Tuesday, December 5, 2017

How To Do More With Less : EQ2

When I wasn't slogging through GW2's Living Story yesterday I was ambling amiably around The Plane of Magic, getting some levels done while working on my Yrzu faction. For some reason the Daybreak Games team chose to gate most of EQ2's latest expansion, Planes of Prophecy behind a substantial faction grind. It's an odd move. I mean, I like a faction grind as much as the next twenty-year veteran but I wouldn't choose to start an expansion with one.

You might imagine this would be both an unpopular and a controversial decision, especially given the mixed reception given to last year's Kunark Ascending, which came with any number of pre-requisites and requirements - obscure languages, long-forgotten quest chains, several faction minimums. Apparently, it's not.

Far from it, in fact. If anything, the vibe around PoP has been noticeably less frosty than the usual stone-faced stare all new content engenders from EQ2's famously hostile home crowd. I'd go as far as to say that General Chat has been positively perky, with most of the tantrums reserved for family spats between long-timers over issues that have nothing to do with the expansion's quality or lack thereof. Certainly no-one seems to be complaining about the faction grind. From what I could glean, people seemed to be relishing it.

Among those giving PoP the benefit of the doubt is Kaozz at ECTMMO. She was less than impressed by Kunark Ascending but she's been covering her progress this time around with a good deal more enthusiasm than she did last year. I was taken aback at first by the speed at which she leveled to 105 because my own progress, while entirely enjoyable, was glacial by comparison.

Over the years SOE and DBG have experimented with any number of ways to stop players burning through new content, few of which have been well-received. This time they seem to have come up with something that hasn't driven the usual sales of tar and feathers through the roof.

What they've come up with is rather simple. They've made each new level from 100 to 110 cost many millions of experience points, while leaving the xp per kill just about where it was. Then they've added absolutely huge XP rewards to the main storyline and faction quests, most of which are very straightforward.

With full vitality and the pre-order bonus running, completing a single quest can award close to a third of a level in experience. Even the repeatable faction quests chime in with a large chunk. This approach would be all well and good if it wasn't for the exceptionally slow TTK (time to kill) which quite a few people have been bemoaning.

Quite a few but not everyone. General chat offered a number of discussions on this during the week and it was clear that not everyone was suffering the same slowdown. A common mistake turned out to be that some people hadn't taken advantage of the free armor, weapons and jewellery that lie around in a box at the zone-in just waiting to be picked up.

The lack of that major upgrade to efficiency explained many people's issues but not mine - I was wearing it all and had been from the beginning. Even so, after a couple of sessions, where it took me literally half an hour to kill the necessary eight mobs to finish each single, repeatable faction quest, while I could see other players ripping through the same mobs in seconds, I decided I must be making some other basic error. I was.

A few years back SOE realized that Berserkers were getting all the benefits of being both a DPS class and a Tank with none of the drawbacks of either, at which point they withdrew a number of the perks from the Offensive stance. Since that unhappy day my Berserker has soloed exclusively as a Tank, since even before that, although I may never have grouped with him, I always thought of him as a Tank and geared and specced him accordingly.

It's never been much of an issue. He's been able to kill quickly and take a beating all at the same time. Well, not in PoP, it seems. In Defensive stance he's so safe that fighting mobs five levels above him doesn't put a visible dent in his hit point bar but he doesn't do a lot more damage than that in return. When I swapped him into Offensive stance all that changed.

Boy, how it changed! Suddenly every attack was knocking chunks off the mobs and when I cast my big Ascended nuke for the first time after the refit I couldn't believe what I was seeing. A single cast reduced the target's health by the best part of 75%! No wonder people say the Ascension class system has turned everyone into Wizards.

Once I took my self-imposed brakes off everything sped up by an order of magnitude. Literally. I'd been timing my TTK and it went from three minutes to thirty seconds on the same mobs. With a few more refinements I improved on that some more. Now I'm back to the usual situation, where the limiting factor on progress is how fast I can get from the quest-giver to the target and back.

That can take a while. Plane of Magic is big. Or it seems big. I'm not sure it's actually any bigger than the open world maps from the last two expansions but it somehow manages to give the impression of vastness by being surrounded by the void. Actually, make that The Void. I think it used to be a zone in it's own right.

Compared to the Path of Fire maps in GW2, Plane of Magic is an absolute pleasure to explore. Mob density is nigh-on perfect: always enough to complete a quest, never so many they get in the way. What's even better is that most aren't aggressive, the ones that are have very small aggro ranges and nothing I've encountered so far snares  me, roots me, stuns me or knocks me down.

You wouldn't believe what a difference that makes. Or perhaps, if you've struggled to explore PoF, you would. DBG may not have either the engine or the artists to compete with ANet but with maybe a tenth as many developers (and that's being optimistic) they manage to make gorgeous environments that positively encourage exploration - and reward it richly, too.

Then there's the storyline. It's just as much cod-fantasy nonsense as GW2's but it's coherent, comprehensible, well-structured nonsense. It's the same plot as every other EQ2 expansion - some mysterious force/god/demon is messing with the natural order/rules of magic/structure of the universe and only you, the player, can help some very important NPCs Put a Stop To It. The difference is in the language.

EQ2 has an odd house style - there's a stiff formality to it that I love. Of late it's not as relentlessly polished as it once was - infelicities and colloquialisms do slip in form time to time - but it still rolls around the reader's palate like a rich Rioja.

I thoroughly enjoy reading EQ2's quest text. Every word. I also find the NPCs and their odd quirks and personality disorders endearing and amusing. As I quested through the storyline of the first of the three factions I'll need to complete I found myself not dreading the grind but looking forward to it. If I'm going to play a quest-based MMO then these are the kinds of quests and quest-givers I want.

After around four hours on Sunday I'd gone from level 101 to 105 but that only tells part of the story. In that time I also went back to Obulos Frontier in Kunark several times to visit Najena, my Elementalist Ascension Trainer and Miragul, who  looks after my Ethereal Ascension needs. Nothing like being trained by two of the greatest mages of all time.

I also spent a good while sorting my banks - not just for the fun of it this time but because I noticed that crafting mats now stack to 800, a fourfold increase. The entire session was an unalloyed pleasure. So far I've scarcely touched the content of the expansion - I'm not even out of the first zone - but I've enjoyed every moment.

As well as questing I flew all over the place, gawping. I took a lot of screenshots and I found a lot of shinies. I never once felt as though I was "playing a game"; I was in the world, immersed.

After all these years I still can't find an MMO to compete with EQ2 when it comes to settling down in a virtual world- at least not since Vanguard went dark. GW2 looked good for a while but now it just looks like a moderately fun game. Where else, after all, can you step out of your front door and walk into a party fighting a dragon on your doorstep?

I'm sure Planes of Prophecy won't be a perfect expansion. I doubt it will even match the extremely high standard set by SOE's swansong, Altar of Malice, which was twice the size - albeit the work of a much larger team.

But for an MMO in the autumn of its life, tended by a skeleton crew working for a company with an uncertain future? Given that background, Planes of Prophecy is a small miracle and I'm going to enjoy the heck out of it while I still can.


  1. I have not been playing much due to time constraints but I am enjoying myself so far. I have seen some complaints and had the same feeling of annoyance on having a faction grind right at the beginning of the main questline. It's only that the grind is not that bad when compared to tithe/ascension/proving grounds that I think has held most of the negativity back.

    1. Putting the faction grind right at the start seems to be one of the few misteps. Can't really see why anyone would think that was a good idea. People generally don't mind a faction grind when they have done a lot of other stuff but no-one wants one that gates the content they just paid for.


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