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EverQuest II

Platform(s): PC
Genre: Online Multiplayer
Publisher: Sony Online Entertainment
Developer: Sony Online Entertainment
Release Date: Nov. 8, 2004

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PC Preview - 'EverQuest II'

by Mark Crump on Oct. 20, 2004 @ 1:46 a.m. PDT

EverQuest II returns to the culturally diverse world of Norrath in the future of the original EverQuest, with the sheer size and graphical detail greater than ever seen before. Larger in scope than its predecessor, EverQuest II will allow players from every corner of the earth to explore familiar areas and new, undiscovered territories of Norrath.

Genre: MMORPG
Publisher: Sony Online Entertainment
Developer: Sony Online Entertainment
Release Date: November 15, 2004

Pre-order 'EVERQUEST II': PC CD-ROM | PC DVD-ROM

Even though EverQuest’s subscription numbers are staggering -- still over 400,000 as I write this -- a more incredible number is that over a million people have tried EverQuest and found it wanting. While a sequel seemed pre-destined given EQ1’s successes, SOE has taken a unique approach in creating a part deux that is not targeted at current customers, but rather former ones.

Fears that EQ2 is simply EQ1 with updated graphics are unfounded. If you are a current EQ1 subscriber, you’re not the person Sony is targeting for this title; they’re quite happy taking your $13 a month, thank you very much. Instead, this EverQuest is geared for those that found EQ too bland; too hard; too boring; too whatever and went on to different pastures. Now, if a current EQ1 customer switches products, they’re thrilled to get another box sale, naturally. So, if you’re forming your perceptions of EQ2 simply by what you think of EQ1, you’re most likely wrong.

EQ1 is not a gentle game, even with the softening-up the game has gone through the last couple of years. EverQuest rewards failure with punishing time costs. You lose XP on each death, and if that XP loss means you lose a level, oh well, sucks to be you. EverQuest 2 is much kinder in that regard; you don’t lose XP -- you simply acquire an XP debt, where a percentage of the XP you earn goes to pay off that debt. You can still level with an XP debt, and no longer are your failures punished by forcing you to lose ground you’ve already gained; you just are moving forward at a slower pace. I’m fine with that. The harsh death penalty is one of the big negatives I have against EQ1, which is also still home to ever-infamous corpse run. Again, that’s blessedly absent in EverQuest 2. Now you leave a Spirit Shard when you die, and returning to where you died you’ll repay some of your XP debt by clicking on your ghost. Your gear takes a pounding each time you die, forcing you to visit the Mender to get it fixed, but at least you aren’t getting pissed off because your corpse (and gear) is at the bottom of a dungeon.

Other online games limit your choices pertaining to race and class combinations. In EQ1, if you want to play a Barbarian Shadowknight, you’re out of luck as that combination isn’t allowable. In EQ2, they’ve eliminated that restriction and now any race can be any class, although some races are better suited for some classes. While it’d be a nice concept, I just don’t see the dull-witted Trolls making effective pure-casters. On the other hand, I’m having a blast playing my Barbarian Shadowknight-to-be. During character creation you’ll also choose whether you are good or evil, but here is where the game’s few racial limitations come into play. Some races don’t have an alignment choice and are good or evil by default. The alignment choice affects two major things: your starting location (the nice boys start in Qeynos and the bad boys in Freeport) and your final class (Qeynosians can become Paladins, but only a person from Freeport can become a Shadowknight, for example.) If you have heaps of extra time that you aren’t sure of what to do with, there’s a lengthy quest to betray your starting city and join the other one.

EverQuest 2 also makes learning the game easy and fun. You start the game as a refugee picked up by a passing vessel, and this ship is the game’s tutorial. The Captain gives you tasks that serve as learning exercises for the game mechanics; you’ll learn how to talk to NPCs, fight creatures and interact with objects like crates and doors.

Once you finish the excellent tutorial, the boat dumps you off at the Isle of Refuge, the first newbie area. Here you’ll undergo some more starter-quests to get your first suit of armor and other goodies, and once you’ve gotten to level five or six, it’s time head to either of the two starting cities, Speak to the relevant Ambassador and he’ll arrange for boat fare and off you go.

Once you’ve hit Queynos or Freeport, the game directs you to your starting apartment, the bank and the newbie zones. You’ll also learn that while it looks like the big city, this is just the slums and there’s a quest you’ll need to do to become a citizen and gain entrance to the main city. That quest also gives you another chance to gain a few levels, and there are plenty of other quests you can do for NPCs scattered around the outlying areas. You won’t get much in the way of gear as rewards, but you’ll get some coin loot and XP for your efforts. The citizenship quest is nice the first time around, but seems like it’ll get old each time you create an alt.

Once the citizenship quest is completed, you’ll be able to enter the city, and this is where the fun begins, as you’ll be starting your class-specific quests. EverQuest 2 handles classes differently than most games. In EQ1, you choose to become a Shadowknight at the character creation screen. In EverQuest 2, all the character creation screen lets you do is choose your name and look. Once you get to the Isle of Refuge, you choose your base class, be it fighter, mage or priest. Once you’ve visited your class-specific area in the city and hit level 10, you’ll make another choice that’ll define your character a little more. For example, if I choose Fighter on the Isle, at level 10 I now can choose to be a straight up tank, a brawler or a crusader. The tank’s job is to stand there and avoid hits; the brawler is a hand-to-hand master, like a monk; and the crusader will become either a Paladin or Shadowknight, depending on your alignment. At Level 20, you’ll finally become your archetype.

There’s a few gotcha’s here, though. Your choices aren’t undoable, so if you decide that being a Paladin isn’t what you really wanted to do, you’re out of luck. The game doesn’t do a good job at really explaining what your choices mean either. It would be great if between level 3 and 10 you got to play with the different class branches more so you can find one that suits you best. As it stands now, you’ll need to go into the game having already researched where you want your character to go, which defeats some of the purpose to having the branches.

One of the other complaints people had about EQ1 was about how boring the combat model was. Most of the time you’d just hit auto-attack, go grab a nice cold one from the fridge and make a snack while you’re at it, come back and find either the monster or you dead. EQ2’s combat model is much more interactive. As you gain levels you’ll learn additional spells and abilities to use during combat. My fighter, for example started with Wild Swing and between levels 3 and 7 picked up Taunt, Kick and a self-buff called Toughness. There are a few things I liked about these abilities. First and foremost, they gave me buttons to mash during combat, cutting down on my beer and popcorn runs. The second thing I liked was just how darn effective they were. Taunt, for instance, works as a nice little ranged attack so fighters can actually try and grab just one monster, instead of running into the whole bloody lot of them, drawing the monster, his friends, and his sister’s roommate’s mother’s uncle along for the party. The abilities have nice little particle effects and sounds to along with them. Combat in general is a much more visually appealing affair as your avatar lunges, parries and deftly steps out of the way of an attack. I say, you just haven’t lived until you’ve seen a Troll deftly stepping; it’s something to invite the whole family to see.

EverQuest 2 is the first MMOG to feature spoken dialogue, and wow, does it add something to the game. Gone are the days of reading through lengthy dialogue that rambled on about some nonsense – much like this preview is rambling on – trying to figure out what the hell you’re really supposed to be doing. The spoken-word routine makes the game feel much more like a single-player-rpg. Most of these instructions end up in your quest journal, so you have a running diary of your quests. That sure beats the notebook I kept during EQ1, especially since my handwriting makes the Rosetta Stone look legible.

EverQuest 2’s quest system, while magnitudes better than the original's, still falls a little short of fulfilling its potential. Not all the NPCs speaking at you have quests; you have to double click on them to see if they have something to do, or are just filling up the air. I’d like to see them incorporate something akin to World of WarCraft’s model, where you see an icon above the NPCs head if they have a quest for you.

The game does have a waypoint system to help you find key landmarks, but none of the quest NPCs or their targets show up as waypoints. Now, I can see the targets not showing up, but it would be nice to activate a waypoint back to the quest giver. The quest steps right now are incredibly vague. I’m doing a quest to find a nomad, and the only description is “talk to a Nomad in Nekulos Forest.” That’s all well and good, but give me some idea where in the zone they are!
There’s been much ado about EQ2’s graphics. I’m going to understate them and say they do the job. They are amongst the best out there for MMOGs, and while I’m going to say appropriately glowing things about them, I am going to state I feel graphics are second fiddle to the gameplay; if the gameplay isn’t happening, the graphics don’t matter. I’ve been in both of the starting cities, and the art direction for both is fantastic. The good city is bright and cheery, and Freeport looks appropriately slummy. At the risk of being too graphic, the immersion in Freeport is so good, you could almost swear you smelled urine in the alleyways. Either that, or I forgot it was my turn to clean the litter boxes again. The character models are well done, by and large, but there’s a few that still seem a tad plastic. The Dark Elf I’m least thrilled with, but the Human and Barbarian are well done. The model geometry is fine, but where I find fault is with the skin tones – they lack proper shading, making them look like Stretch Armstrongs.

What I’m finding is that the closer games come to finally achieving photorealism, the less immersive they are. I think it’s because the better the graphics get, the less your eye and brain fill in what’s missing. To be frank, the original EQ was more visually exciting the first time I played it than my first jaunt through EQ2. Now, I’m not saying that the 5-year old EQ graphics are better; simply that the “wow” factor was higher back then. It was one of the first true 3d games out there, and, boy, was it immersive.

That said, the environments in EQ2 do an excellent job at sucking you in. I haven’t done much outdoors exploring, so my impressions are limited to the starting cities. One big improvement over EQ1 is that the cities now feel like real cities. The old Freeport was really a maze made out to look like a city. It was mostly a single level, laid over a mostly flat plane. New Freeport has lots of alleyways, hills, and meandering walkways, which all add up to a more immersive experience. The outdoor zones felt a little claustrophobic, though. What I haven’t seen, yet, is the feeling of the wide-open areas I saw in EQ1; I’m not sure if they had to narrow the views and zone sizes to keep the game from becoming a complete slide show.

As great as the graphics are, they take a tremendous toll on your system. A lot of that is due to a nasty memory leak -- repeat after me, kiddies, this is still a beta -- that causes my frame-rates to plummet after about an hour of play. I also haven’t been able to test the graphics out during the loads we’re going to see when it goes live. I’m fearful for the slide show the game is going to become with 50-100 players all in one spot. While the devs seem to be quite proud of the fact that no computer built today can play EverQuest 2 at high quality, I’d be happier if they spent more time making sure the game ran well on the mere mortal computers their immediate customers will be using.

The UI to the game is well done. There’s a menu on the left that lets you choose your spell book, paper doll, quest journal, game options, etc. As I mentioned earlier, the quest descriptions need to be fleshed out a bit more, but all in all the UI is loads better than its predecessor’s. One thing that’s interesting; you can run the game in letterbox mode, giving it a more cinematic feel. The view didn’t last long for me, but it’s an interesting option, and one that might help keep the frame-rates down by narrowing the field of vision.

Those that hated the level-grind in EQ1 will be disappointed to know it’s back again in full force. There were many quests I had received that I was too low a level to complete, forcing me to go kill more rats and snakes (why, oh, why can’t we get different newbie mobs than garden animals?) just to get the level to finish the quest. World of WarCraft does a much better job at disguising the treadmill than EQ2.

EverQuest 2, despite its flaws, is shaping up to be a fine product, and I’ve enjoyed my initial foray into it. The voiceovers tremendously add to the experience, and the game is a visual delight. What’s uncertain as yet is how little things like the end game and class balance work themselves out; most of these issues don’t raise their ugly heads until years after the game goes live.

Online retailers have pegged November 15th as the live date, but given that they are still doing voice work, have graphics issues and other bugs to work out (some key quests are still horribly bugged), I wouldn’t expect to see this title then. On the flip side, as I was wrapping up the preview for this they lifted the NDA, which only happens when they think they are close, so all bets are off.



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