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Prove me wrong, EverQuest II?

usurperWith all the SOE-talk recently (Free Realms, EQ3-talk, discussions on Twitter), I’ve considered giving EverQuest II another chance. I played it on and off for about a month last time and liked what I saw, but I didn’t stay past the free time I got with the Shadow Odyssey-box. I wasn’t surprised when I found myself considering a re-sub and up until today I was just waiting for a free evening to start playing again.

Then I started to think about the reasons why I never did stay in the first place. I only did get to level 19 with my shadow knight, so I didn’t get very far, but if I really did enjoy it that much I probably should’ve kept my sub running (right, Tobold?). So I took a look at my old screenshots and tried to remember my impressions of EQII. Why did I leave?

  • The PvE seem rather bland. After 19 levels, the PvE-content in EverQuest II seemed like a long series of classic MMO-quests. Go to place A, kill Y, fetch X, etc. Say what you will about World of Warcraft, but at least the quests in that game are rich and varied – Blizzard has learned a lot of lessons since launch. Maybe I’m just a bit spoiled after playing that game for so long. Then again, reaching level 19 in WoW – except for perhaps in the draenei and blood elf starting areas – isn’t all that fun either…
  • The graphics look rather old. Again comparing EverQuest II with World of Warcraft, the graphics in the former haven’t really aged that well. The more realistic style of EQII ages much faster than the more cartoony style of WoW – a good, Trinity-style graphics update would be rather nice to see (and will probably never happen). The dark elf starting area, Darklight Woods, didn’t really help show the game at its best side either, even though I really enjoyed Neriak, the dark elf capital.
  • The character design can be rather crap. Using the alternate models did help a bit with that problem. Without them, I’m not sure I would’ve made it past character creation. I’m just that picky. Or I’d end up playing a froglok.
  • Zoning. I hate zoning, I truly do – especially when it’s done between two zones on the same continent. It’s a rather minor nuisance in EQII, as the respective zones are rather large, but zoning inside Freeport did not sit right with me. I guess I’m spoiled after playing Vanguard and World of Warcraft. I just prefer large, persistent worlds. Zoning breaks immersion.
  • I don’t feel at home in Norrath. I know that Norrath is filled with lore and that players that come from EverQuest have lived in that particular world for the last ten years. I just thought it was a bit too…much. Too much magic, too many races, too much weird stuff going on. “Tacky” might be the word I’m looking for. If you’re from Sweden and played pen-and-paper RPGs as a kid, you might remember the campaign setting Ereb Altor from Drakar och Demoner. As much as I loved that particular setting growing up, as a fantasy world it’s not very believable. Coming from someone that really likes the lore of Warcraft, that probably says a lot…
  • The community is already in place. Without bringing my friends with me from WoW, it would be hard to find a brand new guild to join. I joined up with a rather large and old guild after a few levels of play that already owned a guild hall. Even though the hall was impressive, I felt like a big part of the experience would be to buy your own and help decorate it from scratch. Reaching that point would probably take a long time, getting involved with the community and getting to know enough people to make that a possibility – something that’d probably take a long time, since most players have probably already found a guild they call their home by now.

My emo Shadowknight in Everquest II. Yes, I use the alternate models.

Those are the points I remember thinking about during my (brief) time in EverQuest II. There was a lot to like about the game, so I’m still considering giving it the benefit of the doubt and another try. I love the housing system, the combat was fun and the shadowknight class seemed promising.

But what I really loved about playing EverQuest II was that I had no clue what the hell I was doing. When picking quest rewards, I wasn’t sure what stats were best for me – I had to try to do some form of noobish theory crafting instead. I didn’t know where to go, what to do, how to gain the most AAs or what areas would net me the most XP or the greatest rewards. I did not know how the system actually worked, I was shocked when I heard shadowknights complain in guild chat about their power running out when mine never seemed to. I didn’t know what abilities I would get the next time I leveled up, nor what skills to improve, even what role my class was expected to fill (at least at first). When picking up collection items I didn’t know if I should vendor any spare ones or put them up for auction. Then again, I had no idea what the best way to sell items to other players was.

All I knew was that I was a lone dark elf in a large world, owning a crummy apartement in Neriak that only contained a table, a mirror and a lamp. I didn’t even have a bed, since I couldn’t afford one. And I remember that it felt great.

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Let’s talk Free Realms, shall we?

So, the Free Realms NDA dropped last night – I found out just as I had written my last Twitter update for the evening, about to jump into bed. Luckily for me, the urge to play some Final Fantasy Tactics Advance 2 on my DS was stronger than staying up and writing about FR. Since then, a few people – such as Tipa and Stargrace – have had time to at least give some initial impressions of what might just turn out to be the MMO-equivalent of Harry Potter and Pokemon rolled into one (sorry, Wizard101).

So, yeah – here’s a screenshot.

I tried to make a character that looked a bit like me – or as I would’ve looked if I lived in a fairy tale, actually had any form of muscles and had the face of a cartoony male photo model. And yeah, ever wore shorts. Which I never do. And I currently have a mustache to go with the goatee, so he doesn’t really look like me at all.

Anyway, I digress. Let’s get down to the impressions instead, shall we?

First of all – the world in Free Realms, supported by the beautiful graphics, is awesome. I love it to bits. The design is great, thought through and consistent. I love the little details and it invites me to explore more of it. Yes, it does borrow, sometimes quite heavily, from World of Warcraft, but with a new sense of…style? Runes of Magic took a lot of inspiration from World of Warcraft as well, but where it failed to find a design language of its own (except for Varanas, which I really love) Free Realms does a much better job.

Free Realms is a MMO filled with mini-games, as most people already know – actually, from what I’ve seen so far, everything is a mini-game. Cooking, harvesting, cart driving…even the combat is a form of mini-game. I haven’t explored that much yet (I’ll get back to why later), but I have never been attacked by a random mob, instead it’s a matter of walking up to a monster and see what kind of combat-based mini-game is associated with it. If you’re used to dodging aggro in any other MMO it might feel a bit weird initially, and it might actually change at later stages in the game – feel free to comment below and correct me if I’m wrong here.

Now, from what I’ve seen, the mini-games will make or break Free Realms. One of the reasons why I haven’t really explored as much as I could have done is that I’m afraid that there will be a character wipe when beta ends. Runes of Magic never did that, launch for that particular game was more or less a patch and off we went, but that’s more of an exception than the norm. There probably will be a wipe at some point, either from closed to open beta or from beta to launch, and I am really worried about replayability. Right now there is one tutorial and one starting area – I’ve already quested and mini-gamed my way through them twice (both my SOE-accounts got flagged for the beta). I can’t really see myself doing it a third time…

With that said, the mini-games can be a lot of fun. The go-kart racing is great fun, even though it is mostly a more primitive version of Mario Kart. The combat is pretty standard so far, but I don’t have that many abilities to choose from yet so that might improve later. Cooking is probably the mini-game I enjoy the least, it did get old pretty fast, even though I can see myself getting hooked trying to finish off my various meals with as many bonus points as possible at some point in the future…

As much as I am enjoying Free Realms now, I do see a few problems with it. Leaving the whole “it’s a game for kids”-issue for now, I wonder if the game ever will actually give an incentive to get organized. Right now there is no guild functionality, it will be added around launch, but will there be a real reason to work together in a guild except for having a private chat channel? I am not talking about raiding here, of course not, I would just like to see what guilds actually can accomplish in a group. It is a MMO, after all.

Which leads me to my second issue – is it MMO enough or does it use too much instancing? Saylah (of Mystic Worlds) comments on this issue on Tipa’s blog entry linked above, saying that she “can’t count this as an MMO anymore than most people do GuildWars”. She also asks if that changes later in the game, which is a valid question related to what I wrote about the combat mini-games earlier. Instanced MMOs make me want to cry, so I’m hoping for a more open world at higher levels.

The final part of the puzzle for me is how the item shop is supposed to work when the game launches. It’s not available now, neither is the membership option. How will that be balanced with the rest of the game? If I don’t become a member, I will lose out on three of the game’s jobs, a bunch of mini-games and some quests. If I don’t spend money at the cash shop I can’t have a permanent pet. Becoming a member or not is all related to the two issues above (paying a monthly sub would mean actually playing enough to warrant a subscription), but if the item shop isn’t handled right I won’t even go near Free Realms again.

As of now, I’m cautiously optimistic. I really like Free Realms and would love to see it evolve – it’s only in closed beta, after all. I want to see my issues resolved in one way or another and I’d love to play it now and again for a long time. It might even be worth finally getting that SOE Station Access, since FR-membership will be included in that package. I’ll get back to Free Realms over and over again, most likely.

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Virtual worlds, massive multiplayer games and assorted ramblings

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