If you are over here in the UK it means that, like me, you are enjoying a bank holiday weekend or at least you will have done by the time this goes out. For those who don't have bank holidays, it is basically a Monday off work (unless you are in retail then it's business as usual). Usually a long weekend means drinking, gardening, short trips away. For me, however, the only place to be was in Norrath. Why? Game Update 56, 'Halas Reborn', is why.
This update was quite a revamp for EQII, adding a fair amount of new content and also doing away with some of the old stuff. First off was the addition of New Halas, named after the destroyed city of Halas from Everquest. New Halas is open to good-aligned characters who want to make a home for themselves in the harsh wintry isle of Erollis. The isle also offers a new beginning area designed to guide you from level 1 to 20.
Something that is often a concern is the quantity of starting areas, while too few can make levelling alts seem like a chore, too many can spread the population too thin and create ghost towns. SOE has taken the bold and not too popular move of removing the two oldest starter zones from the game. Not only that, but the cities of Qeynos and Freeport are now no longer offered as your home towns, although you can pack up and move there later on if you wish. Removal of content is a risky business, and while I can see the point of it - those areas are quite dated and don't reflect the quality of the rest of the game - as a veteran I do love a bit of nostalgia sometimes and would like the option to start an alt in the old-school way.
While newbies had their experience streamlined, those at the level cap had extra content to test their mettle. Two new raid dungeons were added: The Icy Keep: Retribution and Underfoot Depths. The first is described as being 'aimed to give players an easy to moderate challenge'. It is, as the name suggests, a frosty-themed dungeon which has also been the source of many quests during Frostfell events. Last December gave us a new quest revolving around the newly hatched dragon, Vrewwx. The new raid sees players assisting the Frostfoot Goblins who are concerned that the appearance of a new dragon will once again mean enslavement for their clan.
The story behind Underfoot Depths is a bit more long-winded, requiring more space than I have to play with here. The short of it is that Master Yael has sent out his armies to protect the Underfoot at all costs. Underfoot Depths is a multi-wing instance, with the first two wings offering moderate difficulty and the final wing presenting players with a greater challenge.
The storyline system is another new addition to the game. There is now a new tab in the quest journal which groups questlines together. From my point of view, it's now a lot easier to write about the game as the story arc of my questlines are available in game and not in my scruffily written notes. The storyline window also shows you questlines which are available to you but you might not have picked up yet. Quest status is colour coded: Gold means you have yet to pick up the storyline, white is for quests you are currently on and grey is for completed storylines.
Traveling the world has received an overhaul and a streamlining. The old system, while not being overly complex, was still quite perplexing for new players. The modes of transit for EQII include mariner's bells, druid rings, portals, magic carpets and flying beasts. None of these systems were straight forward pre-update, and some had restrictions which have now been lifted.
Each mariner's bell used to send you to a specific zone. Sounds simple enough except that each dock wouldn't have bells for all areas, forcing you sometimes to travel through a couple of zones to find the bell you want. Druid rings used to require you to have harvested a Blessed Shrubbery from that zone's ring before allowing you to teleport there. Now clicking a mariner's bell or using the druid rings brings up a world map for you to select your destination from without any prerequisites. When hovering your cursor over a location on the map a tooltip pops up to give you a brief description of the area and also its level range. Dumbed down? Maybe, but I'd argue that the complexity was unnecessary in the first place.
The other travel systems have been simplified: Some that required questlines have had them removed as prerequisites; the abilities to call your character to your bind point or guild hall have had their casting times reduced and more zones have had internal travel options added.
While on the subject of travel, flying mounts now have the ability to glide. This has put an end to the nonsense of falling off a cliff on your flying carpet and taking damage at the bottom, now you just ease on gently down to the ground.
Graphically, the game has been given a bit of polish with the arrival of shader 3.0. I wasn't entirely sure what 3.0 was so I looked it up and here is the answer I got from the forum:
Still not being any wiser, I turned it on in-game to see the difference and it was sort of an improvement. In some areas, the difference is astounding, in others you wouldn't notice you had it on. The big drawback is that in some areas the game looks too dark and some armor models come across as too shiny. The good news is that the shader isn't finished, it's a work in progress. Now that it has gone live we are assured that devs will get around to improving the murky textures. It's hard not to be excited about a graphical improvement so I look forward to the extra polish that's coming our way.
As well as the above, the update brought the usual catalogue of bug fixes and minor tweaks that improve the game across the board. It's comforting to know that even though SOE has many other irons in the fire and a couple of big releases to come, EQII still gets a lot of love.