Monday, June 14, 2010

Reviewing New Halas

EQ2's most recent expansion was supposed to come with a new starting area, but it was not ready for the expansion launch.  EQ2 Wire's Feldon suggests on A View From the Top that SOE cannibalized the EQ2 team to make more Free Realms content (presumably since more content for that game translates more directly into additional revenue through item shop sales), and perhaps we have that to blame.

Regardless of the history, the new zone was finally delivered in a recent game update.  Unfortunately, it feels like something produced by a team that doesn't quite have what they need to get the job done.

The good, the bad, and the unfortunate
To lead off with the good, the zone looks spectacular compared to anything that was in the game prior to the current expansion.  I don't know what they're doing differently, but it's working.  From the landscape to the variety of creatures to the spectacular housing options, the entire zone looks excellent.  The new area is also much less of a sprawl than Greater Faydark, the only other option currently in the game for good-aligned characters.  (Qeynos and Freeport, the original starting cities from launch in 2004, were retired as part of this patch because the devs did not feel that it would be time-efficient to try and bring their level 6-20 areas up to current standards.) 

The bad is that the zone feels like it is approximately one quest hub too small.  The little hunk of ice that players use from levels 1-4 is positively tiny compared to what EQ2's other starting areas (including the retired introductory islands for Qeynos and Freeport) use for that level range.  The trend continues throughout the zone, resulting in far too much time spent at the third and fourth quest hubs, repeatedly hitting the same enemy camps to continue quests that would have been completed on the first trip in a zone that actually had enough content to go around.  (Pete at Dragonchasers made the same observation on his trip through the new area.)

I don't quite know how the area compares in geographic size to the other starting options in the game, but there simply isn't space for another quest camp as every bit of space that is not occupied by the city itself is used for one or more quests.  The unfortunate part of it all is that the quests themselves aren't poorly done.  In fact, if anything, some quests are shorter than they need to be - when you've got players in a field to kill 5 skeletons, it makes more sense to have them kill 8 and not make them run back to the questgiver only to return to loot the 5 weapons the dude forgot to ask for the first time.  I guess that the way the exp curve worked out, there's no substitute for the quest completion exp award if players need to somehow gain levels 1-20 in this one zone, even if that means making the quests feel both trivial and repetitive.

Too little park in the theme park

My experience with the current expansion in general to date is that the quality is excellent, but the quantity has been consistently lacking.  With the new max-level areas, SOE's approach was to actually leave them unfinished for the first three months of the expansion, rounding out the missing content in the expansion's first game update.  Personally, I was fine with playing other games while awaiting the patch, but obviously that approach does not work as well for newbies that you're actually trying to win over.  There had to be enough content to gain the required levels in this one under-sized zone, so the developers did their best to make that happen.

At the same time, as a gameplay experience, I would rate the new area third amongst EQ2's current starting zones, and it only avoids coming in dead last because Greater Faydark is one of the only zones in the game where I still get lost trying to get places due to valleys, cliffs, and branches players need to climb.   The entire purpose of the modern WoW-style/"theme park" PVE experience is to show the players the world and have them move on before they get bored and feel like they're grinding.  With only one relatively small zone to span 20 levels (LOTRO uses a separate area for 1-5 and then a starter area for 5-15, while WoW has separate 1-10 and 10-20 zones), there's just not enough park to go around.

The limited size also means that there isn't really room for much of anything in the entire zone that isn't quest-related.  You can expect to complete zone exploration achievement by the time you finish all the local quests, and will pass the spawn points of all of the named monsters who are worth AA in the process.  There is some "lore" in the zone as well - the Feldon/View from the Top interview suggests that this plot has absolutely nothing to do with the original Halas - but, again, it's all packed into the zone's dense quest progression.

Know your audience
If I wasn't already playing EQ2, I'd be the target audience for this latest addition - a primarily solo player of other MMORPG's, who would potentially be willing to try a new theme park.  The problem is, viewed purely on its own merits, this particular zone doesn't hold up particularly well against the competition (again, including EQ2's own older starting zones).  That would be fine if the starting area alone was sufficient to bring in new players, but those players will hit level 20 sooner rather than later.  When that happens, either they will or will not be satisfied with the state of the rest of Norrath.

The irony is that, when I started the game a bit over a year ago, I promptly moved Lyriana from Greater Faydark to the game's oldest content in Antonica and Thundering Steppes.  These two zones that were deemed sufficiently subpar that SOE has now made substantial efforts to prevent players from ever visiting them.  However, they were good enough to win over this particular player, in part because they were less of a guided tour than what you get in WoW and LOTRO.  More to the point, if those old zones had not been up to my standards, I don't think that New Halas and the minor updates to the mid-level game would have cut it either. 

More polish is seldom a bad thing on principle, and I'm sure everyone is a bit self-conscious about how their mid-level game is going to compare to WoW now that Blizzard is spending a whole expansion on updating it.  Unfortunately, polish takes time and effort that it appears the EQ2 team is extremely short on these days.  If they really are at the point where they're evaluating the cost-benefit of everything they're working on, projects like this one really deserve a closer look. 


iamstillwater said...

That's a great write-up. :)

Personally, as someone who has trouble dealing with too much freedom (as opposed to not enough freedom), I like New Halas for what it offers.

It has quite a few named enemies for people to kill, a lot of quest, with some that give me insight as to what happened to the world since I know nothing about it, and the loot is competitive with Timorous Deep in terms of stats. :)

Brian 'Psychochild' Green said...

Hmm, it does seem strange that they're completely disallowing new players to start in the older areas. Changing the default and giving a warning would be enough. As you point out, some people who have fond memories of the older areas might want to go play there.

Admittedly, the older zones are the weakest. As a friend of mine commented when we were playing EQ2, you kind of expected NPCs to be eating babies in Freeport and for the sun in Qeynos to have a smiley face drawn in crayon given how stupidly stereotypical those areas were. I did some of the quests around Freeport just because I wanted to experience the content, but it was not exactly great content.

Ah, well. I guess nobody will ever visit my house in Freeport that I sometimes log on and visit just for nostalgia's sake. :P

Ferrel said...

I'm with you on the part about moving out of the new zones. I started in Gfay a few times and took off. I don't understand how Antonica is "sub-par." I think it is great but perhaps they mean "it isn't on rails and abundantly clear about where to go." I never saw that as a problem.

I also think that the smaller zones is just the nature of EQ2 now. Kunark was huge but beyond that, think of how small every expansion has been. The focus shifting from worlds to games is partly to blame. I think developers are afraid of exploration and afraid that large empty areas will seem negative to players.

Green Armadillo said...

@Stillwater: This is true, I forget about the rewards because I have enough crafter alts to gift my new characters with a full set of handcrafted gear+jewelry+weapons. There actually were a few quest rewards from Frostfang that I wore from levels 10-19, before replacing them all with level 20 handcrafts.

@Psychochild: The old cities are still there, and appropriate-aligned characters can still do the quests in the actual cities (i.e. after the starter island) if they're willing to travel over from the zone that they started in. It's also relatively easy to change your citizenship within your faction if you want the old housing. You just can't start in the old cities.

That said, the biggest issue with Qeynos and Freeport is that they're broken up into so many subzones that it's impossible to find anything, as the guards won't tell you which zone to head to for crucial city services. Unfortunately, that's not an easy fix.

@Ferrel: The irony is that EQ2 now has the most extensive point-to-point teleportation network I can think of, with as many as three separate landing points per zone and sometimes internal auto-AFK travel besides. If there's any game that COULD be making large expanses of relatively empty spaces, it would be EQ2. That said, it sounds to me like the biggest issue the team has right now is lack of resources, and that problem may not be solvable.

Yeebo said...

From the interview you linked previously:

"I want the beginning of the game to be such stupid fun that no one ever quits."

No sure that they have really nailed this with New Halas based on your review and Pete's.

I think it's actually a good thing that it's hard to get to the old starter cities. The quests there are a lot harder than those in the newer starting zones, and the loot you get from the quests is simply horrible. The itemization could be improved pretty easily (it puzzles me that every starting zone doesn't have quest rewards on par with TD), but the structural problems you mention with the areas would likely demand way too many resources to be worth fixing.

Brian 'Psychochild' Green said...

Green Armidillo wrote:
You just can't start in the old cities.

Which practically means that people won't be likely to go the cities. Logging on my account the other day, I noticed that Freeport was a ghost town. It wasn't exactly overflowing with people before, but it's really empty feeling now. I only saw one other person, and that was someone running to their housing right near mine.

As has been pointed out, yeah, this is probably an issue that would take a lot more effort to fix. Still, it seems a bit silly to not even offer the option to people who want it. Perhaps not showing the old cities to people unless they have a character that's made it out of the starting areas might be more appropriate?

Change happens, I guess.