When I signed on to review Legions, the new expansion for Asheron's Call 2, I thought it would be a straightforward expansion review: identify the new features, check them out, see how they improved the game and move on. But Legions is more than an expansion, it's Turbine trying to see if they can get a second chance with their flagging-but-much-beloved game. Yes, it's an expansion, but at the same time, it's a second launch for Asheron's Call 2. Not only does Legions offer current players new content, but it also comes complete with the full game client to give new players a chance to join the determined (and modestly sized) cadre of AC2 loyalists. But as months go by and more massively multiplayer online games are launched (and close up shop, as we've seen with some), the question of market saturation is raised again and again. While some wonder whether there's room in the market for new games, another important question is what does the future hold for older games like AC2? Invariably, expansions are key to the ongoing vitality of games in the genre. So what does Legions do for Asheron's Call 2?
First, a little AC2 history… mainly because it's pertinent for players who might be thinking of jumping into the lands of Dereth for the first time with Legions. AC2 launched November 2002 and was pretty well received. I remember being particularly impressed with the graphics, especially compared to the genre-leading titles at the time, but after doing well for a period of months, the population of AC2 just crashed. There wasn't a particularly good explanation for it, no single flaw at which people could point. AC2 simply failed to keep people subscribing. Roughly eight months after its launch, AC2 became the first major MMO to merge servers because of low population numbers. The mergers continued over the years as the subscriber base shrunk; the most recent merger occurred shortly before the release of Legions and resulted in the last kingdom-vs.-kingdom server being amalgamated into one of the remaining normal ruleset servers. As of this writing, only three North American servers, one of which is player-vs.-player, and three European servers remain. Some players speculate that AC2 has fewer subscribers than AC1 at present.
Many within the AC2 community blamed Microsoft, which owned the Asheron's Call license and had served as Turbine's publisher for AC1 and AC2. Microsoft was faulted by many for pushing AC2 to shelves before it was ready and promoting the game poorly. While the relationship between Turbine and Microsoft was sanguine at the surface, the community complaints apparently held water, and Turbine bought their independence from Microsoft a little more than a year after the launch of AC2. Subsequent to the emancipation of the Asheron's Call license, Turbine sought to breathe new life into both AC1 and AC2 with their continued updates and new expansions for both titles.
Looking back on AC2's history, it is easy to see Legions as both an expansion and a second launch for AC2. Legions offers veteran players new content while giving fresh faces a chance at all that AC2 has to offer, the expansion and the original game, priced below many other MMO titles on the market.
Turbine has long had a history of providing consistent free updates. Indeed, this has been a hallmark of both AC1 and AC2 and one of their major selling points. The regular updates for AC2 have including revamping crafting, the skill system, adding high-level and endgame content, a new continent and more. Legions blurs the lines between expansion and update with many of the Legions features also being available as free updates for current subscribers. The new Hero 2.0 perk system, an array of skills made available to higher level players, is an example of that; while being a part of the Legions development project, players don't need to buy the expansion to get in on the fun.
Two major additions are truly specific to the expansion: a new continent adding roughly 30% more world to the game and two new races. The new races include the Empyreans, a race imbued with powerful magic. Previously driven into hiding by the insidious Olthoi, the Empyreans have returned to Dereth with the hope of reclaiming what was lost. Prior to the expansion, the lands of Dereth were largely divided into continents that were home to each of the original races and, staying true to that geography, the new continent is the homeland of the Empyreans. Knorr, as it is known, becomes available to mid-ish level players after completing a quest.
The new continent is also populated with new beasts, including the Olthoi, and introduces many new dungeons and quests, including some rather epic encounters. Joining the fray with the Empyreans are the Drudge. For experienced AC2 players, the Drudge are quite familiar, frequently serving as the troublesome humanoids trying to whack you in the head with a board with a nail driven through it. However, with the addition of Legions, civilized Drudge have joined the Lugians, Tumeroks, Humans and Empyreans in reclaiming Dereth from dark and corrupting forces. The Drudge are available to players who preordered Legions or completed a certain quest in-game.
Legions, by and large, is an expansion that adds much for the small but loyal following that Turbine has cultivated. Turbine is intimately aware of how small the AC2 subscriber base is, and they clearly try to work closely to support their players. Aside from the new playable Empyrean race (and the Drudge for those who preordered), however, little has been added for neophyte players.
In my mind, the answer to the question posed earlier about the continued vitality of older MMOs in an increasingly competitive market is that games must continue to promote the loyalty of their current subscribers while attracting new players. To explore how Turbine and the Legions expansion specifically serve those two objectives, I spoke with veteran AC2 players and former players to get their impressions of why players stick around, move on, or join in.
A recurring sentiment shared from current and former players is the strong relationship between Turbine and the community. That relationship pays off as is evidenced in the long history of updates, patches, and developer-run events. I'm quite partial to the Double-XP weekends that followed the launch of Legions in order to help get all the new Empyreans and Drudge up to speed with the seasoned characters. Supplementing that relationship is a strong sense of camaraderie amongst players. Current players expressed that as a close-knit and supportive community while former players waxed poetic about the "we're in it together" mentality of playing a struggling online game.
Many AC2 loyalists also mentioned their preference for the involved quests and story arcs that are the hallmark of the game. However, it must also be said that the cookie cutter "kill this many whatevers" quests that drove them away from other games and into the loving arms of Turbine have recently made an appearance with Legions. The expansion added many new quests throughout the game including the "kill task" quests that were previously rare. These new quests are a double-edged sword; while providing added avenues for gaining experience and advancement, they also diluted the portfolio of detailed quests that were an attraction for many players.
Turbine has fixed many of the bugs and problems that were likely direct contributors to the initial population crash that followed the game launch in 2002 over the patches and updates since. Unfortunately, the game remains seriously hampered by a poor reputation that spreads by word of mouth from the large number of former players. It seems that without fundamentally changing or revamping the game, Turbine and AC2 will be perpetually stuck with that reputation. Legions, as an expansion pack, does not appear to be an attempt remedy this problem. It does little to fundamentally change the game, and post-expansion AC2 remains stricken by the same immeasurable shortfalls that are responsible for player attrition. As new titles emerge, AC2 suffers further. As one committed player stated, "[World of Warcraft] was a real guild killer." Not only is the sporadic exodus to other games bad for Turbine's bottom line, it puts a stress on the in-game player organizations as they see their ranks thin.
In terms of a review, I have to say Legions is a mixed bag. It certainly adds plenty for loyal players, but I think it fails to do much to bring in new faces or draw former players back into the fold. The bulk of changes in that regard have really come from the consistent and determined updates put out regularly by the development team. For existing players, I have no problem recommending the expansion. But by the same token, I'm sure that existing players with their fervent loyalty have already purchased Legions well before seeing this article.
For new and former players, Legions is likely not what is needed to bring them into Dereth for the first time or for a triumphal return. I would more strongly recommend that former and new players alike seek out the free trial on the Asheron's Call 2 website in order to see what Turbine has done with their updates since their liberation from Microsoft. The difference between the AC2 of today and the much-maligned AC2 of the past can be experienced risk-free without having to buy Legions. And if you find AC2 to be what you're looking for – a game with a tight player base, a responsive dev team, and a unique skill system – then by all means, please, buy Legions and return Turbine the support they've been showing their players, against nearly all odds, for almost three years.
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