Second Wind: EverQuest II, part one

Screenshot -- EverQuest II

Oh, Norrath. I don't know what it is about you, but for some reason I just can't stay away. I probably fell in love with the setting in the early 2000s, when I took my first (somewhat) serious dive into the original EverQuest. In my eyes, it's the quintessential high-fantasy universe when it comes to MMOs, and every time I'm eyeing my bookcase and I catch sight of my Planes of Power instruction manual, I get this strange urge to have another visit. But for this edition of Second Wind, I figured I'd take a look at the other Norrath instead.

Let me tell you something about EverQuest II that I quickly discovered: It is absolutely immense. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that it's, in many ways, overwhelming. I imagine I could spend 25, 50, even 100 hours with this game and still feel as if I had only dipped my toes into the sea. That aside, I'm still brimming with things I'd like to talk about, so how about joining me after the cut?

Let's start things off by establishing a bit of perspective. EverQuest II first hit the scene back in November of 2004, meaning that the game will be nine years old later this year. It's been around the block more than a few times, it has nine expansions to its name, and it survived the transition from a subscription model to free-to-play. My point is, EverQuest II is not a new game. This is why it was such a pleasant surprise to discover that the game has kept up with the times remarkably well.

Unlike certain other almost-a-decade-old games, EQII feels surprisingly modern for a game of its age, largely thanks to the fact that it hasn't neglected many "convenience" features that players have come to expect (including automatic bag sorting, which is something even more recent titles tend to lack). Of course, it sometimes goes against intuition by omitting small features that I figured had to be standard by now, such as the ability to deposit/withdraw items to and from the bank by right-clicking them. Not a game-ruiner, but still kind of frustrating.

Screenshot -- EverQuest II

And that's not to say that the UI is perfect because it's certainly not. There's a whole lot of clutter going on in the game's UI, mostly because it seems to be trying to cram an incredible amount of information into as little space as possible. And man, there's a lot of information to take in. You've got your basic (and not-so-basic) stats, your alternate advancement lines, your race-specific progression options, and dozens of other details to consider. It is, as I said before, quite overwhelming. I'm not saying that's a bad thing, necessarily, but for a new player (or heaven forbid, someone new to MMOs entirely), I could see the information overload becoming quite an obstacle to overcome.

Graphically, the game has aged fairly well, though it's unmistakably dated. Animations can be stiff and puppet-like (the sprint animation comes to mind, which is literally just the usual running animation played at comically high speed), and ability effects are often underwhelming and indistinct from one another. I didn't take part in any PvP, but I feel I'd have a great deal of trouble distinguishing incoming attacks based on their animations alone. The environments are fairly nice to look at, though, despite the occasional over-use of light bloom effects.

The character models can vary in quality from quite good to passable, but I think the game's weapon and armor designs deserve special mention. Even at lower levels, the armor I earned from quests actually looked rather stylish. I'm a big fan of pragmatically designed equipment in MMOs, and -- though this may not be true at higher levels -- I didn't see any ridiculously oversized swords or comically large pauldrons. It was a welcome change to say the least.

I would argue that EverQuest II falls squarely into the themepark side of the MMO spectrum, so you can expect a great deal of your time in-game to be spent questing. As questing systems go, EQII's is decidedly mediocre. There's nothing particularly horrible about it, but there's nothing special here either. Questing is your typical kill X, gather Y, report to Z style of hub-to-hub progression, and it works just fine. To the game's credit, I didn't find a single escort quest during my playtime, and that can only be a good thing in my books.



will say that the devs made some questionable choices in regard to quest flow. On more than one occasion I was given a quest that was recommended for, let's say, level 15. Upon completion of said quest, I'd be given a follow-up quest with a recommended level of 13, only for the follow-up to that quest to be level 16. It's not game-breaking by any means, but it resulted in more than a little head-scratching and wondering if I'd mucked something up along the way (and let's be honest, I probably did).

Regardless of some quirks with the game's quest layout, EQII has its progression system down to a science. As in many other MMOs, the levels come quickly at first before tapering off to a slower rate. The genius of EverQuest II's progression system comes in the form of alternate advancement. For those of you who haven't played EQII (or other games with similar systems), it works like this: Every time you gain experience, a percentage of that experience (in EQII it's 50% by default, though players can set it higher or lower as they prefer) is converted into alternate advancement (or AA) experience. You gain AA levels in the same way as standard character levels, and with each AA level you're granted an AA point that can be placed in one of many alternate advancement talent trees in order to further customize your character.

The reason this is genius is that AA levels operate as a sort of "mini-ding" (not to be confused with the EQII feature of the same name, which replenishes your health and mana when you fill up a bubble on your experience bar), so even though you might be only a quarter of the way to your next character level, the constant gain of AA points provides a frequent enough sense of accomplishment to keep players saying, "OK, just a few more quests."

Screenshot -- EverQuest II

Now, how about combat? Well, I don't really know what to tell you because anyone who has played an MMO in the last decade knows exactly what to expect from EQII's combat system. You target a mob and hit your hotkey rotation until one of you is dead. Anyone looking for a more dynamic take on combat should look elsewhere. That's not to say that EQII's combat is bad; it's just standard.

One thing I will say is that the game really piles on the abilities. As low as level 16, my character (an adorable Fae Illusionist) had no less than 20 abilities, roughly four or five of which I used over the course of any given fight. Of course, about 10 levels later I had only slightly more than that, due to most of the new abilities I gained in that time being upgraded versions of older abilities. So I guess my criticism here is that the game frontloads all of the abilities which is a bit -- here's that word again -- overwhelming.

I am not amused.

Before I wrap this up, I have to take one second to praise EQII for the many roleplaying features it boasts. In addition to having what is probably the best housing (and guild housing) system in any MMO (sorry, RIFT), EQII takes things a step further for its roleplaying devotees. For starters, there's a built-in biography option, allowing players to write up their character's history for everyone to see, no add-on required. Then there are the player-generated dungeons, which allow players to set their own challenges and tell their own stories within the world of Norrath.

Finally, for the truly hardcore, EQII boasts features such as SOEmote, which is responsible for some of the lovely facial expressions my character is sporting in this post's screenshots. Essentially it's face-tracking software that works through your webcam, allowing your real-world expression to be seen on your character in-game. On top of that, there are even voice filters for those who want to really get in-character. As RP potential in MMOs is concerned, EQII is pretty close to the top of the list.

Now I'm sure by now you've noticed that you're nearing the end of this piece and I've yet to even touch the subjects of dungeons, crafting, and... well, any number of other things. And you're absolutely right. There's far more to EQII than I can touch on (even in the most basic of terms) in a single article, so this one is going to be a two-parter. Next time around, I'll be digging a bit deeper into the meat of EQII to see what treasures await. But until that time comes, here's my take-away from my time so far: EverQuest II is a massive game with a mind-numbing breadth of content. That breadth of content may scare some players off because it can quickly become overwhelming, but those willing to dive in head-first will find a deep and ultimately rewarding game waiting for them.

MMOs are constantly changing, and our opinions can change with them. That's why we're here to give some beloved (or not) games a second (or third) look. Has that game that was a wreck at launch finally pulled itself together? How do the hits of yesteryear hold up today? That's what we're here to find out as Massively gets its Second Wind!