The Best MMOs on the Market: EverQuest II

I was never an EverQuest player. Oh, I was aware of it from the very beginning – it was seen as a corrosive element in the tabletop RPG community back then, an insidious and possibly Lovecraftian thing seducing away our players with pretty graphics and simplistic, shallow gameplay. So it feels weird, in a way, to be saying now that EverQuest II just might be the best MMO that exists.

It has its weaknesses, of course – a lack of robust PvP and a world that makes liberal use of zoning and instancing – but those players for whom PvP is an appealing factor can still find it in a mature arena system or PvP servers, and zoning and instancing affects look and feel, but really doesn’t have any larger impact on how the game actually plays.

And let me tell you, it plays really well. Although it follows the pattern of this kind of MMO very closely (that formula having been established by the original EQ in the first place,) with its questing and killing as the primary avenues of advancement, with gathering and crafting as sideshows and a level-cap game largely directing players into endgame dungeons and raids, it does a lot of those things better than either its predecessor or its much larger competitor, World of Warcraft.

Questing, for example, is deep and varied, with quests that can be triggered by in-game events, that scale with your level, or that give you things like housing items, titles or languages instead of just new and better adventuring gear. There’s a status system that tracks how much of a bigshot you are. You can carry 75 quests in EQ2, and you’ll find that you need all that room in your quest log, because there’s so much to do. There are collections – which give your guild status and you gear and XP, and which don’t require you to fill up all your bags with junk – and Heritage Quests which net you powerful items and loads of status, and which are very challenging to complete, and major storyline quest chains. Group content is there as well, and there’s none of this ‘gain five levels and then just solo it’ business – it’s group content, which you’ll be hard-pressed to complete even having significantly outleveled all the mobs. But there’s also more than enough solo content to get all the way to the level cap having never grouped once and still not see it all. The huge world has dozens of zones large and small, bristling with content both casual and difficult.

EQ2 also has the hobby’s best guild management tools, and allows guilds as well as characters to move up in level, gaining tangible benefits for doing so, like special mounts, bigger banks or fancier housing, and soon, guild halls. Server populations tend to be high and lively, with plenty of people looking for stuff to do at any given level, and allowing crafters of all level to make a nice profit selling their wares.

Crafting is another highlight of the game, finding a very comfortable middle ground between WoW’s system of clicking ‘craft’ and walking away to return to a pile of useless vendor trash and Vanguard’s fussy approach that can result in a valuable item or a pile of useless slag at the end. It’s an interactive process that is nonetheless intuitive, and the variety of things that can be made, from potions to housing items to armor and weapons, is staggering. And crafting is useful across the whole of the level curve, which is the primary edge it has over the WoW system, where items better than the drops you get are the exceptions rather than the rule, and occur largely at the very high end which requires a load of tedious grinding and farming to get to. EQ2’s crafted goods are invariably useful, and typically just as good as anything but the highest-end raid drops.

The graphics of the game are something of an acquired taste, with character models that some people find ugly or unappealing and landscapes that tend toward the photorealistic in some places, and toward the abstract and stylized in others. Many newer areas lean towards the latter. It’s worth noting, though, that an alternate set of character models are available for many of the races, which some people find more palatable, and which can be turned on by race and gender, allowing players to pick and choose which ones they like.

Even if one concedes weaknesses in art design, though, one must also admit that EQ2’s client has aged pretty well. It can still be difficult to run the game with some settings turned up to maximum even on an excellent modern system, but it looks pretty good on very manageable settings, and the client runs stably and efficiently on even modest configurations – although it won’t run on just about anything, like WoW will. Too, as much as WoW gets praised (justifiably) for its level of polish and lack of annoying glitches and bugs, EQ2 is easily its equal, and an extremely credible case can be made that EQ2 is more polished in a number of areas. Broken quests, mobs stuck in walls or floating in midair, abilities that don’t work right – these all happen from time to time, but in the big picture they are all extremely rare, to the point where it’s very possible to play quite a lot and never encounter them.

There’s a variety of races and classes available that exceeds that available in most other titles by a comfortable margin, and some of the latter (like the Illusionist and Coercer,) don’t have anything even remotely like them in any other game. There is generally so much content that it’s virtually impossible to do it all in one pass, making great use of both the large character selection and mentoring systems, both of which allow you to see and experience content that you missed the first time around. There’s so much to do that the game gives you the option to turn XP from killing things off, to minimize outleveling of content.

EverQuest II is sort of a sequel to the original game, but it doesn’t much matter whether you ever played the first one or not. Its continuity does not depend on the older iteration, and gameplay is different enough between the two that having played one will grant no particular advantage in the other. There are easter eggs all over the place for players of the earlier game, but having missed pretty much all of those hasn’t hampered my enjoyment of EQ2 in the least.

And yes, there’s a free trial available. It may or may not sell you on the game, but it’s hard to argue that EQ2 isn’t one of the best MMOs out there.

The Best MMOs on the Market: EVE Online

The cold, inky vastness of space. It’s captured our imagination since Le Voyage dans la lune, if not before. The exploration of it was captured by Star Trek, and the realization of it by the Apollo Program. EVE Online is the game that’ll put you there. Doesn’t describing it as an unsharded, persistent space simulator with a player-driven economy and real-time combat strip away some of the romance? Space is cold, empty, very big and often hostile, and EVE captures this perfectly.

Intimidating for many because of its great depth, EVE has the sole distinction among MMOs of being a shardless world – everyone plays on the same server, with concurrency typically well into the tens of thousands, and the game universe is big enough to accommodate them all – big enough, in fact, to manage quite a lot of cold, inky vastness as well. The game’s other unique features are sophisticated manufacturing, research and market systems resulting in an economy that’s almost entirely driven by player activity, and a character advancement system wherein improvement happens in real time, without regard to what in-game activities you’re actually doing – and keeps happening even when you’re offline.

It’s the player-driven universe that’s EVE’s great virtue, though. To a huge extent, EVE is about PvP, but also embraces the idea that PvP does not always have to mean shooting at people. You can conduct PvP on the market or in the propaganda war, and these can have a significant effect on your military effort – or even replace it. And PvP is rewarding not just for the glory of blowing stuff up, but for the cash and loot you can get from wrecks. EVE’s PvP can be an end in itself, but it can also be something you do to accomplish something else.

EVE helps you create a character, gives you a platform for play, and then turns you loose on it. After entering the game you can pretty much do whatever you want, and the dilemma that most new players will face very quickly is figuring out exactly what to do. The most common early-game activities are mining and mission running, although some players will elect to trade or manufacture instead. Once established you can do all kinds of other things: research new technology, build space stations, forge powerful, galaxy-affecting alliances, study the forgotten relics of ancient civilizations, explore the strange and unique corners of the galaxy, set bounties on players who annoy you, turn yourself into a mining or manufacturing powerhouse or a market kingpin, set up interstellar investment funds, run a tramp trading company. Hell, you can even roleplay – there are corps for that, along with enough background material to impress even the most jaded lore junkie.

One drawback that EVE is well known for is that you can’t leave your ship – your character is and will remain a little still portrait in the corner of your screen, with your vessel doing all the action. This is set to change around the end of 2008, with the introduction of what’s being called Ambulation, the ability to get off the ship and walk around on space stations. Exactly what non-shipboard activities will be available isn’t yet clear, but meeting rooms and minigames are probably on the list.

This touches on another virtue of EVE – the ongoing commitment by the development team to improve the game not just by adding more content, but by introducing entirely new aspects of play over time. Contracts, player-owned stations, research, exploration and now factional warfare all represent very significant shifts in gameplay, and all of them were introduced, or at least realized, well after the game was launched. This is very significant; certain other development teams regard their core gameplay as basically sacrosanct and unchangeable, and any new elements they add turn out not to alter overall gameplay very much, or add anything substantively new to the play experience. EVE does this, and does it regularly. Ambulation will only be an especially obvious example of a totally new dimension added as part of the ongoing improvement process.

Since you are confined to your ship for the time being, though, luckily EVE has a lot of different ship models available, ranging in size from tiny shuttles to vast behemoths carrying Death Star-class weaponry. There are mining and fighting ships of all sizes, but also stealth and ECM ships, transports, interdictors, missile boats, scouts… dozens and dozens of ship types in all, and each race has its own set of design doctrines that make its ships better at certain ways of doing things and worse at others. How this stays balanced is somewhat beyond me, but it somehow manages to.

How you fit out your ship is up to you; there are thousands of different modules available (almost all of them manufactured by players,) priced anywhere from tens of credits to billions. The number of possible combinations on any given ship is probably incalculable. As your skill base broadens and deepens over time, you gain the ability to fly different kinds of ships and use a wider variety of modules, some of them very specialized. To fly the most demanding ships can take years of training time, but when you jack into that Titan, chances are good that the entire galaxy will hear about it.

All this depth comes at a price; EVE is famously user-unfriendly. You can certainly succeed in it as a new player, even without connecting with an established corp or availing yourself of some of the many excellent resources the community has put together. But it’s hard sometimes. The character advancement system replaces the XP grind of a traditional MMO with a money grind, as you mine or play the market or run repetitive missions to finance the activities you really want to do. But you can get around that in a corp which has members who like that sort of thing, allowing those who prefer to fight to do so without having to go back to 1.0 to grind up more cash.

Compounding EVE’s oft-overstated difficulty is the fact that it’s so completely different on almost every level from anything else on the market. Yes, you can run missions, and these are similar to quests in other MMOs, but that’s only a fraction of the game. There are no classes, no levels, no bosses, no avatars, no aggro, no pets, no text dumps telling you where to go next… someone coming in from a few years of WoW and nothing else has every right to be caught flatfooted.

EVE is a game that rewards initiative and careful planning. It rewards analyzing the numbers and really understanding the game’s dynamics on both the social and mechanical levels. It requires you to set goals for yourself and create your own direction if you’re going to get the most out of it. EVE won’t spoon-feed you anything, and neither will its community. They’ll give you tools and pointers, some of them very detailed, but it’ll be up to you to succeed and thrive or fail and unsubscribe.

My advice for players new to EVE is to realize that the game is complex, but that the complexity makes it rewarding in a way that simpler games can’t be. Do your homework; read up on the kinds of stuff you want to do and how they work. Then check out all the other things you can do, and maybe you’ll find one or more of them unexpectedly interesting. And find yourself a great corporation, or failing that, create one.

The Best MMOs on the Market

Possibly I’m reading too much into this, but one of the search terms that’s come up a few times leading readers to this blog is ‘switching mmos’. This is interesting because it leads me to think that there are at least a few people out there who aren’t happy with whatever it is that they’re currently playing, and looking to the MMO blogosphere for suggestions on where to head next. So I’m going to write a series of posts about the games that are currently out that I think are worth playing and would recommend as games that I think people can get into in the long term, as a series of posts rather than lumping eveything into one giant infodump. They are not in any particular order, except insofar as the order I feel like writing about them in, so don’t read anything into that. Yes, I’ll be doing Vanguard, but as this blog is now primarily consumed with that game, I think I’ll try to do it later.

The first article will be appearing this week. Subsequent pieces will appear more or less weekly.