EverQuest II: Age of Discovery Hands-On Preview

For a closer look at just what this EverQuest II's eighth expansion has to offer players, SOE offered Ten Ton Hammer a hands-on tour of the new Beastlord class, a revitalized Freeport, the new mercenaries system, and a first-ever look at the new Dungeon Maker system.

SOE just announced that EverQuest II's eighth expansion, Age of Discovery, will launch on December 6th. For a closer look at just what this feature-driven expansion has to offer, Executive Producer David "Smokejumper" Georgeson, Associate Producer Emily Taylor, and Community Relations Manager Jennifer Bridges offered Ten Ton Hammer a hands-on tour.

EQ2's Newest Class: The Beastlord

I logged in to find a shiny new level 50 Beastlord awaiting me, and Associate Producer Emily Taylor explained that EverQuest II's 25th class is a mix of old and new. "In Everquest, Beastlords were loosely based on a combination of a Shaman and a Monk. In EQ2, we've tried to keep them based on the same sort of combination, but one of our goals was to experiment with a new playstyle."

Central to the new Beastlord playstyle is the Warder.  "Beastlords react and interact with their warder pets" Emily explained. Using a method similar to EverQuest II's heroic opportunities mechanic (something I feel should have become a staple combat system across MMOs), Beastlords can match up abilities from their "Advantages" bar  to deliver extra damage and other negative effects on the target. At higher levels, properly executed advantages earn points which fund extra-powerful Primal abilities. Emily  summed up the class design by saying "Beastlords are more reactive and interactive in playstyle than any of our other classes."

Beastlords get a "starter" warder, one unique to each race, then  players can tame new warders just about anywhere in Norrath, choosing the Warder appearance and abilities that suits the player best. Sixteen different families of Warders are available for taming - from canines to felines to birds and snakes - and each has different offensive and defensive abilities.  

In addition to the normal abilities, warders spot weaknesses in enemies, which appear as a symbol above the enemy on the player's screen.  Using a method similar to EverQuest II's heroic opportunities mechanic (something I feel should have become a staple for group-based MMO combat), Beastlords can match up abilities from their "Advantages" bar  to deliver extra damage and other negative effects on the target. At higher levels, properly executed advantages earn points which fund extra-powerful Primal abilities.

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Going stag with the Beastlord's Warder taming spell

In the spirit of the season - hunting season, that is (or maybe because we were using too many cat references) -  I tamed a stag, not the most powerful warder around, but easily the one with the doughiest eyes.  Since the stag immediately shrank to half the size upon taming, I asked if the warder would grow over time. Jennifer explained:  "Warders won't grow in size, but will grow in power as they level with you."  Jennifer noted that in addition to new abilities, warders also have an "Affinity" stat. As you increase your affinity for a particular family - felines, for example - then the feline abilities will grow in relative rank from apprentice-level spells to, eventually, grand master level spells.

eq2 dark elf beastlord fighting naga eq2 halfling beastmaster taming leopard

Beastlords can tame 16 different families of Warders across Norrath.

Beastlords can also choose the specific appearance that they like within a family. If you tame a snow leopard, for example, the next time you summon a warder from the feline family, you'll summon a snow leopard. Changing appearance is as simple as taming another feline. Players can also customize the abilities of their warders by spending AA-like points on specific abilities, or simply level up their affinity with a given family.

Finally, Emily noted that SOE is "fully supporting" the Beastlord by adding in all the class quests, class armor, and an epic quest just like all the other classes have.

EQ2's Revamped Freeport and Free-to-Play

While not officially part of the features-only expansion, Game Update 62  features a total revamp of Freeport, the capital city for Norrath's evil players that will be free to all players on December 6th as well. On that date, SOE recently announced that the game's hybrid experiment between a subscription-based model,  free-to-play model, and cash-for-virtual-items store would be simplified into an all-server, all-encompassing freemium model as well.

We arrived in a noticably more gilded and fiery Freeport. "Lucan D'Lere has revitalized Freeport in a bid to attract more followers and to show off his renewed power," Jennifer explained.  "We wanted to move away from the idea of evil being dirty and grimy." Accordingly, the new Freeport portrays a more powerful, refined sort of evil  - a concept reinforced by new questlines for levels 1 through 90 that let players explore the city's fancified maliciousness. As for other content, the old racial neighborhoods become instanced, scalable-by-level quest zones, and a new public quest available outside Freeport for players from level 20 to 30.

The tour continued, and Emily pointed out that towering over Execution Plaza , the Overlord's Citadel has been restored to its lofty position in the sky. Down in the plaza, Lucan shows up every so often  to execute traitors every so often by tossing them into a fiery pit. Tongue in cheek, I asked if this was what happened to Qeynos players caught sneaking into the city, but Emily explained that good players caught sneaking around would be tossed out on their can outside the city gates just like always.

eq2 revamped freeport

EverQuest 2's Freeport has never looked more elegantly evil.

As we pressed on toward the Militia House to explore the mercenary system, Emily conveyed a little backstory for what we just witnessed. EQ2 lorehounds know that Neriak's dark elf leadership was behind Lucan's kidnapping.  Newly returned to power, Lucan keeps Freeport's drow on a very short leash, frequently making an example of suspected collaborators in the spectacle we just witnessed.

EQ2's New Mercenaries System

We entered the Militia House next to the Harbor, and Emily explained how mercenaries are a slightly different take on the AI-controlled sidekicks and henchmen available in other MMORPGs, including Guild Wars, Dungeons and Dragons Online, and ,of course, EQ2's forebearer, EverQuest. For starters, EQ2 mercs are quite a bit more demanding: they'll require a share of the loot and a regular salary or they'll simply walk out on you. Mercs will also take up a group spot and have a wide range of abilities even within their respective roles.

EQ2 Mercenary Stamper Geraulf is easily identified as a healer by the green plus sign.All the basic mercs can be found in Freeport and Qeynos, but (like most of EQ2's best features) is driven by collection. The rarest mercs are found SWTOR companion-style around Norrath. But since mercs are interchangeable, short-term  companions, once you find a merc, they'll always be available for rehire in your capital city. Players can also customize their merc's clothing via the new mercenary tab in the persona window. Emily noted that when you rehire the merc later on, they'll still be wearing the same clothes.

Mercs must be hired in person and come in five categories: tanks, healers, melee DPS, ranged DPS, and support.  Every mercenary you hire scales to match your level, learning more skills with higher levels, and each individual merc might have different skills . I noted that Stamper Geraulf, the Ratonga Archon merc  with whom I chose to compliment my stag-powered DPS, had a broad selection of master-level skills, so it's likely that rarer mercs have more skills and spells, grand master level abilities, or both.

Emily clarified that, given a choice between adding another player or a companion to your group, players are still the obvious choice. Mercs are meant to take on empty spots or when you need a little extra help. As I put Stamper through his paces, I noted that new beastlords and other pet classes hoping to take on mercs might have something of a management challenge as mercs can only assist players (not warders), but Georgeson intimated that this feature might be added in time for launch.

EQ2's Dungeon Maker

One of the most touted features of EQ2's Age of Discovery is the new Dungeon Maker system. User-generated content has come into its own in recent years as an especially attractive way to revitalize aging games - City of Heroes' Mission Architect system is the current state of art - and Dungeon Maker mirrors Mission Architect in many ways.  Dungeon leaderboards and a hall-of-fame, player ratings, challenge ratings, a trustee feature (that allows multiple players to build and edit a dungeon), and token-based rewards for both players and builders  are tried and true user-generated content features that Dungeon Maker will make use of.

EverQuest II, however, puts its own spin on UGC in several ways. For one, instead of experiencing player-made dungeons as your own character, you'll play as an avatar.  Avatars are culled from the enemies you face around Norrath and, you guessed it, also tie into the collections system. We spotted five in the demo: the  Drolvarg Scourge-Knight, the Drachnid Widowmage, the Tidesilph Defouler, and the Terrok Assassin. Each has different abilities, allowing players to have a role-based, Left4Dead-esque episodic experience.

eq2 avatar drachnid widowmage

The Drachnid Widowmage is one of many avatars players will take on as they explore user-generated dungeons.

Emily took us into an empty dungeon layout based on Castle Mistmoore to demonstrate the sorts of handcrafted experiences players can create with Dungeon Maker. Mistmoore was a medium-sized layout - one of 14 layouts that will be available to players at AoD's launch - and consisted of about 5 rooms ranging from sewers to a sort of throne room.

While any of the thousands of house object featured in the game can be placed in dungeons - either for pure decoration or to (passively) help tell the story - Emily explained that "dungeon objects" will only be available as builder rewards or through EQ2's extant collection system. Dungeon objects imbue nearby enemies with special powers - a small campfire, for example, increases the range at which enemies will help each other in a fight. In addition to dungeon objects, players can place individual enemies and "spawners" such as the Orcish Oracle or Skeletal Coercer, and set them to wander, patrol between specified points, or stand still.

Another unique aspect of Dungeon Maker is that entrance and exit points can be placed anywhere in the layout. You could have an assassination mission that begins in the throne room and requires an action-packed escape through the sewers, or sneak in through the sewers to fight their way to the throne room. Or anything in between. To prevent potential "leveling corridor" style exploits, Georgeson noted that players will only gain xp and rewards based on their prior efforts when they click the exit portal.

eq2 choose dungeon layout eq2 dungeons placing spawner

Selecting a dungeon layout and placing enemies is as simple as decorating your EverQuest 2 home.

The tour then moved into an already-created dungeon, The Orcs' Den, a dungeon of moderate difficulty based on the Crushbone Keep theme. Every player-created dungeon will garner a challenge rating, a measure of how many and what type of mobs players face in the dungeon. Georgeson explained that several features were still making their way into Dungeon Maker, such as changing the names of monsters and adding dialogue text on aggro and death. "If players love this, and I think they will," he commented,  "we'll be building on it for years."

Building on it sounds like a good idea, because as much as Dungeon Maker is made for achievement-oriented players, its capacity for storytelling will be somewhat restricted, at least  at launch. First, you're playing an avatar and not your character. That's fun in a LOTRO Monster Play, step-outside-the-norm-and-be-a-baddie kind of way, but it's hard to craft a story when you can't make basic assumptions about the protagonist. While Mission Architect allows branching dialogue trees to facilitate interaction Dungeon Maker is currently limited to on-aggro text (which is hard to focus on in the heat of battle) and death text.  

Also, in a bid to prevent exploits, the setup of Dungeon Maker rewards kills only, and you'll only go to your reward when you click on the exit portal. The feature does not (and probably will not) allow multi-step, quest-like interactions and won't reward anything more than basic, kill-or-be-killed gameplay.  If, for example, you want to design a Mass Effect 2: Kasumi - Stolen Memory type scenario - a dinner party where you have to use your guile to fit into the crowd, then sneak into the back chambers to steal an object - you'll have to do it with no dialogue, no item interaction, and very little reward. That's a real shame, since the Mistmoore layout seems perfectly suited to just that kind of thing.

Still, I'm as curious as anyone to see what budding level designers can come up with, and I'm happy to see a seven year-old game getting this complex and well-crafted a feature. Between its nuanced combat mechanics, myriad classes, best-in-genre housing and crafting systems and community tools, not to mention extensive ties to the original EverQuest, EQ2 has been my pick for most complete MMO experience for years. Now, with going free to play (the rest of the way) and the addition of features like Dungeon Maker and mercenaries, EQ2 takes another step on that respectable path.

Look for the EverQuest II: Age of Discovery expanion to arrive next Tuesday, December 6th, and thanks to the SOE crew for showing us around the new expansion.

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