Sunday, November 27, 2016

Added Value : EQ2

As predicted, A Crack In The Ice, put something of a crimp in my progress through Kunark Ascending's main quest sequences. The crafting timeline had already come to a standstill pending acquisition of the nine crafted items required to complete Proof of the Pudding but I was still making steady progress on the Adventure side until GW2 butted in with the latest installment of what we are now apparently supposed to call "The Living World".

One of the many joys of GW2 these days seems to be the complete abandonment of any sense of temporal congruity. I have a post simmering concerning time in MMOs, the idea for which came to me partly from a dementedly complicated time-travel novel I read recently and partly from GW2's increasingly inaccurately named "Current Events".

There's plenty of good stuff to be had from the crafting timeline even if you can't produce your Earring of the Solstice as evidence of your Grandmaster status. Having a goblin gardener with his own quest line in your house is reward enough.

I'll save the analysis for that post, if I ever get around to writing it, but suffice to say for now that if there's one thing GW2 no longer suffers from it's any sense of urgency. There's always a desire to rush through anything new (a desire not shared by everyone) but once I've been through the story instances on a single character and opened all of the new map I feel entirely free to come and go as I please.

Yesterday I changed frontiers, giving Bitterfrost a break, returning to a semi-structured amble through Obolus Frontier instead. It's really an excellently designed zone;  a pleasure to explore. Mob density is very comfortable and there are many safe spots where you can relax and enjoy the varied and detailed scenery. Visibility can sometimes be difficult, what with the lush vegetation and the designers' infatuation with color filters, but compared to the plethora of aggressive wildlife and the ultra-harsh weather conditions of Bitterfrost, Obolus feels almost literally like a walk in the park.

I've done two of the solo instances so far and they have both been excellent. This is Crypt of Dalnir, which could more accurately be called "Sewers of Dalnir". I would probably not have made it without the wiki walkthrough and even with it it took two hours but it never felt too long or too difficult.

My opinions are perhaps not the best standard by which to judge EQ2 expansions. The original Kunark expansion, 2007's "Kunark Rising", now regarded as a high-water mark for the game, irritated me so much on first release that I stopped playing EQ2 entirely for six months and went back to EverQuest instead.

When I returned and did Kunark again I loved it. Like almost every part of Norrath I now think of it with fondness. That's the extreme example of what has often been my reaction to additions to the game: cool at first, warming to approval, even affection, over time.

A change in design philosophy of late has broken that paradigm somewhat. Almost unnoticed, those ambitious, sprawling, often overwhelming expansions of the first few years have given way to a tighter, more focused, directed experience. Chains of Eternity, Tears of Veeshan, Altars of Malice, Terrors of Thalumbra - in some ways they all play more like single-player RPGs than MMOs.

For example, I'd completely forgotten about destructible walls, first introduced all the way back in The Bloodline Chronicles Adventure Pack in 2005. I walked right past the deeply recessed, raised alcove I needed to break through and it was only when I'd cleared everything and was stumped enough to go to the wiki that I realized you do need to look up now and again.

In terms of how I approach them, the sequence, reported in some detail on this blog, is straightforward: I buy the new expansion. I play through the Adventure and Crafting Timelines. That takes somewhere from three to six weeks. If there's an increase to the level cap I may also do a little more to top that off. I potter around for a bit longer and then I drift away until the next update arrives.

For an MMO that is no longer my main time-filler, one that I play for a dozen hours on a heavy week rather than thirty or forty, that's exactly what I need. It's fun, manageable and satisfying. I have a single character (yes, I suppose I must admit it, a "main") as far as Adventuring is concerned and two or three Crafters at the cap. The rest of my extensive roster isn't troubled by recent content at all.

One big difference between Kunark Ascending and previous expansions is the tying of both the Adventuring and Crafting Signature questlines to older content. At first I was a little wary of being pushed into doing some lengthy quests like the Greenmist Heritage and the aforementioned crafter epic "Proof of the Pudding" that I'd previously avoided.

I admit to feeling a ridiculous sense of satisfaction at this point.

Having made my way a good distance through both KA timelines, however, I have to say that having these pre-reqs is a jolly good wheeze. Although I'm still approaching the content in solo-RPG mode, the whole storyline feels significantly more integrated into the virtual world by dint of those hark-backs to earlier times.

Having to prepare for the expansion adds weight, texture and even a little gravitas. My Berserker feels part of the story in a way that's qualitatively different as a direct result of having taken part in the build-up. I hope this trend continues and is expanded upon.

As must be obvious by now, I'm pretty happy with Kunark Ascending. I liked last year's Terrors of Thalumbra well enough but this is a big step up from there. A cursory look at what's offered in a modern-day EQ2 expansion, either under SOE or now as they arrive under the DBG imprimatur, might suggests a diminution in content and a concomitant reduction in value but that would be a false impression. The reverse is the case, at least from the perspective of a mostly-solo player.

All modern EQ2 dungeons are constructed on a scale that makes the older ones feel poky and claustrophobic. I strongly feel that the increased headroom and sense of space makes dungeoneering a much more pleasant and enjoyable experience.

The design brief for expansions, not only in EQ2, used to tend towards several overland areas which would accommodate all of whatever solo content there might be, often in tandem with some group or raid content as well. The rest of the new zones, whether instanced or open, would be "dungeons" scaled either for groups or raids.

Sentinel's Fate, for example, added fourteen zones to Norrath but even though EQ2 was at that time my main MMO and I had a number of characters at the level cap, when I bought and played the expansion at launch I was able to make use of only two of them. Kunark Ascending, by contrast, comes with just seven discrete zones - Obulus Frontier, Arcanna'se Spire, Crypt of Dalnir, Vaedenmoor, Kaesora, The Ruins of Cabilis and Lost City of Torsis - but all bar the raid zone Vaedenmoor are available for both solo and group play.

This sarcophagus is interactable but I couldn't figure out why. I do like an unresolved mystery.

The upshot of all this is that I find the newer expansions to be both much better value and a lot more fun than the old ones often were. EQ2 has become a very specific kind of MMO, very well-tailored to the players it has, playing to its strengths and making the most of its limited resources. Ironically, in doing so, the game has also become more accessible and better-suited to new players than it ever has been.

The expansion comes with a max-level character, geared appropriately to begin current solo content. I wouldn't necessarily recommend learning the ropes that way but if you want to cut to the chase you can. More usefully, the re-fitting of most of the existing dungeons in the game to a "Level Agnostic" format that allows almost all levels to group together has opened up a dozen years of co-operative content at a stroke.

Photo-bombed by a pony. Again.

Were it possible to send the current EQ2 back ten years, configured as it is now, I feel it would stand every chance of being a major success. Sadly, it took those ten years to get it to the point where it might have a hope in a very competitive market. The window of opportunity has closed. Few gamers are interested in giving older games a chance unless it's for a brief nostalgia hit. Especially games whose optimization and graphics can't help but show their age.

Fortunately I don't have to concern myself with how many new players EQ2 can attract. Not, at least, while the game retains enough old players to keep the lights on. For my $34.99, Kunark Ascending is shaping up to be a top notch expansion, one that I'm very happy indeed to have the pleasure of playing. Highly recommended.


  1. I'm back in Planetside 2 after playing some ESO, ARK, and a new PvP game on Steam called Tiger Knight. And PS2 seems like it's the best it's ever been.

    The MMO side of DBG seems to be doing very well. It's tempting to say this is because Smed left, but he was the one who championed the introduction of construction to PS2, instead of changing other tactical dynamics in the game. Time has shown this was the right choice I think.

    It seems like the playerbase of H1Z1 is pretty salty though. It's hard to judge if this is just the typical complainers that come along with the sort of game, or if it is being mishandled somehow. It is still riding high in the Steam stats.

    - Simon

    1. Interesting to hear something about PS2 and H1Z1. Like DCUO, they're probably both bringing in more players and money for DBG than EQ/EQ2/Landmark but hardly anyone in this part of the blogosphere ever mentions them.

      The biggest change I've noticed since Columbus Nova took over and Smed left is a much tighter and more effective focus. There seem to be fewer random off-the-wall projects (although there are still a few - remember the prison server?) and mostly when something is announced it happens very soon after. Also I definitely think the recent releases have been less buggy and more finished than they tended to be under SoE.

      On balance I feel more comfortable as a consumer with the product now but less comfortable with the service. SoE's customer service was exemplary whereas DBG's is non-existent. It's a trade-off I guess

  2. DCUO definitely seems to be more popular on consoles. In fact, I assume it's one of the only console MMORPGs, along with ESO.

    There is some overlap between the PS2 audience and more traditional MMO's. They tend to be the more sci-fi oriented ones though. I know one of the big NC Outfits on my server is also in SWTOR, and one on TR is also in The Repopulation, and apparently started in SWG (Angels of Death).

    PS2 is on consoles too. Consoles dumb MMOs down for sure, but I guess it makes them healthier financially. Though when PS2 was ported to the Playstation it came through without too much detriment except for aircraft, which were changed to an analog control system so they could be flown on consoles. Droves of skyknights apparently quit, and they still complain about it to this day.

    - Simon


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