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New challengers lining up take down Warcraft

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Once upon a time, Blizzard Entertainment's massive-selling, massively-multiplayer World of Warcraft looked invulnerable, dominating the online role-playing game market with an unprecedented 12 million paying subscribers.

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World of Warcraft (Blizzard)

Nothing lasts forever, however, and Warcraft's world is no exception. Since hitting its high-water mark in 2010 those, numbers have been dwindling. Naturally, a slew of challengers are readying themselves to take its place as the go-to online game, but how are they going to differentiate themselves from Blizzard's behemoth? Can any of these games succeed where countless others have failed?

One has already made a dent: Star Wars: The Old Republic, which was released at the tail end of 2011. On the strength of the Star Wars brand and solid reviews, it's fared well thus far and will likely continue to make strides through 2012.

But it won't be alone. Here's what 2012 has in store for online RPG fans.

Guild Wars 2

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We'll start with the biggest and most-anticipated 2012 MMO of them all.

In development at Washington-based studio Arenanet, Guild Wars 2 has one major point that sets it apart from Warcraft: it's free. Or it's kinda free. You'll have to cough up the usual $60 or so to buy the game, but once that's done there are no ongoing subscription fees to pay. Back in the days of the original Guild Wars -- one of the first MMOs designed from the ground up to be free -- that was quite a coup; it's not so unusual these days, but it still works out a lot cheaper than a $15-a-month Warcraft habit.

In Pictures: The Top MMOs of 2012

Fortunately, it's also far from the only trick waiting up Guild War 2's sleeve. Sky-high production values make it a stunner, its Lovecraft-esque dragon-smashed world offers plenty of potential, and a dynamic quest system promises to make the player -- each player -- feel like they're genuinely part of a changing, evolving story. That's hard enough to do in a single-player game, but can the team make it happen for a million players at once? Much will depend on the answer to that question, and all will be revealed when the game launches at a to-be-determined point this year.

Planetside 2

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Released all the way back in 2003, about the only thing Sony Online's pioneering massively-multiplayer shooter Planetside did wrong was to be ahead of its time.

That was enough to kill it, though, and although its blend of vehicular and on-foot combat was addictive and unique, it didn't catch the imaginations of gamers and was quickly forgotten. Now, nine years on, shooter-MMO hybrids are suddenly all the rage -- and Sony's planning to try the Planetside formula again. Details on the sequel are still emerging, but so far we know it'll be free to play, and won't be moving too far from the original game's vision.

Tera

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World of Warcraft has many strengths. But even the most fanatical of addicts will admit that 'gripping combat' isn't one of them.

Tera's different: whether you hit or miss depends on your gaming skills, not your character's statistics and items. And in what'll strike some MMO players as heresy, you can even play it with a console-style controller rather than a mouse and keyboard. (It works pretty well, too.) Can it deliver on its promises of fights that are as visceral and fluid as single-player action games, and can it do it over and over again without getting monotonous? We'll see -- but plenty of MMO fans are looking forward to taking a swing at it.

The Secret World

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Let's be honest: after a while, all these fantasy and sci-fi MMOs start to look the same. Fortunately, at least one 2012 game has a little more imagination.

The Secret World takes place on modern-day Earth, in cities including Seoul, New York, and London, and pits mysterious factions like the Knights Templar and the Illuminati against assorted mythical and horror-themed foes, not to mention each other. Boasting the creative talents of one Ragnar Tørnquist, the Norse gaming god behind some of the medium's best stories, it's easy to see it turning out to be well worth playing...and hard to see it making much impression on Warcraft's market share.

Warhammer Online: Wrath of Heroes

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It takes more than positive reviews and good buzz to make an MMO a success.

Take 2008 MMO Warhammer Online: greeted with top review marks and carrying the name of a popular Games Workshop brand, it quickly sold well over a million copies...but few players liked it enough to stick around more than a couple of months. So developer Mythic (now part of EA's Bioware group) is remixing the game into a free-to-play, player-versus-player take on the Warhammer fantasy universe. If they can deliver an experience as polished and intense as the head-to-head combat in their last game -- still considered some of the best of its breed --  they could well be onto a good thing.

Firefall

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Like Planetside, Firefall seeks to combine MMO scale with first-person shooter thrills -- and also like Planetside, it's sci-fi themed.

But Firefall's pitching itself squarely at the first-person hardcore, already being compared to competitive genre classics like Team Fortress and Tribes. Ender's Game author Orson Scott Card is on board to pen the backstory, though as we saw with downloadable hit Shadow Complex, that might prove as much a hindrance as a help. All the same, it's lining up as one of the year's hottest PC shooters.

Neverwinter

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Taking its name either from one of the Dungeons & Dragons world's biggest cities or one of Bioware's best-loved computer role-playing games, Neverwinter is, yes, another fantasy-themed MMO coming your way later this year. It's in the works at Cryptic Studios, the studio responsible for Star Trek Online and Champions Online -- two MMOs which, while solid, never really set the world on fire.

On the face of it, the odds are long. Neverwinter won't just face competition from Warcraft, it'll also be taking on Turbine's established (and also free-to-play) D&D: Online...not to mention every other online fantasy role-playing game out there. Good luck with that.

Dust 514

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Half online space-trading sim, half spreadsheet, Eve Online's fascinating world of interplanetary commerce, combat, and player-driven intrigue has been up and running since 2003. It'll gain its first spin-off game this year, a Playstation 3-only online shooter called Dust 514.

But rather than being its own standalone, isolated world, the ebb and flow of Dust 514's battles will have repercussions for Eve Online players -- and vice versa. It's an enticing concept on paper, but you've got to wonder quite how well two such different genres will blend.

End of Nations

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While the massively-multiplayer shooter is certainly the in-thing for hybrid online worlds in 2012, it's not the only game in town.

Take End of Nations, a spin on the real-time strategy gameplay popularized by the likes of StarCraft and Command & Conquer, but which takes place in an overarching virtual world inhabited by thousands of players. It's not the first time this blend of strategy and MMO has been tried, but developer Petroglyph (responsible for the excellent Star Wars: Empire at War, among other RTS games) looks to have the experience to step where its predecessors have stumbled -- and the fact that it'll be free-to-play won't hurt either. Look for it around June.

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