In 1999, a company known as Verant launched a game called EverQuest, and online gaming was changed forever. EverQuest was not the first MMORPG, nor does it have the largest subscriber base, but it blazed so many trails and established so many paradigms that it is viewed by many as the seminal MMORPG. Most every MMO player has, at one time or another, played EverQuest.
Verant, now known as Sony Online Entertainment or SOE, had (and still has) a bona fide hit with EverQuest. Five years after the first players entered the world of Norrath, the original EQ is going strong. Several expansions have been added and a number of players have multiple accounts so that they may play more than one character. Fan Faires are held so that players can congregate and swap tales of their electronic adventures. Many an hour of sleep has been lost by those trying to get that last bit of experience to make the next level. The game is so addictive that it has been dubbed "EverCrack."
Creating a phenomenon like EQ is both a blessing and a curse. The blessings are obvious, but the challenge comes in questions like, "What's next?" or "How exactly does a developer follow such a success?" SOE's answer is in the form of a sequel. Amid much hype and anticipation, this past November SOE released EverQuest II.
A Whole New World
Norrath originally consisted of three continents. The first EQ expansion added the land of Kunark. Subsequent offerings added the frozen lands of Velious, the moon of Luclin, and other new worlds. The world of EQII is quite different than the expanded Norrath that many have come to know. Set years in the future of the first game, the moon of Luclin has exploded and rained devastation down upon the world. Continents have been torn apart or lost altogether. The only cities that have survived are Qeynos and Freeport. Qeynos is under the benevolent rule of Antonia Bayle and is the home for characters with a good alignment. Evil characters call Freeport home, where the evil overlord Lucan D'Lere reigns.
Some of the names are familiar to those who know EQ, but the map is completely different. The only real similarity is the position of Qeynos in the west and Freeport in the east. Antonica, formerly the main continent, is now a land east of Qeynos. The Commonlands are the hunting grounds immediately adjacent to Freeport. Other places share names with well-known EQ locales, such as Lavastorm, Everfrost, and Blackburrow, but for all intents and purposes, this is a new Norrath. Those expecting nothing but a warmed-over version of the original EverQuest will be pleasantly surprised.
The cities are worlds to themselves. Each has a main city area made up of 3 or 4 zones, surrounded by a number of housing zones. The type of character a player chooses will determine his starting city zone. Initially, all players start aboard a ship headed for the Isle of Refuge. The activities on the ship are merely to get a player acquainted with the interface of EQII. In a nod to the fact that many players will have multiple characters, the shipboard part of a new character's initiation may be skipped.
Once upon the island, players choose their profession and run a series of missions and tasks to get a feel for the game. Advancement here is limited to level 6 and players must choose their alignment in order to proceed to the main world. Some races are forced to play a certain alignment, such as high elves, which are always good, or trolls, which are always evil. Humans are a race that has a choice. The character creation phase spells this out. Each player may choose race, sex and a number of appearance options. The allowed alignments are designated during the race selection. Character models are as good as those offered by any persistent world. Slider bars allow for great detail in tailoring one's facial features. There are a good number of hairstyles and feature options (such as piercing or tattoos) from which to choose. The races from the original EQ are all there, including those added through expansions, such as Ratonga or Iksar. The Froglok is in the game, but is a race which must be first unlocked.
Professions are handled differently than in EQ. Rather than start as a druid or a necromancer, a player chooses a general profession of mage, fighter, scout or priest. At level 10, the choice is made that will shape the player's true calling. Fighters, for example, may choose from the warrior, brawler or crusader disciplines. At level 20, these become further specialized based on alignment. A crusader will become a paladin or a shadowknight. A shaman will advance to a mystic or a defiler. Given this, all players are basically the same for a while, at least until level 10, where specialization takes place.
After the Isle of Refuge stage is completed, players find themselves in their new home. Each residential area has necessities such as a banker, an inn, several merchants, and at least two crafting guilds. All players start off with a room at the inn and a week's rent. Through a couple of quick quests, some furnishings are provided and the place starts to look like home. Even so, access to the larger city and the worlds beyond can not be obtained without gaining citizenship. A couple of quests give the player his citizenship ring and all the privileges thereto, including access to the city.
It Is Called EverQUEST, After All
All areas of the cities are loaded with quests. NPCs will speak out loud if they have a quest to offer. Here is where EQII's much ballyhooed use of voice comes into play. Even though speech bubbles appear over the heads of those talking, it's the voice that gets the players attention. For example, running down a street a player might hear a woman's voice say, "I really could use some apples, but I can't leave my store right now." This is a cue for a courier quest in which the NPC will send the player to another location to retrieve the items. It's a novel way to indicate a quest and has proven to be more than a mere gimmick.
Each quest, once accepted, is logged into the player's journal. Quests are color-coded in the same way that opponents are: green for well below the player's level to red for way above the player's level. A new feature to the EQII interface is the quest helper, which gives the player a progress status on the current quest. Selecting a quest in one's journal places it in the quest helper window. This is a very helpful tool during completion of a quest or task. If the next step is to visit a NPC, that NPC's name is visible in the quest helper. If the current step calls for collecting 5 feathers, the requirement is in the helper with pictures of 5 lightened feathers. Upon collecting a feather, one picture becomes darkened, helping the player keep track of how much progress he has made.
Quests come from other places as well. Monsters may drop books or notes that give quests when read. One interesting such quest comes from a dropped book which has the player visit certain points of interest around Antonica. Upon visiting all 15 locations, the player can turn the book into a librarian for a 10-slot backpack. The quest's purpose is to get the player familiar with the large zone of Antonica and it succeeds through the lore of the game. Other quests work equally as well. There are a lot of quick tasks that just give a bit of experience and money, but there are a series of profession-specific quests that are much more complex and are necessary for the player to proceed. The quest part of EverQuest II is very well done.
Fight, Fight, Fight!
EQII wouldn't be a true MMORPG or a worthy successor to EverQuest without monsters to fight. Venturing into the wilds of Antonica or the Commonlands, a young player will find lots of creatures roaming the countryside. Players below level 10 or so may want to start in some of the smaller areas of the city, such as the Oakmyst Forest of Qeynos or the Ruins in Freeport. Here there are level appropriate monsters that can help the young player get ready to venture into the more savage lands. Monsters are color-coded as to their level of difficulty. Selecting a monster will show the player its level and whether or not it is grouped. If a member of a group is selected, all members of its group are shown as well. Attacking a grouped gnoll will bring all of his buddies, too.
While the color system generally works fairly well, it is not as easy to understand as the system in EQ or in other games. For example, a green solo monster may actually turn out to be tougher than a blue group. There are some small arrows above or below the mob's name that give an indication as to how tough the opponent is, but it's confusing at times and may put inexperienced players at a disadvantage when they pull a blue that fights like a yellow. Many an unsuspecting player has pulled a green solo gnoll runt only to find himself running to safety.
Fighting increases a player's abilities, such as defense, parry, slashing, etc. Each time a skill increases, a message is displayed across the top of the screen. The better one's abilities get, the more effective a fighter, mage, or whatever he is. Experience is gained through killing individual monsters and through defeating encounters. Taking on three grouped opponents will give the player experience for killing each monster and bonus experience for wiping out the entire group. If an encounter is overwhelming, a player can use the Call for Help option and either get assistance or run away. Once a monster or group of monsters is engaged, it is locked from attack by anyone not part of those attacking. This remedies killstealing, but prevents others from stepping in to help those in distress. When the Call for Help is activated, others may assist in the battle, but the bonus encounter experience is not given.
The Chance to be a Hero
Grouping is encouraged in EQII, and players benefit greatly from joining groups. A quick jaunt into the Commonlands reveals that most monsters above level 8 or so come in groups. The best part of the group dynamic is how differing classes assist each other. SOE has taken that one step further with heroic opportunities. Certain actions will trigger a chain that culminates in a powerful action. These can be performed by a single player or can work in groups. If a group member sets off a heroic opportunity, a wheel appears in the corner of each member's screen. Icons will flash in each player's taskbar if they will further the opportunity. Another player in the group may cast a spell or perform an action that progresses the chain, giving yet another player the chance to execute the opportunity. There are all sorts of combinations that can foster a synergy among a good group and can make them a very effective combat party.
Killing a great number of a certain type of mob will give a player a title that he may display after his name. It is not uncommon to see players running around with, "Hunter of Undead" or "Killer of Goblins" after their names. Leveling up brings new spells and/or abilities and opens up new quests. NPCs who were silent before may now offer quests to the player who has achieved a certain level and is ready for their tasks.
Of course, where there's fighting, there's death. Dying in EverQuest II is not nearly the penalty it was in the original EverQuest. Players may still be resurrected by priest classes, but for those who must release, a new quest is provided called, "Spirit Shard Retrieval." Rather than leave a corpse on the ground with all the player's equipment, forcing him to run back to the corpse virtually naked to retrieve his gear, a player in EQII is given an option of a nearby location at which he may be resurrected. He leaves behind a ghostly spirit shard where he died. Death also saddles the player with an experience debt that must be satisfied. Retrieving a spirit shard lessens the debt dramatically. Only the player can see his spirit shard, so the landscape is not littered with ghostly bodies.
The experience debt is not a loss of experience. The trauma of losing a level is not to be found in EQII. Instead, the experience debt is applied against future experience. A 3% debt may require the equivalent of 7% experience to be overcome. Debt is shown in red on the progress bar. It's basically hell level experience, so anything that can be done to mitigate it, such as retrieving a spirit shard, is preferable to just punching through it.