If you're a PC gamer, there's a good chance you currently play, or have played, at least one of the dozens of popular MMOs. Right now, there are at least fourteen million worldwide subscribers to various online RPGs, with World of Warcraft far, far outdistancing all the others with over half the total MMO subscribers making the journey to Azeroth. Next in popularity (thanks to a huge Asian market) are the Lineage games, and somewhere down the line, with a current population of around 150,000 subscribers, is Everquest 2.
MMOs are a unique game genre. Besides being one of the most familiar types of game to the general public, they elicit very strong emotions from gamers. The successful ones combine constant reward and incremental advancement to hit the sweet spot of fun and challenge, and are, to put it mildly, very addicting. They supply that much needed sense of community, accomplishment, and immediate gratification that most people long for. The unsuccessful MMOs are the ones that forget that no matter how pretty the landscape or rewarding the result, the player will balk at the prospect of endless grinding unless the tasks are interesting and varied.
The original Everquest was the first MMO to really connect with a significant mainstream audience and was the first game to have its deleterious addictive qualities compared to illegal drugs. "Evercrack" was a clever name for a genuine, significant problem, but it wasn't until World of Warcraft hit the scene that the idea of "MMO addiction" was taken really seriously by the public, even though online RPGs had been messing with productivity, marriages, and sleep for years.
Like the vast majority of MMOs, the world of Everquest (Norrath) is built on a hodgepodge of creatures, myths, and environments cobbled together from Tolkein, Dungeons and Dragons, Norse mythology, and of course, the imaginations of the developers. For most people, entering a persistent online world with a fantasy setting means that they can live an alternate life in Elf's clothing. The fact that these games include the routine elements of our mundane, daily lives (eating, resting, crafting, socializing) make them also comforting and familiar.
Everquest was released in 1999, and Everquest 2 in late 2004, the same month, not incidentally, that World of Warcraft appeared. Everquest 2 shifted the action to a different region of Norrath and a different time period, but was mostly driven by the need to create a game with improved graphics, a more friendly UI, and to bring the original game into the "second generation" of MMOs. Given the huge popularity of the original Everquest, the sequel was bound to bit a megahit, right? You'd think so, but a couple of things, only one of which came from Blizzard, got in the way.
Let me pause here to say that I've played nearly all the big MMOs, and quite a few of the lesser ones, including Everquest, Dark Age of Camelot, Asheron's Call 1 and 2, Lineage 2, Eve Online, Saga of Ryzom, and World of Warcraft. In playing every MMO there comes a moment when I rather sickeningly realize how much time I've wasted on what is essentially a never-ending process, and I quit that game in a moment of self-loathing. Oh, but I come back, of course I do. And I'm always looking for a home; a world that really feels right. Dark Age of Camelot came closest for me. And like hundreds of thousands of others, World of Warcraft has been on my hard drive and my account active (off and on) since December, 2004.
So, I was really looking forward to EQ2, because it looked like the graphics and UI were right on this time around. And they were. The problem was, the game ran poorly on my machine, which at the time was brand new and pretty cutting edge. Crank up the visuals, which to me was one of the selling points of EQ2, and the game became a high fantasy slideshow. World of Warcraft, on the other hand, ran great. The problem was, I disliked and still dislike the visual style of the game. I can't fault the art direction, which is imaginative, but to me everything just looks so flat and cartoony. To me, it doesn't feel real at all.
Echoes of Faydwer is the third expansion for EQ2, and it can be downloaded alone for current EQ players or purchased for $39; a box a which also includes the core game and both previous expansion packs. Now MMOs are an insanely expensive gamble for developers and publishers. Not only are there the initial costs of developing the game (a game which never, ever ends) but there are also ongoing hardware, infrastructure, and maintenance costs once the game goes live. The biggest hurdle that MMOs face is keeping longtime players interested and attracting new players. Expansion packs traditionally add new content aimed at high level players who have maxed out everything. One of the best things about Echoes of Faydwer is that it includes a lot of something for everyone from new player to veteran. The region of Faydwer, part of the original Everquest world, has been here revisited as a land under siege. In fact, you can play from absolute beginner to the level cap in this one expansion area alone. I think it's a great move on Sony's part to include this variety of content; hey, it's what brought me back to EQ2 again. Well, that and the faeries.
Ok, now we need to be a little mature, people, because we have to talk about faeries, or the Fae race, who are the focus of the new expansion. The Fae are a diminutive, winged people and their land is beautifully and imaginatively rendered. Towering branches, mushrooms, acorns, and trees that seem to touch the clouds all help create a great sense of scale. I was disappointed that the cliche species of MMO early-level questing (including giant spiders and wolves) make another return appearance, but moving up in level, which is accomplished quickly and entertainingly, takes the player into territory with some increasingly interesting quests and monsters.
Fae can choose from a wide variety of magic-using and weapon-yielding professions, and once your character hits level 10 you can choose from one of two branches of advanced magic or abilities. You can also undo your choices, once, and shift to the other skill branch. The Fae are always aligned with good, but casters can wield some pretty nasty spells and there is always the lengthy Betrayal Quest if you really want to turn bad. One of the great advantages to the Fae is that they glide over the ground instead of walking, so they are almost never injured by falls. At later levels, they can learn to transform into an even smaller and faster moving form, making travel over distances very easy.
Graphics, Design and Sound
Although it's a couple of years old, EQ2's graphics are still some of the nicest in the MMO genre, but I'm disappointed that things still run pretty poorly, even on a machine with 2 gigs of ram and a decent videocard. Sure, you can turn the settings down, but then I think you miss some of the real delights of the game, which are the sumptuous visuals. Max out the options, and the detail and textures (especially up close) are pretty great all the way down to the little mottled flecks of color on the semi-transparent fairy wings. Of course, a lot of the performance issues have to do with how many players or NPCs are on the screen at once. Spell effects are interesting and colorful. As for design and aesthetics, Echoes of Faydwer and Everquest in general hew pretty close to the standard fantasy design models for NPCs and monsters. The Faydwer buildings and ornaments pull elements from Celtic and Gothic motifs, and generally reflect a well-researched and complete world design.
One of my biggest gripes about all MMOs, and I don't think I've seen any significant exceptions to this, is that the mobs and NPCs be they human, orc, bear, bird, or treant never really exhibit much in the way of believable behavior or natural AI. They either stand around, run through a cycle of repetitive actions, or, if they're aggressive, attack you directly and head on. I suppose that truly lifelike AI routines for all creatures would add a huge processor load to already creaking systems, but the day I can sit and watch creatures behave with purpose and interact, will be a day I start to truly believe in an online world.
One of the selling points of EQ2 was that there were hundreds of lines of recorded spoken dialogue, making NPCs really come to life. It does add some realism to the game until you notice that until you speak to them, they stand mute. And when they do speak, what they say (and this is true of most MMOs) is pretty dull and often without wit or beauty. The voice acting, if not the actual writing, is of variable quality, but not distractingly bad.
The music of Echoes of Faydwer is subtle and very appropriate. In the treetop cities the music is light and ethereal and as is common, battles are cues for more vigorous, strident themes. I always appreciate it when the music is performed by actual musicians (instead of via samplers and digital keyboards). In addition to providing employment for musicians, the sound is more organic and much warmer.
The EQ2 community has never been as active or as large as the original Everquest, and it is certainly dwarfed by WoW. In my experience, players in Faydwer have been pretty cool, not spamming the chat channels with absurd drivel, and generally helpful. At my relatively low level (17) I haven't needed to do much of any grouping at all which is the way I most enjoy playing anyway. The game can seem a little empty, though. There were never more than a handful of player characters around except in the cities. At least this is the experience when I'm playing, which tends not to be during peak hours.
At launch, EQ2 was a huge improvement over the original: much easier to get into, much easier to like, and much prettier on the eyes. Its feature set included many of the same elements that WoW was boasting, and the game has continued to move closer to the Blizzard title in terms of basic gameplay, while still retaining the "old school" MMO feel. If it weren't for the lack of graphics optimization and the overly familiar feel of its setting, EQ2 would be hard to beat. In any case, Echoes of Faydwer alone is a great addition. I really like the new race, characters, and setting, and it's very new-player accessible.
Well, I could go on...there's really too much to talk about in a short segment. I'm having a swell time being a Faery. Stop that! I hear you laughing. If you haven't tried EQ2 at all, the Echoes of Faydwer complete game release is a great value and comes with the requisite free month of play. If you feel a little anonymous, overwhelmed, or frustrated by WoWs 7 million other inhabitants, are tired of waiting for battles, or gathering dozens of people for raids, you might enjoy Faydwer and the world of EQ2. Technical issues aside, it is a game that has matured, grown, and evolved, and I recommend checking it out.