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.