Reviewed: February 28, 2005
Released: November 8, 2004
To say that SOEís EverQuest II is engrossing is sort of an understatement. After sinking better than 350 hours into the game, playing around with more than 7 very different characters thanks to the generosity of a couple of friends, over the last few of months, I have to say that in terms of drawing you in and sucking away your motivation to venture outside, EQ2 succeeds smashingly.
One of the things that struck me as most inspiring was that the gameís setting seemed to mirror the attitude of its design and the implementation, a whole kind of "starting from scratch" ethos. If you donít know whatís been going on in Norrath, hereís the cliff notes version: Sometime after the events of the original EverQuest Norrathís moon, Luclin, was destroyed Death Star-style. As one would imagine the planetís surface took quite a beating as the chunks of lunar material pounded the surface and cataclysms wreaked havoc through the lands.
Once things stabilized some the survivors gravitated to the two remaining cities of Qeynos and Freeport, bastions of all things good and evil respectively. Of course an epic struggle of light and darkness ensues, and thatís where you enter the picture, approximately 500 years after the events of the Age of Turmoil. As a refugee coming in from the wastes, you are in route to the Isle of Refuge as your adventure beginsÖ
One of my biggest gripes about EverQuest was that it had little to no relevant and interesting gameplay. The entire game was kill stuff, loot stuff, make stuff, sell stuff, buy better stuff, kill bigger stuff. Rinse, repeat, and repeat, and repeat, and repeat once more, come on one more time, swear to god last one. It was simple and boring, and the argument that the simplicity and one dimensional characters made for better role-playing made me want to stab people.
EverQuest II on the other hand shows that SOE is in fact capable of creating a game with solid interface, (WASD by default! Whee!) a fair amount of depth, character and even a little bit of soul, which is (mostly) free of game breaking bugs.
Letís start at the beginning; character creation has been fleshed out a little more. First thing you need to know, in EverQuest II there are no class restrictions. You want to play an Iskar cleric, you can, how about a Gnomish Monk? You can do that too, the only caveat being that some races default to either good or evil meaning that you may end up betraying the dark metropolis of Freeport in order to create your Troll Paladin. But all that business is in the future, for now pick a race and make up your face (and the rest of your character) because itís time forÖ The Tutorial.
Nothing too dramatic really, just do some work for the captain of the ship, kill some rats, oh look a huge dragon monster, oh now kill the goblin, wheee level up! While itís not the most elaborate tutorial in history of games you will see some of the games best features in the few minutes it takes you to complete it. First off the graphics engine is just, wow, but more on that later. The next thing is that all interaction with NPCs is handled through multiple choice conversation menus. Halle-freakiní-luia man. This is such a dramatic improvement over all the stupid typing you have to do in EverQuest. That alone makes the game feel more like a game and less like homework.
Next up? Combat, none of that turn on auto-attack and go make a sandwich crap, attacks are launched individually and later in the game youíll be able to string them together to unleash devastating combos referred to in the game as Heroic Opportunities that can result in heavy damage or stat reductions for your target or stat boosts for you. Another thing that I didnít discover until really late in my playing was the fact that you can have three separate sets of hot-keys open at the same time! Canít say how many dozen deaths and close calls I attribute to looking for the right set of hotkeys in the middle of the action, gut man alive that is a good feature!
Once your voyage ends at the Isle of Refuge you get to pick a class, want to be a shiny paladin? Tough, but you can elect to pursue the life of a humble fighter and someday maybe you can earn that heavy plate you crave. Classes and abilities are handled better in EverQuest II than in any other MMORPG that comes to mind, City of Heroes being a close second in that regard though they accomplished it in a completely different way. Anyway when you reach the Isle, you can choose from a bare four class types: Priest, Scout (fun!), Fighter and Mage.
Basically you start in an entry level position and over the course of 20 or so levels work your way up the ranks, eventually becoming the Ranger, Cleric, Wizard, Swashbuckler or whatever it is you aspire to be. Once you pick out your class you get to go speak to your class representative and start paying your dues. Vladamin the Ratonga had me running all over the place, hunting deer, counting goblins, getting eaten by sharks, ok so that wasnít the mission, but that was how it worked out, and finaly putting the brakes on the evil designs of an orc in a cave. Once you get a feel for things you can head off for your home city, be it Qeynos or Freeport and get started in earnest.
The game is called EverQuest for a reason this time out, because there are "quests" to do, lots of them, almost too many really. Basically every time you hear a NPC gabbing away, (thatís right, "hear", but more on that later) they probably have some greatly pressing errand for you to run. Find out what they need, a basket of muffins run to a hungry gnome, some fresh rat eyeballs collected, a set to blacksmithing tongs repaired, whatever. Every time you accept one of theses quests they itís entered in your quest journal (which holds a maximum of 36 tasks).
Every time you complete a quest youíll earn some experience points and some money or a useful item. Hell, my preposterously good looking Rogue made it all the way to level 15 without having to buy any equipment, not even bags! Thereís even an option to turn off combat experience. This seems perfect for role-players, so that you gain your XP from your great deeds rather than how many Gnolls you can beat up.
If you EverQuest veterans out there havenít figured it out yet, you may still be on Norrath but this is a whole new game. No more needing 30 or 90 people to get your raid on, a large raid in EQ2 is closer to 15 players which I feel keeps things nice and intimate. You donít need to have like 300 players in a guild in order to raid twice a week. Corpse recovery has also been fixed, the old way: Ok I died, I fell asleep and then I went on vacation for a week, now my level 65 Epicíed Mage is naked and destitute. The new way: Ok I died, I will now follow the sparklely trail back to where a little piece of my soul is waiting for me to come pick it up, ~right click *absorb*~ The win! See how nice that works?
Now thereís no requirement that you go pick up all of the ďspirit shardsĒ you dropped all over the place that night your buddy brought over that bottle of asbenthine. However recovering your shards does give you back a good-sized chunk of the Experience Debt you incur when you die. The other main penalty for death is wear on your equipment, this can be easily remedied by taking said equipment to a mender who will return it to pristine condition for a fee.
Getting around in the new Norrath isnít the huge chore it was in the early days of EverQuest when you could run for 15, 20 minutes or more to get where you were going. As near as I can tell all character classes receive a limited ďGateĒ ability that teleports them back to their home city. There are also griffon stables that are scattered around both Antonica and the Commonlands, basically you just climb up to the deck, choose where you want to go and a winged bird/lion thing whisks you off to your destination. Personally, I preferred to run the longer distances, never know what you might stumble across you know? But for the adventurer in a hurry, traveling around during in the earlier part of the game anyway is for the most part pretty painless.
While the thrill of combat is all well and good, sometimes even the most dashing swashbuckler gets a hankering to create rather than just smash everything that crosses his path. Itís been a long time coming, but in EverQuest II crafting is being given almost as much importance as your adventure class. The progression is similar to your character class, you start off with a general skill, like craftsman, outfitter or scholar, and from there you can specialize.
Letís say you choose the path of the outfitter, once you attain adequate proficiency in your trade you get to further specialize by selecting between three different sub classes, the Armorer, the Tailor and the Weaponsmith. On a light note, there are still some bugs left in the crafting system, I got to see first hand when my nehibor, Bernie was showing me his paladinís mad Ďsmithing skills, he hit combine, and died. Come to think of it, that should really be a feature in the game, some sort of dangerous recipie category, try at your own risk!
EverQuest II could be the worst game ever (not that it is) but even then there would be one aspect no one could argue, itís pretty. The game has got to be one of the more intensive demonstrations of DirectX 9 in action Iíve ever seen, itís just, wow. Grass gets wet in the rain, torches flicker, and the water! The Water! Holy hell, we need more games with water like this, as much as I love Far Cryís water this is really better. The ripples, the churning, the foamÖ hang on I need to empty my drool bucket.
And lighting and textures arenít the only place EQ2 shines, character animations, while processor intensive, are super fluid. Combat isnít just the same attack over and over again, characters dodge and weave, and powerful blows look, well, powerful, like they have some weight behind them. The characterís faces, when they arenít obscured by shadow, masks, or helmets, are really pretty great, very expressive and life-like when they talk.
I do find the art style a little conservative, but thatís just one fellowís opinion. And even in its conservative state it doesnít fail to both wow and rape a midrange system at the same time! As I alluded to above I got to play with EQ2 on a few different systems including a brand spanking new nVidia 6800 Ultra SLI rig, that was awesome let me tell ya, even though at that point the game wasnít playing nice with SLI impressive nonetheless.
The graphics in EverQuest II are very scaleable; problem is that on even some of the better midrange systems out there today you have to give up a lot of the pretty stuff to make the game run smoothly. Some people are quick to scream ďMEMORY LEAK!Ē every time the frame rate dips, but I wonder if it may just be because SOE wants the game to have a longer shelf life in terms of its looks.
My work rig, that I do most of my writing on, is really scraping the minimum requirements, and to be fair it did get the game to run playably on it, but looks wise it was nothing to write home about. Iíd seriously consider some upgrades if you decided you need to try EQ2 and only have 512mb of ram or a graphics card much older than a Radeon 9800pro. On the processor side of things, A Barton-core Athlon XP seems to be where itís at as far as achieving an ok quality experience on a budget, but Bernieís A64 rig really showed off what EverQuest II is capable of, and for like $4k it should.
EverQuest II features voice acting for nearly all of its NPCs. Let me rephrase, EverQuest features "good" voice acting for nearly all of its NPCs. Itís an amazing feat to be sure, but I have yet to encounter voice work for a character that leaves me saying, ďWow, thereís a janitor.Ē The addition of such extensive high-quality voice acting is what pushes EverQuest II into serious contention for the pinnacle of the genre.
Never has an MMO managed to draw the player in like this, itís incredible the first time you play. The voice work gives you another window into the characters you interact with. When youíre reading text, you can miss some of the ironic mocking tones that are in full play from time to time. There is one particularly harried gnome in the Baubleshire that made me smile every time I passed him. The cities seem more alive, and thatís one thing that I always disliked about the original EQ, even though there were people all over the place, all you heard were the same looping ambient noises, but this is way, way better.
The in-game score is pretty much standard fantasy fare, though it is fully orchestrated, and that does give it some qualities that a MIDI composition just canít deliver. In some ways the soundtrack is better than some movies I could name. It has reoccurring themes that get woven throughout the game in different ways, I actually put the soundtrack CD they sent us in heavy rotation in my play list. If thatís not high praise, I donít know what is.
As with pretty much all MMOGs, the vastness of EverQuest II comes at a price, $14.99 a month to be exact. In addition to that fee there are other options like screenshot hosting and additional character slots (you start with only four which may feel cramped to some people) that you can add to your account for addition monthly charges.
Is it worth it month to month? Well if you are a fan of MMOs in general or are waiting to get a copy of WoW or are getting bored with your current gaming vice and are looking for a new (well old really) world to explore Iíd say yes it is. With the excerption of any possible hardware upgrades you may need to make, I think EQ2 offers pretty much the whole package in terms of what you want from a fantasy MMORPG.
At this point I think itís safe to say that EverQuest II has greatly exceeded my expectations. While I did spend a lot of time with its predecessor, I really considered playing it to be ďwork.Ē Gotta level up so I can review the new expansion, that kind of thing you know, a grind.
EverQuest II on the other hand wrapped me up and brought out some unknown OCD tendencies. I actually had this review nearly completed back in mid-January (and it was about 1,400 words shorter), then Bernie (that bastard) drops by and shows me all this cool stuff I missed, and crap here we are! It was ok though because that little encounter got me to raise the overall score of the game by over a point, but I digress. Anyway, I think that experience sums up EverQuest II pretty well actually. Thereís always something new to discover!