EverQuest II has always been great fun, in my opinion. From the beginning, I felt that it not only built on all of the strengths of EverQuest, but that it also effectively erased the more heinous errors of the past and added a superb amount of content, lore, and overall depth to the Norrath experience. A full years' worth of patches and the Desert of Flames expansion have only glossed the gameplay to a mirror-like sheen. Recently, the Live Update 19 patch radically altered (for the better) how the early game functions, and now SOE is preparing to put out a second full expansion, Kingdom of Sky, which is the focus of this preview.
When I think back to the best times that I had playing EQ 1, I can't help but notice that all of my fondest recollections come from expansion-area locations. I came into the first game at roughly the time that Scars of Velious was released, and to this day, that is my favorite of all the content packages Sony/Verant released. Exploring the Ruins of Kunark comes in a close second.
With that in mind, I have been paying close attention to these EQ 2 newcomers. What I've seen of the Desert of Flames is beyond promising, and now that I've had some time experimenting with the new features in Kingdom of Sky, I'm led to believe that, like its predecessor, EQ 2 will continue to age like fine wine.
Kingdom of Sky takes place in an area known as the Overrealm, also referred to as the Dragon Isles. This is a nebulous void that lies far above the surface of Norrath and consists of a vast series of floating islands, accessible only via flight. The peculiar geography being what it is, it stands to reason that its primary occupants are winged species: dragons, drakes, and Aviak bird-men. Other races have managed to find their way up as well, and it is through the efforts of the wing-free that a network of flying clouds has been set up to transport people from place to place.
Now, you might think that at one point or another, someone might have looked up and seen one or two of these massive floating chunks of earth, but somehow we've all just overlooked the Overrealm. The Aviaks claim it's always been here, and even grasp at straws trying to generate a long-winded theory to explain it all away, nonsensical tomfoolery involving chemicals generated by the sun that blind anyone looking up .... No, I didn't make up that last part. For my money, there are too many echoes of the lost Plane of Sky to be a coincidence. There are even a few architectural fragments lying around that were last seen on that plane.
The geography of the Overrealm runs the full gamut, from fairly standard deciduous forest through to scorched rock cut with veins of purple liquid energy. However, the fact that everything is suspended in the middle of the sky provides a curious feeling of agoraphobia. This is exacerbated greatly by the fact that you can (and most likely will, at least once) fall off the edge of these islands and plummet to your doom. Thus far, I haven't encountered a single beta tester who hasn't tried out the "lemming" effect within 30 seconds of zoning onto the island called the Tenebrous Tangle. I found it particularly amusing that just before I myself leapt to my first demise, I looked down at the surface of the Luclin moon. Oddly, there were still clouds above me. Clearly, the atmosphere of Norrath is made of stranger stuff than here on Earth.
The content in Kingdom of Sky is mostly focused on end-game encounters and fleshing out the EverQuest 2 experience for players who've been with the game for the long haul. The level cap is being pushed up from 60 to 70 for individual players and from 40 to 50 for guilds. Tons of new quests are par for the course, but they're also sprinkling in new Heritage Quests (I love HQs), and a new class called "Signature quests." I haven't encountered one of these yet, but the general description is that these are interconnected with the evolving lore of EQ 2. Good yarn that I get to interact with? Sign me up, please. There are also new custom hats and armor models being thrown in that you can quest for and loot. These tend to be stereotypical of each class that they're designed for. The swashbuckler, for example, gets a large foppish hat with a hulking feather that just screams, "I'm swishy and I want to be a pirate!!!" My own class, the Wizard, gets a floppy witch hat. I'm not too ashamed to admit I want one of these badly.
When it comes to new creatures to vanquish, few are casually hanging around being wimpy. A wide variety of reptilian and insect life makes up the majority of the non-sentient species, the rest are a mixed bag of aviaks (owl and vulture seemed to be the most common), dragon-men (in undead form too!), and anthropomorphic armored insects (say that five times really fast). Most of the inhabitants of the Dragon Isles are level 60+, with some impressive new raid dungeons thrown in to blow your sense of "epic" to all new highs. SOE assured me during the guided tour that although raids are being developed as a large part of the Overrealm, they are working hard to diversify the concept of raiding so that not all dungeon encounters have to be 100-player armies in scale. Smaller guilds may rejoice at this news. However, they're also throwing in some extremely heavy hitters; the undead dragon Tarinax (the destroyer) is a "75^^^ Epic (x4)" mob. If you're familiar with the EverQuest 2 system for gauging the toughness of an enemy, you'll understand exactly how terrifying that thing is. Essentially, any avatar under the level of 57 won't be seeing too much in the way of new mob content, but that doesn't mean that Kingdom of Sky has nothing to offer lower-level players.
In fact, for my money it's not the content or quests or dragons or any such upgrade that Kingdom of Sky offers that I'm most keen on at all. The feature that generates the most excitement is the achievement system, and best of all, this part of the expansion is one that anyone from level 20 onwards can enjoy. The achievement skills system can be roughly compared to the Alternate Advancement system from EQ 1, only in this case, you aren't allocating a percentage of your own experience towards the specialty skills.
It works like this: completion of certain quests, defeat of certain enemies, and discovery of certain places and items will reward you with achievement points. Starting at the 20th level, your character can start putting these points towards new abilities unique to that class. For example, as a bruiser, I can choose from five different ability paths that define a different class focus. I can go with brute force and increase raw strength and damage, or I could go defensive and tailor my agility and damage mitigation upwards. Each skill (aside from the first) has eight ranks. To progress up the tree to the next ability, you must have at least four ranks in the preceding skill. There are no restrictions on the paths, so you can be as specialized or "jack-of-all-trades" as you wish.
The bottom line is that the achievements system provides a greater sense of class diversity than ever before. Now you can sculpt your avatar to more closely resemble your role-playing ideals. Individuality is a very important goal for MMo longevity, so I'm extremely impressed with this feature in Kingdom of Sky. In my opinion, the EQ 2 experience simply will not be complete without it.
Rounding out the additions that will be included with Kingdom of Sky is player versus player, which I believe will be restricted to specific servers much in the same way it was in EQ 1. I've been too busy trying to take in as much of the basic PvE environments as possible to dabble in the PvP beta server, so I don't have any firsthand experiences to share. I can only state my fervent hope that class imbalances for PvP don't result in general nerfs across all servers like it did in the original game. For my money, much of what soured EQ 1 was the radical change made to everyone due to the complaints of PvP players. The needs of the few (for some odd reason) outweighed the needs of the many, and this is something I would hope doesn't happen again to EverQuest 2. As I stated earlier though, SOE seems to be avoiding most (if not all) of the major problems that plagued the original, so I have faith they'll handle this smoothly.
EQ 2 is slowly starting to (re)generate a small buzz, and I'm happy to say that most people who are dabbling in the world crafted by SOE have found the changes for the best. All of the ingredients included in the Kingdom of Sky seem to be in place for an excellent upgrade to the EverQuest 2 experience: A solid mix of solo, group, and raid content; many new zones to discover and explore; a few more nods to the memories of EQ1 veterans; and the new armor sets and the superlative achievement system. All of these things are just a fraction of the immersive persistent world that is Norrath. If you've been looking for a reason to give EverQuest 2 another try, now may be a very good time to act on that urge. As long as SOE stays on the ball as much as they have this past year with Live Updates and with expansions as creative as Kingdom of Sky, I'll be here for a long time.
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