Saturday, July 13, 2019

Good Things Come: EQ2

I finally got it done. Yesterday, I finished the Signature questline from last year's Chaos Descending expansion. Only took me about nine months.

As the ever-reliable EQ2Fandom wiki attests, there was plenty to do. There always is in an EverQuest II expansion. You can also rely on the rewards being excellent and the pacing well-judged.

There's a feeling that Daybreak know their market for the EverQuest games these days. From my perspective as a solo player, and with EQII not being my only MMORPG, it seems a very convincing argument.

Every year I eagerly await the next expansion. I pre-order at the first opportunity and start playing as soon as it arrives. If I go at it hard it tends to last me a month to six weeks before I've done the bulk of what interests me. If I take it in sips it can last me most of the year.

The approach and style of each expansion varies somewhat. Every pack sees a new wrinkle. There's enough variety to keep things fresh. In essence, though, it's a gear reset every year, a level-cap raise every other. There's usually a new system or mechanic and some tweaks to how the old ones work.

And there's always a story. In fact, there are two. Unlike just about any other MMORPG I can think of, except possibly for FFXIV (although even there I don't believe crafters get a separate storyline) EQII follows a genuine dual path for Adventuring and Crafting.

It's completely viable to have characters who only craft and still have a well-developed, structured throughline from creation to cap that includes everything an Adventurer could expect. There are signature questlines at all levels, side-quests, storylines, upgradeable gear and tools, important NPCs to meet, titles to earn, achievements, you name it. There are even craft raids.

What's more, if you really wanted, you could be a max-level crafter with the best gear and recipes and all the perks and still never have swung a sword or cast a spell in battle. Having adventure levels does make it easier on occasion, particularly if you plan on gathering your own materials, but you even get abilities and tools to help with that if you want to be a total pacifist.

Just by the nature of things, in recent expansions the crafting questlines have tended to be faster to finish. Yes, some of the combines take a while and sneaking about in dangerous dungeons can slow things down, but compared to the frequent, lengthy boss battles and instance-clears required of an Adventurer, the tradeskill timeline seems to fly by.

There's a huge difference between hitting the new level cap and completing the questline for both disciplines. Capping out tends to be much faster, with crafting being the quicker of the two. There was a time when getting enough xp from the main questlines to reach cap was considered a problem but those days are long behind us.

Instead, in years where the number next to my name goes up, I tend to be less than half-way through the story by the time that number stops. It happened this year, which has something to do with why I've been meandering through the questline ever since. Something clicks in when I top out on levels, telling me I'm done when really I'm nowhere even near.

Solo content in EQII is so well-tuned these days that I rarely feel the bumps. What with the Panda quests and the day one free handouts, anyone paying attention should be able to start each new expansion at a comfortable jog-trot. The advice even for raiders is usually to start with the solo timeline because there's likely to be an upgrade in it somewhere, even for them.

It's not always something that just bumps your stats, either. Some of the most useful rewards I've received from finishing the signature quests of expansions are utility items or abilities. The Altar of Malice expansion from 2014, for example, gives you the ability to reclaim adornments from your gear. The skill is infinitely re-usable with no cooldown, making a task that was once impossible, then awkward and time consuming, as simple as a couple of mouse-clicks.

I was very glad of that yesterday when I took possession of an impressively glowy two-hander, the Abyss Reaver, Avenger of Tides. This mighty weapon, a significant upgrade to my trusty Blessed Aethersteel Greatsword, comes with no fewer than six adornment slots.

In moments I was able to remove five from my sword using the Adornment Replacement skill and slot them into the Reaver. There are a number of other ways to do this if you haven't completed the expansion but none nearly so quick or convenient.

Finishing the expansion signature lines is highly rewarding for practical reasons, then, but I would also contend that, at least for anyone already steeped in the lore of the game, it's worth doing for the stories, too. Storylines in both EverQuest games tend to stretch out over years - even decades, becoming knotted and tangled one with another. I rarely have much of a clue what's going on or why.

That, though, seems to me to be the strength of the game's storytelling rather than its weakness. Playing EQ for so many years, every new twist and turn of the plot has the sense of a real-life event. Great powers move and we feel the ripples.

Everything happens on a geo-political scale. Even a powerful, connected character, the position a max-level inevitably finds themselves occupying simply by dint of having been there for so long, is still a tool in the hands of the real major players - gods and demigods, queens and potentates, liches and archmages and elemental powers.

Old friends and enemies turn up when you least - and most - expect them. There's a perpetual sense of a living, breathing world behind and around as names you vaguely remember crop up and characters you thought you'd see the last of reappear to make trouble for you once again.

Chaos Descending concluded for me yesterday afternoon with a somewhat less than epic battle with Najena. Najena has been around since the very beginning. Starting as a "young, brilliant magician" under the protectorship of King Cristanos Thex of Neriak, Najena was given a research facility in the Lavastorm mountains, where she performed "her own personal agendas and experiments".

The lair was given her name, becoming the Dungeon known only as Najena. I spent many, many hours hunting there. Najena herself survived the Shattering of Norrath that followed the destruction of the moon, Luclin. Her lair was still there, blocked by boulders, when I reached Lavastorm again in EQII.

I last saw her in the Kunark Ascending expansion, where she was one of the four mentors or trainers for the first iteration of the Ascension system. She represented the element of fire and was my Berserker's trainer when I chose Elementalist as my first Ascended class.

I think that might be why she called him "pet" when they met in battle yesterday. She always called him that when she was training him. Or maybe she comes from Sheffield. Whatever the reason, it felt personal when we met once again.

That kind of immersion or connection can only be built with time spent. I would be the first to admit that EQII's storytelling is nothing special, even by video-gaming's historically low standards, but that doesn't matter. I know these people and that counts for so much more.

So, those are some of the game's great strengths, and only some. As I repeat ad nauseam, I believe that, for a player such as myself, the game has never been in a better place.

Which isn't to say that I think it's perfect. Or even safe. I'm far from convinced that I am the audience Daybreak wants or needs to please. I pay my annual subscription and I buy my expansion once a year and that's it. I always buy the basic version, too, because it gives me everything I need.

If I was more of a veteran, though, a Heroic Group player or a Raider, I don't think I'd be nearly as happy. Where my progression ends is where theirs begins. To perform even adequately at those rarified levels these days requires major investment either of time or, more likely, money.

Over the past few years DBG have re-designed the endgame to rely on a wider range of upgraded spells. The spectrum runs from Apprentice to Ancient, encompasing seven tiers. Time was, all you needed was your Masters. Now you need Ancient if you can get it, Grandmaster if not.

The upgrade path used to be clear. You got your Apprentice spells free at level, Adepts would drop comonly enough to be traded cheaply on the Broker, Masters less commonly and more expensively but still they were there. In between, crafters would make and sell Journeyman and Expert spells. Everyone got what they needed, eventually, in game, for Platinum.

Not any more. Over the years the game has moved to what many would call a full pay-to-win model. All spells can be "researched" by anyone. It's not a skill or a craft. It's offline training.

You get free research on every character over a certain level but you have to remember to use it - it's not automated. At low levels it's extremely fast and very good. Later on, less so. My Berserker is currently researching a Level 109 ability to take it from Journeyman to Adept. It will take him 24 real-life days. You can't skip a stage, either. To upgrade you must already have the previous tier in your book.

Taking an Ascension spell from Master to Grandmaster at that level takes more than fifty days.  Or you can buy an "Instant Upgrade" via a button in the UI. Every day you cut will cost you 49DBC, meaning a fifty day upgrade could be yours today for something like $25.

While that was just an option for whales no-one seemed to care very much. Then Daybreak turned off the drops. Masters, always rare, became virtually unknown, even in raids. Adepts, the bread and butter of leveling and regular play, went from dropping commonly to become even rare than Masters used to be.

What with that, and the addition of the mistrusted Ascension system, which many players feel devalues their class choice and turns everyone into a Wizard, and which also has to be researched in the same way, there's a feeling that the pips are being squeezed dry. How true that is is hard to assess, particularly from my ironically-priveliged position in the cheap seats at the back.

I worry, though, that in the necessary drive to keep the game profitable by serving a very specific and fixed customer base, the dial may have been pushed a little too far in the direction of bringing the money in. Fan service gets a bad name for some very good reasons but in this case I hope this year's expansion is at least a little more directed towards the hardcore and their needs than the last few have been.

Turning the Adept and Master taps back on would help a lot. People didn't seem to mind paying to get to the top tiers so much. It's having to pay all the way that's hacked them off. Then again, crafters who make Experts must be laughing all the way to the bank. Hmm.. Come to think of it, I have a Scholar who can do that...

As always, you can't please all of the people all of the time. When it comes down to it you have to make a choice. As a dirty casual I've had a very good run these last few years. If next expansion sees the wheel turn a litle towards the Heroes and Raiders, I won't be complaining.

Well, not much...


  1. Oh crap, I wasn't even aware of those drop rate changes.

    Like you the scarcity of Masters never affected me all that much since I stopped raiding around '08 or '09. Crafting the Experts myself and only upgrading the most important spells by just waiting was more than enough for my needs.

    But imagining the situation as you descibe it...pretty horrible tbh. I wouldn't have thought they'd go this far, considering how consumer-friendly they still are otherwise.

    1. I wish someone who's actually involved in the Heroic/Raid endgame read and commented here because I have to take my soundings from places like the official forums, which have been a breeding ground for discontent for far longer than Daybreak have been around. EQ2 players, historically, are an extremely negative bunch, or at least the ones who post on forums always have been.

      My experience on Adept drops from around level 100 up, though, is that they are at least as uncommon now as Masters used to be. The upside is that theysell for a fortune when you get one, or they do when there's been a level cap rise. And since in EQ2 you never, ever get a spell drop for the class you play, that's very welcome.

      Also on the upside, the current system has really brought crafting into its own. The advice at the start of a new expansion nowadays always seems to be "get full mastercrafted" for arrmor and the rares to make Expert spells are no harder to get than they ever were, as far as I can tell.

      The problem seems to kick in once you get to T1 Heroics, which I have never done. When I was last playing the Group game, dungeons in EQII didn't even have tiers. I don't like the tiered dungeon progression system in any game so it's unlikely to affect me, whatever they do with it. I'm just a bit wary of what might happen if the people who do that sort of stuff finally decide it's not worth it any more. They're probably the ones keeping the lights on...

  2. It doesn't affect me either, but I do appreciate the general difficulty pitch of the non-raid content. I too look forward to a new expansion, I'll be doing the summer gearing event this year again to get a couple of characters ready. Oh and FFXIV has crafting quests for all the tradeskill professions, but they are only every 5 levels (as are adventuring class quests) and, IMHO, the storytelling isn't as involved as in EQ2 as a result of how fragmented they are.

    1. Oddly, I have never crafted in FFXIV (or not since the original, pre-ARR version). I really should do that.

      Can't wait for the Panda's next set of explorations!


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