Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Chelsith Hotel : EQ2

Off we go, into the wild yellow yonder. Hmm. That doesn't scan very well, does it? It was how this morning started, nonetheless. Another short trip through the lurid yellow skies above the Danak Shipyard, another landing on the crown of the submerged iksar statue that serves as a marker for the entrance to Chelsith. We've been here before. So many times.

Ah, Chelsith. How we love to hate you. Once your sunken, cathedral-vaulted halls were whispered, feared, dreamed-of, dared by none but the greatest, the bravest, the hardiest of Norrath's adventurers. I still remember my first, terrifying trip there, when a single bad pull or missed add meant Evac or Wipe, usually Wipe. A Chelsith run back then required an evening cleared of other commitments and complete concentration for several hours.

That seems like such a very long time ago. Over the years the ancient Iksar city, now home to a tribe of deluded, worm-worshipping fishmen, slipped sadly down the ladder of respect. At the launch of the Kunark expansion Chelsith was cutting edge Heroic content but from there it followed the predictable path: playground for well-organized guild groups, then a suitable setting for PUGs to squabble around, then on downhill from there.

Now all I need is a really big frying-pan...
After the groups moved on, in came the confident duos and the powerleveling pros, knocking off instances for fun and profit, ticking Chelsith off their lists. There's nowhere left to go from there but solo and once a dungeon can be run safely and easily by one person who's ever going to take it seriously again?

It ought to mean perpetual obscurity, especially given its location not just at the back end of nowhere but at the back end of nowhere underwater, save for one thing : ever since it fell from grace with the Elite, Chelsith has been one of the go-to zones for fast leveling.

For some arcane reason presumably wrapped up in zone experience modifiers and other behind-the-scenes shenanigans, certain zones and dungeons in both remaining versions of Everquest offer much better experience than others. Better xp, I should say. The play experience, the fun or entertainment value if you will, frequently correlates poorly, if at all, with the practical reward.

When it comes to efficient power-leveling, whether it's been paid-for in advance or it's just among friends or, most commonly of all, by-the-bootstraps solo-molo, some of EQ2's huge, sprawling open dungeons manage to match amusement with satisfaction almost as well on the hundredth visit as the first. There's probably never going to come a time when another jaunt through Sebilis or Chardok won't sound like a jolly good wheeze.

Another trudge round Chelsith, though, that's a whole other story. There was a time when I'd very gladly never have seen the dripping, cavernous vaults ever again. So, why go there, then, if it's such a chore?

Aw, no, Boss! Not this place again...

Well, Tipa covered the reasons very thoroughly a while back. After Kunark, SOE turned the xp hose off. Post-Kunark, when you measure it in chunks, by far the biggest xp in EQ2 comes from quests. Complete a task for an NPC in Odus or Velious and he'll reward you with more xp than you could get from killing a dozen mobs or maybe even a hundred.

Now that shouldn't necessarily be such a problem. After all I like questing. I like to read or listen to all the dialog, follow the stories and think about the implications, perform a little mental practical criticism on the prose style, write a notional review of the performance in my head. I don't even object too violently to doing some of the better sequences a few times on different characters. 

The problem is this: quests take ages. Not only that: they can be pernickety. They often involve a lot of traveling, frequently backwards and forwards over the same ground, multiple times. You find yourself fiddling with gadgets and widgets and doohickeys, training animals and rookies to do things you could do better and faster yourself, escorting idiots who don't know how to look both ways before crossing an orc highway and generally taking about ten times longer to do anything than you anticipated.

Even with all the modern-day paraphernalia of glowing trails to follow, big blue spots on the map and the UI in general doing everything but teleport you to the exact spot, questing still takes f o r e v e r. And that's absolutely fine - the first time. But not on a double XP weekend with full vitality and a 110% xp potion burning.

Another old bootstrapping favorite

No, when your bonus to Kill XP is running at over 400% you don't want to mess around with quests, you just want to KILL! You want to kill fast and you want to kill often and you really don't want to find yourself running down the hallways of Sebilis fifty paces behind a level 95 Shadowknight and his lower-level sidekick as he proceeds to pull and AE every Iksar in the godforsaken place, leaving you with the odd chokidai pup if you're lucky.

So, instances it is. First off I tried the top solo power-leveling option the Dungeon Maker had to offer. Nearly a thousand "Likes", hundreds and hundreds of awards, flagged as "best solo xp" and available instantly at the click of a button. It wasn't bad either. Nicely paced, simple, no frills. There was no storyline whatsoever nor any attempt at one but the mobs were sensibly named and it didn't rub your nose in the desperation of the act.

The XP was crap though. I was on my 91st Beastlord (that's level 91 not the 91st beastlord I've played although that's not perhaps as unlikely as it ought to be). The mobs all scaled nicely. Most were the same level or a level above and towards the end a few came in conning orange. As I said, the whole thing was nicely judged but it took about fifteen minutes and gave about 18k XP, which barely moved the bar.

There was a recent bug, received with traditional hysteria on the official forums and reported on EQ2Wire with Feldon's usual sanguine equanimity, in which every mob in  every dungeon-maker dungeon was giving just one point of xp. Reading the comments thread there is instructive - apparently the Dungeon Maker is the preferred power-leveling route these days, at least up until level 90, at which point the way XP is calculated changes radically.

Nice lighting. Decor's a tad minimalist.
Well that's as may be but it didn't do anything for me, which is how a ratonga and his bear found themselves on the dock of Danak Shipyard a few minutes later. In the olden days that would have meant a bell followed by a few griffin rides or, for anyone lucky enough to have one, a few flaps of the Jarsath Hammer with its very handy teleport proc. Today it's a direct destination right there on the Freeport World Bell or, for those who can't bear the thought of even a few wasted seconds, a pay-by-SC option on the map itself.

None of this would have been necessary at all had SOE not played the Double XP card for the second weekend in a row. Boy, does that work on me. Even if I end up not logging in and taking advantage I have it in the back of my mind while I'm off in some other world, nagging away at me and making me not enjoy living in the moment the way I normally would.

Some argue that the very existence of improved XP as a reward or encouragement in MMOs is proof that the entertainment they offer is fatally flawed. After all, the logic goes, if you welcome the opportunity to spend less time on the activity then the activity must be unappealing. That logic is false. We welcome the opportunity to spend more time on the activity by compressing that activity so that we can do more of it in the same amount of time. Well, I do, anyway. Also, it's a bargain and everyone loves a bargain.

There's a particular reckless pleasure in seeing a lower-level character fly upwards as though being hauled on a rope.That's what I really like to do best when a double XP weekend rolls around - bang through thirty or forty levels on a new or barely-started character so fast it makes his nose bleed. Unfortunately, the higher levels in both Everquest and EQ2 are so abominably, attritionally slow that I feel compelled instead to grind away on those characters in most desperate need of a leg-up.

Since I'm playing neither game as my main MMO these days what tends to happen is that one or two of the high-level characters get one or two sessions each. Small but satisfying progress is made; another small step chipped in the mountain ahead of me. It's fun in itself but by no means is it the best fun I could be having. As an incentive to log in to an MMO I haven't played for a while, double XP definitely does the job. What it doesn't do is incentivize me to stay there for long after it goes away.

Still, getting me through the door is the hardest part. I just wish that once I was there I could find something as productive but more entertaining than Franklin Teek's Tasks or yet another lap of Chelsith. It's no wonder everyone hankers after starting fresh.

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