Wednesday, October 4, 2023

It's Back To The Overrealm With EverQuest II's New Expansion, Ballads Of Zimara

Of course, the minute I finished yesterday's post, whining about how I had nothing to write about, Daybreak Games decided to open up pre-orders for this year's EverQuest II expansion, which we now know is going to be called Ballads of Zimara. I found that out by way of my own blog roll, when I went to read over what I'd just written for the final time and saw that The EverQuest Show had just relayed the news.

From there it was a quick click to the official announcement on the EQII website, which I have to say is immensely impressive. One of the most noticeable improvements at Darkpaw in recent times has been the professionalism and slickness of the website itself. I don't know if it stems from Jenn Chan taking over the reins from Holly "Windstalker" Longdale or whether it was already in progress before that but either way it's a very welcome change.

I imagine it's also commercially effective. EQII is an aging game, fast approaching its twentieth anniversary, so having a portal for new and returning players that doesn't creak and groan in the winds of time has to be a good thing. It's one thing to be old, quite another to look and feel old.

The commercial aspect of the enterprise is front and center when you land on the website. The first thing you see is a gorgeous, screen-wide illustration, richly-hued in purple tones, complete with a host of intriguing characters, bobbing in the air, brightly-colored spells fizzing at their finger-tips. The whole effect is compelling, with the positioning of the central characters drawing the eye to the name of the game and the expansion at the top and the all important "Pre-Order" button at the bottom.

It's really very smart. The immediate reaction is to click on that big button, taking you straight to the place where you part with your money. But we'll get to that later. 

If you resist the temptation to click and scroll down instead, you'll be treated to a sumptuous display of what to expect from the expansion. First comes a video, lovingly framed as if it were a painting, something that's sadly not replicated in the YouTube version you're about to watch.

As a promo for a vintage MMORPG, that's not at all bad. Granted, it's mostly scenery, but it looks pretty and not all that dated. It's also edited quite effectively, the soundtrack and images syncing perfectly, which creates a definite and reassuring impression of competence and attention to detail.  

I wouldn't draw attention to it if it wasn't that so many MMORPGs, and not just the older ones, either, have an unfortunate tendency to release videos that makes the games look worse than they are. This one, if anything, does the opposite.

Not that I'm suggesting it's in any way misleading. I would like, once again, to point out for the many, many people who probably haven't stepped inside an EQII zone since Rise of Kunark (2007) that most of the game looks way better than it did fifteen years ago, thanks to a new set of development tools that have only been applied going forward. The older zones still look like something only a nostalgist could love but the new stuff, which really means the last decade or so, looks pretty spiffy.

After the video comes a lengthy screed giving the backstory to the expansion. I'm tempted to reproduce it here in full so I can give it the full practical criticism workover my Cambridge supervisor would have demanded. Certainly there's enough in the two paragraphs to support a short essay. 

Whoever wrote the prose clearly intended it to stand as a call-to-arms, not just for the characters who will live through the events inside the game but also for the players standing behind them. The forceful use of the vocative in the second sentence, for example; the sudden switch to the second person plural at the start of the torrent of rhetorical questions at the end; it all seems designed to foster a sense both of urgency and inclusion. It's we, the players, who need to do something about this crisis and all those exlamation points suggest we need to do it now!

It's effective. I was fired up. Granted, the fusillade of unfamiliar proper names could prove off-putting to strangers to the game but this isn't aimed at anyone who isn't either already playing EQII or just about to come back from a time away. Expansions for twenty-year old games don't need to worry whether customers will understand the jargon. 

No, all they need to do is press the right buttons and Ballad of Zimara looks like it knows exactly where they are. Once again, we're headed back to places we know and probably love, in this case not only the Overrealm, setting for the game's second expansion, Kingdom of Sky but also to the homelands of the Djinn, who featured heavily in EQII's first expansion, Desert of Flames.

KoS was, as far as I recall, a popular expansion. Desert of Flames definitely was. I've spent a great deal of time in both over the years and I'm very happy to add to it. Even better, we won't just be retracing our flight-paths across the familiar skyscapes, we'll be alighting in four new, previously unseen regions: Splendor Sky Aerie, Zimara Breadth, the Aether Wroughtlands and Vaashkaani, Alcazar of Zimara

Both the Djinn homelands and the Overrealm are part of the now-deteriorating Plane of Sky, something that seems obvious when you read it but which hadn't previously occured to me. This is the level of detail that acts as a deterrent to newcomers but almost as an aphrodisiac to seasoned veterans. At this stage of an MMORPG's lifespan it's almost impossible to play the nostalgia card too hard.

Going back to the website and the way the information is presented, take another gold star for design. If you click the big picture beneath the "New Lands To Discover" banner, it opens onto a slideshow of screenshots from all the new zones. They're all appealing but a couple are spectacular. Again, it's all slick, professional and very alluring.

With appetites whetted and nostalgia primed, it's time to get down to practicalities. What, exactly, are we getting for our money?

Exactly what we expected, of course: new dungeons, new raids, new adventure and tradeskill quests and five more levels. Once again, the installed base knows exactly what it wants and that's more of the same. If they didn't like it, they wouldn't be installed, now would they?

I confess I'd forgotten it was a level-increase year. Level increases have been bi-annual for quite a while now and if I'd been more engaged with Renewal of Ro I'd have recalled it didn't come with a change of number next to my character's name.

It's good timing for me. There's certainly an argument for not going all-out during the off-expansions if you're a casual player. Every xpack is a soft reset but when it comes to those where the level cap goes up, the reset's not as soft as all that. If you're not playing flat-out all the time, it makes sense to save some energy for when it matters most.

As always, the expansion comes with some new features and as usual they're hard to parse from the brief description they get in the press release. See what you make of these:

  • Expand your arsenal interactively with Advanced Research
  • Re-challenge your favorite encounters in Chrono Dungeons

I could guess but I won't. No doubt more will be revealed as we approach release. If not, I'll find out when I get there.

And that concludes the excellent presentation. Darkpaw's, that is, not mine. All that's left is to take a look at the various Pre-Orders and Packs.Yet again, I'd like to compliment both the devs and the website designers on the excellence of their work; the comparison chart is very clear and easy to understand and every in-game item in all the packs is clearly displayed on a click-through - they all look great!

Once again, there are no real surprises. The expansion comes in four sizes, the traditional Standard, Collector's and Premium, plus the now-expected Family & Friends. Pricing ranges from $34.99 for the base model to what I'm contractually obliged to describe as an "eye-watering" $249.99 for the F&F  edition.

This year, I am very seriously considering buying the Collector's Edition, which retails at $69.99 (£50.39.) In two decades, I've never bought anything other than the basic version of an EQII expansion for the simple reason that all I've ever really needed was access to the content. I was never remotely swayed by the plethora of cosmetics and frippery that filled the more expensive packages.

As time goes on and game design changes, though, the practical appeal of the upper tiers becomes more obvious. EQII isn't pay-to-win per se, for the simple reason that everything you can buy is also readily available in-game but I wouldn't argue that it hasn't very much become pay-for-convenience. 

For example, I need a better mercenary quite urgently now. I could get one for myself by playing the game but that would require either buying from another player at what have become extortionately inflated prices or running instanced content for drops. 

Both of  those are clearly normal, intended forms of gameplay but I'm too lazy either to make the necessary in-game money through trading or to grind solo instances until I get the drop I need. If I buy the Collector's Edition I'll get a Legendary Mercenary, a healer, which is what I need. I'll also get a Legendary Familiar and Mount, both of which will substantially increase my character's effectiveness since each provides a huge boost to combat stats.

I'd also get a Prestige house, a furniture item that's also a teleport to the new expansion zones, some crafting recipes and a very nice painting to hang on the walls of my new home. That's the sugar on top of the actual cake.

I thought about going Collector last year and decided against it but I'm feeling this maybe the year I choose to ride business instead of coach. Forget about first class, though. The ticket gets you a Celestial upgrade to those Legendaries but I think that's a luxury I can easily forego.

There's plenty of time to think about it. There's no official release date, just the usual "expansion available before December 31". So long as I "Pre-order" before the expansion arrives I'll get all the goodies. 

Beta is already open. I have no plans on spoiling my own fun with that but I look forward to the usual trickle of detail all the same. I'm sure everyone will be complaining bitterly as usual. Me, I'm just happy the game's still getting an expansion every year. It's not that long ago we were all wondering if the next one would be the last...

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