Blizzard is translating its Warcraft series of real-time strategy games to the online role-playing genre in its forthcoming World of Warcraft, so it's only fair that Sony Online Entertainment did the reverse with EverQuest. The new Lords of EverQuest is a real-time strategy game based on the EverQuest massively multiplayer online universe. It's clearly derived from other, previous real-time strategy games, especially Blizzard's most recent, but a bland story in the single-player mode and a host of gameplay issues make Lords of EverQuest feel like a cheap knockoff instead of a worthwhile entry into an established genre.
Lords of EverQuest is set 10,000 years before the current timeline in EverQuest. Three factions vie for power and control of Norrath's lands: the Shadowrealm, the Dawn Brotherhood, and the Elddar Alliance. These factions are composed of the similarly aligned races found in EverQuest. For example, the Shadowrealm consists of races such as trolls, iksar, and dark elves, while the Dawn Brotherhood has humans, dwarves, and kerrans. If you're not familiar with these races from EverQuest, they'll seem like straightforward high-fantasy archetypes to you.
You don't have to know anything about EverQuest to play the game, but only EverQuest players will appreciate the units. Even with this in mind, the unit design in Lords of EverQuest is disappointing. It seems as though the developers tried to find some way to throw in every single race and class from the role-playing game without any clear purpose. For example, the Dawn Brotherhood's cavalry are always kerrans, and its clerics are always dwarves. Any character can ride horses in the online RPG, and many other races can also be clerics, so it would have been much more interesting if clerics were sometimes dwarves and sometimes humans, for example. This may sound like nitpicking, but it's just one of many instances of Lords of EverQuest failing to use its source material to deviate from the standard RTS formula, even though the opportunity was there.
The three factions don't vary, either. What makes other real-time strategy games interesting is that they're able to balance three or four completely different factions that play significantly differently from one another. You'll find none of this variety in Lords of EverQuest beyond the different graphics used to depict the sides. All of the factions have comparable units and play styles--each side has a healer, for example. It's to be expected that each faction in a real-time strategy game will have some means of healing its forces, but in Lords of EverQuest, each side's healer is essentially the same exact unit. The three factions build their bases in the same manner, and they mine resources in the same manner. As if to continue the monotony, there's only one resource to mine: platinum.
As the name may imply, Lords of EverQuest focuses on units called "lords," which are analogous to hero units found in other strategy games. When you start a campaign or multiplayer game, you choose a faction and then you pick a lord--each faction has five to choose from, for a grand total of 15 lords in the game. The lords radiate an aura that has a positive effect on nearby friendly units and a negative effect on nearby enemy units. Lords also start out with one ability, but three new abilities will progressively become available as the lords gain experience levels. Unfortunately, there is little variety here, too. For instance, each faction has a lord that can have a "pet" and a lord that has a "slow enemy attack speed" aura. Your lord will eventually become so powerful that he or she can pretty much do everything alone. Lady T'lak from the Shadowrealm can take on a group of enemies without breaking a sweat by instantly killing the most powerful enemy and then using an attack speed upgrade to quickly take out the remainders.
With such a powerful lord, you'd imagine that other units would be worthless. That would be a correct assumption, for the most part. A large group of healers can make you nearly invincible, and ranged units can take down pesky air units, but everything else can just get in the way. That's too bad, because every unit also gains levels and becomes more powerful. Unit levels would play a bigger part in the game if the transfer system were better implemented. In the campaigns, you can transfer units to the next mission, but you always have a limited number of transfer points, so you can take only a few units with you. Additionally, once a unit hits level six, you can knight it. You can have up to two knights, which gain an additional power and an aura as well as a free transfer to the next mission. You can choose which unit would best complement your army with its aura, although being knighted doesn't seem to raise its intelligence.
The artificial intelligence in Lords of EverQuest is rather pathetic. Moving units from point A to point B works fine, but once they get to point B, things go downhill. Large groups of units tend to get trapped by each other and won't move out of the way. The blocked unit may stop, or it may decide to circle around the entire map and wind up in the enemy base. Things get even worse when that wayward unit happens to be your lord. Expect to hear "Your lord has been slain" more often than you should, due to this erratic behavior. This wouldn't be too much of a problem if you could easily resurrect a fallen lord or knight. Instead, you have to recruit a special unit that transfers its life essence into the fallen unit. The lord is the most powerful unit and the backbone of your army, so if your lord dies in enemy territory, you're out of luck. Hint: Quicksave is F9. Use it often.
Part of the problem with the AI is the lack of available unit behaviors. Units have an aggressive behavior by default and will chase anything until it or they die. You can set a defensive and hold-position behavior, but you have to do it every time the unit moves. If you forget just one time, you may find your unit halfway across the map. It would also have been nice if there were unit formations to help control your troops. Instead, all you can do is direct every unit to follow your lord. Besides the aforementioned issue with clumps of units, sometimes units following your lord will just stand still instead of taking part in combat that is several spaces away. Everything is supposed to be streamlined so you don't have to micromanage, yet this is what you repeatedly have to do just to get your units to fight.
There are three campaigns in Lords of EverQuest--one for each faction. The story is presented through in-engine cutscenes before, during, and after missions. Unfortunately, the overall story is rather dull and uninspiring, so watching the cutscenes feels like a chore. The Shadowrealm is facing a civil war, the Dawn Brotherhood is fending off surprise attacks from the Elddar Alliance, and the Elddar Alliance is searching for a missing leader. An interesting aspect of Lords of EverQuest is that the scenarios for each faction are intertwined, and all three campaigns occur simultaneously through different viewpoints. However, this would be more noteworthy if the overall story and characters were more interesting in the first place.
The missions themselves are straightforward and have various objectives that you've probably seen before in other real-time strategy games. The objectives include attacking enemy bases, playing with limited units, or rescuing trapped units. The game is not very difficult and ends up being a rinse-and-repeat formula of waiting until you mass enough forces to simply plow through the enemy. The base defense missions are even easier. In one mission, there is only one chokepoint into your base that is four units wide. You can simply have a bunch of units block the entrance and act as shields for your ranged units behind them. In another base defense mission, you can simply go on the offensive and take out the two enemy bases. Most of the time you can just use a handful of units to dish out most of the damage, with a bunch of healers as support. This lack of a challenge in the missions makes it hard to explore the unit options you have available because you simply don't need them.
Your opponents aren't too challenging in the campaign. The computer relies on preset conditions and scripted sequences to fight its battles. It sometimes throws units at your base, but the groups are always small and are sent in intervals so you can deal with them easily. Missions are won through sheer force rather than any sort of cunning. Even though each unit has a special ability, most aren't influential in a battle. Since the computer doesn't focus its fire on particular units, and healing spells restore a large amount of health of time, all you really need is a huge number of clerics to win in the campaign. All told, it will take a typical RTS gamer about 20 hours to slog through the game, if he or she cares to.
Lords of EverQuest of course offers multiplayer as an alternative to the single-player campaigns. You can play against the computer or humans on a LAN or through Sony Online Entertainment's new multiplayer service. SOEGames.net is a free service where gamers can meet each other and find games. It's similar to other online services like Battle.net, where you can talk in chat rooms, search for games, or use a quickmatch option to have the service find a game for you. We didn't find too many players playing online, and those whom we did play against didn't seem too enthusiastic about the game. Nevertheless, SOEGames.net is stable, and we didn't experience any disconnections during the online sessions.
There are several multiplayer game modes to choose from. The standard real-time strategy game type is last man standing, where you have to eliminate your foes. There are other unconventional game types, such as body harvest and platinum rush, where you have to accumulate the most kills and platinum, respectively, in a given amount of time. Grim reaper is a rush to be the only player remaining with units, and lord of levels is a rush to gain the most levels in a short amount of time. You can play as a team or just go at it in a free-for-all.
Creating a single-player skirmish against the computer can be counterintuitive. You have to create a LAN game and then place computer opponents in the open slots. The skirmish AI is more of a challenge than the campaign, although that isn't saying much. It will throw a large assortment of troops at you and will sometimes level up its units by killing neutral creatures prior to setting its sights on you. Leveling up your forces is more important in the skirmish mode than in the campaign because you get extra platinum for killing random monsters on the map, and you gain experience much faster. Despite the relatively tougher competition in the skirmish mode, the AI still has its fair share of problems. It will leave armies idle as battles wage inside its base across the map, and it will try to expand into an enemy-controlled mine. It just isn't a substitute for human opponents.
On the whole, Lords of EverQuest looks and sounds like a mediocre real-time strategy game. The environments are nicely detailed, but the character models don't stand out. For some reason, the random neutral creatures on the map tend to be much more interesting than your own units. The lackluster animations become apparent in the in-engine cutscenes where large brutish ogres are prancing around like ballerinas. Battles sound on par with the dull unit design--it never sounds like a deadly pitched battle is being fought. The music is just as forgettable.
Lords of EverQuest ends up being a disappointing addition to the real-time strategy genre. What could have been an interesting premise and story ends up being a massive bore. The units just aren't fun to use or even interesting to look at. Nothing in the game is memorable or original. Real-time strategy fans could easily find 2-year-old games that play, sound, and look much better than this one. Diehard EverQuest fans may find some redeeming value in a strategy game that features the iksar and the frogloks, but even they are advised to shy away from purchasing the game