Over the long, hard decade since that brief fight was fought and lost an enormous amount of work has been done to retool and reshape EQ2 into a very different offering from its much more successful competitor. For my money, and I've been a subscriber since launch, the huge majority of those changes and innovations have been all to the good. I play the current game and I'm very happy with what's on offer there.
As a subscriber, when the subscription-required Time Limited Expansion (TLE) servers launched I was planning on popping in, running around for a while, enjoying the fresh New Server smell then logging off, never to return. At character creation I even had a wild fantasy of rolling on the open PvP server, Deathtoll. That lasted about five seconds before I settled on yet another good old PvE plod.
|I spy with my little eye something beginning with L. Yes there is. Look up.|
I know there shouldn't be. But there it is.
The surprise return of The Far Journey and The Isle of Refuge carried me through a couple of sessions but I was still expecting to quit soon after my SK landed in Freeport. Only that didn't happen. Somehow, there I was, renting a room at The Jade Tiger, putting down my free table and bulletin board, then running out toThe Graveyard for a seemingly endless questline given by one of The Overlord's many impossibly verbose henchmen.
After that I found myself killing Brokenskull Pawns in the Ruins and ghostly pirates in Sunken City...on and on it went. Another session, in The Commonlands now, fetching ingredients for Mooshga's dubious dishes, killing more orcs from a different clan, culling armadillos, wild dogs and wisps. I've been all through Thieve's Way and down into The Decrepit Crypt. I've soloed thirty ghostly orcs at the start of Wailing Caves and picked up my Doom Stick from Cog Burn.
|12 SK LFG. Oh, wait..SK..belay that, I'll just solo it.|
I've gathered and mined and fished because, and I can scarcely believe I'm saying this, I'm crafting again. Yes, crafting. Let me tell you about the crafting. I ran all the way from Freeport to Qeynos just to use the World Bell on the Antonica Dock to get to Halas just to do the Tier 2 crafting questline.
It's a long run but it was worth it. After most of Tuesday spent in EQ2 my Shadowknight sits at level 15 with a Scholar level to match. He's going to be an Alchemist when he turns 20 so he can at least keep his spells and combat arts up to scratch. And he's going to get to 20, too.
Why? Why is this server getting traction with me that none of the three iterations of EQ nostalgia ever did? That's very easy to explain. Stormhold, the PvE server, isn't really about nostalgia at all.
|That rhino is definitely not "vanilla".|
Leave aside the ancient boat ride and the revived Isle (both of which, I'm pretty sure, will soon become starting options on the regular servers) Stormhold really isn't much different from a Live server. The main changes are in pace and population.
Because of the hype and because of the chance for a new start there are a lot of people playing. The world feels vibrant and busy and bustling. That would - does happen with any new server but because of the specific TLE ruleset here it's especially effective. With only the base game available the options to spread out and get away from each other are limited. Without access to public teleports and flying or hyper-fast mounts the world is filled with people traveling.
|You missed a memo, Kurdek.|
When I wanted to go to Halas I had a choice: find a Druid or a Wizard to take me (and there are a few advertizing their services) or run it myself. I chose to run and it was fun and easy. I died just once, trying to bull my way past a pack of Level 24 wolves milling around the path in Nektulos Forest. I was level 13 and they made very short work of me but I revived a hundred meters away with nothing worse than a little xp debt that took just a couple of Discoveries to clear as I ran on again.
In 2004-5 the trip from Freeport to Qeynos via Nektulos Forest was notorious, especially at low level. Fish flew above the river, firebats nuked you from the sky, everything was aggressive and it all chased you forever. When you died (and it was always when, not if) you picked up huge xp debt that took an age to clear. It was a trial, a rite of passage, in so many ways. On Stormhold it takes a while but it's a pleasant jaunt.
|I took the scenic route. Hey, my time's my own...|
What the TLE ruleset has achieved doesn't have as much to do with nostalgia as it does with returning the game to a pace that feels natural, somewhere that rests very happily between the attrition of the first year after launch and the Benny Hill chase of leveling on Live in 2015.
Live, of course, has to be where it is. Over the years, as the level cap recedes beyond the horizon of a new player, XP gain in the Live game has been tuned up and up in everything but "current" content so that fresh starters and alts can catch up. Heroic characters allow you to begin at level 90 and Mercenaries replace the other players who no longer exist to fill out groups in the 20s and thirties (or indeed the 70s and 80s).
On Stormhold, for the while, it's not like that and it doesn't need to be. Everyone is moving and progressing at a relatively stately pace but don't kid yourself it's anything like it was Back In The Day. Compared to 2004-5 this is still EQ2 on speed and your character is on steroids. In 2005 I would not have been pulling four or five yellow-con mobs at once and coming out last rat standing. I wouldn't have been soloing my way through The Decrepit Crypt at Level 12. I wouldn't be 15/15 after less than a full day's play. I think that took me the best part of a month first time round.
|How much can it hurt, right?|
No, the TLE dev team have tweaked some specific stuff here and there and made some well-judged modifications to things that were glaringly overpowered but in most respects this is modern EQ2 slowed down. And that is exactly what I've been asking for for years!
It still doesn't mean I'll be sticking with it long term. The timing isn't great. I was just about to get back into WoW, there's F2P Wildstar coming down the pike and I have so many other MMO projects on the go. Added to that, Mrs Bhagpuss isn't interested in coming back for yet another run. We came to the game together in beta and played alongside each other on Steamfont, Oasis, Test and Freeport. There are plenty of MMOs I'll happily play on my own but playing EQ2 without her feels a bit odd.
And anyway, to some extent I've done this all before, when Freeport launched with the original, restricted F2P ruleset. I've leveled so many characters in EQ2. I've started over from scratch and gone to the then-cap on several different servers. Do I really want to go through it all over again?
|Smart Loot? I thought it was my lucky rabbit's foot.|
I'm not sure. For now, though, I'm having a great time. My plan is to level up at least far enough to have a vote when the thirty days are up, which means I have to get at least to Level 30. If I make it I'll be voting against the unlock but my sense from within the game is that the majority will want to move on. Desert of Flames is a big expansion, though, with a lot of high-end content. I'd be surprised if a majority is done with that in a month. Subsequent unlocks may not come so easily.
It's an odd time for EQ2 right now. Stormhold is a clear success and I think it will remain a busy, well-populated server. On the other hand, those extra servers they had put by in case demand matched what was seen when Ragefire launched haven't been needed yet and server merges are coming for the Live game. How many of the players on the TLE servers are new or returning and how many have just moved next door from another Live server is hard to guess.
|What do you expect for 5 silver a week?|
What is clear, though, is that Daybreak is quietly managing a return to a form of Subscription-based gameplay as the default for the Everquest franchise. With the Arch-Priest of Free-to-Play now free to devote more time to his EVE online corp, that's a trend I expect to see expand and grow in the months and years ahead.
I'm happy with that. I'm getting my money's worth and, if the Progression/TLE servers are any kind of indication, this is a team that, finally, seems to be learning who and where its audience is.