Monday, January 13, 2020

Speeding Away: EQII

It's just shy of of a month since Blood of Luclin released. I think I've seen enough now to confirm my initial impressions. For me, as a regular, committed-but-casual solo player, this is the best expansion for five years, since 2014's Altar of Malice.

There are several reasons behind my positive take, not least among them the strong nostalgic feelings the setting evokes for me, but perhaps the key factor is the surprise design decision taken by Daybreak to completely upend the normal levelling process.

In retrospect, you could say we've been working towards this for several years. The Days of Summer questlines, first introduced in 2017, the annual "Gear Up, Level Up" events, the introduction (with 2017's Planes of Magic) of the Tishan's Box of gear at the start of an expansion, the inclusion of a Level Boost item with even the basic expansion package; all point towards a desire to get everyone on the same page for the start of each new era.

All of that has worked well, putting most players on a reasonably equal footing on Day One, even if the usual tribal lines re-establish themselves only hours later. Even so, for all the work being done on facilitating easy entry into each new expansion, one important aspect of the game seemed to have been forgotten.

With two dozen classes and nearly as many races, EverQuest II, perhaps more than any MMORPG I've played, encourages the creation of a stable of characters. Playing "alts" may even be the norm rather than the exception. When DBG made the decision to eliminate the longstanding practice of levelling up to the new cap in old content whenever the maximum level changed, they also closed the door even for more casual, solo players to get a bunch of characters end game ready in timely fashion.

It's not that getting to the cap became unreasonably difficult. Just time consuming and repetitive, a problem which, ironically, the change to xp in older zones was supposed to address. Instead of running laps round Chelsith or Sebilis, for the last few years, about the only way for solo players to hit cap has been to take every character, Adventurer or Crafter, through the Signature questlines of the latest expansion.

I have a very soft spot for the storylines in EQII. They're nonsense but they're my kind of nonsense. Even so, once is generally enough. Twice, with a long gap, maybe. If, like me, you have ten characters, at least half a dozen of which you would quite like to keep up to date, the prospect of hearing the same dialog and seeing the same cut scenes over and over again is less than motivating.

The last two expansions really doubled down on the difficulty of alting. Planes of Prophecy had huge faction requirements while Chaos Descending, although nominally taking place in outdoor zones, managed to feel much more like repeating a series of instances.

Blood of Luclin stands all of that on its head. Other than Star Wars: the Old Republic's sixfold storyline xp phase, I can't think of another MMORPG that's put the hammer down on levelling the way BoL does.

It's not just that xp comes breathtakingly fast. It's also that you don't even have to follow the Signature line to get it. At least, not if you're levelling an Adventure class. Crafters, for now, do still have to follow the narrative, although they don't have to follow it even halfway before they'll hit 120, and it only takesa few hours to get there.

For adventurers there are plenty of side quests to be picked up around the new zones. There are NPCs scattered across the moonscape just waiting for a handy adventure to pass by and help them out. There are also lots of quests that begin from dropped items. You can't level by grinding mobs but you probably could level by grinding mobs then doing the quests that spawn from bits that fall off.

If that seems like too much trouble, there's even a short sequence of quest, starting on the platform where you arrive in the opening zone, which concludes in a repeatable quest to kill mobs about fifty feet away. And the mobs aren't even aggressive. How much easier could it get?

So far, I've levelled my Berserker, Inquisitor, Necromancer and Bruiser to the cap. I also have a max level Weaponsmith, Alchemist and Sage. That's in less than four weeks, during much of which I didn't have a lot of time to play.

I have never had that many characters at cap that quickly after an expansion. Even in the days when I played EQII every day all year round. It's weird but it's good weird.

When I saw the astonishing rate of gain as my Berserker dinged two levels on zoning into Luclin for the first time, my immediate concern was that if levelling to cap was going to take hours rather than days (or weeks) there'd soon be nothing for me to do. That concern has turned out to be completely unfounded.

Even as someone who relishes the levelling game, I love this change. It's amazingly liberating. The biggest benefit, by far, is that I'm now playing all my characters. Levelling them is fun. It doesn't just make me want to level all the ones I have, it makes me want to create more so I can keep on doing it. And since I have several leftover level boosters allowing me to start at 100 or 110 I definitely will.

Better than that, I've been discovering something I'd forgotten: in EQII different classes play very differently. I've been thinking of my Berserker as my "Main" for so long now, I'd been treating his abilities as a gold standard for solo play. When something seemed slow or difficult I'd work out how to improve his abilities to get over that hump.

Playing my Inquisitor and Necromancer through the same content has been a revelation. I'd expected the Inquisitor, as a healing class, to be a slog. It turned out to be faster than the Berserker. As for the Necromancer...

Combat on my Necro is like putting the game on fast-forward. Or setting the difficulty to "Easy". With the highest level tank pet, an upgraded Cleric mercenary in support and the Necro tooled up to the eyeballs with AEs, single target dots and ferocious "limited pets", large groups of mobs die two or three times faster than the Berserker can dervish them down.

When it comes to bosses, things get even better. No more ten or even fifteen minute fights. No running out of power and taking twenty minutes to auto-attack my way to "victory". Time-to-kill on the bosses my Necro's met so far is around two or three minutes.

There is some risk. Putting out that much damage does draw aggro and she's not wearing plate armor. Even so, the days of cloth casters not being able to take a hit are long past, in solo content at least, and if things really go south there's always her 100% guaranteed Feign Death to fall over on.

Far from closing down my options by making the additional ten levels the work of a single session, this radical change to xp gain has raised my eyes to the horizon. So much so, in fact, that it's made me re-assess my assumptions about levelling altogether.

No longer do I see it as an unalloyed good. Circumstances evidently alter cases. I have two months of posts from last autumn confirming old-school levelling still works its wonders. WoW Classic proved that. But Blood of Luclin proves that other approaches can work equally well, can be equally satisfying, equally compelling.

After years of attempts to reconcile access to current and end game content with a long tail of legacy gameplay centered on levelling, it looks as though developers are finally begining to find a format that works. If you relish the old ways, WoW's Classic and EQ/EQII's Progression servers have you covered. If you just want to get to the new stuff, EQII's level boosts and supercharged xp and WoW's upcoming Level Squish gets you where you need to be, fast.

I'm sure we'll see more iteration on these systems but at last we seem to be getting somewhere: player choice. I'd love to see EverQuest, Lord of the Rings Online and Final Fantasy XIV, among many others, develop and expand on these ideas.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a Wizard and a Warlock to level. I'm off work until Wednesday. That'll should give me plenty of time.


  1. This sounds very much to my liking. I always loathed leveling taking too damn long. In my opinion that (mostly) only serves to segregate the playerbase and/or make people run out of steam and quit.

    Back in '15, when ArcheAge raised the cap for character- and skill tree levels from 50 to 55 it took huge amounts of XP all of a sudden. Up to 50 it had been a breeze (relatively speaking).
    Going from character level 50 to 55 was already a huge grind, also leveling some more skill trees was completely out of the question for me. Hence my ability to switch classes on the fly went out the window.

    Fortunately it's been changed at some point. Your character level isn't capped at 55 anymore, so you can still grind for a very long time if you so wish. Skill trees still only go to 55 though, making leveling all of them to max level perfectly viable again.

    1. I'm strongly in favor of retaining traditional levelling but increasingly I see a future in which that is hived off onto Classic servers, where those who like that sort of thing can have the experience they enjoy. For what is most likely going to be the majority of the audience, a much more streamlined experience is going to be welcome. I see no reason why it should be an either/or for any game with a large enough audience to justify the split.

      That does leave the question of what happens in brand new MMORPGs, assuming we ever get another one. Will they move away from levelling as a structural given? And if they do, what will replace it? I suspect we'll keep getting levels even if they aren't actually caled "Levels" any more but maybe someone will come up with an amazing alternative none of us has thought of yet.

    2. Imho we already have better alternatives.

      Pre-NGE Star Wars Galaxies, The Secret World, Ultima Online and ArcheAge all do/did it way better than standard level-systems, if you ask me (ArcheAge still has levels, but like I said, those are pretty irrelevant again nowadays).

      But, yeah, I'm totally up for some really new, cool idea. I'm just not sure it's actually possible to do away with stuff to 'level up' completely.

      Some mechanics are just needed to make an MMORPG work I guess. They might get a new coat of paint every now and then, but they're still there.

      GW2's whole 'No-Trinity' thing didn't work out so well either after all (again, in my opinion)...

    3. The Secret World is the textbook example of having levels without actually using the word "level" as demonstrated by Funcom adding "Levels" to Secret World Legends without needing to change the gameplay at all. Skill-based systems like UO and SWG split leveling out onto separate tracks, which is a kind of smoke-and-mirrors illusion. It's still leveling even if what you're leveling are skills. And ArcheAge, as you say, has levels. Looking back to a post I wrote about the game in October 2014 I said "Last night my one and only ArcheAge character, a Battlerage Novice of the Crescent Throne, dinged 25". I remember it playing just like any other traditional MMORPG back then, which was one of the things I liked about it.

      GW2 tried to have it's cake and eat it (in SO many ways...) by having 80 levels at launch - a lot - and then making them go so fast it took about a couple of weeks of casual play to hit the cap. Then they never added any more, which has, in my opinion, not served them particularly well as a model. We certainly haven't seen anyone else copy them since...

  2. Since BoL launch I have made it through from 110 to 120 with my berserker, as well as 100 to 120 a Paladin and a Templar. Honestly, the Plane of Magic leveling path seemed fairly sprightly to me when I first did it before the expansion launched. The only hitch is the need to gain enough standing with a local faction to advance the signature quest line. But at least there are three different factions to play through. But BoL is lightning fast.

    I get what you mean about realizing how classes play. The berserker was a bit hamstrung until I got gear better settled. The paladin was a bit slow even with potency bumped up, but that is a tank and alt healing class in EQII, so no surprise I guess. But my templar zipped through things with his paladin merc tanking for him and just zapping stuff along the way.

    The question now is how many more alts do I level up. I only have one more level 100, an SK with an inquisitor merc and then the level 110 booster I can use on another alt, but which one? After that I have a bunch of level 25-50 chars that I am not sure I want to spend the time getting all the way up to cap, even with a 60% or 80% xp boost. We shall see.

    1. Yes, I liked the tripartite format of Plane of Magic too. I did it once all the way through for each of the three factions and then partially three more times just as far as I needed to cap out. It was much better than Chaos Descending, which I found hard work. I only did that one once and it took me six months to finish it. Luckily there was no level cap increase for that one so I didn't need to repeat it.

      I'm sitting on two Level 110 boosts and one Level 100 so I'll almost certainly use those. I'm out of free character slots but I have a pile of Daybreak Cash saved up from the old SOE triple SC sales. I'll be glad to have something to spend it on. I already have an SK in the 90s but he's on another server. I could pay to transfer him but I might just make another. Other than that, I'm not sure what classes I might try. I've always thoughgt a Fury would be good but I've never managed to get one going yet...

    2. I played a Fury a long time ago. Pretty fun, and not bad at dealing damage either.

      That said, I too really like Templar/Inquisitor, and those are more fun to me.
      Reactive heals are just great. They strike the perfect balance insofar that I'm still healing (putting wards on someone doesn't feel like healing to me), but only when actually needed so I don't overheal too much.

      HoTs are cool too though. If I had to choose between playing another DPS class or a non-cleric healer I'd play a Fury, hands down.

  3. I've not played that much yet but it is breezy in comparison to older content. I'm happy with the difficulty level as well after re-gearing on zone in to Luclin. I'm on tradeskill quests at the moment as a priority to unlock flying. I may have accidentally switched onto the adventuring timeline when first zoning into Seru, I'd forgotten about the step before out in the Blinding and arrived in Seru with quest feathers - nevermind they were the wrong colour. So his progression is a bit mixed-up now. I have only two (old cap) capped adventurer characters so will get them levelled first. After that it's looking at what I could boost - I too feel like this would be a really good expansion to get several classes to cap. I usually dislike repeating involved story content too soon, so we'll see how long this lasts. Legion is the one expansion in WoW where I drove past that instinct the most, but then that had the carrot of class-specific story chains...

    1. There's at least one point where the Adventure and Tradeskill questlines conflict. They use the same NPC and if you do them in the wrong order she's in the wrong state. The adventure line has to be done first for that stage, I believe. I had both running on my first character, though, and I didn't encounter any problems, although it was a bit confusing, talking to the same person and having her behave as if I'd never met her.

  4. I have been sitting on a lvl 110 boost too. After reading this, I might boost my low level necro. Have not played a caster in awhile. I have a lvl 100 tradeskill too. Probably use that for a jeweler to make a few spell upgrades for my ranger which is my main. Spell upgrades are insanely expensive right now.

    I am not sold on the super fast leveling. Why bother with raising the cap at all? Just leave it at 110.

    Anyway, I am about half way through the adventure signature line and taking my time exploring. I am enjoying this expansion a lot so far.


Wider Two Column Modification courtesy of The Blogger Guide