My first two hours in EQN Landmark

EQN Landmark character select

Sony Online Entertainment has an eventual winner on its hands with EverQuest Next: Landmark.

I know, I know. You've been burned by SOE in the past. Maybe you're still angry about the NGE, or maybe you're a Vanguard lifer and the wound is still fresh. Maybe you're even one of those goofballs who mistakenly thinks that internet spaceships plus PvP drama equals the only relevant MMO.

Whatever your bias, you should be excited for what Landmark represents if you're a sandbox fan.

EQN Landmark cactus

Yep, it's really an alpha

I bought into the game's alpha this weekend, and while I managed to play it for only a couple of hours, I needed only a couple of minutes to realize that I've more than likely found my next MMO home -- pending clarification of that Star Wars Galaxies spiritual successor thing, of course.

I don't know how Landmark is going to interface with EverQuest Next proper, and I don't know how questing, combat, or combat-focused progression will eventually work. But to be frank, I could not care less. Landmark is literally a set of virtual world building tools, and at the risk of outing myself as a fanboy before I've made it through my second paragraph, I will say it's almost as if SOE came to my house and said, "Jef, what sort of MMO would you like us to make?"

It's worth noting that this is a real alpha as opposed to one of those increasingly fashionable marketing beta things. Grouping isn't in yet. Neither is keybinding. I had to dial my graphic settings way down to get acceptable frame rates, and more often than not I found myself rubber-banding around the world and stutter-stepping off of sheer mountain ledges (fortunately dying isn't in yet, either).

EQN Landmark major wood

World vs. game

But that world! I'm sure you've seen some videos by now, but they don't really do the work of SOE's artists justice. And this is coming from someone who generally dislikes stylized visuals. I much prefer the environmental and avatar "realism" on display in games like Crysis, Star Citizen, Age of Conan, and so on. Landmark, on the other hand, takes a page from World of Warcraft's low-system-requirements book, but it manages it with a satisfying degree of subtlety that's absent from Blizzard's title as well as its in-your-face WildStar offspring.

So, gameplay. Do you like Minecraft? You'll love Landmark. And the reverse is true, too. If you're a combat/progression fiend or a fan of quest hubs, Landmark isn't your game. At least not yet. There is progression after a fashion, but it involves making better tools, gathering resources more efficiently, and most interestingly, acquiring more building abilities.

I guess you could call them skills, really, since they go on your hotbar and thus are activated by key presses in typical MMO fashion. But instead of Fireball1 or Icesheet2, you've got things like Add, Delete, and Heal. Instead of whittling away at a mob's health bar, you'll be using a suite of Photoshop-style actions to sculpt terrain, place stone blocks and round off their edges, and tunnel your way through a voxelized fantasy world scarfing up all of the wood, ore, minerals, sand, stone, and other scrumptious resources that you come across.

EQN Landmark mining

Gathering perfected

Other MMOs have attempted to make gathering fun, of course. I always enjoyed Vanguard's group harvesting mechanics, and more recently Final Fantasy XIV relaunched with several classes built entirely around pleasant resource-gathering minigames and featuring 50 levels of gathering-based progression.

But Landmark takes this to another level by allowing gatherers to literally change the world. It does heal over time outside of your personal claim area, but even temporary terraforming never gets old. That, coupled with my predilection for picking up MMO shinies, makes for some cripplingly addictive gameplay.

Early on in my alpha adventures, I found myself in the desert outside my claim, tapping away at a spot of copper. I kept digging and eventually widened out a sizable pit large enough for my avatar to climb into and stand erect. At the bottom of said pit I found the beginnings of a tin vein. So I started tapping at that too, filling up my resource inventory (mercifully separated from your regular inventory and bag space) before burrowing my way back toward my fledgling homestead.

EQN Landmark Jef avatar

Where's the crafting?

While I had a ton of fun with Landmark this weekend, it's certainly not a perfect MMO. How could it be, at such an early stage, right? My primary nitpick has to do with both the crafting process and its visual representation. For a game -- or at least part of a game, assuming this all ties in with EQN at some point -- that's focused on building stuff, the building process is disappointingly simple. Read your recipes, go out and acquire the necessary ingredients, then stand in front of a crafting station and push the button.

It works, and it ultimately leads to the game's reason-for-being, which is building structures and unleashing your inner fantasy architect on the open world. But I was expecting a crafting minigame with some depth to it like those found in EverQuest II and Vanguard. And maybe it's forthcoming. I certainly hope it didn't get sacrificed on the altar of accessibility, which would be particularly tragic here since the rest of the game is shaping up to be a creative's utopia.

Similarly, your character simply stands there during the one-button process, and once the progress bar fills up, voila, you've made your item. I know it's alpha, but I'd like to eventually see a whole bunch of animations here, again like EQII, Vanguard, Final Fantasy XIV, and a number of other crafting-centric MMOs that go the extra mile to immerse tradeskillers into their chosen vocations.

That aside, Landmark is an absurd amount of fun. I long ago lost patience with MMO alphas and betas, mainly because each new game was in fact the same old game, so why would I bother to test another tired take-two on mechanics popularized by themepark grinders like WoW and the original EverQuest? Landmark thankfully eschews all of that in favor of the player's imagination, and the result is a staggeringly ambitious virtual world of the type that MMOs exist to facilitate.

Massively's not big on scored reviews -- what use are those to ever-changing MMOs? That's why we bring you first impressions, previews, hands-on experiences, and even follow-up impressions for nearly every game we stumble across. First impressions count for a lot, but games evolve, so why shouldn't our opinions?