Monday, January 25, 2021

Around And Around


If there's one thing the many the blog posts I've read on World of Warcraft's Shadowlands expansion have in common it's that they don't seem to agree on very much. I've heard people saying the open-world leveling experience is better than usual and worse than usual, that the expansion is very alt-friendly and that it doesn't really work for alts

Some people describe their experiences in Torghast in glowing terms, others aren't so keen. Everyone has their own idea of which covenant is best except for those who don't like any of them. Overall, some people think Blizzard have done a good job, others not so much. About the only thing everyone agrees on is no-one likes the Maw.

Can't say I'm all that surprised. It's probably a good sign. When expansions are genuinely below par the critical voices usually drown out the praise. If people are mainly disagreeing over which parts are good and which bad then the developers have probably got it about right.

It's all a bit notional for me since I'm not playing Shadowlands. Come to think of it, I seem to know a ridiculous amount about an  expansion of which I have no personal experience and not really all that much interest. That's WoW for you.

Reading all that did make me re-assess an mmoprg expansion that launched around the same time, one I am playing: EverQuest II's Reign of Shadows. In particular it got me thinking about EQII's current expansion gameplay loop, at least as it applies to solo players like myself.

The Darkpaw team does have one theoretical advantage over their counterparts at Blizzard. They knock out an expansion every year. With about a hundredth of the people and a thousandth of the resources, true, but at least they can remember what they did last time. Which is handy, because chances are they're going to do the same again.


 

Except not exactly. The level cap only goes up every other year and every expansion has to have at least one new feature to grab everyone's attention. Last year's Blood of Luclin had ten new levels and the Overseer system. It also had an unannounced, unexpected and, for many, unwelcome tradeskill revamp. Reign of Shadows keeps the same level cap but comes with a new race, the Vah Shir, and announced changes to the way both Alternate Advancement and Guilds progress.

Surprisingly little of that factors into my personal gameplay loop, which has remained remarkably consistent not only throughout the two Lunar expansions but the two Planar ones that preceded them and several more before that. Here's how it goes.

First things first. If the expansion has new levels I concentrate on getting those done, usually on my Berserker, who I grudgingly have to admit is my "main" these days. He's also a weaponsmith but far more importantly he's my Transmuter and Adorner, which means he also has crafting levels to work on. 

There's always a "Signature" questline for both adventurers and crafters. Each is usually lengthy, although the craft Sig felt a little shorter this year. The two traditionally carry the same main storyline but from differing perspectives, which makes doing both somewhat synergistic. 

I always start with the adventure quests, which until last year were designed to finish around and about the same time as you capped out. Blood of Luclin changed that, giving hugely increased xp, so last year I hit the cap long before I'd finished the questline. 


 

That made almost no difference to my motivation because as well as telling a story I find interesting, these quests provide regular upgrades. The final reward is either a weapon or a near-best-in-slot item. Something worth having, anyway. 

The rewards from the tradeskill line tend to be a bit fluffier - a lot of house and appearance items - but crafters are fluffy, by and large. Again, the final reward tends to be a very good piece that most players are likely to want. You also often need to complete at least one of the signature lines to get various character flags giving benefits like access to instances and allowing the use of flying mounts.

Blood of Luclin made a raft of changes to crafting that the majority of tradeskillers found detrimental to their enjoyment of the game, mostly for very sound reasons, but I personally liked them and even found them to be in my own best interests. This year, however, things are roughly back to normal, which is fine, too.

Once I've finished both the Signature questlines and completed all my levels, if there are any, the real expansion begins. For group and raid players that means the traditional round of progressively more challenging dungeons but for solo players like me it means a lot of single-use and repeatable quests.

Separate from the Signature quests, these days each expansion includes a load of quests that start with drops. In the distant past EQII had players learning languages and acquiring racial masteries from items mobs dropped. It still happens, but sparingly. The slack has been taken up by drops that give quests which send you around the new zones killing certain types of mob. That's one way you get more upgrades.


 

The other very important way adventurers can upgrade their gear without visiting a dungeon is to join in with the never-ending carnival of Public Quests. These vary quite a bit. Sometimes they're elaborate, with multiple stages requiring people to do different things in different places. Other times they're straightforward open raids on creatures other games might call World Bosses. Last year they happened in instances, this year they're on open maps.

Reign of Shadows must have good PQs because a couple of months after launch they're still very much the hot ticket. They're all the World Boss kind and there seem to be three in each of the new zones. If you kill all three a fourth spawns. 

Just about any time I log in there's either an open raid circling around doing them as they pop or people are calling them out and trying to get a raid started. I did four two nights ago and three last night. I could have done a lot more if I'd wanted because there's so much interest multiple instances of the zones keep spawning, leading to an almost unbroken chain.

The PQs are popular because they have drops which, while rare, are upgrades even for dungeoneers. I'm not absolutely sure but I think there may even be a few things raiders wouldn't sniff at. That keeps things busy, at least until most people get what they want, which usually takes a good portion of the twelve-month expansion cycle. 

It goes without saying that any of those good drops is going to be be a huge upgrade for a solo player like me but even the regular drops can be better than my quest gear. And there's a currency too, naturally, to spend at a special vendor. I haven't actually checked what you can get with that yet.


 

There are other soloable upgrade paths that shouldn't be ignored. EQII has a fantastic collectables system where you find and pick up "shinies" from the ground in every map and instance. Most are tradeable and the inevitable duplicates can go for big money - some of the rewards are very nice indeed.

Completed collections also come with collectables of their own, leading to meta-collections that can nest several times and provide really very good items for those with the patience or the deep pockets to acquire them all. 

Over the years the collectable system has been expanded to include No Drop shinies that can't be traded and different colored kinds that only characters who've achieved certain benchmarks or completed certain quests can see. Collecting in Norrath is serious business.

So is crafting. Last year there were many complaints about the way crafters acquired their new recipes and what they could make with them but this year things are a little more traditional. Basic recipes are purchasable from trainers and, as far as I know, the more sought-after rare recipes are still dropped by mobs (although possibly only by Bosses and then only rarely). 

The main crafting gameplay loop for me, however, is Research. Most of the new maps have a Researcher NPC who's almost the tradeskill equivalent of a Public Quest. Anyone who qualifies (usually by dint of having progressed a certain distance through the Signature questline) can take a repeatable quest from each of these NPCs several times a day. The more quests the server collectively completes, the more new recipes open up for sale on the associated vendor.


 

That's an incentive in itself but the real draw are the personal rewards you get for completing each quest. From those you can get all kinds of nice things like recipe books, mercenaries and the patterns needed to make the desirable new mastercrafted armor and weapons. They also give you the currency you need to buy things from the aforementioned vendor.

All of the Research quests involve harvesting materials and crafting items, something which melds very comfortably with the adventuring activities listed above. It feels very organic, swooping around the new maps on the mount that now flies because you finished the zone storyline, dropping out of the sky to snatch up a shiny, kill a bunch of quest mobs, harvest some materials or join in with a PQ.

In Blood of Luclin last year this loop kept me happily occupied right into the summer, interspersed as it was with the regular holidays and a couple of big updates. With the ever-popular ethereal season that seems to go on longer each year blending into the now-traditional Panda quests and then the pre-expansion events running up to next year's xpack, it's quite feasible to spend the whole year working on something or other - and that's not even considering playing other characters, of whom I have many.

The downside would be that all this activity can start to feel somewhat familiar, year on year. And, as we all know but don't like to admit, almost every gain our characters make is temporary, set to be wiped out as soon as the next content drop arrives. 

Those are very minor quibbles. The entire hobby relies on, even thrives on, these kinds of repeatable activities. And as an entertaining, satisfying, enjoyable way to spend a few hours as often as the mood takes me, I don't think the way EQII handles the loop can easily be bettered. 

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