Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Crystal Blue Persuasion


I'm very aware that I've been posting some intimidatingly long and wordy impressions of the new EverQuest II expansion, Reign of Shadows. It's a bit much to expect people who don't - and probably never - will play the game to plow through thousands of words of nit-picking detail about systems, mechanics and lore.

Maybe a few more pictures would help, only EQII doesn't have much of a reputation for looks. It's almost exactly of an age with World of Warcraft but where Blizzard went for a presciently future-proofed cartoon style, Sony Online Entertainment bit down hard on the bleeding-edge capabilities of 2004-era graphics. It didn't go well for them then and it hasn't done their successors any favors since.

Worst of all, the vast bulk of the leveling game, including all the available starting instances, takes place in zones that were made long ago with the original tools. Quite a few years ago now the designers acquired a new toolset that allows them to produce landscapes and architecture orders of magnitude more beautiful and impressive but players don't really begin to see any of that until they have a character in the nineties.

There's another problem. One of the functions of the improved toolset seems to be scale. Every expansion since 2012's Chains of Eternity has a visual impact that derives in considerable part from a sense of heft. There's a sense of immensity the earlier zones just don't have, even though some of them are actually larger in terms of raw distance. 

There's a propensity for vastness in the upper levels. Huge, ethereal forests that enshroud you as you fly through their canopies, lithic crystals that burst from the ground to spear the skies, dwarfing the mountains that guard the great cities and burial places, whose monumental buildings dwarf the peoples who built them.

And the skies. EQII has some of the most wonderful skyscapes I've seen in any imagined world. The shattered moon of Luclin now made whole again; the hallucinogenic sunrises and sunsets; the patterned clouds like fabrics. Norrath, seen from Luclin, gravid and immense.

But scale does not photograph well. It's hard to capture the imposing weight and depth of these overwhelming vistas in a screenshot. You need to look up, look out, look through.

There's an option in the game to send feedback directly to the developers. Mostly it's used for reporting bugs or complaining about things you don't like but if you want to send praise it works for that, too. Last night I used the feedback option to let the art team know what I thought of their work on Reign of Shadows. 

I told them I thought it was the best they'd ever done. The overland zones are beautiful to see and exhilarating to explore. The use of color is magical. The lands tell a story that needs no words. History is written in the bleak, blued sand.

I mentioned how anxious I'd been about spending a year on the dark side of the moon but how they'd turned that fear into joy. The shadowed side of Luclin is wrapped in a cape of dreams and stars, lit by witchlight, always night but never dark.

The magnificent cities deserve their own praise. When I stepped into Shar Vahl for the first time two nights ago I was al but overcome by the sweep and scale of it, the terraced appartments clinging to the crescent cliffs around the bay, the avenues and plazas, the temples and the palaces. Cities I've seen, seascapes I know, they're there in Shar Vahl.

In recent years magnificent cityscapes have become almost so common in EQII as to pass notice but this is something special even by those standards. It seems almost indecent that a setting so dramatic, a city so decisive, should exist almost as an afterthought.

I could go on. My album is filled with studies but snapshots can't do justice to the theme. In a world where even an ants' nest looks like an expressionist fever-dream, where do you begin? 

That's all I have to say. If a picture is worth a thousand words I'm wasting my breath anyway. Let the images speak for themselves. 

But take my word for it. As good as these pictures are, all of this looks so much better still better inside the game.

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