Tuesday, January 8, 2019

What Do I Do Now? : EQ2

This is the post I planned to write yesterday, until my plans went awry and I ended up posting about how I don't plan ahead. You can see why.

Leveling up my Bruiser in EverQuest II these past couple of weeks has been a journey. Actually, several journeys. At around level 60 he started in Tenebrous Tangle, the beginner zone from 2006's Kingdom of Sky expansion. From there he moved on to Kylong Plains, the opening zone of 2007's Rise of Kunark. In doing so, he skipped an expansion entirely, Echoes of Faydwer. That too, almost unbelievably, also launched in 2006.

I often refer to the glory days, when EverQuest routinely released two full, boxed expansions per calendar year. EQ2 never quite matched that astonishing production rate but between September 2005 and November 2007 the game received four boxed expansions, any of which was easily large enough by modern standards to merit release as a standalone MMORPG.

For a while my Bruiser diligently followed the solo path the RoK designers intended. He scooped up all the quests at the dock - there are many - and finished them all. These opened quest hubs elsewhere in the zone. Some he happily cleared; others he began, then left hanging.

He visited the zone's main city, Teren's Grasp and got his Sokokar mount, a big moment back in the day when we didn't all have flying mounts of our own. He ventured into the opening dungeon, Karnor's Castle, where he found someone else already soloing the heroic mobs once meant only for full groups.

Didn't think to take any screenshots until much later. Here's one of the Bruiser posing in his fancy new raid gear.

By the time he'd made it to RoK's sophomore zone, Fens of Nathsar, and completed the opening faction quests, everything was once again turning green. In search of that sweet xp spot that comes from questing just ahead of the expected curve, he moved on to 2010's Sentinel's Fate expansion.

There he abandoned any pretense of following the plot. He flew around on his Patchwork Pegasus (a mount from a holiday event that allows anyone to fly long, long before the original level restriction of 86), swooping down to pick off named mobs as he saw them, cherry-picking a few, short quest chains I remembered with affection.

When he'd had enough of that he moved on to 2011's Destiny of Velious expansion, passing over the opening zone to start in Eastern Wastes. He jumped straight into the quest chain involving the Ry'Gorr orcs and by the time he'd wrapped that up it was time to move on.

At this point my Bruiser was at the very end of his eighties. Throughout the few brief sessions it had taken to get him there, experience had been coming so fast he'd barely scratched the surface of any of the expansions, which flicked past like the turning pages of a calendar in a 1940s movie.

At around this point I paused for a rethink. While everything continued to be very easy, it was clear that the Mercenary was doing all of the heavy lifting. Since it looked very much as though the Bruiser was going to promote himself into the front ranks of regularly-played characters, I thought he should sort himself out.

Cobalt Scar has spectacular sunrises and sunsets.

I checked the broker for upgrades. To my surprise there were plenty of Masters in the right level range on sale at very reasonable prices. I bought all of them. Then I filled out the few gaps with Adepts. For a few hundred platinum his spellbook was suddenly up to date.

Next I spent a while sorting out his AAs. I thought they'd been auto-allocating but they hadn't. He had around sixty unspent. That made a significant difference.

Finally I took him to the bank. As a counterpoint to levelling I'd been taking my max-level berserker around some old raid dungeons; Fabled gear had been raining down on him and all of it was Heirloom tagged, meaning anyone on the account could use it.

About half of it was Level 90, the rest 95. As soon as he hit 90 he slipped into his shiny raid gear and took the Griffon to Withered Lands.

He'd already popped over in the late 80s, only to find that the minimum level to get quests was 90. Withered Lands is the Velious zone that was added between expansions to take characters from 90 to 92. It was an irritating period, when SoE decided to slow leveling to a crawl, so that doing one level took as long as five.

Whatever code underpinned that design evidently persists. Xp did indeed slow down to a crawl. A relative crawl, that is. I remember completing Withering Lands when it was new. It has a long and meandering storyline and what feels like hundreds of quests.

By "intrusion" Malra means "altrusitic response to our duplicitous pleas for help". And by "proper guest", Allura means "someone who can't resist our coercive mind-controlling powers".

It took Mrs Bhagpuss and I, mostly duoing, several weeks to complete it all. My Bruiser knocked off a good chunk in a couple of days, taking him to 92. There was still plenty more to do there but at 92 he'd picked up the breadcrumb quest for what I believe to be one of the best zones in the game, Cobalt Scar, so off he went.

Cobalt Scar, gorgeous to look at, fascinating to explore, has a long, involving and very nearly coherent storyline. My Bruiser did all of it. It was both a pleasure and a revelation. Not only was the storyline as entertaining as I'd remembered but there turned out not only to be some parts that I'd forgotten but even some that I'd missed.

At the conclusion of the zone storyline there's a segue into a Signature quest involving the long-running Ages End prophecy that underpins a number of expansions. I'd started that with my Berserker, back when Cobalt Scar was current content, but never finished it.

When I started to hit content and cut scenes I was sure I'd never seen before, I had to log my Berserker in and check his completed quest log to try and figure out why. It transpires that he'd stopped at the point when the questline moves into an Advanced Solo dungeon. It had been simply too tough for him. He'd shelved it for later, then never gone back.

Ongoing power creep has made deep, structural changes to the game. It's highly significant that my Bruiser didn't falter at the point my Berserker balked. The boss fights were harder in the instances toward the end, it's true. He did have to Feign Death and wait for me to look up strategies on the wiki once or twice. In the end, though, he finished the whole thing at the first attempt.

Bildi! This is an important meeting for important people! Go away!

Over the years, the many, many years, EQ2's deep storyline involving Gods, Dragons, Mad Scientists, Vampires and Elemental Forces has seeped into my subconscious. I know so much without knowing what I know. The effect is that the appearance of certain characters or references to certain events triggers an emotional response even if I'm not entirely sure why.

The Ages End storyline, though I barely understand it and couldn't summarize even the main plot points if my life depended on it, always manages to wring some kind of reaction from me as it unfolds. The final movement of the Cobalt Scar sequence was no exception. I'm going to have to finish it now on my Berserker so I can see it from Freeport's perspective, my Bruiser being a quiche-eating Qeynosian.

All of that put my Bruiser into the mid-90s (not unlike that quiche reference). I scratched my head a bit on where to go next but as it happened the game had its own ideas. On my way to visit Queen Antonia Bayle for a de-briefing session, no fewer than three NPCs stopped me in the streets of Qeynos to offer me lead-ins to  Signature questlines I'd missed.

That led to a confusing few minutes, where I visited Antonia three times in quick succession to talk about important events, some of which were already over even though they hadn't happened yet. MMORPGs are like that. It was nice to see her Palace from the inside, anyway. And of course I took a selfie next to the Queen!

On his sporadic returns to EQ2, Wilhelm often expresses some confusion about where to level next. It can be a problem. Because of the way EQ2 has grown over a decade and a half, with expansions often overlapping in level range and between-expansion updates filling in the gaps, there's a huge variety of options available at most level ranges.

Alas, poor Yelinak.

Not only is there no specific place you should be at most levels, the aforementioned power creep means that if you just play normally you stand little to no chance of completing a whole zone before you outlevel it.

EQ2 has some excellent tools to fix that particular issue if it's a problem for you. It's never been a problem for me, not being any kind of completionist. There's an XP/AA slider, for example, or Chronomentoring, but if you did decide to use those to do all the zones in order you'd probably be Level 100 before you got as far as Kunark - or possibly Faydwer. (Hmm... that could be an interesting project...)

The options don't really narrow very much until you hit 100, at which point they suddenly coalesce to a single point. That can feel like hitting a brick wall if you don't know what's happening.

A couple of expansions back, Daybreak finally lost patience with one of the partiularly egregious, inured habits of bitter veterans. A cadre of players would spend the first few days of each expansion cycle grinding to the new level cap by soloing old dungeons, complaining bitterly all the while about how bored they were and how SoE (later DBG) made them do it.

DBG fixed that by upping the experience needed for the ten levels from 101 to 110 by orders of magnitude, then attaching that xp to the quests in the new zones. From 101 onwards you can solo the old stuff for hour after hour and never see your xp bar move a nanometer.

Say what you like about sirens; they do know how to decorate a grotto.

My Bruiser is currently sitting in the middle of level 98. He cleaned up a few old quests, mainly for status, then he went to Tranquil Sea and did all the quests in the Isle of Refuge starting area.

I already have another character running those at 100, though, so rather than burn myself out, repeating the same content, I took him to some dungeons where the mobs were green and blue. The xp there is okay but the draw once again is that this is stuff I have never seen before, even if I thought I had.

It seems I never really explored The Hole, for example. There are a lot of dungeon instances in the Sentinel's Fate expansion and I thought that over the years I'd been through all of them. I was wrong.

It is a shame to think that as we move forward we probably won't see this kind of diversity any more. Both the new design aesthetic and DBG's reduced resources mean that there's likely to be only one road ahead from now on. That's assuming there's a road at all. I think it's odds on that EQ2's seen its last expansion.

If this extremely enjoyable last couple of weeks, running through old content, has taught me anything, though, it's that there's always something fresh to discover. EQ2 is just unfeasibly huge. If someone can manage to keep a server up I plan to keep playing forever.

Then again, what did I say about making plans?

5 comments:

  1. I'm pretty sure that the last time I played EQ II I started from scratch (as I always seem to have to do to relearn the game) and made it to the Tenebrous Tangle. Maybe the next time I fire it up I'll try to follow the path you lay out here. I'm pretty sure I won't have much interest in that other game inspired by the rest of EQ II that starts near the cap (everyone is a caster?), but I really would like to see the zones up to that point at least once.

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    1. The current solo endgame isn't radically different from the rest of EQ2's history. Ascension classes help but I spend 95% of my time using my normal class abilites rather than Ascension spells. I think the "everyone's a caster" issue mostly applies to people doing the really hard stuff because yes, the Ascension spells do pack a huge punch.

      I quite like the Ascension system as another version of AAs, which is about all I get to see it as.

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    2. Good to know. That sounds more reasonable than other descriptions of it I've read.

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  2. Extremely slow leveling is a bugbear of mine in any MMORPG, it's turned me off EQ2 several times in fact. I actually think the weird difficulty spikes that you encounter just progressing through the story annoy me more. The game has many, many really positive aspects, but the more recent expansions tend to bury that or sideline it all with new very specific systems like Ascension (fighting without Ascension abilities means a very long time to kill for every fight). I guess as a game it's only really suited as being your main MMO, one that you are willing to spend a lot of time on if you expect to see anything vaguely new - in two expansions I've geared myself with the new free armour sets and after so many quests I start getting one-shotted by mobs, that's probably my lack of observation of mechanics that vets automatically react to, or me wandering into content that I shouldn't expect to solo. In a sense the biggest issue I'd like addressed (as a relative non-expert) is the lack of clarity I think content has - seen from the comparative view I always have as someone who has mained other MMOs a lot more. I've gone through recent expansions where all the quests were way above my character's level (within the band for that expansion) yet I was easily able to do a load, until suddenly I couldn't. No sensible progression using quest levels to warn me, some heroics I could do easily, others not at all. It just frustrates me how opaque the game is thesedays. /mini-rant

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    1. Lack of clear information about processes and mechanics is probably the single biggest problem EQII has. If you go back and read my many posts on the game over the last few years (not suggesting you do that!) you can very quickly see that I am constantly learning new information that changes both how I play and what I am able to do.

      A small amount of that I do actually discover by playing the game but most of it I learned by, as you describe, running into a seeming brick wall and deciding to go and do some research to see if there was a way around or over or through it. You have to be sufficiently invested in the game to take that trouble and I have been, mostly.

      One interesting aspect I've found to all this is that recognizing and then overcoming these obstacles binds me more firmly to the game. I feel I have more invested by dint of having made more of an effort to unravel the mysteries and therefore I feel greater satisfaction from my subsequent successes. This, I guess, does indeed suggest that EQ2 is a game more suited to players who consider it their main MMO than to those who use it as a casual, drop-in playground.

      I'm not sure that's a bad thing per se but I am certain that the both casuals and regulars would benefit from some clearer direction within the game itself. Few MMOs offer much in that line after the starting zones, though.

      I can absolutely attest, however, that all the content from every expansion that's come out under DBG's logo can be done by a player who only solos. I have finished the solo Sig line for every DBG expansion without major problems (well, I'm still working on Chaos Descending - I got sidetracked - but it will be fine). Under SOE, however, it was frequently impossible because the solo line became group or even raid difficulty towards the end. That has never happened under DBG.

      One thing to look at in the current and previous expansion is the mechanic DBG uses for the storyline dungeons. Presumably to save resources, the "solo" instances are the Heroic ones, with the same Heroic difficulty mobs. Previously solo instances had weaker mobs but in POM and CD instead of making the mobs weaker they make your character stronger. You need to be sure you have that buff on and also you need to be sure you have increased your HP and Potency to certain levels through your own efforts, so that the multiplier on the buff raises you to the necessary power levels to be able to deal with the Heroic mobs.

      Actually, you can muddle through with very poor gear because that's what I did with my Berserker first time through POM, when I knew none of this. When I tried again with my Inquisitor and found she couldn't cope, that's when I went and did some research and found out what I needed to do change her capabilities. Once I'd done that she breezed through the instances in a way the Berserker could only have dreamed of doing. So then, naturally, I sorted him out and now he's in a very happy place.

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