Monday, April 25, 2011

EQ2 Destiny of Velious Month 1 Impressions

I have never played the original Everquest, and this is both an advantage and a disadvantage for EQ2's take on the continent of Velious.  On the one hand, I lack the context for events that are based off of the original game, which I would imagine have more meaning for those who actually played it.  On the other hand, I don't need to be offended when the new version is inconsistent with the old (or at least my memory of the same), and I can still recognize that the lore has the polished sense of having more behind it than the paragraph in the quest journal, even if I don't know all of it. 

Perhaps this opportunity to judge the expansion on its own merits is ironically the best approach to the new content.

Expansion Content
The adventuring content in last year's Sentinel's Fate expansion really suffered from SOE's decision to increase the level cap by 10 levels without the content available to support that many levels.  As a result, the new content had absurd quest hubs where you got nine quest completes for killing seven mobs, because there was no other way to hand out that much exp in that little content. 

DOV did not increase the level cap, and, with that constraint removed from content design, the new outdoor solo content returns to the higher level of quality from pre-TSF expansions like ROK and TSO. I'm pretty much done with Great Divide now, and it looks like there's a fair amount of content to do in the next zone. 

I've also spent a fair amount of time in dungeons, having completed four of the expansion's nine heroic single group dungeons.  A big part of this is because I'm fortunate enough to have picked a class that plays like a DPS but gets group invites like a tank.  I'll also concede that the content is occasionally buggy - especially when it comes to giving everyone in a group credit for certain updates, but sometimes with more serious issues as well - but I've had a decent time despite this.  It's very uncommon for original, high quality solo content to become something that I do to kill time while looking for a group, but that's exactly where I've ended up in EQ2.

New Features
I've written about the new flying mounts, and I remain unconvinced that player controlled flight is a good idea in this type of game, but at least they're well implemented and people seem to like them. 

The other big new mechanic is Norrath's take on the public quest. On the plus side, these things do give players a reason to group up in the open world.  Unfortunately, I can't really recommend them.  Instead of offering a fixed challenge (like Warhamer) or a scaling one (like Rift), this version simply starts out at raid difficulty and fails as many times as is needed until the number of players present are able to defeat it.  With a large enough group, victory becomes a certain, if laggy, proposition.

It's not a horrible diversion, the best loot is a bit beyond what you can get in solo quests, and you are also guaranteed a gem worth a daily quest's worth of rep with the faction of your choice, which allows you to do PQ's in place of other ways of pursuing rep.  That said, I can't imagine that this version of PQ's is going to convince anyone to pick EQ2 over Rift, and one has to speculate that this was part of SOE's motivation in implementing it.

The Business Model
I don't really enjoy writing about SOE's usually inscrutable business decisions, and this expansion hasn't done that much to change this. 
  • They released a new race at a separate (and large) charge from the $40 expansion box, which are already the most frequent fees of that size amongst major recent MMO's.  
  • The game's most populous server is the separate free to play server, with a population that is predictably and horribly skewed towards low level characters of free races and classes - last time I did a /who all 90 dirge on Freeport during prime time, there were only 6 online (compared to 40+ on Crushbone) which can't be fun for trying to get a group together. 
  • All the trivial solo quest rewards have been upgraded from "treasured" to "legendary" quality (think if WoW removed greens and had only blue items) because non-subscribers in EQ2X have to pay per the item to unlock these.  Ironically, it's cheaper to play the game as a raider than a non-raider, because a raider gets their best in slot item and keeps it for months, while solo gear may last for only the next quest chain.  
Then, there was the much-publicized public brainstorming session in which the producer suggested giving out level 90 characters as a "winback" bonus to returning subscribers, and the internets exploded.  The thing that didn't get talked about was what they actually did - wait for six weeks after the expansion launch to ensure that returning players like myself had already bought our expansion boxes before announcing a promotion for former players that included a week of free time and $15 worth of station cash (which can be used to buy future expansion boxes). 

SOE either did not know or did not care how this would look to people who came back voluntarily.  Likewise, the idea that some existing players might want to jump on the free level 90 alt bandwagon supposedly did not even occur to Smokejumper (unless he was fishing for this request to claim that there's demand for level 90 premades in the game's cash store). 

There's a line between smart price discrimination and making your existing customers feel that you value potential customers over current ones, and repeated incidents like this over the past year have left many current players feeling that the line has been crossed.  If you're selling a single player game and never expecting another dime from your customers, that's your prerogative, but it's less advisable in a genre where you're asking for more money each and every month. 

What I've seen of Velious so far is a definite upgrade from last year's effort, though that says as much about the poor quality of TSF as about DOV.  SOE has now kicked off a publicity campaign promising to deliver the remaining content of the Velious story arc - which many of us feared would be put off to a future paid expansion - as regular content updates.  After last year, they haven't exactly earned the benefit of the doubt, but the three new instances in next month's patch are a decent enough start. 

Overall, I'm not sure how to recommend this expansion.  On the one hand, it's good quality content that I've enjoyed playing so far, and expect to get at least another month out of.  On the other, the expansion is completely useless until you've reached level 86+, and the bugs that I've seen in the early content are apparently nothing compared to the issues in the high end game, where mandatory progression bosses are still routinely removed from the game for weeks at a time due to bugs and where veterans are strongly displeased with both class balance and itemization.  It's never a good sign when your strongest advocates are all off playing Rift, and that's precisely where many of EQ2's strongest former partisans are now found. 

Seeing Ferrel, Jaye, Feldon, Starseeker, et al in Rift over EQ2 is seems as odd as Otter/Frog romance.

At the end of the day, I suppose my best advice if you're on the fence is to wait and see how the promised changes play out.  Who knows, there might even be a free level 90 character or other exclusive discount offers available if you just hold out a bit longer - perhaps not in the game's best interest, but this is a bed of their own making. 

(P.S. I picked up something like 17-18 AA's during the last month, but I'm still at only 209 out of the current cap of 300.  This is a problem, because raiding guilds expect 250+ AA's, and the rate that I've been earning them at is not sustainable once you run out of non-repeatable awards for quests and first-time boss kills.  I'll be out of content AND even geared for raiding well before I hit the 250 mark.)

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