A couple of events this past week brought my mind back to a subject I have pondered off and on since EverQuest II's standalone expansion Age of Discovery launched back in December 2011. The first came when a Massively TV viewer expressed amazement at how our little group could decimate the triple-up heroics (a con system designation meaning hard) in a dungeon. The second came when a colleague was lamenting the difficulty of finding a group to get into a dungeon. How are these two situations tied to Age of Discovery? By the tethers of mercenaries.
Mercenaries, or mercs as they are more generally referred to, are available to all players who have purchased that particular expansion regardless of their level. Plenty of Norrathians, including me, are running around with these for-hire companions. But the question on my mind is, are mercenaries a boon or a bane to EQII? The answer depends heavily on your playstyle.
Let's say there is a young Warden (or Necromancer or Conjurer or whatever) out there named Daniel. And while Daniel loves to play the rich and interesting content available in MMORPGs, he's not keen on the whole multiplayer aspect of it; whether burned one too many times in the past by colossal jerks or just solitary by nature, Daniel prefers to forego the grouping experience and have just solo adventures. There's absolutely nothing wrong with this personal gaming choice, but Daniel might find that certain content is locked away from him or that the solo road has some very rough spots that are hard to pass. And this might make Daniel sad that feel he is missing out.
Enter the mercs. For our theoretical Daniel, mercenaries are definitely a boon. By giving this player an instant groupmate (one who happens to be wicked powerful), the game opens up a whole realm of new content, from dungeons to Heritage Quests. True, this companion has to be paid every 30 minutes in order to stick around, but since the price scales with player's level, anyone can afford it. And if you were worried about those roadblocks of high-conned mobs on your leveling path, don't be: Mercs pack such a punch that little can stand in their way.
If you are wondering just how powerful a mercenary is, check out this example of two Furies and their respective mercenaries taking on the dungeon of triple-up heroics mentioned previously:
As you can see, I don't even have enough time to pan the camera around to the boss to show the audience before it dies! Truly, the mercs are a boon to those who either can't get a full group for whatever reason (time of day, old content, etc.) or who just plain don't want to. As an added bonus, you can even send a merc off to fight a mob for you while you just gather or collect a shiny!
I feel I really need to add this disclaimer, though: While mercs are very helpful in group situations, they are not helpful in raids. Anyone familiar with EverQuest Two-sday livestreams know that the mercs often have minds of their own, randomly running off into the sunset if not kept on a very tight leash. Also, there is no way to control when a merc uses a skill, which can end up being pretty detrimental to a party. You know what I mean if you've ever had your healer merc spam cures while your health plummets and death ensues. A player would know to stop and offer a heal and then resume cures, but the merc relies only on AI programming that cannot be altered.
The villainous Bane
While being beneficial to the solo crowd, mercenaries appear to have the unintended detrimental side effect of squashing group play. Groups, which are not easy to find in EverQuest II if you don't have a guild or a pool of close friends to pull from (and don't even get me started on the so-called group finder!), appear even more scarce now. Why? Because people no longer need help to complete content that was otherwise locked to them without a group. And that is major suckage for all those who prefer to group up. Players like yours truly!
Now I am not saying that players have to be social in an MMO; after all, you paid for the game (AoD is not a part of free-to-play), so you play it how you like -- barring ToS violations, of course. But there's no denying that a big part of why some people are drawn to the genre is to actually interact with those massive numbers of players. And a major vehicle to accomplishing that is grouping up, whether one absolutely has to or not. Mercenaries, those easy-to-access AI super groupmates, are certainly a bane to this population.
That's not to say that those who like to group hate mercs. On the contrary, we use them too! It's the fact that taking the need away from grouping has resulted in folks defaulting to not grouping that's disheartening. Having a feature tighten the thumbscrews on an already ailing mechanic integral to the enjoyment of a large portion of the population is cruel -- Cruella de Vil-skinning-puppies-for-a-fur-coat cruel!
Mercenaries are definitely a mixed blessing in EQII. When Age of Discovery first hit live servers, my initial impression was that mercs could supplement a party. Instead, they seem to have replaced parties. While I'd thought, "Great! Now soloers have a companion to help and groups can fill in a last slot or two. It's a plus for both sides," I've come to realize that this balanced ideal was not to be.
Since the mercenaries themselves are simply much tougher and more powerful than players (especially if you get the Shadowknight), and since they can't ninja loot, make offensive and stupid remarks, or inexplicably go AFK or offline in the middle of a fight, they're regarded as more ideal than live players. So general leveling content is easier and can be done on your own terms with just a merc.
When it comes to grouping, however, the mercs are more of a liability. They are unpredictable at times (not unlike some players!) and unable to react to situations with the forethought and cunning of an actual player, so their placement in larger groups is often too risky, especially in key positions like healer or tank. So do people ditch mercs and seek out all real party members? Not necessarily; the solution appears to be to forego other players in favor of mercs and just become a soloer.
Overall, mercs are great news for those who never did like grouping or always had a really hard time finding a team, but they're bad news for those still hoping to do things in the company of fellow players. I still believe that mercenaries can be a great supplement, but as happens all too often in life, many people fall into just doing things the easy way. And in this case, that means calling up a merc on demand instead of seeking out fellows for a group.
What about you, dear readers -- what are your thoughts on mercenaries? Do you use them reluctantly, rely on them, wish they would actually RP with you so you wouldn't need other players at all? Add your thoughts in the comments below.
EverQuest II is so big that sometimes MJ Guthrie gets lost in it all. Join her as she explores Norrathian nooks and crannies from the Overrealm to Timorous Deep. Running every other Saturday, The Tattered Notebook is your resource for all things EQII and EQNext -- and catch MJ every 'EverQuest Two-sday' on Massively TV!