Friday, 15 May 2015

We Got Game! : Landmark

It was around fifteen months ago that those of us willing to stump up real money for the opportunity got our first hands-on experience with Landmark. Back then it still went by its full, unwieldy and, as it turned out, misleading title: EverQuest Next: Landmark.

The launch blew up into kind of a big deal, mostly on the back of the enormous hype around EQNext that SOE had whipped up back in the summer and successfully kept on the boil thereafter. No-one was quite sure what they'd let themselves in for but Landmark was A Thing, you could buy a Founder's Pack and play it and people did. In their tens of thousands. Even though it was nothing more than the alpha test for a game that would eventually be Free to Play. Not that there's anything remotely unusual about that. Not any more...

The new world. It's busy but I still had no trouble finding a really gorgeous waterfront lot.

In what must have been the marketing department's dream and the design team's nightmare, all the news was about the numbers: would-be homemakers wandered the beautiful new lands that might or might not be Norrath, looking for somewhere, anywhere to stake a claim.  New servers opened in clusters just to accommodate the exceptional demand. It was the kind of publicity money can't buy and best of all SOE didn't have to: their players were the ones paying for it.

The NDA was dropped, stunning screenshots and breathless excitement splurged across the interwebs and all was right in the land of SOE for a while. Oh, there were a few people, the kind who don't even read the large print below the headlines let alone the small print in the terms and conditions, who complained that they thought they'd bought, y'know, a game and, like, where was it? There were even a few who imagined they'd bought EQNext. It is to laugh.

Tower courtesy the Norrath branch of Ikea. Wait...is this Norrath? I'm kinda unclear on that, still...

Those people all got refunds if they asked, though, so it was all good. The naysayers left and the rest of us got on with digging and building and generally having just a whale of a good old time. Only as the weeks turned into months and alpha turned into closed beta some of us began to wonder if those pleasure-deniers might not have had a point after all. Where was the game, indeed?

The servers emptied out. Upkeep went unpaid, claims vanished, much of the tamed land went back to nature. Mentions in gaming news and across the blogosphere grew thin. SOE's interests seemed to have moved on to zombie survival sandboxes and elsewhere. Then one day there wasn't even an SOE any more. Other than Massively OP's ultra-loyalist M.J. Guthrie, who even remembered Landmark was still there?

The new Deciduous biome: Ascalon in Norrath. Or, wait...Oh, let's not start that again...

And then, last week, it all started up again. Well, kind of. Landmark die-hards have long been expecting, craving even, their own Year Zero and it's finally arrived. There was a complete claim and character wipe, the servers came down for a couple of days and when they came back up everything had changed, from the number of servers (down to four) to the names and geography of the islands. It's quite literally a whole new world.

I wasn't one of those who'd forgotten about Landmark entirely. I've been paying distracted and sporadic attention, visiting the forums now and then, reading the very occasional news squib, wondering idly whether to patch the thing up and log in but always finding some reason to do something else instead. It didn't help that a while back Landmark started to run like a drunken pig on my five-year old PC, making even moving from one place to another feel onerous and tiring.

I hope my neighbors aren't pirates.

Even though I hadn't forgotten about Landmark I probably wouldn't have taken the trouble to make a new character and start over again from scratch right now had it not been for the enthusiasm of those who just did. Kaozz, who has a machine that can run the thing properly, posted some stunning screenshots. Aywren gave a great account of the way the whole experience has changed. MJ at MassivelyOP, for once, came over as the negative Nelly (her words!) and yet even her reservations made the game sound more interesting than it had for a long, long while.

In fact they all made it sound as though there might, at last, be a game there after all. So last night after I finished my dailies in GW2 I patched up, remade my character (with hair this time) and logged in. In just a few minutes I was feeling tired. I looked at the clock and  it was three hours later and one o'clock in the morning. Been a long time since that happened...

You can just make me out in the middle there, doing a rather fine Australian Crawl.

I was going to go through the whole new new player experience, chapter and verse:

  • How the new islands are so much better in shape, design, names and geography
  • How the sheer choice of landscape and location turns picking a place to settle into a deliciously difficult decision
  • How there are now things to do right from the moment you log in that create a feeling of progression and development that was often absent before
  • How many of the roadblocks to fun have vanished
  • How having a ready-made, attractive home all ready and waiting to be placed really roots you in the world from the start
  • How, in short, Landmark has finally begun to feel more like a game and less like a toolset

I was going to do that, but it would have been redundant. Aywren already covered everything in the piece I linked above. Go read it if you didn't already! Meanwhile, I'll just quote her conclusion, with which I wholeheartedly agree:

 "Overall, I feel this patch has made Landmark much more accessible to the general player".

About the only thing she forgot to mention was how fantastic the swimming is!

Come on in! The water's fine. In fact it's the best I've ever seen.

But don't run away with the idea this is job done for Daybreak Games. They still have a lot of work to do. As longtimers have said on the forums, Landmark isn't even ready for Open Beta yet. It does, however, at least feel like a real Closed Beta for something that might turn into an entertaining and worthwhile MMO some day. We're not in alpha any more, which for most of the year-long supposed "closed beta" until now, we might just as well have been.

Zubon has thought-provoking piece up about the difference between compelling and entertaining content. I have always found Landmark compelling - that voxel building is like virtual crack - but I was never sure whether I found it entertaining. It's often been hard to tell whether I've been spending time profitably in Landmark or just wasting it. The jury is still out on that one but the evidence is looking a lot more stacked in favor of a positive verdict than ever before.

I'm going to need a lot of planks. Maybe I should just get a rubber horsie.

Best of all the three hours I spent there last night made me feel optimistic for EQNext all over again. Landmark offers a useable interface, a non-alienating approach, a manageable hybrid between traditional MMO gameplay and console-friendly action gaming. I'll have to buy a new PC to run it properly but by the time EQN arrives I'm going to need one anyway.

And now, if you'll pardon me, I have a jetty I want to be getting on with. Can't really have a lakeside home without one, can you?

6 comments:

  1. Thank you so much for your kind mentions of my Landmark article! I'm glad you're finding the game much more interesting - I am, too!

    I haven't tried swimming yet! That was one of those things that got patched in while the game was impossible for me to play due to performance, and I semi-forgot it existed. Seeing I live on an island, I'll have to try that tonight! :)

    I also need to make a boat for my island and clean up some of the landscape around my little villa and make some furniture and explore the caves and... ^_~

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    1. Performance is still a big issue in LM. It has improved - it had gotten to the point where it was unplayable for me - but it's still sluggish. A lot of the building controls still seem to be unintuitive and awkward as well. I explored for a couple of hours today, though, and had fun. There's a lot of room for improvement but at least its visibly heading in the right direction at last.

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    2. I had the same problem with Landmark since they put in caves and water. The performance was so bad that it was unplayable for me, and it was really frustrating because I felt I missed out on a lot of the big changes the game was going through at the time (which I was really interested in). It's better, as you said, but still has a long way to go!

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  2. I updated it last night but thankfully didn't start. The Crack effect was always strong with this game.

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    1. Reading back some of my old LM posts while working on today's I noticed I have always had a bit of an issue over the way time just disappears while playing it. Going to have to be very careful this time I think.

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  3. It's probably been over a year since i set foot in LM. Perhaps i'll take another swing.

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