Massively multiplayer online role-playing games are seemingly here to stay. These games let you choose a character from a list of different races and professions, then gradually gain power through experience levels and equipment you acquire on adventures with other, like-minded players. And you could argue that the online role-playing games we know and love now, and that are on the horizon, all owe a great deal to Sony Online Entertainment's 1999 game EverQuest. That was one of the first games to take the addictive, hack-and-slash action of role-playing games and bring it online in a huge and colorful 3D world. Other games have been released since EverQuest, but the original game remains one of the most popular and eventful online RPGs around. Now, it's finally getting a sequel. And we've finally had a chance to play it.
The sequel to EverQuest will still take place in the world of Norrath, as the original game did, but several centuries later. A series of disasters has ruined most of the world, leaving behind only the major cities of Freeport (now controlled by evil factions) and Qeynos (now controlled by good factions). Despite the disaster, the sequel will let you play as one of the original game's 15 races (humans, barbarians, dwarves, high elves, wood elves, dark elves, half elves, halflings, trolls, ogres, iksar, erudites, gnomes, frogloks, and the catlike kerrans, rather than the vah shir), as well as a new "evil" race, the rodentlike ratonga, for a total of 16 different races. And unlike in the original game, all player races may play as all classes...eventually. EverQuest II takes a completely different approach to creating characters. You start off as one of four basic "archetypes," a fighter, a scout, a mage, and a priest--you'll later be able to "specialize" your class further into more-familiar (and more-powerful) classes, like holy paladins and nature-loving druids.
The character-creation menu is one of the first menus you'll use, and it's a great way to get a close look at the game's exceptionally detailed character models. While the environments in EverQuest II look great, the game's character models look incredible. They feature tremendous detail, right down to the lustrous sheen on the scales of the reptilian iksar. The current version of the game affords you a tremendous number of choices on superficial details for your character's appearance--even more than Sony Online Entertainment's last game, Star Wars Galaxies, did. You can choose different colors and orientations for your character's eyes, different angles for your nose and chin, a huge number of different hairstyles, and use a slider to adjust your character's stature. Several races also have additional features, such as facial tattoos. One common criticism of the original EverQuest was that characters tended to look the same; one dark elf wearing a robe really looked no different from another. Thanks to EverQuest II's huge variety of character creation options, you will have a much easier time making distinctive-looking characters.
Once you've created your new EverQuest II character, you'll begin the tutorial, a guided adventure narrated with the game's recently announced full audio speech. You'll start the tutorial on a strange ship--your character was apparently lost at sea and recently rescued by a boat on its way to the Isle of Refuge, the game's first area. On the ship, you'll be carefully walked through the basics of interacting with other characters, buying and selling items, engaging in combat, and performing quests. The game lets you interact with most objects and characters by double-left-clicking, though you can also right-click a character or object to bring up a context-sensitive menu that will let you open a closed chest or greet (or reply to) a chatty character. The same applies to melee combat; you can right-click an enemy, like the captive goblin that escapes its prison and wreaks havoc on deck, and choose the "attack" option or use your auto-attack hotkey.
EverQuest II's current interface seems much simpler and cleaner than that of the previous game. Though the interface we saw isn't necessarily final, it took up far less space onscreen. The current, prerelease test version of the game has a "hotkey bank"--a set of 10 hotkey shortcuts (and you can switch between multiple groups of hotkeys by pressing shift plus a number key) that can include anything from melee attacks to magic spells. In the current version of the game, every base character archetype has an innate power; for instance, priests begin the game with a basic blessing (that adds protection to a teammate), while mages begin the game with a short-lived boosting spell that increases the rate at which a teammate regains "power," which is what all characters use to cast magic spells and use innate abilities.
You're in Their New World Now!
On landing at the Isle of Refuge, we were immediately recruited into a goblin-hunting quest by a gruff-speaking military officer who demanded to know what basic class we'd belong to: priest, fighter, rogue, or mage. After we chose an archetype, the blustery officer then gave a long-winded description of the character type, followed by one last confirmation question to make sure it was the choice we wanted. This is all part of EverQuest II's approach of not overwhelming players with vague choices when they begin a new game; players who may not fully understand the capabilities of a monk or a shadow knight may choose a character class or a set of skills that they later realize isn't right for them. As such, the game will ease players into development by letting them choose an additional class at level 10 and a specialized class at level 20.
The Isle of Refuge is a beachside safe haven, where you can go on a few small-time quests for verbose characters that will give you modest rewards and additional tips on how to play the game and on the lore of EverQuest II. When you're ready, you can speak to an ambassador character in the central courtyard; the Isle currently has two ambassadors, one from the corrupt city of Freeport and one from the noble city of Qeynos. The ambassadors explain what each city is like and extend you an invitation (though if you belong to an evil race, the Qeynos ambassador may hesitate to invite you; the converse applies with the Freeport ambassador). You can then rejoin the captain of the ship you rode in on and request passage off the island by heading to the docks and clicking on the sea bell. In this early version of the game, using the sea bell instantly transports you to the city rather than forcing you to wait for your ship to come in.
We were able to visit the city of Qeynos. In contrast to the Isle of Refuge's rolling sea waves, swaying high grass, and goblin encampments out in the woods, Qeynos is a medieval town lined with large wooden buildings and bustling merchants, like in the original EverQuest. While many non-player characters simply go about a daily routine in the city, they'll actually have different routines depending on the time of day (some characters may be out only at night, for instance). In addition, several characters give out quests when spoken to; these include tasks like hunting down monsters. We did a bit of this ourselves on the outskirts of the city as part of a six-character group, which proved overwhelming to the unsuspecting bog faeries and slime monsters we faced. Because our adventuring group consisted of more than six characters, we formed multiple groups but were able to join these together into a "raid"--a larger group that can consist of four groups of six. The raid moved on to one of the game's new dungeons, a subterranean maze of corridors beneath a long spiral staircase shrouded in darkness. EverQuest II will have plenty of dark dungeons, though under no circumstances will it ever be too dark for anyone to see--human, barbarian, and erudite characters will be able to see just fine in the dark. The dungeon itself proved to be too much even for our stalwart raiding party, especially when we unearthed a squadron of skeletal soldiers that butchered the lot of us.
As a change of pace, we then moved on to the new-and-improved Blackburrow, an updated version of the infamous dungeon from the original EverQuest. Like in the original game, Blackburrow is still inhabited by ferocious, dog-headed gnolls, though these shaggy-haired gnolls look far more menacing and detailed and seemed a lot tougher. Blackburrow's gnolls remain as aggressive as ever and still seem to enjoy causing "trains"--large herds of monsters that chase down unlucky (or foolish) adventurers. A tougher, more-organized group might have been better equipped to survive the perils of this dungeon, but Sony Online Entertainment is designing the game so that all players of any class will be able to productively adventure alone all the way to level 50 rather than being forced to wait for a group.
While EverQuest II is still in a prerelease testing state, it already seems very playable. The game's voice work, which is instanced for each player (that is, only you can hear the characters you talk to--otherwise, the game would be filled with a nonstop stream of babbling characters), seems to add real context to your adventures. And thanks to the game's powerful new graphics engine, EverQuest II looks fantastic, especially the game's incredibly detailed character models. The game will launch later this year.