We had a chance to go behind closed doors with Sony Online Entertainment today to take a look at EverQuest II: Desert of Flames, the first full expansion to SOE's popular massively multiplayer online game. We have some new details on the expansion and what's included in it, so read on for our impressions.
The first big thing we saw in Desert of Flames was the inclusion of a new climbing mechanic. Like the destructible objects SOE added to EverQuest II in previous downloadable content, climbing is intended to expand the game world of EQII by allowing for a greater feeling of discovery and navigation through the outdoor worlds. If you see a cliff, you won't know whether there's something atop it until you happen to scale it. SOE promises that this new mechanic will be a big part of the expansion's dozen-plus new zones.
The central hub of the Desert of Flames expansion pack is the City of Maj'dul, a bandit city in the middle of the desert. There are some new gameplay features to Maj'dul that apparently haven't been seen previously in EQII, the most immediately noticeable of which is that you can apparently attack almost every non-player character in the city if you wish and that many of them will be able to attack you as well. This is due to the faction system that rules the city.
SOE explained that there are four factions, known as "courts," which effectively rule the city, and that although your character will initially be neutral, you will eventually want to choose a side to team with. There's a Court of Swords, which represents the warrior faction in the city; a Court of Truth, which represents the law officers of the city; the Court of Tears, which includes the thieves and assassins; and the Court of Coin, where the merchants in the city try to assert their needs. Apparently, you can vie for favor with one of these courts, each of which will have unique quests and reward setups, letting you get a variety of experiences as you play through the content.
Another aspect of the court system that's pretty interesting brings to mind SOE's previous fighter MMO game, Planetside. As you lend your weight to your court's efforts and complete quests, the balance of power in the city will shift, resulting in differing numbers of NPC guards across the server. So your faction's strength won't necessarily just affect you, but if enough players happen to start throwing force behind a faction, it can affect the experiences of everyone on the server, to the point where you can apparently eject all members of a rival faction from a city, forcing them to mount a counterattack to retake their positions. Individual buildings can be taken over by courts as well.
The last major aspect of the Desert of Flames expansion that we were told about is the PVP content. Yes, Virginia, EverQuest II will soon have player-versus-player content, and although we didn't see this for ourselves, we do have some of the first details about what SOE is planning to include when Desert of Flames ships. First off, PVP will primarily take place in an instanced arena. It's not going to be just deathmatch, kill-or-be-killed gameplay, though; apparently, alternate game modes like capture the flag, hold the line, and seek and destroy will be included, and SOE hints at some kind of custom game mode creation as well.
What's interesting about all this is the inclusion of what are called arena champions, which are essentially premade characters you can bring to the arena to use as characters in PVP content. If you're attempting to join a game that features characters of a high level, and you're only level 20, then you'll be able to select one of these arena champions and use what's effectively a different character for the fight. Some of these have unique abilities, such as a speedy goblin that will apparently be good in CTF games. What's more, there are also specific named champions in the world that can be found as drops; if you happen to kill an evil wizard named Dr. Evil Wizard, for example, then he may drop a lootable arena champion, allowing you to become Dr. Evil Wizard in multiplayer. Many of these champions will have their own unique special abilities, so it'll be interesting to see how these guys are balanced in the shipping content.
Sony says that around half of the content in the expansion is targeted toward solo and small groups, with the other half consisting of raid content. One of the raid content hints we were shown features a pair of powerful dragons that are apparently capable of invading Maj'dul, but SOE was reluctant to reveal many details about these foes. Since the level cap is being raised from 50 to 60 in the expansion, it may take a few weeks after the expansion ships before anyone explores that content anyway.
Speaking of which, Desert of Flames is currently on track for a September 2005 release. Keep your magic carpets flying over GameSpot for more details in the future.