Tuesday, May 17, 2022

A Tale Of Two Emus

One survivor of my recent, involuntary desktop cull was the icon for the Vanguard Emulator. Seeing it exposed made me realize it's been a few months since I last checked in to see how things are going. 

Longer still since I visited the forums to read up on what's changed. It's not always obvious just from playing as the detailed and informative State Of The Game post from last October emphasizes:

"While, to the player, the game might seem to be finished, there is a lot of back end work that has not been set up yet. If painting a picture requires one to start with broad strokes and finish with small details - we are still on the broad strokes - but the players see the finished painting."

As one of those players I completely concur. Every time I log in and play for an hour or two I come away with an impression of an almost fully-restored game. My Disciple is Level 13 and he can explore, quest, level , buy new skills, upgrade his gear, harvest, craft, everything you'd expect in the early levels. He can even work the levers of Civic Diplomacy.

Getting on for eight years since the Live game closed down, just to be able to do that much is phenomenal. As someone who tends to enjoy low and mid level gameplay more than endgame activity and who's very comfortable pottering around alone in a seemingly deserted world, I would be more than satisfied if the current iteration was as far as the team were able or willing to go. 

They wouldn't, though:

"...we are not finished, and we will not be finished for some time. We have come so far, but we have a long way to go. Our overall goal is to make the game as it was in its prime, pre-Free To Play Changes."

I couldn't say with any certainty what were the differences between the final subscription version of Vanguard and the first F2P ruleset. As I recall, the game began with a focus on group-play but then there were several, substantial revisions, first making the game easier, then much easier and highly soloable. Later, but well before the sunset, much of the former difficulty was restored and there was a brief focus on endgame raiding before the game went into maintenance mode and previously hard-to-get items like flying mounts were given away to anyone who wanted them.

Where the F2P conversion stands in all that and what kind of cut-off it represents for any given aspect of the game I have no clue. All I know is I found ways to enjoy every era almost equally so wherever the music stops is likely to suit me just fine.

This afternoon, when I logged in, I did what I usually do, namely saddled up and rode out to enjoy the gorgeous scenery. Even now, I find Telon one of the most beautiful virtual worlds I've ever seen. The graphics may be showing their age but, much like Lord of the Rings Online, the deep, fluid, emotional commitment behind the world-building makes the place feel preternaturally real.

By happenstance and good fortune, I ended up following one of my favorite routes in the whole game, along the riverside from Khal to Ahgram. The dry, sunbaked grassland between the two cities shimmers in a heat haze under the merciless blue sky. 

The brittle, yellow grass, taller than a young Raki, ripples in the hot wind coming down from the mountains. Dust cakes the hardened dirt road, where camels stand idle and towers cast welcome shade for the merchants as they pray for rain.

As I cantered across the plains, I found myself wondering whether the recent issues with my PC had somehow improved the graphics. Maybe the drivers I reinstalled? Everything looked even more magical than I remembered. Vanguard has always been a game whose screenshots don't quite do justice to how it feels when you're playing but I think the ones I took today come close.

I didn't do much more than ride the roads, stopping occasionally to kill a skeleton by the ruins of a temple here or a scarab beetle under a tree there. The login message explained there'd been a difficulty pass on mobs to bring them up to the required challenge level so I was curious to see if things felt tougher. So long as I stuck to the mobs I was meant to be killing solo, everything felt fine. 

When I reached the towering walls of Ahgram the sun was almost down. Long shadows darkened the waters in the harbor and the light was almost blue with dusk. It had been a glorious ride. I struggle to think of any mmorpg where I find so much pleasure in simply traveling.

Vanguard is one of the handful of online games I would miss like a friend if it wasn't there any longer so the persistence of the relationship beyond the virtual grave feels little short of miraculous. Another game I'd miss ferociously would be EverQuest II, which is worrisome, given that of all Daybreak's portfolio, EQII is probably the most at risk.

For some years I was concerned by the apparent lack of anything resembling a working emulator for the game. Although it can sometimes seem as if every lost mmorpg can be readily found again in the emulator greyscape, as Wildstar's exiled fans can attest, there's no guarantee.

With that grim thought in mind, I'm exceptionally happy to be able to confirm that today I took the Far Journey once again to disembark at the Outpost of the Overlord, where my latest ratonga necromancer, now a lofty Level 3, is resting after her efforts. It wasn't on any Live server. It happened on the EQ2 Emulator Project.

A companion to the Vanguard Emulator and linked on their website, I've looked at this one before but this is the first time I've been able to download, install and play the game. There are full instructions here, including the necessary links and I had absolutely no issues following them to get the game up and running in short order.

Once I'd made a character I was surprised to find myself watching a narrated slide show laying out the history of Norrath, from the Rallosian invasion to the Shattering. The emulator requires the Altar of Malice client, so I'm guessing this was the introduction you got back then, when you installed the game from scratch. 

I'm not sure whether I ever saw it before. Bits of it seemed vaguely familiar but that could be because I already know the story or because I've seen very similar introductions in other games. 

Whether or not it was really new to me, I watched the whole thing with both interest and pleasure. The illustrations are sumptuous, the voiceover is mellifluous and the whole thing makes for a very good primer on how the world got to be the way it is. 

Whether a genuine first-timer would get as much out of it as a veteran is another matter. I tend to feel having new players sit through long lore cut-scenes before they get to play their characters can be something of an own goal but then I guess it never did Final Fantasy XIV much harm. Compared to that carriage ride, this is barely a bump in the road.

The EQ2 emulator as it is right now, based on the very small fragment I experienced, feels considerably rougher around the edges than the Vanguard emu. Nothing wrong with how it looks or plays, more in the technicalities. 

I ran into several UI glitches in the half hour or so I spent there. None of the icons on the bar at the foot of the screen worked and I couldn't open my inventory with the keyboard shortcut. I suspect I may have glitched something by running ahead of the tutorial prompts and clicking on things before I was told to.

I'm not complaining. It makes me feel safer just knowing the emulator exists, especially since there's also the option to set up your own server. With that, it feels highly unlikely EQII fans will ever end up slumped on the Wildstar bench, out of the game for good.

I have no intention of playing on the EQII emulator regularly. I probably won't even check in on it every few months, like I do with Vanguard. I'm happy playing - and paying for - the Live version. But if that ever goes away...

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