The large and sweeping world of Norrath just got a little bigger in Desert of Flames, the first expansion for SOE's popular EverQuest II. Desert of Flames brings not only a whole new zone in the form of the rugged, arid island of Ro, but it also carries with it a broad combat revamp and increased level cap, as well as the introduction of player-versus-player battles. The substantive raiding and questing additions are primarily for higher-level characters, and the player-versus-player implementation isn't totally polished yet, but the balance of the changes is a well-rounded expansion with offerings for players of all levels.
By far the most far-reaching aspect of the expansion is the combat revamp, which has greatly reworked not only the skills and ability trees of most classes and subclasses, but has retuned the difficulty of monster encounters overall. As a result, mobs in the game now sport their color-coded difficulty rating that includes arrows over their names to indicate gradations in difficulty; downward-facing arrows indicate weaker enemies, while upward-facing arrows indicate powerful and possibly heroic monsters.
Something you'll readily notice is that heroic monsters are no joke--even if you're several levels higher than a heroic mob and it's grey (very weak, normally) to you, you can still get yourself readily trounced despite the level difference if you try to fight them on your own. A bit more caution is warranted when traveling or leveling solo, but soloing is absolutely still possible, and the newly concentrated abilities of the various classes make a pretty balanced match to the changed monster difficulty levels. If anything, the changes serve to nudge players to be more mindful of their surroundings and to perhaps group a bit more often in a game that is already heavily built around cooperative adventuring. Along with the change to combat, the maximum level cap for players has been raised from level 50 to level 60, along with new abilities to flesh those levels out, and a new zone to ply those skills in: the island of Ro.
Desert of Flames' signature new zone is the wild land of Ro, a large desert isle with a distinct Arabian flavor that's populated with plenty of new monsters, new quests, and new objectives for players level 45 and higher. You can actually easily reach Ro from quite a low level by simply riding a magic carpet from one of the main cities and wafting on over, and you'll be able to reach the bustling city of Maj'Dul the same way, zipping through the skies over a variety of deadly wildlife. Plenty of crocodilians teem along the beaches and other foes hover just nearby, so only appropriately leveled characters will be making their way into the countryside. The city itself serves as a single great hub for the new zone, a multitiered sandstone metropolis that's home to a number of different factions.
When you're of a level to accept the quests here, you can choose to align yourself with one of the city's factions, currying the favor of a somewhat distrustful people by performing a number of tasks. Maj'Dul has some of the same dangerous and exotic flavor of its environs, with thieves and other hostile entities lurking in the streets that you'll have to be wary of. One of the draws of this new urban center, besides the new environment content, is the great arena.
The arena is one facet of EverQuest II's new player-versus-player combat system, which along with dueling finally brings a smattering of PvP to the realms of Norrath. Players can request duels of other players at will, and there's even a feature that allows bystanders to wager on the outcome of the contest if they so desire. Wandering around even the lowest-level areas, we found a number of players willing to drop their quests and challenge each other to short contests of skill. The arena is a feature found only in the city of Maj'Dul, and you can walk up at any time to set up the game of your choosing. There are three game types in the arena--team deathmatch, capture the flag, and destroy the idol--and you can easily set victory conditions, time limits, and whether you want to allow spectators outside the game to watch.
As far as participation goes, arena battles can either be fought by player characters themselves (if you select this option, you can choose the level range to allow in increments of 10, from 20 to 60), or fought by champions. Champions are battle avatars that you can purchase from arena master, possessed of their own unique abilities and balanced against each other for strength, from the powerful tentacle-faced Fearknights to the fierce Tae Ew hunters with their mighty ranged attacks and variety of traps, and others. If you do well in arena contests, there are rewards for you to earn, ranging from trophies to special character titles, to new types of champions.
It's a grand setup, but your chances of actually participating in these mighty arena contests probably aren't all that high unless you've managed to already recruit a fighting force. The arena stands large and empty much of the time, particularly on weekdays, with the occasional player trying to fire up a pick-up game that has a good chance of petering out due to lack of interest. The arena seems to be a nice, if underused, player-versus-player outlet, but it's hard to gauge the future of PvP in EverQuest II.
A final determination regarding PvP and its presence on the game's servers hasn't yet been determined: whether it will be incorporated into the game across the board, or restricted to special servers. The PvP additions made with the advent of the expansion seem to lean more toward casual augmentations of what remains a heavily player-versus-environment-focused game, rather than robust content for PvP players. Desert of Flames provides a taste of player-versus-player action that may or may not get the chance to expand further, though the series has always been player-versus-environment focused anyway.
And those environments continue to look sharp in Desert of Flames, with lots of detailed, well-textured visuals and interesting sights to see on the island of Ro. The land's expanse of desert trades off with oases ringed by palms and giant carved idols, and there's a nice assortment of new and interesting creatures to see. Large pachyderms and camels, pet monkeys and tigers share the island next to other more dangerous denizens, whom you now clamber around by using a new gameplay mechanic that lets you climb certain vertical surfaces. While the concept of flying around Norrath is not new, doing so on a flying carpet is certainly a lot of fun, and all the swooping and banking does a good job of showing off the world below. The same loading screens that pervade the rest of the world are also present here, though for the most part, the entirety of the city of Maj'Dul is open to wandering without having to sit and wait for anything to load. The non-player characters on Ro don't seem as chatty as their brethren elsewhere in the world, but the animal and ambient noises still fill out the experience nicely, next to Arabian-style music that truly gives the island its own unique feel.
Desert of Flames has the most to offer EverQuest II players of advanced level, but the new PvP trappings and the combat revamp mean that there's something new to see for just about anyone. The player-versus-player combat still doesn't feel like a fully realized diversion just yet, but the act of exploring Ro and getting your character to level 60 should nicely fill the time you don't use waiting around for an arena game, provided you're of a high enough level to actually do those things. Existing players who are nearing the level of expansion country should check out Desert of Flames, and if you've let your account sit fallow for a bit, the changes to the combat system are worth sampling.