I’ve been playing the crap out of EverQuest II for the past week. Funnily enough, the vast majority of said playtime hasn’t been on the new progression servers. I hit Stormhold hard when it launched last week, and I got multiple characters up to level 10ish and firmly ensconced in a post-Isle of Refuge quest line or two.
And then I realized how much better I like the current version of the game.
Before I get into that, though, Daybreak deserves a round of applause for how warmly Stormhold and its PvP counterpart have been received. I grouped more that first day than I have in forever, and the server’s general chat was literally overflowing with people being nice to one another and partying like it was 2004.
I was fairly shocked to see so many souls running around the zones, and while Daybreak hasn’t released population numbers, my gut feeling is that Stormhold instantly became one of EQII’s most popular shards. After all of the change and the negativity that’s been swirling around the company formerly known as SOE over the past six months, it certainly needed a win.
For me, though, Stormhold serves as more of a reminder about how much EverQuest II has improved since its launch. Now, don’t go berating nostalgia or throwing around the rose-colored glasses logic fail while saying “I told you so!” because based on what I saw, I’m in the minority. Many (most?) EQII players are only too happy to return to a more challenging and a more group-centric experience.
And I might even feel that way too if I was immortal. Since I’m not, Stormhold seemed like a big waste of time. I’ve done all of this before, a little voice kept insisting, and what is the bloody point in doing it again? For most players, the point is that they love the progression, but for me MMO progression has always been an irritating obstacle that I put up with in order to get to the part of the game where I can do what I want.
Also, while I’m surely not the richest guy on Antonia Bayle, I do have a bunch of badass houses, more plat than I can spend, and the ability to basically go anywhere and do anything in Norrath at the drop of a hat. Oh, and I’ve got 11 years’ worth of veteran rewards, guild history, and roleplaying history, too. That’s a lot of stuff to throw away for nothing more than the opportunity to regrind it.
Stormhold felt like a high school reunion in all the worst ways. I was a pimply-faced virgin all over again, and while it might be cool to actually go back through high school and make better choices, in EQII there are no better choices to make because it’s ultimately an on-rails experience that is dictated to you by the designers.
That said, EQII does the themepark paradigm as well as it can be done, which is why I returned to the game in the first place prior to the big Stormhold reveal. This is a virtual world rich with non-combat gameplay features and a ludicrous amount of traditional themepark content, so it ultimately doesn’t matter that I lasted less than two days on the old school shard.
I wish I could enjoy Stormhold more than I did, since it requires a subscription (yay!) and since it has basically turned off the cash shop abomination aside from cosmetic gear (yay!). Unfortunately life is too short, and everything I could possibly earn on Stormhold has already been earned on Antonia Bayle.
And aside from that bit of baggage, Stormhold is this weird hybrid of modern EQII and 2004 EQII. The game is so vast and its content so sprawling that there’s simply no way that a dev team twice the size of Daybreak’s could have gone in and squared everything away between the two versions in a reasonable amount of time. So we’re left with a sort of unholy mashup that works more often than not but is really annoying during the latter.
For example, my evil-aligned character started on the Outpost of the Overlord, and once I had completed all of its content and achieved level 6, the game gave me the choice of heading to Neriak or Freeport. Naturally I made a second evil character so that I could do both, but the Neriak path ended up being much smoother. After zoning in to the Dark Elf capital, I met an NPC on the dock who suggested that I port to Darklight Wood (which wasn’t in the game at launch, for what it’s worth, nor was Neriak itself). Darklight contains a ton of level-appropriate quests and a buttery smooth curve toward 20.
My Freeport character, on the other hand, zoned in to a Freeport that looks nothing like it did in 2004 courtesy of the massive 2013 redesign that did away with a ton of low-level quests, closed most of the racial villages, and basically left my poor widdle Ratonga scratching his head before I remembered the sewers. After a couple of hours sludging about in my least favorite EQII zone, I finally got to level 10, whereupon I left the sewers in favor of the Commonlands timeline, which is much longer, much more efficient, and much more fun, at least in my opinion.
Hardships like that are probably part of the charm for the hordes of people grooving on Stormhold right now, but the ill-fitting nature of the experience bugged me, and it was the nudge I needed to return to my home shard.
The happy ending to all of this is that I’ve been having an absolute blast on Antonia Bayle again, with all of my characters, all of my stuff, and all of the feels that go along with a decade of play time. EverQuest II in 2015 is a phenomenal MMORPG, maybe the best MMORPG currently available. Visually, it’s showing its age in the older zones, but when it comes to the features and the functionality that make MMOs into virtual worlds, good luck finding a better one.
And with Stormhold and its PvP counterpart, Daybreak has added yet another gameplay wrinkle to EQII’s ever-expanding list. This particular wrinkle isn’t for me, aside from the squees to be had on the Far Journey and the Isle of Refuge, but more options are always better than fewer.