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PC Preview - 'EverQuest: Omens of War'

by Mark Crump on Sept. 12, 2004 @ 2:59 a.m. PDT

Omens of War will allow players to adventure solo, in groups, and in multiple player raids to complete "Epic Quests" and earn specialized Epic weapons to assist them in their battles. All-new character levels, items, spells, and quests will challenge the most veteran of players and a new task system will offer new players an easier way to gain experience and items.

Genre : MMORPG
Publisher : Sony Online Entertainment
Developer: Sony Online Entertainment
Release Date: September 14, 2004

Pre-order 'EVERQUEST: Omens of War': PC

Before I get into this preview, there’s some back history we need to visit about my attitude towards EverQuest. On May 30th of this year, I wrote a critical editorial about EverQuest’s current state. There were two main bullet points to what I felt needed to be done for SOE to turn the game around: stop catering to the uber-players who need to get out of the house more; and put in content that can be managed in small 1-2 hour chunks. At the time I wrote that piece, Gates of Discord, the previous expansion, was still a buggy mess, and worse, was balanced against the level cap already having been raised to 70 (it’s being raised to 70 in Omens). The fans were getting ready to riot. It didn’t help that initial reports from SOE hinted that OOW was tuned towards guilds that where already capable of conquering most of Gates already, and few guilds were at that point. Last but not least, SOE had just rolled out the latest graphics engine to EQ – which also had issues – so Gates got a double whammy of bugs, making its launch about as smooth as a stucco bathtub.

As the discord reached critical mass, SOE did one of the smartest things in EQ’s 5-year history: instead of letting the villagers riot towards them with torches and pitchforks, Sony flew 70-odd of them to their corporate headquarters in San Diego for a Guild Summit to go over the current state of the game; in other words, a SOE sponsored group-gripe.

There were a few key things that came out of the Summit: SOE admitted that Gates was pretty much a disaster from a planning and testing standpoint; and Omens of War was going to be delayed to fix some of the existing issues in the game.

Since then, Omens fell out of the spotlight while getting Gates tuned, the graphics engine hitting on all cylinders and other key fixes took priority. SOE has done a good job at starting to tackle some of issues in the game, and they have made quite a few improvements. Omens was flying so far under the radar that I was amazed to find out it was launching next week.

Original reports about OOW made me fear for the worst. Because I don’t get as much time to play EQ due to journalistic responsibilities, getting GoD reviewed was a hassle since my character wasn’t geared at all for the content and I wasn’t in the target-audience for the expansion: the people who had been farming the Plane of Time and needed new content. It was slow going; especially given how many deaths I had to eat. The rumor that OOW was tuned towards guilds that were equipped to make good news progress through Gates depressed me because it meant that SOE had finally given up and catered the game to the uber-player, making EQ unplayable for me. While I get critical of EQ, the 4 years I played the game were largely enjoyable and I wasn’t happy with how things were going. My subsequent editorial was the plaintive wail of a casual player who was being forced out of a game he had once loved.

Last week some dribs and drabs of info starting coming out about OOW as SOE’s PR group nudged the expansion back into the limelight for its imminent release. There was talk about the new task system, the new graphics engine, some info about trade skills, and most importantly, a reference by a developer that the expansion had more in common with the Scars of Velious expansion than Gates. My ears perked up as I became cautiously optimistic that perhaps this expansion wasn’t going to be the boxed set of suckage I thought it was going to be.

A quick email to Alan Crosby, SOE’s Internet Relations Manager, to clarify a point and to get some source material for an article I was working on about Omens resulted in an hour long guided tour as he showed off some of the key concepts of Omens of War.

One of the first points brought up was that a lot of the feedback they received during the Summit forced design changes in OOW – in many cases a complete retooling of the system. What’s important to realize, though, is that to a certain degree you aren’t being asked to shell out $30 to fix a broken game; what happened instead is key design features to the expansion were retooled based on feedback.

Here’s a good example: the task system. The task system was created so a player could get something meaningful done in less than 90 minutes. Wonderful idea, except when I queried Alan about the task system at E3 in May, he told me that it was going to stop at level 50. That made it useless to people having issues progressing their way through levels 50-65, like myself. Based on feedback – and most likely the extra time to work on the expansion - SOE confirmed to me today that the task system will work up to level 70. Earlier reports this week had the system stopping at 65 and moving the progression of 65-70 to Omens and Gates, but they’ve backed down from that and now you can get the five new levels via tasks. Also, since the tasks will be available to players under 45 (the target level for the new expansion), the tasks will also be based on old-world content. One of the bullet items that came out of the Summit was for SOE to put in quick, solo-able content that can be devoured in short bursts. The redesign of the task system – there are now over 3,500 tasks – also reflects a key paradigm shift in SOE: embracing solo play as a viable means of getting xp; previously, solo players were treated as pariahs for going against the group-oriented play that’s the core of EQ’s design.

The task system is a boon to the casual player like myself, who may only have an hour or so to play the game and doesn’t have time to deal with getting a quick group together. How the task system works is you get a task – be it kill a certain amount of mobs and bring back items or what-have-you, and once you complete the task you get a decent amount of XP and possibly an item. “But wait,” you might ask, “I’m a Cleric. I can’t solo, so I’m screwed, right?” I asked that question to Alan who commented that the task is going to take into account how well you can – or cannot – solo and scale the task accordingly, so yes, it’s designed so that even a Cleric can solo them. Whether or not they actually will be able to? Well, we’ll see next week when one tries. In terms of actual XP gain, while you’ll see the xp bar move, don’t expect it to replace grouping as the best way to level. That’s perfectly fine, EQ is a group-based game after all, and this feature is to help the player who can only play for a short bit. I’m going to reserve final judgment until we get our review copy and I try it out first hand, but this alone is a buying point for me on the expansion. EQ had really needed something like this for years.

I said earlier that this expansion had a lot in common with Scars of Velious. Velious is one of my favorite expansions, with an excellent story, nice new graphics, and best of all, each zone save one was open to all players. After that, SOE got on the raid kick with having good-sized chunks of the expansion locked away, necessitating long quests to get the key.

Omens of War has been designed so it’s more like Velious. There’s only one locked zone, the rest are nice, open zones that are perfect for pick-up groups to farm. Since my main character is a Necro – a class that was designed to solo, but since soloing is passé at SOE, it’s hard to find solo spots. I asked Alan if I’d be able to solo in some of these zones. He assured me that I would, which was nice to hear. Again, final judgment comes next week when I can actually play it, but buying point number two was made.

Omens is also the first expansion to take full advantage of the new graphics engine, and it’s not all limited to the new zones. There are new water effects – now fully bump mapped that are going to be in all zones in the game. Both your character and monsters now have real-time shadows. so when you watch the tank swing his sword, his shadow will follow him. Yeah, you’ll want to turn shadows off on those 70 person raids. Most of the textures are also bump mapped, so the bricks, rocks, mortar, moss and fungi now have more visual depth. The particle effects have been improved as well, so you’ll see enhanced breath effects – breathe underwater and you’ll see some bubbles float to the surface; stand in a cold place, like Halas and you’ll see your breath. My first thought seeing all this was: I can’t wait for the rest of the game to look like this. Alan assured it’s a problem they are tackling, but with 120 zones to completely redo, it’s not easy.

Omens also introduces “Epic 2.0”, the second round of epics. Alan assured me that they’ve learned their lesson from the first batch; none will be as class defining as the infamous “Click Stick”, the Cleric epic that granted a 100% resurrection at zero mana cost to the caster. This epic became so sought after, and the mob that spawned the final battle so rare, that vicious arguments would break out over who owned the mob when it spawned. Most of the battles will need to be fought on “old world” zones (and SOE now considers anything pre-LDON to be “old world”, so you won’t have to worry about competing for drops in the OOW zones. The epics also have new particle effects and take full advantage of the bump-mapped textures, and I’ve been assured that all of them look cool, so we’ll be having no repeats of the ugly Necro Duck Stick Epic.

One subtle new feature is voice macros. Because all the communication in is text based, it’s easy for key communications – the order to run for your lives, attack a mob, etc. – are easy to get lost in the spam of combat, group and raid text. What the voice macro system lets you do is initiate a command that will cause your character to “speak” the text, so instead of the “run fer yer lives” getting lost between, “you hit for 200 points of damage”, now people will hear your character shout out, “run Forrest, run.” There will be pre-recorded sayings, and you can record your own. It’s a handy feature that should aid some of the communication issues inherent in online gaming.

How you get to the new zones is interesting as well. Currently, in each starting city there’s an NPC called the Priest of Discord. Until now his role has been limited to letting the handful of players who want to PvP on the normal servers set a flag so they can be attacked by like-minded players. Now, he’s a taxi-service for Omens. Once you perform a short quest at the beginning, hailing any Priest of Discord will allow you to port to the new zones, similar to how the Wayfarer’s Brotherhood lets you port around to the different LDON zones. The system will work in reverse, too, where hailing Priests scattered around the new zones will let you port back out.

Earlier this week, I was apathetic about Omens upcoming launch; it wasn’t even on my radar screen. After reading the early reports and getting the tour, I’m actually looking forward to the expansion. The task system alone is something EQ has been missing for a while; you couldn’t use the words “90 minute play session” and “EverQuest” in the same sentence without someone busting a gut. That could change if the task system works out they way they intended. The new graphics - and I hate to use this oft-overused cliché - do need to be seen to receive the full impact. The one good thing I heard was SOE’s taking meaningful feedback away from the Guild Summit and applying it to design decisions in OOW. Next week we’ll see how successful they were at implementing them.

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