Sunday, December 6, 2015

A Rum Cellar Indeed: EQ2

When you buy the latest EQ2 expansion, Terrors of Thalumbra, you also gain access to every previous expansion and adventure pack. That sounds like an incredible deal, and it is, although it becomes less impressive when you realize that every expansion other than two latest ones are already open to anyone under the current  F2P model.

Either way, if you're one of what must by now be a tiny trickle of genuine first-timers, or even a lapsed veteran returning after a lay-off of a year or three, it means enough content to keep you occupied for many months. Also a learning curve steep enough to make your ears pop but that's what you get for not keeping up with the pack.

There have been lengthy periods when EQ2 was the MMORPG of choice both for me and Mrs Bhagpuss. Expansions were eagerly anticipated, purchased and played from day one. Perversely, however, when I was playing regularly, putting in a solid thirty hours most weeks, I never had a character even close to being as well-geared, ready for action and bang up to date as my Berserker, who gets a run-out here and there a few hours a week if he's lucky.

Don't flap your undead stench in my direction!
In part this is down to changes in the way the game has been restructured. A number of major adjustments were made in latter years that recognized the changing nature of the audience. The addition of Mercenaries in the Age of Discovery "feature" expansion revolutionized solo play for EQ2 as it had previously done for EverQuest but later changes were even more significant.

The expansion that followed AoD, Chains of Eternity, added Advanced Solo Instances; copies of the new "Heroic" zones for groups that scale down to suit a single well-geared player or a duo, be that two players or a single player with a mercenary. Since then every expansion has arrived with separate, fully-developed set of progression mechanics and rewards for all the main playstyles - solo, group, raid and tradeskill. 

When DBG released the Rum Cellar Campaign last April they took a brief and arguably ill-conceived detour back to territory long abandoned by their former incarnation SOE. Back at the start there had always been a plan to update the game with parcels of content that sat somewhere between a free content patch and an expansion (both of which were also in the plan). Between launch and the first expansion, Desert of Flames, we enjoyed two "Adventure Packs": The Bloodline Chronicles and The Splitpaw Saga. Before the third expansion there came the largest of all, The Fallen Dynasty.

Pretty bird thou never wert
All of them were reasonably well-received. They were substantial in size and detail. I bought them all and over the years I've had a great deal of value from them one way and another. Nevertheless, when Rum Cellar arrived I gave it a pass. According to the promotional information it followed recent precedent for adventurers, with parallel content for their various established playstyles, although there was nothing in the mix for crafters, but it looked a little spindly. I'd not long finished the very enjoyable Altar of Malice expansion solo content and I thought I could wait a while to see how the new mini-drop went down with the early adopters before committing myself.

The reception was mixed as this Reddit thread suggests. There were no real howls of outrage but as an experiment in a way of releasing new content for players and generating a revenue stream for the new company it's probably fair to say the return to "Adventure Packs" or "Campaigns" or DLC, however you care to flavor it, was a failure. In any event the idea was quietly forgotten and by late summer we were firmly back on the Expansion trail. Indeed, with ToT up and running, apparently work on the 2016 expansion, EQ2's thirteenth, has already started.

As I mentioned before, I'm stalled on the ToT solo signature line. I watched this video to get an idea of how I might get past the roadblock and it's apparent that, as I thought, I need to gear up some. Or learn to play. Always an option although never a preference.

You'd think someone would have to notice that but no...
As Borgio says at the start, the first Advanced Solo zone required for the Signature questline in ToT comes as something of a wake-up call. The gear I have from AoM is mostly level 95. It upgrades significantly through a process that was supposed to keep solo players busy for a good long time but, while I'd been picking away at that, I hadn't made that much progress.

Then it occurred to me: along with Terrors of Thalumbra expansion I also received a side order of pirate-themed fun that supposedly sat somewhere between the old and the new in terms of difficulty and reward. Which is how I came to be sneaking around the cellars of Highhold Keep with an undead parrot at my side.

At least I think it's a parrot. When I first saw Nibbles I thought he was a vulture. Up close he looks just plain weird but I got him from a pirate and he squawks "Pretty Bird" so circumstantial evidence of parrothood is compelling.

Seriously, can't I just fight him?
Nibbles is also the character name of the last member of our original EQ2 guild to quit playing back in 2005, just before we finally left to go back to EQ, which made it a tad uncomfortable when, at the end of the short solo questline, [SPOILER ALERT] I had to decide whether to kick him repeatedly to make him attack so I could kill him for personal gain. I did actually have to think about that for thirty seconds. But...loot.

The solo instance in Rum Cellar is odd. Other than the final boss fight and the Nibbles coda there's no mandatory combat at all. It's all about sneaking and setting traps. A lot of guards die screaming and on fire as you baste them with rum and molasses and immolate them or scald them with steam. I found it mildly disturbing, in dubious taste and morally more difficult to process than the usual round of MMO mass murder.

Unlike many of the deliberately unsettling quests in The Secret World, to take a slightly unfair comparison, it feels as though whoever wrote this one was just thinking of the mechanics. The storyline is clearly supposed to be on the lighter side as these things go, with a hefty dose of pirate yo ho ho and many of the "drinking alchohol is just hilarious!" tropes so typical of certain MMOs.

Stealing liquor for someone with serious mental health issues who hates himself so much he has to drink himself into a stupor.
Then robbing him and leaving him unconscious in a burning building that I set on fire.
Hey, I'm a hero. It's what we do.

I have a built-in filter for that kind of "humor" after a decade and a half so it doesn't make me die a little inside the way it once would have done. Those qualms considered, I enjoyed the solo questline well enough. It is short, yes, but it still took me nearly three hours to complete and that was using the walkthrough on the wiki. If I'd had to work out everything from first principles you could double that at least. It's repeatable but I can't envisage going back often.

There were a couple of decent rewards from the boss at the end including a level 98 cloak that's a significant upgrade. I still have nine or ten gear slots to raise from 95 to 98 or, if possible, 100 before I take another shot at the Algorithm of Destruction. My plans in that direction include the Advanced Solo version of Rum Cellar, which, thankfully, takes a more traditional "kill em all and take their stuff" approach. With luck some of their stuff will be level 98.
I liked you, Nibbles, but not as much as I like loot.

Then there's the Advanced Solo instance Kralet Penumbra, which the questline doesn't mention but which is, apparently, considerably easier than the one it does send you to do. And I should get on with some crafting. A new set of adornments would help. And I ought to read up on Infusions.

So much to learn. Fun times. First of all, though, I need to see about getting myself a house pet version of Nibbles. That's why I decided to kill him. Kill one to buy one. If you can kill an undead parrot. If he is a parrot. Was... Is...


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