Travels in EQ2

I have been playing EQ2 for the last month; much of it has been spent duoing with Arbitrary (we had weekly sessions) but she’s been on holiday for the last fortnight so we agreed I’d strike out on my own. It will be quick enough for her to catch up using the mentoring facility later, if she decides to keep playing.

There’s been a lot of chat about EQ2 on blogs last week, particularly centering on Wolfshead’s critical analysis of the first 15 minutes of the game.

Tipa wrote a rebuttal, Stropp also has some comments on the piece. Wolfshead responded with a re-rebuttal (but he’s going to keep playing EQ2 and make it his pet project anyway), Pete@Dragonchasers has some comments also, and so does Ysharros – who has been our generous and long suffering EQ2 guru goddess.

One thing that is very clear to me is that you only get a chance to have a first impression of a game once. I am quite sure that if I started another character now I’d find the experience much smoother than I did the first time round – this is particularly true in EQ2 but probably applies to every other MMO also.

So I find Wolfshead’s posts intriguing because I share his frustration at how pointlessly impenetrable this game sometimes seems. Too many moments which leave me thinking ‘Well how was I supposed to know THAT?’. And like him, I’ve also just resubscribed. It is reasonable to ask why I’d pay to torture myself like that –- I’m hoping to answer that by the end of this post! Short version: There’s something very unique about the EQ2 game experience, I don’t yet know if I’m in for the longterm but I know I’m not yet done with it.

The first 15 minutes

I’m basically in agreement with Wolfshead on this one. I’m not going to complain (much) about the loading screen because at least it isn’t as bad as Warhammer’s endless splashscreens and EULAs. On the other hand, it does prominently display the ESRB logo (like, takes up a third of the screen) – I’d have more sympathy if ESRB wasn’t a purely US organisation. If you want to start out by blatting out some text about an organisation I’ve never heard of that is irrelevant to me then feel free, I guess.

Character creation is a slow, multistep process. First you pick a race and customise how your character looks with lots of sliders for features, hair (all the hairstyles have their own bizarre names), skin colour, etc. Then you pick a class. Then you select your starting zone. Then you decide on a name. And finally you pick a server. So if you get to the end of this process and realise that your race/class choice means you can’t start in the same zone as your friend, you have to go back and start all over again.

Compare this with WoW which lets you pick the server first, do all those other things on the same screen and doesn’t give you a choice of starting area anyway (that is not necessarily a bonus).

Also in EQ2 the evil guys have a bonus starting zone. Good can choose from Qeynos, the original starting zone from 4 years ago, and Kelethin, the fae zone. Evil gets to choose from the original zone, a dark elf based zone, and the new dragon-person zone. This only becomes a problem when you realise that neutral races may be of good faction but are not allowed to start in Kelethin. This could have been made clearer on the racial choice screen, would have saved us some time at least.

Neither WoW nor EQ2 make it easy to get from one starting zone to another if you don’t know the game. This is something we don’t see so much in newer games. LOTRO provides quick cheap travel between starting zones, for example. In any case, it is quite important to coordinate races/ classes/ faction if you want to start playing with a friend.

Faydwer or bust

I’ve very much liked the fae and their starting zone. The character models and wings are pretty, and they look good in their newbie gear. The starter area features many annoying NPCs, and the usual sorts of quests, with at least one cave full of mobs that we found quite challenging.

After that, you escape into the wider world of Greater Faydark, a pretty forest zone with a river running through it. The fae city of Kelethin, built on treetop platforms, is the main point of interest. Although the city was initially confusing to navigate, with time and practice we got the hang of it quite well. It’s like a mini-metaphor for the game itself. It’s a pretty place and the introductory questline soon has you exploring, killing things, collecting items, and getting very lost in the process. We wound up with a little instanced boss fight.

After that, the sense is that you’re back to questing as usual. The zone is laid out with quest hubs. They follow the pattern of sending you out multiple times to the same area to kill similar but slightly different mobs. In other words – once you are past the cool starting quests, they don’t put in so much effort into entertaining the player. Some people might say that it means they aren’t holding you by the hand so much. And this is true, the experience is less guided.

I don’t find it as fun as WoW questing. Quests that tell a coherent story with a variety of things to do and see are just more fun than going back 17 times to the orc area to kill slightly harder orcs on each outing. (I may be exaggerating but I swear it isn’t by much.) But it’s not as bad as it sounds either. The orcs actually do get tougher and have different abilities, some come in groups, other patrol, and so on. So you do have to think a bit about how to kill them, whether you want to suicide to kill one out of a group of three so that there will only be two of them when you run back.

So oddly enough, in its old fashioned questy way, EQ2 does deliver the gameplay. And it does it much better than LOTRO’s take on the same design. I got way more bored of killing wolves in the Lone Lands than I have of killing orcs in Faydark – and part of this is because there are so many other things to do nearby if I get bored of orcs and want a break.

Zone Design

One of the really intriguing things about EQ2 is how varied it can be. I’ve only seen a few zones – starting zones, zones I accidentally zoned into while exploring, the festival zone that’s available this week, but I feel already that figuring out how to navigate the terrain is part of the design here.

If you look at Northrend, there are neatly labelled roads leading everywhere and if you want to take a shortcut you can probably see fairly easily where to go. The zones I’ve seen in EQ2 haven’t been laid out in quite that way. Although there are paths in the Faydark, often I’ve wanted to cut across country and had to figure out how to use the terrain to make this easier. There are bridges, ladders, trees to climb, and cliffs to jump off.

Although zones probably still consist of neatly laid out patches of quest mobs, they don’t seem so obvious. And I know that although exploring has been frustrating at times, it’s also quite fun for me to figure my way around.

Baby’s first addon

I wasn’t planning on using addons for EQ2, I wanted the raw experience. But when I couldn’t remember where my questgiver was, I figured I needed a good mapping addon. I don’t mind if games want to make the location of the quest OBJECT obscure – exploring is fun – but I don’t really want to have to run twice round the zone because I didn’t make a note of where I got a quest from and have a bad memory.

Again, this is something where WoW has the same issues but more recent games really shine. LOTRO and Aion, for example, give good records of where quests came from in their quest logs.

Anyhow, enter EQ2Map. It was very easy to install and does the job fine, it has records of where all the various mobs and NPCs in a zone are and lets you search for them. And from having too little information on my map, I now have too much. I’m trying to use the map responsibly and only check locations when I really can’t remember them.

Using the channels

This is going to be a great example of where EQ2 doesn’t give out its secrets without a fight. There is a general advice channel called level_1-9 that all new players are on. I had assumed this was mostly for players of levels 1-9 but when I hit level 10 I wasn’t able to find a level_10-19 channel, so who knows?

I also see people using the 1-9 channel to look for high level groups. This leads me to suspect three possibilities:

  1. Players assume that anyone of levels 1-9 is probably an alt of a high level player
  2. This has become the general channel, whether that was originally intended or not
  3. No one else can figure out how the other channels work either

Seriously I was unable to find any reference to channels in the in-game help. I also wonder if the LFG functionality is really really bad in EQ2. I have no idea whether or not it is, because I haven’t found that either.

Class Design and Combat

I’m not a huge fan of EQ2 class design. Certainly as a new player, there seem to be lots of classes doing roughly similar things. I can see how the casters are vaguely different from each other but I see many many support classes with a variety of buffs. And no way to know at the start how they actually differ.

I think this is because of the original design that let people start with a base class and then specialise. If they made it a bit clearer on the class choice screen what the base role was, and how the subclasses fitted in, it might make more sense. I’m still not clear on how a fury is different from a shaman though (how many healers with buffs does a game really need?)

If you are a buffing class, expect to have an unfeasible amount of buffs. I think the general idea is to let players choose which buffs they want to spend their concentration on. In practice, it’s just annoying. Especially when you die and have to cast all of them again. I swear I can’t remember what all mine do without mousing over them and waiting a couple of seconds for the game to throw up a tooltip.

My Dirge is basically a scout/ rogue type with some support abilities. So it can stealth, dual wield, and use positional attacks, and it has a lot of buffs. (Did I mention that there are loads of buffs in this game yet?) For crowd control, I have a snare, and that’s it so far. The trouble is, buffs aren’t very interesting. You cast them once and then play as if they weren’t there. I’m assuming I get more abilities as I level though.

Certainly I’ve had to use 3 quickbars so far and it feels a bit overwhelming. Despite that, combat is pretty straight forwards. Use your combat abilities in whatever order best suits (some do chain, like a positional attack after a stun, but most don’t). Then autoattack while you wait for the cooldowns to come up again. My attacks do use mana so there’s an element of mana-management also.

What I’m not so sure of is whether other classes have vastly different mechanics or not. You can compare with WoW or WAR to see that each class plays quite differently, they each have their signature mechanic. I don’t get that feel so much yet with EQ2. It’s always ‘use abilities, wait for cooldowns’.

So I’m not finding combat very exciting. I don’t really have abilities which work better on different mobs, and only one positional attack. One thing you do get though is that every class has a ranged attack, even if it’s just being able to use a bow to pull.

As well as xp, you can also get achievement points from completing quests, exploring, and so on. After around level 9ish (I think) you can start to spend these on achievement abilities. It’s not TOO hard to figure out which of these is most useful and I think you can respec them later anyway. But it is an added complexity that is unavoidable – by that what I mean is that if you wanted a casual game where you didn’t want to have to worry about talent specs, this probably isn’t it.

I hadn’t wanted to spend much time poking around on bboards for talent builds in this game, I do enough of that in WoW. But the official boards are reasonably well organised and will probably throw up some useful stickies about AAs on the class boards.

I make my first million

Collections are another big part of the game. It’s very simple. You see a glowy thing. You pick it up. You examine it. Hurrah, you can add it to your collection, which also gets it out of your bag (another huge hurrah to that). If you complete a collection you can hand it in to a collections NPC for xp and probably achievement points too.

But the really great thing about collection items is that you can sell them to rich, lazy, high level characters for lots of cash. OK, amount of cash varies but they do sell well. Other things that sell are rare crafting items (when you gather from a node, you have a chance to get a rare item), rare lore items that drop from mobs, and just about anything else. The economy seems fairly active.

Best of all, the current festival features a lot of collecting, and those items made me my first plat. That’s the advantage of a euro-timezone, you can go collect stuff while the yanks are asleep.

The festival is a gnome related tinkering festival (gnomes being engineers/ tinkers seems a really common fantasy meme, not sure where that came from). I saw it was live on the login screen, and when I asked on channel 1-9 I was told that there was a festival area in Kelethin from which I could join in. (Players are generally really friendly in this game, from what I have seen.) So off I went to check this out. I found some gnomy celebrators letting off fireworks – what were they thinking in a city built in trees? – and they also had a portal to their tinkering hometown. I went, I explored, I collected, I bought some crazy tinker gadgets for my one-acorn house, it was fun!

My house actually now reminds me of the garage of a guy I used to work with who collected analogue amplifiers and … err… just about anything else. He never had a walking plant called Uncle though, I bet.

So what’s the appeal?

Now here’s the dilemma of EQ2.

It’s not very player friendly and particularly not very newbie friendly. It is very easy to log in and not really have any specific goals. You do notice this in comparison to newer games that make it much easier to decide what you want to accomplish in a session. Fighting solo is not especially exciting. The class design is confusing. You will have too many abilities.

The quest design feels old fashioned. There will be a lot of commuting between your quest hub and their mobs of choice. I don’t honestly know if I can stand 80 levels of it. You will not be pointed towards more interesting content, even if it exists.

Someone was reflecting mournfully on channel 1-9 this morning, ‘Does anyone group for the level 10-30 instances any more?’ I felt a pang of sadness, because I hadn’t even realised that there were any. I’m sure newbies in WoW have exactly the same experience (this is why WoW is the only game you really can compare EQ2 with, they’re so similar in some respects …).

I feel as though I’ve spent a long time in Greater Faydark, even though I know that the WoW starter zones cover similar level ranges. But the difference is that I feel more in control of the pace in EQ2. It is slower (there aren’t cool quests and storylines that take you by the hand and guide you through) but it’s been much easier to break off and do something else for a while or just go and explore.

I feel that EQ2 is more of an adventure. This may just be because I’m a newbie there. But it seems such a mixture of different design ideas and zones, I don’t really know what might be coming next. I do feel more in control of the pace at which I play, again that might be because of being so new to it and also playing solo/duo which always gives you more control.

I don’t know if I’ll make it to high level. But I do know I’m not done here yet.