Every criticism aimed at Lords of EverQuest
pits them against Blizzard’s incomparable Warcraft 3
. Everybody has said their two cents, so I’ll keep those comparisons to a minimum. Mainly because LOE can’t compare to Warcraft 3. My expectations were high despite never touching an EverQuest title (or any MMO for that matter), but I like rooting for the underdog; it’s the American Way, dammit. I hoped this title would topple all expectations and make newly-formed Rapid Eye Entertainment the “It” producers to watch for. Their core design team, after all, list Heroes of Might & Magic at the top of their resumes. To their credit, they bring some convincing innovations to the table. To their discredit, they seem to require a refresher course on a few RTS gameplay basics.
LOE travels 10,000 years into the past during the Lost Age of Norrath. The Lost Age is purportedly an era steeped in epic warfare, entrenching the land in unbounded accounts of conflict and heroism. Truth be told, ‘epic warfare’ boils down to ‘scattered skirmishes’ by day’s end. The backstory is exponentially deeper than just orcs vs. humans, but the script exploits too little of this. A shame considering there’s such a rich tapestry to draw from. Instead of allowing Norrath’s fantastic history and culture unfold onscreen, it’s reduced to a few cursory statements within the manual.
Begin by selecting which faction you wish to lead through the impending war: the Dawn Brotherhood, Elddar Alliance, or Shadowrealm. Each will grant you a unique perspective through upcoming events, although the Dawn Brotherhood grants the least satisfying campaign design of the three.
With your realm chosen you’ll then select one from amongst 15 uber-generals that will lead your armies in victory and defeat. This is also where a static level of difficulty is chosen. Each lord’s campaign is rigidly programmed to an easy, medium, or hard setting. This is based primarily upon strengths and weaknesses of individual lords and less upon outside influences (like enemy numbers and powers.) While all fighting units rise in level and ability, your lord is an immensely superior character in every facet. Your lord possesses an ever-expanding aura that will have positive affects on allied units and negative affects toward hostiles. Let’s take the Dawn Brotherhood’s Lord Palasa for example: his aura, known as Fanderkhast’s Wheel of Stars, will slow enemy movement rate while increasing nearby ally attack speeds. Another is the Elddar Alliance’s Lady Briana, whose Lifesong aura boosts the resistance of friendlies and reduces the movement rate of enemies. Only so many variations on this theme exist, so you get the picture.
The abilities each lord acquires make for some engaging strategic options. They will step onto their first battlefield with one ability already granted, while three more are obtained as your lord escalates up to level 20. Let’s stick with the Vah Shir beastlord, Lord Palasa: he begins with Summon Warder, conjuring a tiger to serve and protect him (an excellent scouting unit.) Next he gains Listless Power that will reduce an enemy’s armor class, strength and agility. His third is the Spirit of Scorpion which grants his summoned beast the chance to poison its enemies during combat. He’s then granted the Talisman of Shadoo, bestowing protection from poisons on nearby allies. Each of these factors, combined with the titan strength of their attacks, makes your lord unique and indispensable.
Each lord has a varied history and attitude, but these biographies quickly take a backseat since every faction’s lord reads from the same script. If you take up the Dawn Brotherhood’s banner, no differences exist between the 14-year-old child prodigy Lady Sakti and the orphaned and thrice-blessed paladin Lord Huigar. From scene to scene the only variations they exude are their voice fluctuations. The same goes for lords from the Elddar Alliance and the Shadowrealm. Within each realm this cuts replay value off at the knees. When you complete one realm’s storyline of events you’ll have little incentive to rehash the war with a different lord.
The opening cinematic (the only one in the game) describes “monsters” that are scouring the earth for “a prize of evil.” Yeah...and? The comically inane Once Upon a Knight (GN Rating: 5.5) gave us that much--and had a superior AI as well. Apparently, in an effort to pull off a storyline twist, we’re forced to tolerate these painfully vague concepts as our lords’ driving motivation. By the time the bomb drops, you’ll probably reward the story’s efforts with an accepting shrug and march along your way to the lackluster ‘conclusion’ (you didn’t think an EverQuest product would miss out on an expansion pack opportunity, did you?)
Tying together the random landscape of missions are boringly trite in-game cinematics. The camera zooms in as one scenario dimly links to the next (a low-end machine will make these scenes intolerably blurry.) Since you’ll see no facial expressions and no mouths moving, the story is forwarded with a lot of bad pantomiming and vigorous head nodding. Given the voice talent (although I use the word “talent” loosely), it would seem that their cumulative star power would put enough flair into the script to keep the story compelling. Hardly the case here, but our actors are not entirely to blame. It’s like some of my father’s brilliant conventional wisdom: If you’re handed crap, the best thing you’re able to make is crap pie.
Even as the cinematics deteriorate, LOE should have made up for it during gameplay. Strangely, some important--and potentially enriching--storyline points are left out of many scenarios. I won’t delve into any spoilers here, but I’ll just admit disappointment that too many other enemy lords you encounter will enter and exit wordlessly. No dazzling fireworks, no dancing girls; just a voice-over stating “An enemy lord has been slain.” No cinematic tension is built upon either. Throwing in a quickie like, “The nefarious Lord Skass has raised an undead legion to bury our soldiers, m’lord…and he is nearby,” would add some drama and intensity that is sorely lacking here.
Heavily scripted movements of non-player characters severely weaken gameplay further. In one scenario, my Dawn Brotherhood forces are seizing desperately needed platinum mines from the Shadowrealm. I post a rowdy group of Highland Axemen to protect my newly acquired assets from waves of their platinum-thieving clockwork spiders. After I’ve depleted that mine, I move on to the next….But the Shadowrealm keeps sending clockwork spiders to the dead mine. I think they stopped sending them after about 15 of them had stacked up with nothing to do.
In another scenario, I’m required to escort an allied gnoll back to his camp (ah, the dreaded escort mission.) I’m ordered to let no harm come to him--and the little bastard suddenly takes off at a sprint! My troops are in hot pursuit in an attempt to fend off a series of enemies, but we’re too late. The gnoll heads straight into a pile of hostiles and…nothing. He’s fine, ladies and gentlemen! He continues on his merry gnoll-sprinting ways as I finally clash with the bad guys. Before I even finish off the hostiles I’m congratulated for successfully escorting the gnoll to Point B. Mission accomplished? I guess?
I could go on, but I’d rather gripe about the brain-dead AI. Your units are unforgivably bloodthirsty for anything visible within their fog of war, and routinely override any orders to halt. Even with constant babysitting you’ll find your strategic options limiting. Inconsistent with their bloodthirsty nature, you’ll sometimes find them standing about in the middle of a melee as they’re being poked and prodded with enemy swords and spells. So it’s a hit-or-miss venture. I mainly throw a fit if I find one of my soldiers trying to play hero while his buddies ignore the swarming enemy force a few steps away. Your units are so anxious to destroy enemy structures that they rarely have a problem with letting enemy units stab them in the back. It’s only mildly reassuring that your foes operate with the exact same ignorant AI. Sure, these aren’t brand new issues within the RTS genre, but why haven’t these concerns been fully addressed by now?
The pathfinding AI executes itself remarkably well. I never lost a single troop across any length we trekked, although they’ll march in a single-file line to accomplish this. I would imagine that this would leave your troops dangerously vulnerable during an attack, but even your slowest units won’t suffer unrecoverable damage even if you plow through a sizable set of adversaries. You’re also able to manipulate their lineup formations within the group; a function much more useful than it sounds on paper. The game will naturally arrange sword-swingers in front with spellcasters in back, but this allows you to move any wounded to the rear. You can even place your lord directly in the middle to maximize their aura’s circumference. The interface is delicately detailed, and actually separates into individual windows that you may click and drag around the screen. Arrange to your heart’s content.
Another admirable innovation the designers had is in the handling of mounted units. A majority of the time the mount will be killed first; but your beasthandler will still have some fight left in them. Your temple knight’s steed may go down, but he’ll roll out of it and jump back into the fray. Your wolf rider may lose his wolf, but he’ll shake it off and howl back into battle.
Several checks and balances were rewritten in LOE compared to similar RTS titles. Platinum is now your singular resource to gather for assembling units and buildings. Simple? Yes. A relief? Definitely. Although you’ll find that platinum mines are somewhat scarce on resources (you’ll rarely find one with more than 3,000 pieces) they keep the scenarios challenging. It’s atypical for a mission to allow the building of an ungodly-huge force to sweep over a hapless enemy. This heavily detracts from any ‘epic’ feel this game is striving for, but it makes perfect sense on a smaller scale.
Nurturing your units up in level is rewarding, and you may ‘knight’ two of them once they reach level 6. Knighted units gain a visual upgrade in addition to one ability comparable to a first-level lord. You’ll be able to transfer a few of your remaining troops between levels, as well (and your knights ride for free.) Construction times for buildings and units take an incredibly long time, but they all sponge up a huge amount of damage as well. An important balance considering the low supplies of platinum mentioned earlier. It’ll take a moment of adjustment for RTS vets that appreciate the breakneck pacing of other RTS titles, but these elements are all intricately balanced within LOE.
The art design team deserves a hearty pat on the back. The elven Elddar Alliance construct stunningly imaginative curvatures, while the Norse-influenced Dawn Brotherhood build rigid, celtic lines. Naturally, the Shadowrealm assemble structures that are dark and seething with evil. Although weather is a lifeless topic on Norrath, the terrain is gorgeous, dynamic, and seamless. Hawks circle overhead, crocodiles populate the warm swamps, and sharks drift sleeplessly offshore. The forests are lush, the undergrowth is prolific, terrain smoothly changes hands, all with water effects that are altogether lovely. Neutral cities, while intending to be understated compared to your bases, tend to lack a certain density. Towns run one building deep along either side of a gauntlet that the scenario is worming you through. The underground levels just look dull. Lifeless or dreary would be fine, but the underground scenarios require a serious facelift or they should’ve been left out completely.
The voice talent Sony recruited was a hot topic throughout development. Leading the pack is John-Rhys Davies (Gimli in Lord of the Rings) as Lord Huigar, who is--surprise, surprise--a dwarf. Kate Mulgrew (Capt. Janeway of Star Trek: Voyager) enriches the role of Lady Kreya, a Shadowrealm gnome wizard. Both deliver their thinly-scripted lines with magnificent poise. Honorable mention easily goes to Keith David (Hollywood Homicide, Barbershop) as Lord Vekk; cunning, diabolical, and the only convincingly evil troll on Norrath. Also, Michael T. Weiss (The Pretender) comes through as Lord Kadian, an elven ranger that breaks the stereotypical lisp of his brethren wood elves.
Aside from these few, the remainder of the voice acting meanders between mediocre and awful, or just seems largely misplaced. The sexy Fairuza Balk (Adam Sandler’s girlfriend in The Waterboy) makes her job as a warlord sound like an excerpt from a troubled teen’s diary. Lady Aiendu, cover girl for the Elddar Alliance, steps in with a mottled English accent that’s more exasperated than haughty.
All of which is icing on an entire cake of bad voice acting. Each unit is equipped with one or two pleasantly humorous lines, but the wordy ones are tiresome and hard to ignore. It turns into a real roll-your-eyes experience since units speak up each and every time you utilize them, having so much to say that they’ll speak over themselves and everyone else, too. Although I did get a kick out of hearing Lady Kreya (voiced by Kate Mulgrew of Star Trek: Voyager) break out of her EverQuest character and sternly order “Impulse. I said impulse!”
Paul Romero, veteran composer behind the EverQuest and Heroes of Might & Magic series, returns to lend his adept musical talents. Romero infuses a skillfully woven score beneath the game’s momentum. Never evolving into a brutal attack on the ears, the soundtrack injects a majestic atmosphere into the world of Norrath.
Unlike the soundtrack, the sound effects feel less than inspired. The hammer hits, blade incisions, and arrow volleys are only sufficient--at best. They fail to convey the devastation of war and, at times, sound more playful than destructive. Spell effects are a collective of fluffs, whooshes, and extraterrestrial tractor beam sounds. A massive clashing of forces will sound entirely too calm for a battle, and the dying cries of your units are whimpering and non-consequential. After a lengthy siege, the crumbling of entire bases seem more like the crashing of dinner plates instead of than the razing of strongholds. Painfully anti-climatic considering it takes a serious amount of time to bring down units and structures.
Once you’re done fiddling with the hackneyed campaigns, you’re free to construct your own. LOE ships with an editor for all you mod-freaks. You can even take your beef online free (gasp!) at SOEgames.net. Very few of the game’s scenarios dump you into a sandbox free-for-all, so multiplayer battle maps are included.
I’ll admit: I was inexplicably drawn time and time again to Lords of EverQuest. Unfortunately, it wasn’t for the dim AI; it wasn’t for the B-rate voice acting or shoddy cut-scenes; it wasn’t even for the mediocre sound effects. I was routinely drawn back in a desperate search to find a good game here. The new ideas Rapid Eye brought to the table don’t make up for this basically average gameplay experience. The foundation is there and the premise is fantastic, but they fall short on too many of their promises. And nobody was rooting for them louder than I was.
Sony introduces the EverQuest license into the RTS genre--and almost gets away with it. The EQ universe provides a rich backdrop for this title but they unfortunately use too little of it, and give players even less.