Saturday, March 5, 2022

EQ II in 2022

Roughly a month ago I got going on EQ II again to research my last post in the series series on Erudite lore.  My highest character was only level 60, having just finished out Desert of Flames* the last time I was seriously playing.  My goal for this run is to play through the past mainline expansions of EQ II in the order that they were released.  To get a better feel for what they were like to play through back in the 2000s, instead of using a level boost (and I have at least several available)  I have been levelling my character the old fashioned way, one quest hub at a time.  

This is the main character I have been playing for the last month.  He is a level 75 tailor, 76 necromancer as I type this. He actually has a ton of much fancier mounts, but I have taken to this lizard mount that I got from one of the early quests in the Kingdom of the Sky expansions zones.

One thing that's always a challenge about picking up a mid-level character in a MMO you haven't looked at in years, is figuring out what all the abilities do.  Oddly, in this instance having forgotten some of the really basic controls turned out to be a boon. The first week I was playing I couldn't figure out how to activate more than one hotbar.  Instead I just made do with the one bar that was up by default.  That bar turned out to have a solid three-spell single-target attack rotation on it that was really easy to figure out.  Even when I figured out how to get my other hotbars up, abilities on the other four I had set up the last time I played turned out to be for less common situations like wanting to travel while invisible, or needing a strong AoE rotation. 

This is the crew he normally hangs out with. From left to right: (1) a nightshade pet that does absolutely absurd damage. I cast spells mainly to aim him at targets via assist. (2) another non combat pet that follows us around and keeps the whole party buffed, and perhaps debuffs mobs as well (I'm not 100% sure what he does). (3) A mercenary.  He costs me four gold an hour to keep running, which is nothing in the modern game.  He can tank entire groups of mobs and hits pretty hard, but probably doesn't even do half the damage of the nightshade.  

Another  initial difficulty I faced was that as I levelled I was  earning new abilities. That doesn't sound like a problem unless you know a bit about the game.  EQ II has an interesting character development system where every ability in the game can be upgraded.  When you gain a level all the new spells you can cast are granted to you at the lowest possible power level, Apprentice (LV1).  From there they can be upgraded to better and better versions, all the way through Ancient (LV7).  However, in practice Expert  (LV4) or Master (LV5) is more than strong enough for nearly any purpose. Regardless, I needed a strategy to upgrade all of the new abilities I was learning at Apprentice level.

This is the zone I have been adventuring in lately. Every one of the biomes you see there is functionally as large as a typical MMO zone, and this "zone" functions more like a region.  It's one of five zones that came with the third annual expansion for EQ II.  It's remarkable how much meatier expansions were back in 2007.  However, that's a whole post . . .

There are a number of different ways you can upgrade your abilities.  One method is to study them over time, using an upgrade menu built in to your spellbook.  You select a spell, and after a certain amount of real-time (outside of the game) passes it will get trained to the next level up.  In some ways it's like the way all skills work in EVE.  This method works really well at low levels, when an upgrade can take only a few hours.   However by level 60, this method starts to takes an inordinate amount of time.  I was getting a up to three new abilities every time I levelled, and taking one spell from Apprentice (LV1) to Journeman (LV2) takes about four or five days of real time training.  To upgrade even a single spell from even to Expert  (LV4) would take the better part of a month. That would obviously not be a viable strategy for dozens of spells. 

Flying through part of the snow area on a "taxi-cab"  NPC mount that makes navigating the zone faster.  DAoC did these first, but EQ II and WoW were really the games that popularized them.  They have since become nearly universal.

You can also pay Daybreak points to upgrade abilities instantly, but that soon becomes pretty expensive. To "instant upgrade" one spell to Expert would be about $10 at current conversion rates.  Books that can upgrade your spells to Adept (LV3) do drop randomly, but with so many classes and abilities the odds of you finding one yourself for any given spell are abysmally low.  Due to inflation I also didn't have anywhere near the platinum I would have needed to buy one on the auction house.  This left me in a bit of a bind.  Fortunately, my second highest level character was a level 40 sage, the crafting class that makes spell upgrades.  You can very easily get all your spells to Journeyman (LV2) with one, which is nothing to sneeze at when you need to upgrade 2-4 spells every other evening you play.  With the right recipes and ingredients, you can even get them up to Expert (LV4). 

Here is my support crafter, making scrolls at a scholar's table.  He is up to 77 sage, and provides spell upgrades for my main. Levelling a sage from 40 to the mid 70s actually turned out the be the most efficient way to get my Necromancer's spells a slight boost.  Most of the time I play this character, a crafting table in Neriak is where you will find him.

Crazily enough, the quickest way to upgrade all my spells turned out to be to gain 20 levels on my sage.  A nice side effect of this was that I got to see what it is like to play a pure crafter, as my sage class (now level 75) quickly outstripped my adventuring class (Warlock level 40).   I had never seen the game from the perspective of a pure crafter.  It's not quite as well done as in FFXIV, where you can essentially turn mob aggro off when you are playing a crafter.  However there are quite a few crafting quest chains, and levelling as a crafter alone is eminently doable.  Because of all this, I am seeing both the adventuring side and the crafting side of each past expansion as I go.  On the crafting side, I see things both from the perspective of a tailor (level 75 so far) that is also quite strong in a fight (level 75 Necromancer) and from the perspective of a crafter that has to run for his life if he gets any aggro at all.

EQ II has a really great gathering system, where any character can gather everything, you can harvest the same node up to three times, and can get up to 13 items per harvest (for a range of 6 to 29 per node).  This all keeps the price of crafting materials down in the in game economy, and means that one high level character can very easily keep every crafter on your account in supplies. The wood I am gather here will be used by my sage to make spell scrolls for this character.

Once I got my sea legs back, how was the actual game?  In 2022 terms, EQ II is showing its age in a lot of areas.  However, it is also remarkable how many things it does better than almost any other MMO on the market. For example, character advancement.  In most modern MMOs there are a lot of empty levels, where advancing yields absolutely nothing except for an increment of one for the number next to your name.  Levels where neither your gear or ability loadout changes at all feel especially anti-climatic.  In EQ II, every time you level you will gain at least one new ability, even if it's only an upgrade of one you already have.  It also grants you the base level of all your new spells without having to hit a trainer, so if you are out in the middle of nowhere and gain a level it still feels immediately rewarding.  Finally, the myriad paths for upgrading abilities from the base power level gives the whole experience some real meat to dig into.  I have really enjoyed levelling my support crafter, and checking the auction house for bargains on the tomes that let me produce expert level spells for my main.

Very often, the best way to navigate the absurdly large zones is to turn invisible and sneak past all the mobs.  I don't know if every character can do this, but all of the cloth casters get an invisibility spell. The spell also affects my nightshade, and the other pet does not generate aggro.  My mercenary had to be dismissed before I could cross the river into hostile territory, since I have no way to make him stealthy.

The housing and crafting systems are also well above average. Crafting is not remotely hard, but it does have just enough interaction to it that you feel like you are really making something.   The items that you can make are also quite useful.  I already talked about needing to level up a support sage for my necromancer.  The necromancer is also a tailor.  Roughly every ten levels new sets of crafted gear  become available.  They are not quite as good as the gear that you will get questing.  But you can replace an entire set all at once.  For example at level 60 I immediately replaced all of my armor with crafted gear that was a huge upgrade.  By level 69 I had replaced all of it with gear from quests.  But a that gear was only a few points stronger than what I had crafted, and I couldn't even wear a lot of it until the high 60s.  It makes you happy to be able to craft, while still leaving a little bit of room for improvement so that you will also be happy with many quest rewards.  EQ II often splits the difference between competing design goals with unusual skill.

Even on my pure crafter, I need to leave the crafting hall occasionally to pick up crafting quests.  The gnome that no longer has a feather started a long chain that netted me three or four crafting levels, but involved a lot of flying around on gnomish airships.  EQ II was the first MMO I know of to offer full series of quests for crafters parallel to the ones for adventurers, and it's still fairly uncommon.   

The housing system is likewise really easy to understand, while still giving you tons of flexibility.  Unlike many modern MMOs, it doesn't force you to use hook points, you place place items anywhere you like.  It also largely lacks arbitrary limits on what you can place.  For example, in my apartment in ESO I found that by the time I had filled roughly half the space it looked like I had, my one bedroom apartment was "full" and I could place no more items.  Almost certainly the system in ESO is designed to get you to buy a bigger house in the item shop.  The housing system in EQ II will let you do pretty much anything you want right from the start.  The cheapest house you can buy has space for 200 objects, and a lot of items you can place are considered decorations and don't count towards that limit. 

My Sage on the mount he uses when he needs to actually leave Neriak. I think it came as a bonus with some expansion, or maybe a collector's edition, back in the day.

So many of the systems in EQ II are simply really solid.  You can tell that EQ II was designed by people that have played a lot of other MMOs, and know what works well and why.  I honestly can't think of anything else I have played recently that doesn't fall completely on it's face with respect to at least one core PvE system: combat, crafting, housing, character advancement.  For example, among all of the big five at least one of these things is true: (1) combat is way too easy or actively annoying to me, (2) crafting is completely pointless, (3) either there is no housing or the housing is way too restrictive, (4) gaining a level often does not change your character in any meaningful way.  I am not sure I would say EQ II exactly knocks any of this stuff out of the park.  But all of them work really well, and skillfully split the difference between conflicting design goals.  

This ghost wolf thing was hanging out on one of the adventuring zones I played through last week.  I have no idea what his purpose is, no quests directed me to interact with him.  As with nearly any older MMO, I often encounter things that are a bit mysterious to me.

The game isn't perfect of course.  The graphics are often dated, though for a game that game out in 2005 and tried for hyper realism they are also better than you would expect.  It has so many systems that it's often hard to get your bearings.  For example, I've been playing for a month and I still don't know what familiars are about, how to get one or exactly what they do.  The game itself is also often hard to navigate. When you finish questing in one area, it's sometimes next to impossible to figure out where to go next without consulting a guide.  Quests are often also quite old-school.  In some zones there are no in game markers, and the written instructions on the quests are vague.  You will often get stuck and need to consult a wiki. However, to my tastes these are mostly nitpicks.  I like exploring, and all that "cruft" that's accreted over the years actually gives me a lot to dig into.  I even like that I can pick whether to work through a zone that holds my hand with quest blobs on the map, or head to an older one where I will actually have to explore. 

My character's tiny apartment.  This is one of the cheapest ones you can get, and it allows you to place more than 200 objects anywhere you like.  The housing items also have a lot of neat little details.  For example, the books on the table on the left are individual books, any of which you can pick up and read.

If you can get past the slightly dated graphics and gameplay that is at times arcane, you will find a real gem of an MMO with months of content in every direction.  The core systems, when you finally understand them, are also really well designed.   "None of the core systems are completely broken" is so rare in modern MMOs** that it's practically a revelation. That this is true of a game that came out nearly 20 years ago, but not of so many more modern MMOs with budgets comparable to 100 EQ IIs is absolutely baffling.  

*Desert of Flames was the game's first expansion, released in September 2005.

**FFXIV perhaps excepted, and even there you have the issue where advancing a level often has almost no affect on  your character. 


  1. I'm going to try to resist the temptation to write a comment longer than the post, although there are so many hooks in every paragraph it's not going to be easy.

    The really important thing to know about EQII these days, I think, is that it's two almost completely different games. There's a very good reason the new Legend and Lore server only goes to Level 90. The game you're playing, from character creation through the nineties, is a vast, sprawling, complex, confusing absolutely old school experience. You can pretty much play any class and have a fine old time without doing much in the way of preparation, so long as you grab a mercenary as soon as you can get one. A merc can pretty much solo the entire game up to about the seventies. That lets you focus on the content, which is insanely stacked, and that's just the formal questing.

    Crafting is a fully-developed playstyle in its own right and it's pretty much 100% safe. It's gathering that gets you into trouble if you don't have the adventure levels. I always think of gathering as an adventure skill, not a crafting one. Gathering is almost a half-playstyle, too, with a number of lengthy questlines, all of which are very well worth doing. Transmuting and adorning, as a pair, I also tend to associate with adventuring rather than crafting because it will be your adventure character that ends up wanting to transmute all the No Drop/Attuned quest items, not your crafter.

    Crafting and gathering don't change all that much all the way to the cap but Adventuring changes out of all recognition at Level 100. From that point on the only way you can level is by questing. Killing stuff gets you infinitesimal xp compared to what you need. Your options on where to level also collapse to one or two zones, often just one. Eventually, when you hit the last three expansions, gaining xp to level becomes entirely nominal and levelling ceases to be any kind of focus. You get a third of a level handing in just one quest and people pretty much capped out on a new expansion in the first or second session after launch.

    Everything in the last 20 levels revolves around either narrative or upgrading gear, something that can take a ridiculous amount of time, effort, money and sanity. Once again, though, you don't really have to bother about it if you just want to play for the fun of it because you get all the gear you need to get started at each level range (In fives now) from a box on the floor at the start of each expansion.

    Honestly, the last five or so years is so different from the rest they might as well have caled it EQ3. I like it but I came to it slowly as the changes were introduced. It must be one hell of a bootlegger turn for anyone levelling up the old-fashioned way like you are. I'd love to hear how you get on if you stick with it.

    1. I didn't decide to cram it in to a post that already felt like a novella, but that transition you talk about at level 100 has me worried. I really like the game I am playing now. I'll give the new one that starts at 100 a fair shot, but I am pretty skeptical of it from all I've read. That is another reason I decided not to use a level boost, I want to get the full experience of the older game that I know is to my taste.

    2. Looking on the bright side, there's so much content in the first 90 levels you can quite easily level several characters with relatively little repetition so the pre-100 game has plenty of replayability. Another bright spot is that the graphics in the later expansions are hugely improved. It really changes around late Velious, when they added the WitheredLands. Some of the later zones are just gorgeous. It looks like a different game as well as plays like one.

    3. This was a great post and great follow up from Bhagpuss. I haven't played in forever, but I'm glad to hear EQ2 is still worthy of attention.

    4. Thanks! I finally played far enough to figure out what happened to Odus, the final post on Erudites will be going up some time this month.