When you view a painting by Van Gogh, you don’t compare it to another painting by Van Gogh—you compare it to every other painting in the world.
I will not compare the achievements and failings of EverQuest II to the first EverQuest. As the formula for massively-multiplayer online games reaches new levels, EQ2 must stand on its own merits. While there are some individual refinements, some interspersed high points, this product still sticks players with the same ol’ grind that gives many MMOs a bad name. The extensive hours invested that produce little reward comes off like a phone sex operator: just keeping you on the line as long as possible to milk this gaming cash cow.
What’s lacking in ingenuity is made up for in variety. At least as far as character creation goes. Character customization plays a vital function for many role-players. Although, with thousands of people logged on at any given time, individuality is hard to come by in an MMO. Most games’ races are typically sparse (some even unisex) and come with only a half dozen variable features to customize. Not so in EverQuest II. Sixteen races are immediately presented (minus one; the Frogloks are initially unavailable) with male and female variants for all.
The irrevocably good races are all here: dwarves, halflings, high elves, and wood elves. The brazenly evil are present as well: dark elves, the reptilian iksar, ogres, trolls, and introducing the rodent-like ratonga. Then, given the option to sway either direction: barbarians, erudites, gnomes, half-elves, humans, and the feline-featured kerrans. The alignment you choose—there is only black and white to side with—will determine which of the two cities you begin in. As denoted, some races are forced into their alignment. You can’t be a big friendly troll in the City of Hope without undergoing a long and arduous traitor mission later in the game.
You may create and maintain up to four characters on your account. Each has a healthy dosage of facial and bodily features to customize, but these create only vaguely noticeable differentiation. Thankfully, a satisfying degree of individuality is sparked by the vast selection of hairstyles and colors, skin tones, and other accessories. Many of these visual options are pretty damn cool and you will find yourself wringing your hands over which features to finally decide upon. The men range from demonic to debonair, and the females look from nightmarish to prom-picture-perfect (even if they decide to go Sinead with their bald selves.) Strangely, however, they all look victimized by an overdose of Botox injections; there is only a vague notion of liveliness beneath their plastique features.Name your character and you are nearly on your way. Your first difficult task: trying to not skip through the painfully dull intro. The watercolor artwork is lovely, sure, but they do not contribute much in the way of crafting a storybook mysticism (which was certainly their intention). The intro fails to convey a sense of fairytale, and the narration is so textbook in nature that it dries out the creation of legend.
Regardless, this ain’t your grandma’s Norrath. The gods grew jealous of humanity and withdrew from the world but left behind avatars to carry forth their wishes nonetheless. With the absence of divine providence, the orcs and trolls built up an unstoppable horde. They nearly commit genocide on the Frogloks, but the noble frog-like race retreated into the depths of Guk. The barbarians of the north were overwhelmed and sought refuge amongst the southern peoples, until Qeynos and Freeport stood as the last bastions against the relentless horde. Only then did the gods intervene—deus ex machina—to save the doomed cities. Cataclysms rocked the planet’s surface, oceans and continents shifted, the moon of Luclin was torn asunder, and fire rained down upon Norrath.
Finally, as the ashes settled and the oceans calmed, the two cities sent forth ships to gather refugees. The blameless Antonia Bayle wished to gather a scattered people and mend a shattered world, while the ruthless Lucan D’lere (delirious?) set out to forge followers into his agenda of ruthless expansionism.
The tutorial places you onboard the swaying deck of The Far Journey, one such ship sent out to gather refugees. A competent narrator guides you through movement, combat, and trading basics by interacting with NPCs, or non-player characters. The astonishing level of spoken dialogue is accompanied by comic book chat balloons emanating from each character, said dialogue also appearing within the formal chat box should your attention be fixed elsewhere.
Still the most customizable interface you’re going to find, virtually every popup box, every window, every icon and every hotbutton is movable and often resizable. Each window can elegantly fade in and out as you mouse over their locations. While a seemingly minor point, this unmatched level of customization is still a much appreciated feature of the EQ universe. You don’t have to fight to get the viewpoint you want.
The combat animations are nicely choreographed. The movements are captured smoothly, and the deft dodging of certain attacks shows a tip-toed sidestep or a dexterous drop to the ground. But a real treat is seeing a wooden staff in the hands of a skilled warrior. The martial arts-inspired movement captured with this weapon is a dramatic shift from typical hack-n-slashing. Even mages move with an agility to put Gandalf-styled “finger wigglers” into a showy and combative category. Too bad your character looks like a stiff-armed Barbie when it’s time to run, also sporting a floaty jump even Master Chief would admire.
The creative stride slowed down further during artistic conception. Yes, the textures are detailed, yes, every surface is smooth or shiny or rusted or gruff. But there is little here to shock and awe you. They played their realism card so well that many locales are mundane—dull within minutes. Rarely is there a breathtaking sight to make you just stop and admire the view. Instead of shoving you into a realm of fantasy, EQ2 is inserting fantasy characters into perfectly normal, geographically authentic (read: boring) landscapes. When hitting you with their latest catchphrase “You’re in our NEW world now!” Sony has only proven how far we don’t have to travel. Blurring the lines between fantasy and reality? Perhaps. If you prefer your plate of fantasy served up lukewarm.
But, warming up the entire experience is the caliber of voice acting. Ranging from excellent to mildly embarrassing, the sheer amount of voiceover acting donates generously to the level of immersion. Nearly every character connected to your Hallmark (main) quest is fully voiced, with an impressive number of random NPCs also contributing. Bringing in the big guns, it is pleasing to hear Felicity Shagwell and Saruman as the opposing rulers of Norrath’s two rival cities: Qeynos and Freeport. Heather Graham voices Antonia Bayle, Queen of Qeynos, and Christopher Lee lends his guttural intonation to Lucan D’lere, Overlord of Freeport.Despite the sharp line drawn between good and evil, there is no content for PvP, or player vs. player, on any server. Instead it is set up strictly as PvE, player vs. environment. There is likewise no consensual dueling system devised either. Combined, these missing elements will a big turnoff for many players which ignores a large demographic of online gamers. The guild system--however trite this substitution sounds--fulfills an indirect level of competition by ranking guilds according to completed quests.
The lack of a duel system is a shame, but I am not a fan of the random PvP killing that some games fall prey to. The fact that I can play EQ2 without ever getting jumped by some infamously high-level griefer is fine with me. But the environment in PvE provides sufficient dangers for adventurers.
There are consequences to dying in EverQuest. Now get over it. Several games are criticized for the stiff penalties brought about by dying, but the EverQuest universe applies them nonetheless. These death penalties force you to choose your battles wisely, to ‘punch your weight.’ Haphazardly running around and stabbing at creatures tougher than you is no formula for success. One may see it as discouraging heroic ventures, but it more appropriately discourages reckless endangerment.
That being said, dying brings about not one, not two, but four penalties: First: experience debt. There is no way to regain the lost experience except by killing more bad guys—or good guys if you have chosen the evil route. Second: Loss of your ‘spirit shard.’ When you choose a revival spot, a golden fairy-dust trail will lead you directly back to your spirit shard. Until then, your attributes are painfully marginalized until you reabsorb your spirit shard (depicted as your ghastly white body sprawled on the ground where you died.) Third: Revived sickness (if there was no priest to revive you on site.) This sickness lasts for a few minutes and leeches additional penalties on your attributes for the duration. And fourth: equipment deterioration. To repair your equipment you must seek out a mender, a particular type of NPC merchant that will fix your weapons and armor for a fraction cost.
One lifesaving implement is the positioning of guards, typically at the outskirts of various zones. If you find yourself in over your head—a feasible situation if mobs begin adding themselves into a fight—then you can shout for help and run toward a guard. The mobs will then fix their attention onto the guard and be disposed of quickly and efficiently. This eliminates the serious problem of “training to zone” where a character can string several creatures behind them as they run for the edge of the map, hoping to hit a load screen as an escape. This situation would typically leave large numbers of creatures standing about, ready to slaughter anyone else unlucky enough to be standing around or shortly arriving at the trained zone. In EQ2, creatures even have an operating radius they won’t leave, thankfully giving up the chase after running just so far.
If that sounds too adventurous, the crafting life may be for you. Although, be warned, becoming a crafter comes with its own set of dangers. In fact, many of the components required for crafting must be gathered in areas dangerously populated by beasts, and you can even die from certain anomalies that may occur during the crafting process. Nevertheless, the crafting system’s dynamic features are one of the freshest components of the game that will surely please artisans and dabblers alike.
The soundscape of Norrath plays throughout, light and unobtrusive—not necessarily flattering terms when ‘ambitious’ and ‘epic’ would have provided a more thrilling experience. The soundtrack has an opulent assembly, to be sure. Conducted by Emmy award-winning TV composer Laura Karpman, and recorded with the 81-piece FILMharmonic Orchestra, you can’t argue with the production values, but the score sounds frail and high-end like its suffering from a low-carb diet.
That sentiment sums up a lot about the game’s world design. No risk, no reward. Sure, fantasy is the playland of particular archetypes and there are certain rules to adhere to: elves have pointy ears and dwarves are excellent at mining. Faithful to such profiling, the EverQuest universe does not stray from the tried-and-true formulas. EQ2, from conception to execution, was never able to think outside of the box.