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.