Monday, December 21, 2020

Second Impression

As the launch date for EverQuest II's most recent expansion Reign of Shadows receeds into the distance and I progress further through the signature storyline to see more of the new instances and open world zones I think it's time for something I'm going to call my Second Impressions post. No one ever really does those, do they?

First impressions are always both important and influential. Countless mmo developers over the years have complained of players who bail from games within minutes or even seconds because they don't like what they've seen in the tutorial or the starting zone. As any autological afficionado of tired cliches knows, you never get a second chance to make a first impression. But what happens after that?

Review culture dictates that would-be reviewers make a decent amount of progress before passing judgment. The current Cyberpunk 2077 firestorm over stellar reviews for what history may record as one of the least ready-for-release games of all time doesn't even focus on the impossibility of assessing such a vast and sprawling nest of possibilities in a review, just on the simple fact that so many people can't get the damn thing to run on the hardware it's advertized for in the first place.

Mmorpgs are notoriously hard to review, either on release or in service, for the simple reason that they're open-ended. In latter years the concept of "finishing" an mmorpg has gained some traction as developers move to a cadence that resembles a series of staged, finite releases chained together but at heart most games in the genre remain uncompletable.

There's also the fractional nature of the games themselves. More than any other genre, mmorpgs represent a variety of largely unrelated game-types welded together, some with more elegance and efficiency than others. It's perfectly possible for an mmorpg to contain enough content in a subsidiary element to make up a standalone game and for that content to be orders of magnitude more complete and finished than the rest. Housing in Wildstar or Rift, for example, or battleground PvP in Warhammer Online.

Purple is definitely Luclin's signature color.


The impossibility of the task doesn't stop anyone attempting it, naturally. Does it ever? And the eternal mutability of mmorpgs allows for endless revisiting and re-evaluation. You could review some mmorpgs on a quarterly schedule for the lifetime of the games and rationally deliver a different verdict every time. 

More than that, the very nature of mmorpg gameplay (progressive, recursive, divergent) strongly supports open-ended, iterative, cumulative, revisionist re-evaluation across an indeterminate and possibly indeterminable number of nodal points. Snapshot reviews of moments of gameplay are about as likely to reveal truths about the wider game as would supposedly considered overviews of the gestalt.

Of those countless possible review-points, the moment when you first sit back and think about how far you've come may be one of the more significant. The first gosh-wow rush is over. You have an idea of what the artists can do with the tools they've been given. You have your feet under you with the mechanics. The characters are no longer strangers and the plot is starting to unfold. You've played long and broadly enough to get a feel for how things are going. Above all you're beginning to be able to separate a feeling of well-sustained entertainment from the raw rush of novelty.

As of close of play last night I find myself about halfway through the signature adventure questline for Reign of Shadows. According to the wiki walkthrough (which I have been using but sparingly) it has ten parts and I am in the middle of part six. I haven't been counting but I would estimate getting to that point has taken maybe ten or twelve hours and I haven't really done a whole lot beyond other than explore the zones and complete their stories.

As the full timeline shows, in terms of questing alone everything I've done so far represents maybe, at most, a fifth of the new content, not counting the collections. I still have a new city and an overland zone to see along with a number of instanced "dungeons". And I haven't even mentioned the new race.

That's a lot of content ahead of me. At my speed of play I could conservatively estimate another fifty or sixty hours if I tried to complete it all and that only on my first character. It's highly likely I'll play through almost all of it on at least one more and portions on several. For the cost of the basic expansion pack that's a lot of value.

I've been everywhere, man. Everywhere in Fordel Midst, anyway.

It's not about quantity, though, is it?

Yeah, it is. Who do we think we're fooling? In an mmorpg it's always about quantity. Mmo players are an insatiable maw into which hagard developers desperately hurl anything and everything in a frenzied, flailing effort to keep the ship from running aground on the sandbar of content drought. Yes, players complain bitterly about "grind" and "filler" and "rote content" but the time to worry is when you can't hear them complaining any more because that's when they'll all have left your game to go look for another that gives them something, anything, to do.

If you can somehow aspire to pump out content that's actually entertaining as well... well, that's the dream, isn't it? Reign of Shadows looks to have the quantity covered but how about the quality? I think I'm far enough along to take a shot at answering that one.

Last year's Blood of Luclin was one of my favorite expansions for years, the caveat being I'm a very soft target. I'd be hard put to name an EQII expansion I don't like, although I can name a couple I didn't like much when they were new, even if I always came around in the end. As I was playing last night I found myself wondering whether Reign of Shadows was going to turn out even better than BoL.

It is too early for that kind of assessment. That's a "final mark" kind of review and I won't get to that this side of Easter. What I can say is that as far as I can remember it, I'm enjoying Reign of Shadows more at the point I've reached than I was enjoying Blood of Luclin at the same stage last year. And I was enjoying BoL then a lot.

The expansions, like all recent EQII expansions, are structurally very similar. The devs have a format and a framework and they don't vary it much from year to year. The difference this time around is in how powerful my character feels and how in control.

Always bear in mind everything here is from the perspective of a committed, experienced but ultimately casual solo player. I put in the hours but I don't make an effort beyond what's fun for me. I'll slog through a tough instance once, on one character, for progression purposes but I won't go back to something like that to grind out power. Same with levelling, although there I'll be happy to take two or three characters through enough of the content to cap out.

The new Grimling Forest. A heck of a lot prettier than the one I remember.
Last year saw a change to the established process of grinding through relatively challenging (or just tedious) content to get to the sweet spot where it all starts to feel as easy as it was in the middle of the previous era. BoL added ten levels but instead of taking days or even weeks to hit cap it took just a few hours. It was a shock but once I got accustomed to the new pace I loved it. 

This year there's no level increase but the new focus on making things snap seems to be with us still. The drag anchor on progress last year was the sheer number of mobs you had to kill to get through the instanced dungeons, coupled with the length of time it took an averagely-geared solo character to whittle them down.  

Add to that the prevalence of bosses with major power-drains and getting through a new instance could become a slog. The very first set of combat instances in BoL's solo questline, the ones set in Sanctus Seru, went very slowly indeed. I think the first run through the first instance took me a couple of hours and it wasn't until quite late in the sequence that running an instance took me much less than half that.

In itself that was fast compared to previous expansions, where I would regularly set aside a two hour period when I could rely on not being interrupted before setting foot in a new storyline dungeon. This year the three instances I've done so far have run to less than two hours in total.

For a solo player they just feel better-designed. There are far fewer "trash" mobs and the mechanics of the bosses are both less punishing and less annoying. Instead of an over-reliance on clever boss tricks imperfectly cut to size from raid mechanics, a fresh-feeling use of out of combat gimmicks like zip-lines and breakable walls keeps things interesting, along with a welcome expectation that you'll maybe be willing to explore your environment a tad more than a grouped player might.

I do have featherfall, you know.

The really big difference for me, though, reminds me of last year's decision to put leveling on fast-forward. For RoS I went in wearing all the new panda gear, having failed to notice the Tishan's Lockbox right next to the spawn-in at the Nexus. It was only when I read Telwyn's first impressions post that I realized we were even getting free upgrade gear this time around. 

By then I'd already finished the first set of instances in Echo Caverns wearing last-years gear and I'd had no problem at all. I'd been finding the"heroic" mobs about as easy to kill in the fist instance as they'd been towards the end of the storyline in BoL. 

As I mentioned in an earlier post I'd been finding the quest reward gear a little confusing. It didn't look better in all respects than the panda stuff. After looking at the Tishan's armor I finally figured out why. You need to take a holistic view. Whereas individual pieces may actively downgrade certain stats by comparison, that's because the overall power levels are balanced with the full panoply of quest rewards in play. 

I started taking the itemization on trust and equipping each quest reward as I received it, including all the ones I already had in my bags. My stats did indeed begin to grow across the board and my time-to-kill to increase accordingly. As I tore through the first of the Savage Weald instances last night trash mobs fell before my berserker's whirling blade like dandelions before the scythe. He was able to go toe-to-toe with bosses and bear down through their special tricks, supported by his increasingly-reliable Celestial mercenary.

This mushroom king has an instant death mechanic but it's very easy to avoid.
It was fun. A lot of fun. I hugely prefer this apoach to the delaying tactics we've been used to over the years. It makes the storyline (with which I find myself surprisingly engaged, even though it's mostly gibberish) feel considerably more fluid and strongly encourages me to look forward to replaying the same content with different characters.

It's a gamble on the developers' part. Making things "easier" and faster always risks boring the more prepared players. If my berzerker's racing through this stuff with what he's wearing, imagine what it must be like for a raid-geared character. But then, group and raid oriented players have long complained about being forced to complete solo signature questlines to open access to the content they're interested in. It's unlikely they'll complain about getting it done faster, whereas solo players have had plenty to say about things being too tough for them over the past few years, especially in the opening stages of an expansion.

And these days it often seems like everyone plays alts. Having a lot of characters used to be a niche playstyle but that was partly because levelling and gearing took so long. The easier and faster it gets, the more people want to do it, it seems.

Does this flying license come with a gas mask?


I've tired it the easy way and the hard way and I have to say the easy way suits me better. With things moving so fast, I'm excited to get in and play. I'm keen to open all the zones, fight all the bosses, complete all the instances and finish all the quests. And then do it again with my Necromancer. And my Inquisitor. And my Wizard.

I'm also delighted with the way the developers have handled flying this time around. The ability to fly is directly tied to the zone storyline in ways that nearly make sense. The zones are really well designed, engaging and fascinating to explore on foot, but by the time you earn the right to fly you should have covered most of the main areas. Taking to the air then opens up a whole new set of places to explore. The whole process turns what could have felt like a punishment into a positive pleasure. It's so much more effective than the mechanical reputation grind that soured so many players' experience in World of Warcraft.

And, like the instances, it's fast. I can already fly in the two overland zones I've opened. It took just long enough for me to feel the benefit and nowhere long enough for me to feel the need.

After almost a week, as I sit back and consider my achievements so far, my second impressions of Reign of Shadows are overwhelmingly positive. I'm nowhere near ready yet to say whether I prefer it to the excellent Blood of Luclin but things are very much off to a good start.

And I haven't even looked at the tradeskill timeline yet. Historically, that's often been the storyline I've preferred. Good times ahead!


  1. MMOs are fascinating beasts. The game you buy isn't the game you will play in 2 months. Most have a breadth that defies reviews (this post is a good example). Some have so much depth that even a month doesn't give a good idea.

    Impressions are good, but how do you review something that never ends? Or something that is so dependent on subjective experience?

    And really, does it even matter for an MMO?

    1. The more complex and ambitious games get, the less amenable to traditional review processes they become. Reviewing movies, books and music is a recognized and respected career with decades (going on centuries) of precedent and prestige. There are reviewers in those fields with reputations as high and long as any of the creators they reviewed. Games, though? It's an artform that increasingly eludes the scope of the review process. As a lifelong fan of criticism, in which reviewing stands as an important pillar, I'd love to see the same standards applied, but in a form where just playing through a single iteration of a multifaceted storyline can take a week or more, it's hard to see that happening.


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