Kunark Ascending, the thirteenth expansion for the twelve-year old MMO EQ2 landed yesterday, bang on time. I wasn't in a tearing hurry to get in, anticipating the usual launch day glitches, patches and frustration, so I carried on with my dailies in Tyria until I was good and ready.
I logged in about half an hour after the servers came back up from the five-hour pre-launch downtime, expecting a lengthy patch but there was none. Presumably the relevant files have been filtered in already over the past few weeks without my even noticing.
That smooth transition continued for the three hours I played. I didn't encounter any technical issues, the servers stayed up and stable and every quest and activity I engaged in worked flawlessly. No doubt there will be problems to come but thus far it qualifies as an extremely clean launch.
So much for the technicalities. What about the fun?
Long-time EQ2 player and blogger Kaozz has a post up in which she expresses disappointment with some of the design choices and frustration over the general direction DBG is taking. Several of the points she makes did also occur to me while I was playing and I definitely felt less thrilled by the return to Kunark than I would have liked, but I had a very good time nonetheless.
It's been a tradition for a good while now that EQ2 expansions begin with a communication summoning you to speak to a king, queen or potentate, who then sends you on either a fact-finding mission or something more urgent. Consequently, I wasn't particularly surprised by the set-up, although I do have issues with my ratonga berserker, a Freeport Citizen, being placed at the beck and call of Queen Cristianos Thex, the sociopathic despot of the Dark Elves.
Usually the form is a little chat in the throne room followed by a boat trip, not a full-blown quest sequence followed by an instance. Like Kaozz, I was somewhat disconcerted to begin with a trip through
Neriak, followed by a couple of quests in Thalumbra and then a full solo instance before I finally reached Kunark
That said, the whole Beyond The Veil introductory questline was engaging, fun and not at all difficult. What's more, once you've done it once it opens access to the new zone for your whole account. I turned General chat off to avoid spoilers and went into full explorer mode.
As Kaozz mentions, DBG have decided to row back on the very overt quest-markers SOE added in the latter days of their tenure, so you can't simply follow the glowing breadcrumb trail any more. It's not a choice I particularly approve of but quest design and structure in EQ2 is generally sound. I was able to complete the questline without once referring to the Wiki or updating EQ2Map.
The instance itself was gorgeous. It reminded me a great deal of the instanced version of Durmand Priory. I very much appreciated the freedom to roam and explore the book-lined rooms and museum-like corridors without having to fight mobs every inch of the way. In fact I believe there were only four or five mobs inn the whole instance.
In terms of mechanics this part played out more like an adventure game than an MMO. There were objects that highlighted a use and other objects to find and pick up. It's a style common throughout EQ2 but here I thought it had been particularly well done. I felt a real sense of satisfaction when I powered up the portal and met up again with Queen Alwenielle, a ruler I would very much prefer to be working for rather than, as it seems, behind her back for the House of Thex.
It would scarcely be a spoiler to say that at this point the villain of the piece, Lanys T`Vyl, appeared. The villain of the piece always appears at this point. It would only be a spoiler if we ever got to this stage of a quest and I told you the villain didn't appear. I was slightly surprised to see her henchwoman, Tserrina Syl`Tor, mistress of The Tower of Frozen Shadows, alongside her. I'd forgotten she was in on the plot.
By this stage of my long exposure to Norrathian myth and history I do recognize names if not much more. Every time significant figures like these pop out of portals or descend from on high it does give me a frisson. I can barely make sense of most of the lore even as I read the rococo quest dialog but understanding it and feeling it are two very different things. Lanys scares me. She always did. And Tserrina and I have history.
After that confrontation, which climaxed in a hasty exit on my part and an unseemly awakening in chains in a cave in Kunark, the actual introduction to the new zone was an anti-climax. I'm never impressed by starting in a cave and beginning with a "prove your worth by killing eight of our enemies" is just adding cliche to cliche
It was all the more annoying because the quest text clearly alludes to the pre-existing relationship
between your character and the Iksar force holding him or her prisoner. This is the same bunch that had us running around Kunark in search of The Greenmist. Rather than setting trivial tests of loyalty they ought to be cheering my arrival.
Then there's the question of the mobs they want killed. Ye gods but they're tough! Tough as in have a gazillion hit points. You expect the enemies in a new expansion to be tougher than anything in the rest of the game, even when there's no level cap increase, but quadrupling the hit-points of basic, solo mobs seems a tad like overkill.
That was the low point. In a cave, beating on hit-point sponges, competing for the limited spawn with a bunch of other people on the same stage of the quest. A bottleneck made worse by the total disinclination of EQ2 players to do anything at all to make any situation easier. Of course no-one (including me) invited anyone else to group so we could share credit. Of course everyone tried to snatch every mob that spawned. Of course it all took far longer than it needed.
On the other hand, look on the bright side! A day or two into the lifespan of the expansion and there will never be competition for those mobs ever again. The problem for the rest of time will be trying to single pull them so you don't get pounded into the cave floor by all eight at once.
With that out of the way my Berserker found himself no longer kill on sight to the roaming triple-up guards (he found out the hard way that they one-shot well-geared solo level 100s without breaking stride) and was able to head for the great outdoors. Which turned out to be a lava zone. And a forest zone. And a snow and ice zone.
In fact, due to budgetary constraints under the new order, what would probably have been three or four full zones back in the days of Rise of Kunark has turned into a single portmanteau map in Kunark Ascending. Coats are being cut according to cloth, that's for sure.
Fortunately it looks like a dense, detailed, gorgeous and very interesting zone. Warslik Woods, for example, may be little more than a coppice now but I look forward to exploring it all the same.
And that was about where I ran out of time. I flew around, took some screenshots, grabbed some shinies and then ported back to Freeport to check out the new Wardrobe feature (about which more another day) before logging for the night.
My initial impressions are that Kunark Ascending is going to be about as good as we can expect from a small developer with limited resources. I look forward to following both the Adventure and Craft storylines, to meeting Raffik again, to setting my gathering goblin free and re-hiring him on a more equitable footing, to acquiring and working out what to do with an Ascended Class and to playing dress-up with my Mercenaries.
Lots of possibilities. Plenty to do. Let's just hope for no more caves.