes the full campaign from the original game, some training missions, and an all new commander feature where players earn experience and can purchase special commander skills and items.
Company of Heroes Online will compete directly with Starcraft 2 in the online RTS market. But while Blizzard’s SC2 will probably be more popular, COHO should be able to establish it self. More importantly, it will show other developers that the MMO and RTS genre’s can work well together. Some MMORTS games like Beyond Protocol have more advanced features, but require a monthly subscription. The fast-paced Company of Heroes Online will likely draw a larger audience than previous free to play or subscription based MMORTS games.