Do It Yourself - Norrath Style
There are two kinds of experience in EQII. There's the old fashioned level experience and then there's crafting experience. Rather than make crafting just an aside to help while away the time, SOE has made crafting an integral part of the game. Baked goods may be purchased from NPCs, but they are expensive and not as effective as those from player chefs. Furniture is more than just decoration. High quality player-made furniture will reduce the monthly rent on a player's or guild's residence. It quickly becomes evident to the player that there is much to gain not only from purchasing player-made goods, but also from developing skills to make his own items.
To craft, a player joins a crafting society. In the society's house is all the equipment necessary to brew, bake, sew, smith, or construct. At low levels players only have a few recipes that they may use, but as their crafting level increases, they may purchase more recipes and attempt more difficult creations. An attempt goes through up to four stages. Failures result in one of the earlier stage items, which may still be useable, but not as desirable as the final product. Each recipe requires a set of components, some of which are available from a local merchant. Other components may need to be created from a lower level recipe or obtained from the game world.
Players will find wood, ore, plants, and other resources from which raw materials may be gathered. As skills such as gathering, mining, and foresting increase, the player can harvest more difficult natural resources and find rarer materials. If a necessary item is unavailable, the best place to find it is through a broker. Each society has a broker who is an interface into EQII's player market. Any player can buy an inexpensive bulletin board and hang it in his house for the ability to sell on the market. The broker allows players to look at all items for sale in their city and purchase them for a commission. The extra cost may be avoided by running to the player's house and buying it there, but convenience may be worth the small percentage charge.
I Get Around (Well, I Try)
Getting around in Norrath is not the easiest thing. The worst part is the zones. Zoning is the bane of EverQuest and, while many other games have made great progress toward seamless worlds, SOE has brought zoning along into EQII. Zoning is particularly annoying in cities where there can be over a dozen zones. To mitigate the pain of running through 4 city zones just to get out of town, a series of bells has been implemented. Most city zones have a dock that has two bells: one for travel within the city and one for travel outside the city. Ringing the bell gives the player a list of locations he may visit. It effectively gives the player only one zone to endure. Each zone brings up some concept art and a progress bar that gives the player a status of what's occurring in excruciating detail. It would be preferable not to be told, "loading zone resources," followed by ten other messages which make the zone time seem longer than it already is.
Running is the main way around. Higher level players can get access to mounts, but lower levels have to hoof it. The Spirit of the Wolf (aka SOW) spell is available to certain classes, but it doesn't seem to be as effective as its much coveted counterpart in EQ. The Journeyman's Boots that were given to those who pre-ordered the game are almost worthless. The speed increase they give is negligible. There are flight towers located around certain zones, a feature which helps travel. Antonica, for example, has three. Players can fly to other towers within the same zone. Traveling between zones is done through ringing bells or entering doors. If zoning were only encountered when the bells were activated, it might be more tolerable, but the zoning aspect of travel in EQII quickly frays the patience of those who would rather play the game than watch a countdown of messages such as, "adding character to zone," or "loading UI resources."
Speaking of the user interface, it is a bit clunky. The default is a letterbox style where black bars on the top and bottom are reserved for placing interface windows, but this, like most features of the UI, can be changed. Some windows disappear when unused, like the chat box, which makes them less obtrusive. Things can be easily moved about, but it still has a feeling of a bunch of windows rather than an integrated interface. The customizability options are very extensive, from choosing cloth simulation to atmospheric effects. The likely reason a player will ever change them, though, is simply to turn them off, because EQII is a resource hog that has no equal.
All I Want for Christmas is a GeForce8
It's a safe bet that Michael Dell's personal computer will play EQII with little trouble, but most gamers aren't billionaires and can't afford to purchase a $5000 system just so the heat shimmer effect won't slow their systems down to a crawl. The graphics on EverQuest II may be phenomenal, but only those who run it on a HAL9000 will truly know. The engine might be able to hum on future hardware, but it does not scale down to current configurations very well. There are a number of stories about people who wanted to play EQII and couldn't because their current systems weren't stout enough, so they went to one of several other current games that look fantastic and don't require outlandish hardware specifications.
Because of the huge resource requirements, performance is sluggish on most common systems. Characters run in a jerky fashion unless effects are at minimum, and even then it's not very smooth. It's hard to give high marks to the graphics when all the fancy stuff is inaccessible to the average gamer. Things like specular lighting and underwater distortion effects lose their coolness factor quickly when a running troll looks like it's being animated on flip cards.
Other things suffer as well. The Caves, for example, are designed with dragon skeletons as part of the landscape. A dragon's spine runs alongside the first ramp up. It would be a great effect, but because it's obstructive and because the controls are less than responsive, a large character like a barbarian will overcompensate and fall off the ramp, having to run around and try to renegotiate it. Crisp performance would eliminate this entirely, but high resource needs turn an interesting artifact into an annoying obstacle.
The sound is nice, but the background music is often annoying. The tune that repeats ad nauseum in Antonica is like a cross between the theme to the Harry Potter movies and the music from "Pee Wee's Big Adventure." Background music needs to stay in the background. It is most effective when it adds a slight, ambient effect. Here it plays like the repeating theme to a big budget circus movie. The player does have the option to turn it down or off, and will likely do so. Sound effects are very good and add much to the experience, especially in non-combat activities such as crafting. Voice is a nice feature, as stated above, and has its place. When creatures speak in a language that the player does not understand, it adds a great touch. Languages can be learned and the voice becomes understandable. Overall, the sound is very well done, aside from the overbearing music that permeates the game.
Are We Having Fun Yet?
The fancy graphics and the voice acting and the voluminous quests are important parts of the game, but they all take a backseat to one thing: fun. So the question becomes, "How fun is EverQuest II?" Sadly, the answer in this writer's opinion is, "Not very," or at least not nearly as fun as other games on the market today, including its predecessor. The success of the original EverQuest can be attributed as much to timing as anything else. When EQ was released, the internet was just starting to become prevalent as a consumer medium. First person perspective in gaming was hitting its stride and online play was becoming smoother and more realistic for games more complex than backgammon. Chat rooms and the social side of services like AOL were seeing huge jumps in popularity as the world was getting online. EverQuest took parts of all these phenomena and bound them into a fun online experience. But even if the game had been released a year later, people would have played it in droves because it was a doggone fun game.
EverQuest II contains a lot of things that EQ just didn't or couldn't have, but it's missing something that's intangible. It's the part of EQ that made it so addictive that people would play for hours on end. It's what made websites like Allakhazam and Everlore and MMORPG.com so popular. It's what made dozens of other developers jump into the MMORPG genre with both feet in an attempt to duplicate EQ's success. It's not easy to put into words, but players know it when they experience it. There's something that's just not here, as if EQII is missing its soul.
It's not that the developers did a half-hearted job here. Not at all. The graphics engine is evidently capable of incredible things. The quests are involved and well-integrated into the story line. The dungeons are truly creepy and ominous. Regardless, the sum of the parts does not add up to a satisfying whole. There is a missing-the-forest-for-the-trees aspect to the overall game. It feels forced and artificial. It's a shame to say it, but it appears that after all the hard work and attention to detail, the team behind EQII forgot to include the fun.
There is no arguing that EQII is something that many will love. It is a massive undertaking and is brimming with content and potential. The hype and the pedigree are a major reason for all the attention it is getting, but even if it had neither, it would be the recipient of numerous well-deserved accolades. Just releasing a game of this scale with almost no major issues is an accomplishment worthy of mention. EverQuest II will offer hours of gaming and adventure to those who find it to their taste. The question is exactly how many will absolutely love it. That will be answered in the months ahead, as players decide whether to keep playing or to discontinue and go back to EQ or to other games.
Regardless, EQII will not be the worldwide sensation that EverQuest was. It's doubtful that any game will be able to duplicate that feat, but it's even tougher on one that bears the original's name. The success of EQ has given EverQuest II a huge headstart, but EQII must now captivate players on its own. That may not be as easy as many think. Only time will tell, and the ultimate judges will be the MMORPG playing population. It is they who will decide whether following the most wildly successful game in the genre's history is a blessing or a curse.