A good gateway MMO, and generally enjoyable
Runescape is a much-played but not so well-known online MMORPG that launched in 2001. Since that time, it has gone through major graphical and gameplay changes, and its current form is almost unrecognizable compared to what it was a few years ago.
The gameplay is skill-based, and there are a plethora of skills. They are essentially divided into 3 categories, with some overlap in between. Attacking skills increase your proficiency in combat, improving the armor/weapons you can wield, opening up your spell selection, and increasing your damage and accuracy. Money-making skills usually involve farming large amounts of a particular resource to sell it (sometimes involves killing boss monsters for their rare drops). Then there are "fun" skills, such as construction or summoning, where costs to level far exceed later payoff, but increase your overall status as a character. The main gripe I have with the skills is, most take VERY long to level (on the scale of months if you play everyday, years if you aren't a consistent player). Therefore, Runescape becomes very intimidating to newer players who stand amongst the midst of high levels that have only attained those levels from playing from years. This may be a reason for its general population plateau in recent years. Training noncombat skills is often very mundane, simply involving repeating the same action over and over again to slowly gain experience. However, this results in a more fleshed out experience, as your avatar grows over time, you'll feel more and more attached. This is in contrast to games like World of Warcraft or Guild Wars where you can easily have multiple characters at very high or maximum level, and "re-roll" them constantly, making the player-character interaction very shallow.
Generally, the gameplay is interesting, but breaks down into repetitive grinding quickly when you try to raise skills. This therefore forces the player to make a balance between playing the more interesting parts of the game, or training skills which would unlock more interesting parts of the game, and sometimes it is an unbalanced equation. A handful of the minigames are quite interesting as well (out of a wide selection of dozens), but again, full benefit from them can't really be gained unless you have trained the skills first.
The sound is in low quality midi format. Due to its format as a browser game, there would be too much of a load on its servers if the music was to be high quality. However, there are a few great tracks, and the selection is actually rather impressive, featuring almost 600 in total. The music is about on-par with or above what you would find in Nintendo DS games such as Pokemon Diamond, so it's actually not bad.
Graphically, it is one of the more impressive games you'll find on the internet. It is probably unfair to compare it to games such as World of Warcraft, since it doesn't stream graphics from your hard drive, and it runs on Java. There are detailed textures, shading, antialiasing, and light and shadow effects in the game which makes the graphics, although not impressive, quite sufficient. People with older computers will be able to play it quite fine, which purportedly one of the reasons why the developers of Runescape have kept the graphics requirements so low, although on the highest settings, some areas of the game look equivalent to what you would find in retail MMO's.
Runescape doesn't really have an overarching storyline, but many seams of knowledge are found by doing the quests. Runescape features a number of unique quests that are almost always more complex than fetch quests, and if the player is interested, there is quite a bit of dialogue to be read too. The quests are probably one of the high points in the game, and those alone would take up a huge amount of time for any determined player. The quests also distinguish Runescape from games like Guild Wars or World of Warcraft by being more unique, story-oriented and containing puzzle solving elements. While games like WoW purportedly have "thousands" of quests, they usually boil down to fetch quest clones or "slay this monster" directives. Although Runescape has only 150 quests to date, for the most part they are all unique, interesting, and often challenging.
In December of 2007, a large change was made to PvP in order to stop real world trading. However, this nerfed what was arguably the most interesting part of the game, and a large number of players quit. In October 2008, they re-released PvP in the form of PvP-Worlds, with generally positive feedback.
Runescape is reguarly updated every 1-2 weeks, and has been since 2001. It also has many non-game features, such as a real-time price ticker on popular goods, hiscores, a fan-fiction mail service, highly active forums, knowledge base, articles, and holiday events. These community features of RS raises its uniqueness in comparison to some of the more well known MMO's.
With a subscription fee of only $5 a month, and a free mode that has less content but no subscription fee, it is a fairly good value. More mature MMO players may prefer something such as Guild Wars or World of Warcraft, which offer darker themes, better graphics, and better sound. However in the end, Runescape's unique and broad content and its community features still make it a viable MMO for any fan of the genre.