Things change – it’s unavoidable. Winter turns to spring, analogue switches to digital and sometimes MMOs change their subscription model. To hear some of the hue and cry over the change, it’s easy to get the impression that moving to Free to Play/Cash Shop is causing the downfall of civilization. Cash shops fund terrorism, and buying mounts instead of earning them causes teenage pregnancies. Ok, maybe it’s not as bad as all that, but going from a monthly sub to F2P is still viewed with suspicion. EQII recently opened its ‘Extended server’. Instead of altering the payment model for the whole game, and potentially alienating some of their fan base, they’ve created a playground just for people who want to play their game for free.
I had a stomp around in the Extended server to see what life is like there, to see if it would do the job that SOE hopes it will- bring in new players and extra revenue. Wish me luck, I’m going in!
Creating an account and downloading the client is a painless affair and not really news worthy. Once you get as far as the log in screen a couple of things become apparent. The first is that SOE really wants you to spend your cash. There are a few pages scrolling along advertising some of the paid services on offer such as extra races, self rez potions and mounts. You can’t blame them for making a living, I guess, but I’m not here to spend any money yet. As a newbie wanting to sample the delights of Norrath, I want to get in and play before making any commitment. This leads me nicely in to the other feature of the ‘logging in’ experience. The Extended server uses the streaming client to get you into the game as fast as possible, removing a huge barrier from casual players wanting to try it out.
In a matter of minutes, I was on the character creation screen. The first choice you make is your class. There are 24 available in EQII and these are divided up into four groups: fighter, priest, mage and scout. There are six classes in each of these groups, but for free players only 2 from each are available to play. Click on a restricted class and the game informs you that you need to upgrade your subscription or purchase the class. I opted for neither as eight roles is enough to get going and free loaders like myself only have access to two character slots anyway. I rolled a wizard and moved on to the race selection page.
The good and evil races are restricted, leaving only four of the six neutral ones available to play. Again, this is fine since it mostly boils down to aesthetics. I picked a human, figuring that if any role-playing broke out, I could just about manage the role being ‘almost’ human myself. A few tweaks of my character’s features, my name chosen and starting area selected, I was in. Or rather, I was in once my zone had loaded after a few minutes. No complaints here though! It certainly beats the 4 hour patching time you get when entering the free trial of some games. Anyway, it gave me time to make a cup of tea. Always a good thing! Thank you Sony.
Once in the game itself I was struck by how busy the starting area was. Considering that there are four beginner zones and I was playing at a very odd hour (in both Europe and the States) there was no shortage of other players charging about and questing. For a while I thought that people weren’t talking much. The chat channels were quiet, almost too quiet. On a hunch, I checked out if chat was restricted too. No prizes for guessing the answer. Chat is restricted to private conversations and guild chat. Obviously, as the game is free to play, this could be a move to combat gold spammers. But in a social game, removing the global chat channels can make the experience a lonely one. I was thinking of sinking some cash into upgrading my account to be able to chat to other players when I received a random guild invite. Normally I’d ignore these on principal, but this came at the right time and was hard to resist.
So how much bang do you get for your buck? Here is what you get for free membership (not including what I’ve already mentioned):
- All content up to The Shadow Odyssey. (The latest expansion, Sentinel’s Fate, is available to buy.)
- Level cap of 80. (90 comes with the last expansion.)
- Spell tiers up to adept. (In the full game you can improve the power of your spell rank from apprentice through to journeyman, adept, expert, master and all the way to grandmaster.)
- All equipment grades except for Legendary and Fabled
- 2 bag slots
- 5 gold per level limit
- A limit of 20 quests in your journal
- Restricted access to the Broker (EQ2’s player to player vendor system)
All in all, that’s not a bad package. For a one-time fee of 10 US dollars you can have an extra character slot, spells up to expert, 3 bag slots, 20 gold per level and 40 quests.
For the Bronze and Silver memberships you will also get pop up adverts while you play. You can do away with these by upgrading to Gold, which is essentially the subscription game. There is also a platinum option: for an annual charge which is a little over the cost of a regular sub you get 10 character slots instead of 7, full access to all expansions, and 500 Station Cash per month to spend.
If you are a casual player looking for a new game or have just wanted to try EQ2 for a while, there is more than enough content here to keep you going for some time. Also, this is a game with the weight of a few years behind it - several expansions and many, many game updates have added layers of polish to EQ2 that many other F2P games will find hard to match.
I have to admit that at first I was skeptical of the extra charges, thinking that I would rather have something along the lines of the LOTRO model where I could pay for content as and when I needed to. However, the relatively small payment for silver membership is a bargain, and if I wasn’t already a subscriber, I’d certainly consider it. On the other hand, if you don’t fancy that, you really can’t go wrong with the introductory price of $0. Bargain!