Of course, Everquest zones have always been fluid. Splitpaw has changed ownership and level range several times over the years. Firiona Vie went from the primary good-aligned elven outpost on Kunark to a dark elf stronghold of evil. Kerra Ridge, Kithicor Forest, Grobb and plenty more besides have suffered their invasions and revolutions over the years. Norrath has always been a living world.
Then there was the long-running series of graphical revamps. Some, like the one that destroyed the ramshackle charm of Freeport to replace it with a bewildering concrete wilderness, ever afterwards shunned by all, were devastatingly ill-judged. Others, Nektulos Forest, for example, weren't terrible, although come to think of it, it did take two passes to get that one right. It's even possible, whisper it softly, I might prefer the new version of Oasis.
In the end, though, few contemporary or former players appreciated the graphical re-envisionings, while many complained about the violation of their misty, blood-soaked memories. Changes that put different, usually higher level, mobs in existing zones tended to be better received but even that risked complaints from those who felt disenfranchised by the new order.
The current orthodoxy is a much safer bet all round. Instead of altering existing zones and risking trampling on tender emotions, how much better to slide an altered copy of the zone in alongside the unaltered old one. Or, more practically, slap down a portal to an alternate version of reality.
EQ2 has The Ethernere, in which, to quote the Wiki, "Every area of Norrath has its own home". Everquest has The Void. You'll pardon me if I'm vague on the lore here. Nearly fifteen years and I have only the fuzziest idea what's going on. I believe there are storylines. I know Zebuxoruk has something to do with one of them. Not being a high-end raider, however, most of the finer details have passed me by.
Whatever the supposed reason, with the aid of a few color filters, usually green, and some very dim lighting, developers are able to re-use existing zone layouts and get away it it handsomely. I'd like to think I do know an old favorite when I see it, even when it's heavily disguised. Eventually. If someone gives me a hint.
Even before I took SOE's shilling for a free level 85 I'd spent a fair while in Oceangreen Hills. It was one of the better places for my level 84 Beastlord to struggle through her daily, thirty-minute, veteran double xp "lesson". At one level higher but, crucially, with a storming pet and a complete set of level-appropriate gear, however, Oceangreen became my magician's private playground.
So, Oceangreen is Qeynos Hills and what would Qeynos Hills be without Blackburrow? Quiet, peaceful, safe...let's not go there.
The entrance to Old Blackburrow looks very similar to the old Blackburrow entrance but with one major difference. These gnolls know how to lock a door. The high-level version that abuts Oceangreen (not to be confused with the high-level version of the original zone, known as Reinforced Blackburrow, which occasionally appears during various special events as a treat for higher level players and a damned nuisance for everyone else) requires an access quest.
I like access quests provided they're reasonably short and not too complicated. This one fits the bill perfectly. Bracka, a Darkpaw Gnoll in a camp that's carefully hidden, right at the far end of Oceangreen, well out of sight of Old Blackburrow, explains the sorry plight of her clan: bigger gnolls
Despite the fact that I've been roaming round the edge of Bracka's camp for weeks, indiscriminately murdering his kinfolk whenever I'm a few kills short of the next percentage point on my xp bar, he asks me if I'd like to help them out in their eternity of need. Go kill some Blackburrow gnolls he suggests, although he seems a little muddled on just how many. Looking at my journal I think the quest got a difficulty pass in my favor somewhere along the line but whichever dev retuned it on his lunchbreak didn't quite get all the numbers lined up.
Whatever. It's killing gnolls. Who cares how many? Off to the slaughter we go, my merry little band: magician, mercenary and elemental.
With Bracka's quest as a passkey we slip through the door and inside we find...Blackburrow! It's exactly the same only better-looking. The tunnel that proved, so many times, just those few desperate yards too long; the old hollow tree that nearly made me quit for good a few weeks after I began, when I fell down the concealed trap and couldn't get my body back; the long ramp down to the yipping, howling, gnollish depths; the rope bridges, the underground lake... everything's just as it ought to be.
In no time and the classic fashion I've cleared my
Seeing the word "elite" in the quest description makes me jump to conclusions. I head to the old Elite ledge. I remember when I was in awe of the groups that would set up on that terrifying slab, huddling in the corner, medding up to beat the respawns in their search for the elusive Studded Leather Collar and the even more elusive "great xp".
In Old Blackburrow, it seems, there are no Elite guards. Their place has been taken by slavers, four or five of them with just the one slave. Wouldn't you guess it, he wants to be rescued, and wouldn't you guess it, I'm naive enough to agree.
I'm not quite so naive as to jump in to save him, when I see that instead of stopping in the traditional manner to get himself killed by attacking the first gnoll he passes, my escortee is blithely strolling up the ramp, gathering outraged gnolls like a labrador picks up burrs.
Outside in Oceangreen, with the merc giving me dirty looks as she heals us all back to full health, I ruminate on how fortunate it is that no-one else chose to visit Old Blackburrow today. I'm so out of practice I forgot to yell "Train to zone!"
Returning under the umbrella of permanent invisibility (all very well until I run into one of the handful of undead gnolls scattered around the tunnels) I decide to take a voluntary dive down the old tree trap. Some extensive exploration and a few scuffles later I find the "elite" gnolls standing idly around the shores of the underground lake. None of them even has the grace to carry a fishing pole.
Forewarned of their dangerous nature (as opposed to the puppyish exuberance of the couple of dozen of lesser gnolls I've had to polish off to get here, presumably) I approach cautiously. They do have very nice armor and a ferocious demeanor but they aren't that tough, at least not when you chain-stun them and set them on fire. Still, I wouldn't fancy a runner much and they take a bit of knocking down after they turn at 10% health, so after the second one almost makes it to a bunch of his friends I do something I haven't done for a long, long time. I return to the spawn of the first one I killed and camp his replacement.
Boy, that brings back memories. I never did like camping stuff much. I had a two-spawn limit for most drops - if I hadn't got what I came for in three kills I'd move on. Didn't get much I wanted that way but I did get to keep my sanity. After years and years of more modern MMOs, where a slow spawn means having to wait more than a minute, the quarter-hour passes slowly. Not sure that's a piece of golden age gameplay I want to see make a comeback.
Time will pass though and at least I only needed a kill not a psuedo-rng-cursed drop. With all my boxes ticked, a quick trip back to Bracka and there I am, flagged to enter Old Blackburrow any time I like.
I will be going back but only for the fun of roaming the old place again (or the Old old place, should I say). I certainly won't be going there for the experience. Ninety minutes I was in that dungeon and I made 1% of the level, including the xp I got for the quest hand-in! The money wasn't up to much either. Killing gnolls just never gets old though so everything evens out.
When SOE announces the details of the forthcoming expansions for Everquest and EQ2 at SOELive this week I'll be neither surprised nor disappointed if we learn that more re-purposed zones are on the way. I've always had a strong curiosity for remakes of favorite movies. It's fascinating to see familiar things from a different angle and when that curiosity's been satisfied I can settle back and enjoy the original with renewed appreciation.
This way of doing things seems, finally, to offer the best of both worlds, the old and the new, the future and the past, even if we're not quite sure, existentially, which is which. Either way, it certainly beats giving the Karanas a makeover like The Commonlands got, that's for sure.