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cup.gif (5516 bytes)Ups:Fist game to create a truly immersive online roleplaying world. Looks great.
Downs: Awful manual, Some gameplay issues, trades awkwardly implemented.
System Reqs:
Pentium-200, 64 MB RAM, 3D card 4MB.
eq1.jpg (5410 bytes)About a month ago, we posted our "first impressions" of Everquest, 989 and Verant’s online multiplayer RPG. Our initial judgement was mixed; while we were having a great time when we could get on, the game’s first week of online play was marred by nasty server problems, and even diehard EQer’s were dismayed by the large amount of down time and crashes they experienced.

Well, since our last review we’ve advanced our characters into the teen levels, joined guilds, completed quests, saved up enough to buy armor, spells, and magic weapons, traveled into other zones and continents, and grouped with all kinds of folk from all over the world (hello, especially, to all our Japanese friends). We’ve done all this while experiencing only the occasional technical glitch, by the way—Verant has done a superb job of addressing and correcting the first week’s problems. So now we’re ready to give EQ a real review. Bottom line: Everquest’s combination of first-person view, engrossing gameplay, elegant interface, excellent 3D graphics, and vast multiplayer gaming world makes it not just a great game, but a revolutionary one—the kind that only comes along every couple of years.

For the uninitiated, Everquest is like Ultima Online—a game that attempts to create an online multiplayer fantasy role-playing world. To play EQ, you'll have to set up an account.  The first four weeks are free, but after that it'll be about a ten buck a month ding. Setting up an account is fairly painless, and once you're into the game, you'll generate your character—or characters. You can have up to eight different characters on each of the 18 EQ servers.

eq2.jpg (2524 bytes)EQ provides you with plenty of options for character generation. Races include such standards as Barbarians, Elves, Wood Elves, Dwarves, Halflings and Humans--but you can also play more exotic races--like Ogres, Trolls, Gnomes, Dark Elves, and Erudites. Your choice of race will affect your character’s beginning statistics, as well as where they can travel safely. Some races don’t like others, and some races are disliked by almost everyone. This can cause problems for the less charismatic races, as many of the game’s powerful non-player characters (NPCs) will seize the opportunity to attack anyone they find distasteful. Believe me, it’s a lot harder to play an Ogre Shaman than a Wood Elf Ranger.

There are many classes available as well--ranging from your workaday wizards and warriors to monks, druids, rangers, shadowknights and shamans. Each class gets a large number of individual abilities and spells that set them apart from other classes. Warriors and monks are great fighters, but lack magical ability; on the other hand, clerics and wizards can cast awesome spells, but are often helpless in a stand-up fight. Even though this allows you to play a wide range of characters (one of EQ's strengths), one of EQ’s weaknesses is just how much everyone looks alike. Most classes and races all wear the same outfit and carry the same shields and weapons. Even as you advance, you’ll find that your character looks an awful lot like all the other characters of his or her race and class. Though each character’s appearance looks good, it would be nice to have a few more sartorial choices.

eq3.jpg (4735 bytes)Once you get your character up and playing in the world, one of Everquest’s more glaring problems appears—it has an abysmal manual, which looks and reads more like a rough draft than a finished product. EQ is clearly a labor of love, and it seems somehow perverse that the manual drops players into such a complex world with so little information on how it works. Some have suggested that the lack of documentation helps to build community; and indeed, one's utter ignorance of even the most basic game concepts leads players to converse out of absolute necessity. But the world is so rich that people would be asking loads of questions anyway. There seems no need to further complicate things by leaving out the basics. Sorry, but we're not buying the community excuse. The manual just sucks. And so does the tutorial, which is far too bare-bones.

But an Everquest community does exist, and is one of the game's highlights. Both in the game and on the web, EQer's are mostly chatty and helpful. If you have a question, you can usually just ask a player or ask out of character questions to all players in your local zone. A quick and accurate response is the rule, not the exception. The game also includes a large number of communication options—you can shout, speak out of character, talk only to the members of you group or guild, or just to a specific individual. Communication remains important even at the highest levels of play; you're always learning something new in EQ, and the information you garner from the online community makes possible a rewarding sense of discovery that extends well beyond the newbie stage. Make no mistake; Everquest is a very social game, and while the hack and slash is enthralling, you’ll have just as much fun making new online allies and enemies, or just sitting around talking (and occasionally drinking). Yes, you can get drunk with your buds in EQ. This community extends beyond the game itself and onto the web; in fact, the lack of a real manual is almost made up for by a very vibrant collection of web sites lovingly devoted to EQ. We wish we could list all of them, but these will get you started--The Everquest Vault, Everworld, AllahKhazam's Everquest Player's Guide, and EQ'lizer. There's even a weekly web mag, the EQ Express.

eq4.jpg (6547 bytes)Gameplay is pretty engrossing as well. All beginning players will visit their classes' guild for training straightway; after that, all cities have safe little "newbie" areas where you can kill mostly low-level monsters while gaining experience rather quickly and figuring out the interface. Even at this level, though, expect to die frequently. If you do, you'll be sent (sans equipment) to your home city. You must then make you way back to the scene of your slaughter to pick up your stuff. So it pays to know where you are at all times—otherwise you can spend a lot of time looking for your corpse. During this early training, most guilds will give you easy beginning quests to fulfill. In the meantime, you'll be buying new equipment, increasing and gaining new skillls, and venturing into new, more challenging areas.

And there are a lot of areas out there. There will be times when your character gets sort of "stuck"—where it’s too powerful for one area and not ready for the next. Some players have complained about this, but we feel it just makes you think up a solution rather than handing you one. There are at least two solutions to this dilemma, and they both play to the game’s strengths. First, you can explore other areas. The wary traveler on the well-beaten paths between areas is usually pretty safe; just make sure you don’t start hunting until you know you can handle the zone’s creatures. This can be a risky strategy, but the world of Norrath is so broad and varied that the thrill of discovery (at least to us) outweighs the risks.

eq5.jpg (3380 bytes)You can also solve this problem by teaming up with other players. Since each class and race has its own strengths and weaknesses, a nice mix of magic users, healers, and warriors can accomplish things that solo players can’t even think about attempting. And frankly, grouping up with a like-minded bunch of adventurers and sallying into minotaur caves or desert vastnesses is a ton of fun. You can even join guilds. These are formal groups that can pool resources, declare war on other guilds, group together, and generally add yet another layer of depth to the RPG aspect of the game. Everquest is designed with this kind of multiplayer interaction in mind, and its stellar implementation separates it from other online RPGs. Don't get me wrong; you can solo in Norrath. But to take out the big boys you'll need a posse.

For all of the game’s ups, it does have a few downs mixed in. First of all, the world of Norrath is a little static. While players engage in a frenzy of activity—fighting, learning, trading—the landscape itself changes very little. If you find an orc camp that regularly spawns three centurions, it will be in the same place, spawning the same centurions, when you visit it a month later. This leads to the problematic gameplay practice of "camping."  Especially at the middle levels groups will often  just sit outside a spawn point and wait for monsters to appear. This frequently leads to the ridiculous sight of several groups parked outside a known spawn point, each politely taking turns killing the spawns. It’s a good way to pick up loot and experience, but it sure isn’t very interesting or fun. Of course, some monsters randomly spawn and wander the land, but there need to be more.

eq6.jpg (6050 bytes)Another problem is the game’s implementation of trades. These are vocations you can learn, and allegedly make money doing. Unfortunately, it is insanely difficult and expensive to do so. It costs a boatload of money, for instance, to learn to smith, and even after acquiring a high level of skill, you will fail often. It doesn’t help any that most skills are deadly dull to practice. Would you rather be out killing bandits, or meticulously, one-by-one, dragging and clicking expensive components to make hundreds if arrows that you can’t sell at anything near a profit? Most players just take a pass on trades, and with good reason--they’re boring, unprofitable, and frustrating. It’s odd that even with a low ability level in a skill like offense, you can still kill a bunch of low-level creatures and turn a profit, but most trades remain unprofitable until one reaches very high levels.

The game's graphics require a 3D card, and the rendering and texture mapping is superb. Norrath’s environment—we should say environments--are simply beautiful. From the foggy treetops of Kelethin to the deserts of Ro to the Dark Elf Lavalands, the many different regions have unique landscapes that add a lot to one’s suspension of disbelief. The wide variety of monsters, spell effects, and characters are vibrantly rendered as well. You’ll do a double-take the first time you meet a sand giant, believe me.

When all is said and done, however, the thing about Everquest that makes it truly revolutionary is the sense you get of being in a non-linear, ever-expanding world. There’s no real way to "win" the game—the point is to explore, learn, and survive. Accomplishing a quest or reaching a new level doesn’t give you a sense of closure, it just opens up new quests and adventures. We know this game isn’t life, but it’s a lot like it. You enter an unfamiliar world, eventually get bored with your hometown, venture out into the world, get your ass kicked a few times, meet folks you like and don’t like, make yourself useful, work hard to accomplish great things, work hard and fail to accomplish great things—and realize that it’s a big world, with an awful lot of other things yet to do. And like life, there’s no one right way to do it. Other games have tried to create immersive online worlds that feel like the real thing; in our opinion, Everquest is the first to succeed.

--Rick Fehrenbacher & Al Wildey