November 2004 saw fantasy MMOs change forever. Within a fortnight, the two highest-profile titles in the genre's life were released: one raking in millions of players worldwide, becoming a byword for online gaming, and delivering its creators the kind of obscene profits that Bill Gates dreams of. The other was EverQuest II.
World of Warcraft emergence onto the scene dominated media attention so completely that it cruelly overshadowed an MMO that should have been a bigger deal than it was. EverQuest was the granddaddy of the genre after all, and without those low-polygon adventures, there wouldn't have been a WOW, let alone any of the 12 dozen imitators that have followed.
EQs sequel struggled through 2005. While the underlying game experience was equally comparable to the media darling rival (and easily merited the high 95% score we... I... gave it), some daring, some say misguided, gameplay decisions were enough of a millstone around its neck that it never garnered enough attention to justify headlines.
So instead of trying, SOE simply knuckled down, spent the next four years grafting like a bugger and, most importantly, listened to the feedback they got. The result was EQII quietly grew and grew, shifted focus, added important new elements such as PvP, balanced and engrossing Tradeskill (crafting) options; introduced new races, new zones, new cities and new add-on packs; revamped the entire starting experience; changed many, many, many of the gameplay mechanics (including the archetypes); rewarded loyal veterans with epic quests, epic weapons and epic raid dungeons; and, most importantly, overhauled the entire solo experience to make the whole game more attractive to casual gamers. And that was just the tip of the iceberg. To list every gameplay change that happened over the past four years would take an encyclopaedia, but the net result is that since its launch, EQII has altered beyond all recognition, while still holding true to its roots.
To celebrate this, SOE have just come off the biggest marketing promotion in the EQ franchise's history, encouraging anyone who even sniffed at the game's box to try it anew, which has reportedly added several tens of thousands of new players in the process. And with The Shadow Odyssey - EQITs fifth expansion pack - gearing for release next month, EQII has arguably never been in a stronger position than it is now.
Amongst other, lesser game mechanic changes, The Shadow Odyssey will bring a nostalgic mood, opening classic original-era EQ dungeons for all-new questing; adding new zones to the existing plethora of locales; and offering 'dungeon delving', which will vary existing dungeons' content. And, as with all EQII expansions, it will also provide new players with every drop of EQII content that's been released to date in the one retail package.
Prior to this paid-for substance, the virtual crack dealers will be putting out various freely available game updates ("The first hit's free my man, the rest is gonna cost you...") including Guild Halls. These instanced interior zones will let your merry band of unlikely monikered heroes have a real place to call home, instead of the makeshift player housing bases that have sufficed well enough until now.
Free updates have long been a staple of EQITs progress, regular patches offering everything from minor bug fixes to entire cities and whole new races, and it's this constant refinement to the original's core values that show the true heart of why EQII is consistently rated as the Most Improved MMO by anyone who bothers to try it out.
For all the plaudits thrown like confetti by the converted, all the openness and welcoming nature shown by the community to newcomers, and all the care and attention shown by the development team, the Norrathian stigma is still the game's biggest hurdle to overcome. WOW still hogs the limelight, its fevered fanbase claiming innovation and development excellence while the truth is that there is precious little in Azeroth that wasn't created first either in EQII, or many other fantasy MMOs that aren't as media savvy.
Bitter, much? Grapes tasting somewhat acerbic, old man? Perhaps a little, and WOWs charms, achievements and playability can't be discredited. But the alternative 'alternative' worlds should not be ignored as a result. To shun EverQuestII-a game which offers rarely seen depth of content and craftmanship, and warmth of community... to let this once-great institution wither through undue overattention to a rival whose only unique virtue is that it happens to sell an awful lot better is a crime. Especially when it pretty much started the whole genre off after all.
Four years of enhancement, evolution and expansion has seen EQII evolve into the best fantasy MMO in terms of richly rewarding game experience. Ignore the slanderous stigma and EverQuest II offers a staggering level of depth.
Download EverQuest II
PC compatible, P-100
Systems: Windows 9x, Windows 2000 Windows XP, Vista, Win 7, Win 8, Win 10.
Game features:Single game mode