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The Game Archaeologist and the NeverEnding Quest: My expedition


Today I feel a little like Jake from The Blues Brothers, the Jake who, while on the defensive when confronted with his failings, comes up with a laundry list of excuses including earthquakes, flat tires, a lost tuxedo, a stolen car, floods and locusts: "It wasn't my fault, I swear to God!" Yup, Jake, I empathize.

After going through an excellent month of EverQuest on The Game Archaeologist here, I had every intention to marinate in old-fashioned EQ goodness for the very first time in my life. I set several evenings aside, put on my chainmail bikini and Viking hat, and told the computer to, I quote, "Bring it on."

Then the floods and locusts happened, in the form of a number of personal crises compounded by an unexpectedly difficult time just getting into the EverQuest Escape to Norrath unlimited trial. I don't know what's going on over at SOE, but the signup for this trial simply doesn't work. I followed the directions and downloaded the client, but the next screen (which contained the activation key) never appeared. It appears that I'm not alone dealing with this frustrating experience, but long story short, I eventually created a second account to just get the 14-day trial (instead of the unlimited one) to get in the game. By then I was down to just a mere two evenings of EverQuest trompings, which I knew would not be enough to satisfy the fans looking for an in-depth impressions of their favorite game.

So I have to throw myself on your mercy and tell you that I played it, but not nearly as much as I should've. That said, it definitely was an intriguing expedition from which I took away quite a few notes and during which I at least had the opportunity to get my feet wet. What is EverQuest like to an experienced MMO player who's coming to the game for the first time over a decade after it released? Hit the jump and let's see how far down this rabbit hole goes!

Hero wanted; must bring own sword

I honestly had no idea what to expect from EverQuest in 2011. I was partially cringing at the thought of dealing with outdated, obscure game mechanics while holding out hope that the past decade-plus of refinement has made the game more accessible for today's MMO gamer. And... it's a little bit of both. There's definitely a learning curve here, even if you've played dozens of MMOs, because EverQuest is most certainly a product of its generation. It didn't bend over backwards to become like World of Warcraft after WoW came out (unlike Star Wars Galaxies with its NGE overhaul or EverQuest II, which adopted WoW-like traits post-launch in spite of beating WoW to market by a month). Instead, EQ decided that old school charm is one of its biggest draws. So it is.

After watching loading screen with one of those loading bars that throws in humorous comments a la The Sims ("Looking up Barbarian kilts" was my favorite), I was dropped at the character creation screen and left to figure out what's what. EQ isn't a pretty game by today's standards, but it doesn't look as bad as I'd feared -- in fact, the character models seem to have the same number of polygons as WoW's original toons. You can make some pretty fugly characters (go Ogres!), but I decided to go with a Barbarian Beastlord. The intro asks you to assign a few stat points with no real direction as to what might be good for your character, and then *poof* -- you're in Norrath!

That's one small step for my avatar...

And this was my first sight of that magical world:

Arghh! The UI just threw up! Someone get a mop and clean this up, ASAP!

Seriously, that's a poor first impression -- scattered boxes all over the screen. Obviously, the first order of business was to sort and rearrange all of this to make it more like a standard MMO setup. It's not that hard to do, even with my vocal bellyaching; EverQuest's UI is remarkably flexible. After a quick trip to the keymapping section, I was off and running. (Bonus: My framerate was well over 170 FPS! This game should be very kind to older computers and laptops.)

Actually, the visuals are easy on the eyes -- I wasn't going cross-eyed from blurry pixelations at least (and they are definitely better-looking than what I saw in my recent stint in Anarchy Online). There's a nice atmosphere to the tutorial cave (in which you're one of a number of slaves who have revolted and are now milling around casually instead of fleeing for their lives), and I spent a while cruising about, checking out the lay of the land. The score was great, if a tad nonstop, evoking a high fantasy feel.

Still, while the graphics are decent, the animation is anything but. My character waddled while she ran as if she really, really needed to get to the little girl's room. And jumping? I've seen more graceful moves from a hippo doing ballet. Of course, jumping is one of the hardest animations to get right in any MMO, from my perspective, so I won't go too hard on EQ for this.

>Hail Vahlara!

This beginner area offers you a longer string of tutorials if you're still trying to figure the game out or a shortcut right to the main quests themselves, which I appreciated. I opted for the tutorials because not everything here is as intuitive as I wanted. That's the problem when you go to these older games from a newer perspective -- it's kind of like going to a foreign country where they do speak your language but everything's just enough off that you're not quite sure what the customs are or what you're missing.

That said, I just tried to enjoy EverQuest for what it was, not what I thought it should be in comparison to anything else. I was directed to go talk to a questgiver, but when I right-clicked on him, nothing happened other than a text blurb in my chat window saying that the NPC was perturbed at my rude poking. After a little bit, I remembered what I'd heard from some of the EQ vets, and I simply typed in "Hail" while targeting the guy. That got him talking, and before long I realized that you actually have to do a bit of typing when talking to NPCs as part of the conversation.

See, that to me is cool. It's very old school. It's kind of clunky compared to modern interfaces, but it's also surprisingly involving. After just talking to a couple of NPCs, I actually started to see them as characters instead of quest vendor machines that I was tagging as quickly as possible for the next hit.

There's a lot of this in EverQuest, these little touches that remind me of older RPGs that relied just as much upon text as they did on graphics. It's why I've always liked Dungeons & Dragons Online: The GM narrating your adventures adds to the atmosphere in a way that mere graphics and cutscenes cannot. Story and setting are important in MMOs and RPGs, because once you care about why you're doing something and where you're doing it at, you become more immersed in the quest.

A tutorial of pain

This isn't to say that my entire tutorial was spent in wide-eyed wonder as I sampled the fruits of a superior age. On the contrary, there was just as much to frustrate me as to delight. For example, when I leveled up, I naturally went over to my class trainer to see what new abilities I could add to, um, "Auto attack" and "Sit." While the trainer had a huge list of available spells, not all of them were for my class. I couldn't figure out what any of them did (later I discovered that you have to hold the right mouse-button down over an icon to get the tooltip to pop up), and I wasn't sure what I should buy. As a result, my Beastlord -- what I'd assumed to be a pet class -- has yet to obtain a beast. But she has a nifty dagger, so there's that!

The tutorial also fails to properly cover all of the bases. Listen, if a player is opting to learn all of the basics of your game, then these basics shouldn't be glossed over in a rapid succession of NPCs. I was given a spell and vague instructions for scribing and equipping it, but the NPC never told me where to get more or what the spell did. One NPC told me to equip a piece of armor and then respond to her conversation in the chat box, but there was no indication of what I should type in response. I ended up having to alt-tab out quite a few times to look up answers to these questions and more, all the while feeling as though SOE should have this newbie experience as smooth as butter by now.

The rats were asking for it, though

And wouldn't you know it, my very first combat quest was to head off and kill a group of rats. I wasn't sure whether this was deliberately kitsch or a throwback to an RPG staple or how EQ always has been. But in today's world, asking a gamer to kill rats is just opening your game up for mild mockery.

While I'm sure it gets better -- it has to, really -- newbie combat is beyond boring in EverQuest. Target the foe, toggle auto-attack, alt-tab out to read the news for a few minutes. Again, the animations aren't trying to impress (or even sync up), so to see my Barbarian take a half-hearted swipe every five seconds while the rat just sat there looking adorable wasn't going to compete with Saturday morning cartoons for my interest. To make matters worse, looting is clumsy: You actually have to type "loot" (again, nothing the game told me, so thank you internet for the answer!) and then transfer items one at a time over to your inventory. Was there a faster way? Perhaps, but I didn't find it.

These parts of the game illustrate how games like City of Heroes, World of Warcraft and the rest definitely streamlined some of these clunky, dull mechanics. We often complain that we've lost a lot of the best part of MMOs over the years, but I think we've gained quite a bit too.

I still have a ways to explore in EQ, and I'm certainly not done with my adventures in Norrath. If I had picked this up in 1999 or so, I think the younger me would've been bowled over by the possibilities and potential of not just MMOs in general but this one in particular.

Today I see it as a trade-off between the silky-smooth presentation of modern MMOs versus the enormous wealth of content and history that EQ contains. Winning over new converts may be an uphill battle for SOE -- and perhaps the company is content to just maintain its current subscriber base -- but those looking to explore history and see a different, if not completely alien, type of MMO could be delighted with what they find here.

Next month: PlanetSide!

The results of last week's poll are in, and 21.5% of you voted for PlanetSide to be the focus of February's column. So strap in -- we're going from fantasy to the future in one quick week!

When not clawing his eyes out at the atrocious state of general chat channels, Justin "Syp" Olivetti pulls out his history textbook for a lecture or two on the good ol' days of MMOs in The Game Archaeologist. You can contact him via email at or through his gaming blog, Bio Break.

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