Good news for all you folks despairing about the current political scene! Everquest 2 was released last week and George W. Bush has not been elected president of Norrath [ed: no politics, please]. So as the yawning chasm continues to widen between rich and poor, the right and left, the hardcore Christian Right and the non-hypocritical, and our environment, international relations, and fundamental rights crumble beneath the oppressive weight of our straight-talking, noun-warring Chief Executive Branch Officer's thumb, [ed: game review, stay the course] we can happily ignore it all traversing the beautiful landscape of Everquest 2, battling evil (or good) in world where there is actually a clear delineation between the two. Elves: good, Ogres: bad.
So let's light up the pipe and smoke the second hit of EverCrack.
Gameplay (9 out of 10)
It bears mentioning here that I've only just hit level 15 with my Kerran brawler and have stuck my toe in the water with a few other characters, so the scope of my gameplay experience is limited from early to mid-game only, and maybe 25% of the game world. So without experiencing everything the game has to offer, I can't possibly make judgments about blah blah blah. Sure, I can. You want to know right now whether to run out and buy Everquest or wait for that Blizzard game to come out and you damn well don't want to wait until next February for someone to tell you how it is. So how is it?
Tight. The folks at SOE have been doing this for a while and their experience shows. A lot of the kinks from the first game have been ironed out. The "run all over Norrath looking for your corpse" that ruined my exploration of the first game is now all but gone, replaced with a more sensible penalty, very similar in fact to the penalty system in the other major mmorpg coming out later this month that I can't comment on. Meet the grim reaper now, and instead of wandering buck naked all over the country side mumbling '/ooc anyone seen my corpse?,' you now have the option of taking a small experience hit and 'spirit penalty' and not go after your corpse while still retaining all of your hard-won l3wt. [ed: 'loot']
The character class system has also been upgraded, with each of the four basic classes (fighter, rogue, priest, mage) splintering into three subclasses each at level 10 and further splintering at 20 to both make more unique choices available for each player and to provide a hefty carrot for advancement. The level 10 subclasses make an impact on how your character is played, offering varied skills that translate directly to different battle tactics. Another welcome change is the partitioning of encounters into those manageable to single player and those that should be taken on by group of players. Everquest 2 has done a good job of ensuring the sequel includes gameplay enhancements in addition to the graphics overhaul.
Story (7 out of 10)
Story in an mmorpg is hard to judge. What you want is rich gaming world to explore with tons of history and inhabitants that are distinct in their appearance and behavior. Also vital to an mmorpg's story is how much the progression through it feels like the proverbial 'level treadmill'. Done right and you progress step-by-step through the game world, from the newbie areas to the mid-levels, with well-written story quests propelling you to the next echelon of difficulty. Done wrong and you're fighting rats on autopilot, struggling for an elusive level-up in a process that's as much fun as a constant barrage of knuckle punches to your scrotum. Or, if you're a woman, something equally as painful. Which, I'm not sure there is, I mean ... knuckle punches? Could you imagine? No, you probably can't. What was I talking about? Story.
The history of Norrath is indeed rich, although SOE has the advantage of original game world and a bajillion expansions to draw 'history' from. The game world, with it's giant stone monuments and relatively familiar locales pays homage to the original, without feeling like a repeat.
The treadmill factor has also improved from the last iteration. The game drops you at the Isle of Refuge and you're fighting gnolls and wolves and such as soon as you're off the boat. However, once you hit Qeynos, you'll find the country side littered with the familiar rats, snakes and what-have-you that make you feel more like a hunter of small woodland creatures than an actual hero of the realm. Also, this is one area where the other game (that's still in beta and I can't comment on) has an advantage over Everquest 2. Completion of quests is worth more to the player in the other game and lead the player through the game world at the right pace, as well as being generally more interesting than the quests found in Everquest 2.
Visuals (9 of 10)
The game simply looks phenomenal. My system doesn't exactly scream and yet, I'd be hard-pressed to actually see any of the polygons in this game. Everything looks smooth and well-rounded including every overlapping armor piece that's added to your character's model. An impressive feat, considering the overwhelming number of possible armor and clothing combinations. The fine-grain textures also help to make Everquest look like a different generation of technology from what's currently being released. It's a remarkable achievement.
That said, there are few things about the look of Everquest 2 that bother me. The humanoid types (elves, dwarves, humans) look too soft and rounded. The texture quality of humanoid skin just doesn't seem to match up with the skin quality of the beast-like races. And the in-game text looks simply terrible- like it was ripped from a blocky early nineties rpg like Star Trail. It's jarring to see, pixelated scrawl in text bubbles that appear over brilliantly drawn and animated 3-d characters. A minor quibble, but worth mentioning.
Audio (7 of 10)
Laura Carpman's score is elegant. As performed by the Prague Symphony Orchestra, Everquest 2's string orchestrations give your adventures in Norrath the underscoring of an event movie, and the score's urgency usually matches the intensity of the situation. Sound and music are usually underrated by gamers more likely to spend $300 on a graphics card than $75 on a decent sound card but good music, sound and voice acting lend much to a game's immersion.
Unfortunately, the quality of sound effects and voice acting aren't quite as good. Sound effects lack 'oomph' and feel dated. Instead of the satisfying clang of metal on metal or the sickening crunch of hammer meeting bone, we get the same canned sound effect each time a weapon type lands a blow. There's no texture to soundscape, just short, fake-sounding grunts when a character jumps and generic 'magical-sounding' effects. The inclusion of voice acting is a welcome addition... in most cases. Some of the professional actors deliver capable readings, while others ham their way through the voice acting like they're first cuts from the 'Muppets take Manhattan' casting call. Once again, the world of Norrath is clearly delineated between good (Christopher Lee) and bad (Heather Graham. Heather Graham, are you serious? Was Jessica Simpson not available?)
Overall (9 of 10)
The bottom line is in the battle of next-generation mmorpgs, Everquest 2 is going to reign. It simply makes the competition look dated.
Who'll like it: Fans of the original Everquest, role-players, most any fan of massively multiplayer online role-playing games.
Who won't: Blizzard employees, people who don't care for this kind of game. This is not a mmorpg with much crossover appeal- noobs should check out City of Heroes, for fast-paced fun and a more rookie-friendly environment.