At this point in my illustrious "career" as a PC Games critic, I've run out of interesting metaphors, analogies, or similes to use in preface paragraphs involving anything EverQuest 2 related. That is not to say that I've grown jaded as such, I've just done enough writings on this franchise that I seem to have lost my perspicacity. As such, we are stripped bare of any poetic pretense, and I instead show you the brutish face of "fact": Sony Online Entertainment has just released an expansion to their massively multiplayer mainstay, the third such release since the flagship of the franchise went live. This one is entitled Echoes of Faydwer, and today I'm going to attempt to let you know whether it is "worth playing" or not.
Continuing the post-apocalyptic tale that is the basis of EverQuest 2, Echoes of Faydwer details the events and stories that were etched into the elf, dwarf, and gnome lands during the 500 years of turmoil (the shattering) that afflicted all of Norrath. For those few of you that might be reading this that didn't actually get a chance to play the original game, a brief explanation: when EverQuest went live, Norrath consisted of three main continents, Antonica, Faydwer, and Odus. Up until now, EverQuest 2 has only detailed the transformed Antonica (and what hovers above it) for players to explore. With this latest expansion, all of us old-school types get to see what kinds of scarred alterations the explosion of the Luclin moon hath wrought upon the forested mountains of Faydwer.
A surface glance at the new features this expansion offers will show you that there are over 20 new zones to explore, a new playable race (the Fae), new player cloaks, two new trade-skill professions, an expanded "achievement" system, a whole new "beliefs" system (the Gods are back!), and the city of Kelethin, the former home of Wood Elves that is now the domain of the Fae. I'm sure I've forgotten one or two extras offered as well, but even this list should be enough to let you know that there is much to be seen and absorbed.
For the purposes of this review, I have chosen to begin an all-new character instead of using my level 53 Gnome mage. I just had to experiment with the Fae, and so I sculpted Ariarune, a purple-and-black faerie Dirge. I found it amusing to make a little Goth type adventurer with abilities centered on screaming so painfully that enemies just give in to the onslaught of vocalized ennui. (Subtext and irony, what a beautiful mixture.) I must admit, I find this new race amongst the most compelling yet offered by SOE, owing to how beautiful the wing textures are. They just look good, right off the bat. Also, their racial ability is extremely handy and fun. While they can't fly, the wings aren't vestigial either- all Fae can glide.
This isn't a limited ability; find the highest possible height you can and jump off, then gently soar all the way down, meditating all the while on how you wish your clip plane was pushed just a little bit further. Kelethin is a city nestled amongst the tree-tops, the fact that you can leap off the platforms without paying gravity a lethal due makes for a significantly different experience from the original EverQuest. Wood elves couldn't naturally glide you see, so there was a more-or-less constant rain of newbies falling to their doom back in the day. This has been largely eliminated in Echoes of Faydwer, however non-Fae still have to be on their guard. Point of fact, all of the Greater Faydark is extremely unfriendly to non-winged types, as my Gnome found out the hard way.
Faydwer, as a geographical entity, is essentially two mountain ranges split in half by a massive forest. The Steamfont and Butcherblock mountain ranges are cleaved in twain by the mighty Greater and Lesser Faydark forest. The original versions of these areas never much felt like mountains or forests to me, so how do the new ones stack up? Well to be quite honest, they still don't feel like it. Don't get me wrong, they look good, but to look at these zones as a whole, they don't synch up with what I envision forests or mountains. Gfay is not a dense rainforest mass of trees with a moss-carpeted floor teeming with an unfathomable ecosystem; it is a few really huge trees and many, many hills. Butcherblock isn't so much of a mountainous area as it is a long winding path through some really big rocks. In both instances, I would have to say scale is the missing ingredient that prevents the proper atmosphere from being achieved. The rocks aren't big enough, and the trees aren't plentiful enough.
I do believe that SOE did a better job this time around at stitching together a breathing world though, as opposed to just placing a series of non-player mobs in random areas. My desire to give EverQuest 2 a fair shake in the past has allowed me to overlook the relatively "clunky" atmosphere of the previous two expansions (Desert of Flames and Kingdom of Sky), but Faydwer is the closest the developers have come yet to creating additional content that looks and feels as dynamic as the original release. There is a greater sense that they took their time, and didn't rush this release out the door. It's almost like listening to a new album by a band you really like, and realizing that their last CD was mostly filler. Mötley Crüe did that once. "Girls, Girls, Girls" indeed. One good song does not a killer album make. Wait, what am I talking about? Oh right, EverQuest 2 ....
Quest content is plentiful, although I did notice that just about all missions in the Greater Faydark were just cleverly worded quota tasks. Kill X amount of these creatures, collect X amount of items off of those mobs, etc. and so forth. To their credit, the developers did include a great deal of lore and mythology when scribing out these quests, so even if you can see the repetitive nature of what you're expected to do, at least there's some interesting reading to go along with it. One particular quest that stands out in my mind as being an excellent step in the right direction is the "In Honor and Service" Heritage Quest.
These particular quests have been part of EverQuest 2 from the beginning. They are all extremely hard to complete and reward the diligent with legendary items from the first EverQuest, treasures such as the Golden Efreeti Boots or the Shiny Brass Shield. This particular HQ ends with your obtaining a coat of Dwarven Ringmail, which 500 years in the past was a treasure dropped by Emperor Crush, king of the Crushbone Orcs. The reason this heritage quest stands out in my mind is because it is the first such quest (in my experience) that is solo'able without having been out-leveled to the point of the quest being trivial. I sincerely hope that there are more of these in store, as I quite enjoyed completing this on my own.
While finishing the above task, you're sure to generate a great deal of achievement experience. This leads us to examine the new achievement trees, which are expanded to more closely compliment each class. 25 new upgrades to class skills have been added, which brings the total to 51. Instead of a raw bonus to each statistic followed by some new abilities (which is how the original list worked), these new achievement enhancements are almost all upgrades to class skills or spells. Each player gets one free re-assignment of skill points, however any points you've spent on the original list of achievements can't be re-slotted to the expanded tree. That's disappointing, as I find the new skills overall to be much more utilitarian. Oh well, my wizard still gets some great new tweaks to direct damage, and my little howling Dirge gets lots of new upgrades. Faster invisibility cast time, more damage to flanking attacks, safe fall bonuses to songs that increase speed, more power generated while singing regeneration tunes, and so forth.
The return of the Gods is an extremely significant element to the back story of EverQuest 2. Why there hasn't been more fanfare regarding this is beyond me. I won't bore you with the minutiae of how or why the deities are scrambling back in droves; however the practical applications are awesome. It goes something like this: You track down a prophet of whichever God/Goddess you want to become a follower of. That prophet then gives you a quest to complete that directly pertains to the propagation of said deity's sphere of influence, and in exchange for completing that task you're given an altar to place in your player-house which you can then pray to for powers and abilities. Three cheers for virtual idolatry!
You can also make offerings to the altar in exchange for favour, which is the "currency" that the Gods use. Items of magic power are recommended, I don't think sacrificial lambs are particularly in vogue at the moment. Further questing rewards more favour and thus newer and stronger powers. In short, this is a superbly implemented feature, one of the best new toys for players to enjoy. This is especially good news for role-play fans, the hard-core ones that like to actually feel as though they're living in the world of Norrath.
Jumping to a whole new topic with nary a second thought regarding elegant segue; let's take a quick look at the two new trade-skill options: tinkering and transmuting. The latter functions somewhat like Enchanting in World of Warcraft, allowing the player to transmute magical items into the base components for adornments. The former is the classic Gnomish art of noodling magic and technology together in highly improbable ways that shouldn't work, yet somehow does. Transmuted adornments are fun, they're basically little bonuses that can be attached to armour and weapons. You don't need to know transmuting to apply them, so you can just buy them off the broker and apply as desired. I'm a huge fan of frost-based weapon effects, and thanks to adornments I can now make sure that every blade I carry has cold on it.
Tinkering items are textbook clichés, strange things like re-breathers and parachutes and such. I never got my hands on any of these, and from what I understand tinkering is one of the most resource-heavy in the game. This leads me to believe that of the two new trades, transmuting will be the more common, as it's easier to get into. However, I have a confession: I didn't personally dabble in either of these at all, as by nature I'm just not a trade-skill kind of person in MMo games. However, I do know some people who are freaky-addicted to making things in EverQuest 2, and I have no problems abusing the treasures offered by the EQTraders website. It is from these sources that I feel just qualified enough to at least mention these new features. So, um, get out there and make stuff!
In a circumstantial kind of fashion, I've mentioned the graphics. Just to reiterate, Echoes of Faydwer does look really good. However, this boils down to aesthetic design, not graphical upgrades. The EverQuest 2 graphics engine remains as it always has, a powerhouse of texture mapping with an odd disparity in the models. It's almost 50-50, where objects either look beautifully realistic or blocky and ungraceful. This has been present in every release in this franchise (with varying degrees of severity), and this expansion is no exception. However, as I've previously stated, there is a stronger sense of cohesion to the environments overall, and a much richer colour-palette. There are plenty of bright hues saturating the lands that Tunare built. Also, this would be a good time to mention the new cloaks. These are the best I've yet seen in a MMo; they hang off the shoulders realistically and aren't just a static texture pasted onto the avatar. They ripple and flow with movement, and come in a variety of shapes and lengths- towel to cloak and everything in between. The guild heraldry is a nice touch, especially if you're lower level and can't afford a luxurious player-made cape.
Echoes of Faydwer is the first expansion to EverQuest 2 that isn't primarily aimed at high-level players. It is possible to begin at level one and adventure all the way to level 70, without ever having left the continent of Faydwer. Perhaps it is for this reason that I find it to be the best of the content upgrades, it just seems so much fuller and well-rounded. There's certainly an abundance of extras for everyone, and in my eyes that is exactly who MMo developers should have in mind anytime they decide to add new material to a persistent world- everyone. Now is a very good time to think about giving this franchise a try too, not just because there are so many new things to see and do, but also because SOE have packaged all previous releases into this one box. There is an excellent dollar value here: EverQuest 2, Desert of Flames, Kingdom of Sky, and Echoes of Faydwer, all on two DVD's for roughly $40.00 or so dollars. Plus, the in-house clockwork whirligig pet you get is easily the coolest bonus the developers have included since the baby dragon in the original release special edition. So, is this "worth playing"? Absolutely. Why are you still reading this? Go out and get it!
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