A short conversation in the comments on the previous post outlined two of the biggest problems older MMOs have in trying to attract and hold new players: they're overwhelmingly vast and they don't look that great by modern standards. A few, Saga of Ryzom, comes to mind, were prescient or fortunate enough to go with a stylized graphic approach that ages well but most older games look, well, old.
As the anonymous commenter observes "the EQ2 graphics were also implemented with an eye to future graphic hardware upgrades". Certainly SOE made a big deal about that at the time. Anyone remember the pre-release video that got everyone so excited and which turned out to look nothing whatsoever like the actual game, when it finally arrived? In practice, though, for the first decade at least, that promise went unfulfilled. Much though I love EQ2, for the longest time I would never have made any great claims for its visual style. Even back in 2004, coming to the new Norrath from the then five year old 90s stylings of EverQuest, it didn't look that great. Antonica and Commonlands were functional, Thundering Steppes and Nektulos Forest bleak and/or bland. I was always impressed by Freeport but Qeynos was famously so badly optimized that many people simply avoided going there altogether. Over the years the post-Luclin version of Norrath grew and grew. The Desert of Flames expansion, visually, was much of a muchness with the base game, only with added sand. Kingdom of Sky was a lot more impressive with its soon to become familiar Roger Dean style floating islands but as the expansions rolled out year after year it was the increasingly enjoyable and complex gameplay that kept me coming back, rather than any expectation of anything amazing to look at. Researching this post I was surprised to find that the EQ2 team only got the new Terrain tools that massively speeded up and improved their ability to create zones from scratch in 2014. That was no doubt why we saw all-new zones in the 2014 and 2015 expansions and updates whereas 2012's Chains of Eternity and 2013's Tears of Veeshan largely re-used and re-vamped older assets.
Something must have changed, though, because as I play through the ToV signature timeline and explore the sky islands of Vesspyr Isles and the alternate-Norrath dungeons they lead to I find myself doing something I rarely do in EQ2: taking screenshot after screenshot just because. As should be readily apparent from the illustrations in recent posts, Tears of Veeshan is a visually sumptuous experience.
It's not just the zones, either. The character models are elaborate and detailed. It's hard to appreciate the sartorial style of a shissar temple guard as he 's trying to cleave you down the middle but these are some snappy dressers and the bixies in the Fractured Hive have certainly followed an entirely different evolutionary path from those buzzing fluffballs I remember back in Misty thicket. It's been like this for about four or five years. The post-level-95 zones in EQ2, open world and dungeon alike, are much more likely to make you reach for your screenshot key than for excuses. No-one needs to apologize for an aging engine here. The graphics may not be cutting edge but they have, at last, managed to achieve something of the timeless style of good graphic design. A lot of it seems to have to do with a new approach to surface and color. The ToV zones have a lot of flat surfaces and color washes. Texture frequently seems to be provided by tiles, panels or patinas rather than, in older zones, those tired and tiring texture maps. It reminds me in places of the clean, classic expressionistic comic art of Alex Toth or, to take a less-exalted example, Trevor von Eeden.
In other parts there's something of the lush, overripe, almost sybaritic indulgence of the "Studio" artists, Jeffrey Catherine Jones, Mike Kaluta, Barry Windsor Smith and Bernie Wrightson. There also seems to be a deal of constructivist influence going on as well. All in all it's a far richer mix than anything you're likely to encounter in the first few dozen levels and therein lies the problem. When nearly all of your players are up in the canopy, enjoying the fruits of a decade or more of improvements in both the design of the game and the tools to apply lessons learned attractively and efficiently, how can you hope to draw fresh sap from the roots? Even with modern leveling speeds it's a long road from installing the game to the good stuff five or ten levels short of the cap.
I'm a huge advocate of low level gaming in MMORPGs. I prefer to be down there in the fields, helping with the turnip harvest, running off the gnolls. For me, EQ2's huge, sprawling hinterland is freighted with nostalgia and memory. Nothing there comes clean and raw. But could I start there now, with no foreknowledge, and stay? I don't know.
EQ2 is an exceptional case, I think. In many, most MMOs I might well suggest the best of the gameplay is at the lower end. I tend to become disengaged by end games. EQ2 doesn't really go there. For a long, long time it's still the same leveling game only the scenery gets better and better and the plots become more and more involving. There isn't any huge change of playstyle when you hit the buffers on level. It would be probably be better all round if DBG could split the game in two. There's more than enough content from 1-92 to make most MMOs with years of development behind them look skinny. That could be the retro, nostalgists' version.
The game already makes a step-change at 92. It would be the perfect new beginning, jettisoning the dead weight of a decade of overwrought and underused mechanics and systems, offering instead the much more coherent and visually appealing package that begins somewhere around the introduction of Withering Lands, half way through 2011's Destiny of Velious expansion.
Since that's unlikely to happen I think I would recommend would-be new players in Norrath to lay down a few extra dollars in the Store and begin at Level 90 with a Heroic Character. It seems counter to everything I usually espouse and support but EQ2 really is a different game these days and I suspect very, very few players who start at the bottom in 2016 will ever stick around long enough to discover just how different.
Of course, if you're an experienced MMO veteran who knows what to expect of an old game and isn't unduly phased by spending quite a long time staring at some really unappealing scenery then you're in for a real treat. There's an unconscionable amount of content in those first 90 levels and a lot of it is very entertaining indeed. The best part is that there is a choice. A few years back it was very much like it or lump it and I suspect that after a few frustrating sessions many chose the latter. Most MMOs of a certain age now offer some kind of elevator to the top and the days of shaking our heads over the supposed entitlement issues that brings up are over. Or should be.