It very much follows the pattern established over the last few years: there's a lengthy and involved quest that explores the whole of the new overland zone before sending you into an Advanced Solo instance. In this case the instance is Scourge Keep, yet another refurbished version of Deathfist Citadel. It was always one of my favorite EQ2 instances so it's a welcome return in many ways. It was both nostalgic and intriguing to see how things had changed.
Advanced Solo gameplay can get quite intense. There are usually a number of Bosses with scripted mechanics that need to be clearly understood. For some arcane reason I often seem to find myself entering the zone just when I ought to be logging out to go to bed, which is exactly what happened this time. But I'm getting ahead of myself...
|Left a bit, left a bit, down...fire!|
First I had to work my way across the blighted, burning wreckage of Zek, finding scouts, burying bones, repairing catapults and generally coming to terms with the devastation. Zek was never a pretty zone at the best of times but now it looks utterly ruined. There no longer seems to be any divide between night and day. A sullen, red glare fills the sky and it never gets much brighter than twilight.
On every hill orc fires burn. The air is full of smoke and visibility is poor. I am very much not a fan of EQ2's latter-day trend towards giving zones a heavy tinted overlay and this is definitely one of those zones. It's a practice that doesn't encourage either sightseeing or repeated visits or not by me anyway. I'd far rather have the glorious clear skies and fresh air of Cobalt Scar or The Shattered Seas any day. Or night.
Under the miasma I've been making good progress on the Signature timeline, more so than I realized. It was quite a surprise, when I swooped in for a landing while working on a quest, and the exploration achievement for completing the zone popped. Of course, with flying mounts and hyper-accelerated movement speeds (my mount has a 200% flying speed bonus) an original zone like Zek, on which Scourge of Zek is modeled, takes a matter of seconds to cross from end to end.
|Pies? What pies?|
For such an ugly monster Zhugrus is remarkably photogenic. I took a bunch of screenshots of him for this post and he looks great in all of them. The new orc model that debuted with GU100 is very impressive. He is also, it must be said, huge. Having him trailing around behind me is a something of a culture shock after the minuscule and inoffensive Raffik. There's a thread on the forum asking for either shrink potions or petamorph wands or both to be made to work on mercs and for the first time I can see the merit in that idea.
The quests leading up to the final entry into Scourge Keep are the usual mix of kill, fetch and fiddle. Modern EQ2 is chock full of interactable objects. You're always clicking on something. The best of the bunch was when I got to lob large boulders at the orcs behind the dock wall. The Green Hood who was already doing it shared his reasons with me, the last one being "It's fun". I couldn't argue with that.
EQ2 has an extremely distinctive house style for quest dialog that's barely changed in twelve years. There can never be too much exposition, no NPC must ever miss the opportunity to give an opinion and everyone speaks in a very slightly heightened tone, as if making small-talk with potential in-laws. The plotlines for expansions and major updates are always the same; some god, godling or god-like entity is Disrupting The Natural Order, always in an incomprehensibly arcane and labyrinthine manner and if nothing is done about it the World As We Know It will Come To An End.
|Can you hurry it along a little? I'm getting a crick in my neck.|
I gave up trying to understand most of it years ago. There are people who follow the overarching plot, which has been looping and unfurling in some manner or another for the entire life of the game, but I'm content just knowing that there's something bad happening and if I just kill these ten orcs and click on these four monoliths then I'm Doing My Bit.
The Scourge of Zek plot has something to do with The Hounds of War, who are neither a black metal band nor actual dogs but the three children of the God of War, Rallos Zek. As someone pointed out on the forums it's a tad confusing that Rallos's two sons, Vallon and Tallon look like orcs while their sister, Sullon, is a barbarian but hey, they're gods, best not to think about it too hard.
|Pretty sure Raffik is having a flashback to the last time I left him stranded without a boat...|
Before you can even enter the overland Scourge of Zek zone there's a short, mandatory introduction for the first character on your account to try and find the way. You need to travel to Antonica, find a vessel and voyage to the new land, by which I mean click on a small rowing boat tethered to an obscure jetty in the middle of nowhere and be zoned into a claustrophobic cave. If there was any transition between getting on the boat and being indoors, underground, I missed it.
At the end of the short instance you get to meet all three of the Hounds, who bicker among themselves like any three siblings, all of their threats and insults passing, quite literally, above your head as you lie, stunned, on the floor. I found it quite impressive. Scary, even.
Once the gods depart, with some cryptic comment about why they haven't just stomped you into ratonga jam, you're on you're on your own. It also flags your account so you can skip the intro next time and just use the wizard spires like a normal person. Oh, except for one little thing...you do speak Druzaic, don't you?
|I read the whole book. I'm none the wiser.|
Druzaic is the language of magic. As long as there's been an EQ2 there's been a dreaded quest called Words of Pure Magic. It starts in the arcane libraries of Qeynos and Freeport and takes you on what was, in its day, one of the most irritating and long-winded scavenger hunts Norrath has ever seen.
A few years back it was streamlined to make it merely annoying and at that point I finally buckled down and did it. Not, of course, on the character I'm now playing. Not even on the same account.
With the massive improvements and additions to fast travel I was able to knock off the quest and learn Druzaic in not much more than an hour. That allowed me to speak to a water elemental who was sloshing around bang smack in the middle of the quest-line, washing out any other possibility of progress. I imagine someone thought that was funny. I know it won't be me laughing when I take the next character through Zek and have to do Words of Pure sodding Magic all over again.
I'm not really complaining. I like questing. I particularly like questing with the addition of fast travel and good, accurate walk-throughs. I had the wiki open throughout and I made liberal use of cut and paste and the in-game map and breadcrumb trail feature to make sure I was always where I was supposed to be.
Even then I took plenty of wrong turnings, killed the wrong mobs, found myself in entirely the wrong zone more than once. I absolutely do not hanker in any way for the old days when you had to work all this stuff out for yourself. Not that I ever did that, or not after I discovered Allakhazam and EQAtlas, now I come to think of it.
Once inside the Advanced Solo instance of Scourge Keep things went surprisingly well. All the mobs were orange-con level 105s, which would normally give me pause, but the itemization in GU100 is...odd. Apparently the previous predilection for putting procs on accessories led to massive server lag and the new mantra is for static stats instead.
|Now that's what I call a hat.|
Consequently the solo quest gear I'm getting has vast swathes of Potency, bringing some of it into line with the better Raid quality drops from the last expansion. Once I'd changed out my old jewellery for the new quest rewards, mobs that had been giving me a decent fight started to fall over before I barely had a chance to hit them.
Probably as a result of this unexpected upgrade I was able to breeze through most of the Advanced Solo part of the plot without having to watch any videos on YouTube or read any lengthy walk-throughs of boss fights. I could see a couple of the nameds were trying to pull off some kind of trick but I just hit them harder and faster and that seemed to be enough.
|That's next year's Halloween costume sorted!|
It was all very enjoyable. I got to the end of the Signature quest all except for the twenty-one sigils i was supposed to collect. I clicked away on Tallon Zek's hat but nothing happened. Turns out I should have been clicking the altar. It wouldn't have mattered because by that point I'd already cleared the entire citadel and surrounding grounds so even if I'd been able to activate the quest there was nothing left to kill for the drops. I'll have to go back and do that part again.
Other than that my berserker comes out with an excellent new mercenary, two clickies to give himself the illusion of either a scourge orc or a lich, a complete new set of very powerful jewellery and two and a half flasks of siphoned xp. A good first run but it's far from over yet. Plenty of nameds left to kill and collects to find as well as those sigils, of course.