Monday, May 18, 2009

The Shadow Odyssey Six Months Later

On 18 November 2008 SOE released the latest expansion for EverQuest 2, The Shadow Odyssey. For the first time in my gaming career, I took the week off from work so I could start playing a game expansion as soon as the servers went live. To say I wanted the expansion to be a major hit is an understatement. Was the expansion a hit? Let’s take a look.

The Dire Bear - I really like the Dire Bear pet/mount that came with the game if you went to the store and bought the box version of TSO. Each character that you create gets a dire bear pet that at level 20 becomes a mount. As you grow, your dire pet grows and becomes faster. The devs came up with a really unique and creative addition to the game. Only one little problem. The boxes were not available everywhere, especially outside North America. I’m in a guild whose two leading officers are Australian. In Australia, players could not buy the box. I hear the same was true in parts of Europe. If SOE is going to hold promotions like this in the future, players from countries outside North America should get an option of what in-game bonus item to get, the digital download item or the sales box item. For this expansion, SOE should at a minimum allow players to buy the Dire Bear using Station Cash.

No Level Cap Increases – The introduction of The Shadow Odyssey did not bring an increase in the adventure, crafting, or guild level caps. At first I was kind of disappointed because I had finally reached level 80 a couple of months before and I was ready for another level grind. But with a chance to take a breather, I’ve been able to gear up my main properly. Besides the tier 2 shard armor, I was finally able to earn my fabled weapon on my main. On the crafting front, I have two more level 80 crafting alts. I’m hoping that in six more months I’ll increase that number to 8 and be working on leveling a carpenter.

I also think my guild benefited from SOE not raising the level caps. We are actually within 3 levels of reaching level 80 as a guild, having dinged level 77 last week. I would really like to be in a max level guild. But besides the guild level, I like the fact that a lot of my guild mates are reaching the level cap and I can adventure with them without having to mentor. The acceleration of the level curve between levels 20-70 that occurred in GU 49 helped greatly. The fact that we finally have enough players to do high level content is nice.

So how do I like not having the level cap increase? Much to my surprise, I like it a lot.

The Moors of Ykesha – The expansion came with only one outdoor zone, the Moors of Ykesha. For awhile I didn’t really like the zone. But as I started to write this post I remembered the first few weeks when I adventured in the Moors. I love travel in the zone. Getting to the expansion area required getting on a giant airship. I tell everyone that they need to experience the ride at least once. Once in the Moors, you discover that the only way from the starting area to the rest of the Moors is to be shot out of a cannon by gnomes. Yes indeed, cannon as a means of transportation. From there the fastest means of transportation is by taking small airships throughout the zone. I actually took a long time to do the quest Ship Out, the access quest to all of the TSO crafting content, because I was having so much fun riding around in those tiny balloons.

As for the combat and quests, I liked the fact that I really had to be careful around a bunch of mobs that were 3 levels lower than me, but enough people complained so the devs nerfed some of the mobs in the zone. While a lot of the quests are of the “kill ten rats” variety, I really enjoyed the Brokenskull pirates quest line found in the caves of Brokenskull Loft that gave me, among other items, my Deckhand Labor Boots. I recently went back to finish up the quests in the zone and I’m enjoying some of the final solo quests. One of the quests takes you on a pirate ship on which you have to kill a giant croc and repel borders. I also discovered that by using the Cloak of the Harvester, you can jump off the Overlook and travel a very long ways. For one quest, my ranger ran and jumped off the Overlook, stealthed, and landed in the middle of the Gunthak's Shanty where I proceeded to kill a named mob for a quest update. Yes folks, another place in EverQuest 2 to conduct, as we used to call them at Fort Bragg, airborne operations. Did I just hear a ranger shouting “Death from above!”?

The Moors of Ykesha isn’t a fantastic zone, but the focus of The Shadow Odyssey is focused on group content and the instances, not solo play. Also, I think that if you started the expansion at the level cap like I did, you may have a different opinion than players hitting the zone at level 74-76. Still, the Moors does provide a few great moments of fun.

Crafters and Tradeskill InstancesThe Shadow Odyssey introduced another crafting faction, the Far Seas Supply Division, available to players once their crafting level reaches 50. Crafters will definitely want to max out their faction with the Far Seas Supply Division as that faction’s merchants sell such things as jewelry that increases XP gain and harvesting bonuses, special limited use recipes that turn rare items dropped in the TSO instances into special items, full sets of crafting armor and mounts that give you harvesting bonuses. I’ve earned enough of the Far Seas tokens that I now ride around Norrath on the pack unicorn that gives a +48 bonus to all my harvesting skills and wear the green set of crafting gear in my appearance slots and swap it to my regular slots when I’m in a group crafting instance.

Yes, EQ2 has group crafting missions. I haven’t heard of another game in which crafters are thrown together in groups to achieve an objective (building Titans in Eve Online doesn’t count). Whether it is creating a robot to destroy a robot that the gnomes lost control of, building a ship and watching it sail away, or equipping a platoon of dwarven warriors and watching them do battle, the tradeskill instances are cool. Add in the loot you can get from the zones like shard armor and jewelry recipes, jewelry that gives bonuses to crafting skills, and the Far Seas tokens earned with the completion of every mission and crafters should have been extremely happy. Only one problem. The instances had a bug that on day 4 kept some eager crafters, myself included, from doing the instances. I think I was unable to do the tradeskill instances for 3 or 4 of the first 8 days after the expansion’s launch due to the bug. That bug took some of the shine off the crafting instances, although I expect traffic to pick up again once the next expansion starts to draw near and players realize they really do want to pick up the Far Seas Supply Division crafting xp bonus gear for their mains and alts.

Group Instances and Void Shard Gear – Six months after the launch of the expansion the small guild I’m in finally cleared Deep Forge set to max level, so I’m not sure I’m the best person to evaluate the 16 group instances in The Shadow Odyssey. Yes, I have cleared a couple of other zones at max level, but most of my experience was doing grey shard runs to get my set of tier 2 shard armor, so most of my experience has been in Befallen, Miragul's Phylactery, Deep Forge and Najena’s Hollow Tower.

From what I’ve seen, the devs created a bunch of one group raid zones. Players need to gear up their armor, weapons, spells, and combat arts to run the instances successfully. I’ve seen a lot of scripted boss encounters inside the instances in which using basic “tank and spank” tactics is a sure way for a group to wipe. The zones also have a progression in which they are designed to be done. In short, the instances give players a taste of the raiding life. Other EQ2 expansions have done this with their heroic zone content, but none have focused so heavily on this aspect of the game.

  • Najena: The Deep Forge (Level 50-80)
  • Miragul's Phylactery: Scion of Ice (Level 50-80)
  • Befallen: Cavern of the Afflicted (Level 50-80)
  • Mistmoore: Evernight Abbey (Level 70-80)
  • The Void: Obelisk of Ahkzul (Level 80+)
Easy to Moderate
  • Miragul's Phylactery: The Anathema (Level 50-80)
  • Najena: Najena's Hollow (Level 50-80)
  • Mistmoore: Mistmyr Manor (Level 70-80)
  • The Sebilisian Empire: Veksar (Level 80+)
  • The Sebilisian Empire: Nu'Roga (Level 80+)
  • Miragul's Phylactery: The Crucible (Level 50-80)
  • Befallen: Halls of the Forsaken (Level 50-80)
  • Guk: Halls of the Fallen (Level 80+)
  • The Void: Anchor of Bazzul (Level 80+)
Moderate to Hard
  • Befallen: Necrotic Asylum (Level 50-80)
  • Mistmoore: Ravenscale Repository (Level 70-80)
  • Guk: The Lower Corridors (Level 80+)
  • The Sebilisian Empire: Kor'Sha (Level 80+)
  • Guk: Ykesha's Outer Stronghold (Level 80+)
  • The Void: The Palace of Ferzhul (Level 80+)
Besides the difficulty of group instances for small guilds and small group (2-3 toons) and casual players, the biggest source of controversy in the expansion are players doing the TSO instances with the mobs set to a low level in order to get void shards. Unfortunately the practice was not declared an exploit until Kiara did so on April 1, or over 4 months after the expansion launched and 5-6 months after beta testers pointed out the possibility to the devs. I think I have posted enough on the practice that I’ll only bring up one additional point. I truly believe that the move of EQ2 Associate Producer Jennifer "Kirstie" Gerull to the development side as the lead mechanics designer had an impact on this decision to declare the practice an exploit. I’m just glad the decision was made to not punish those players who performed grey shard runs. I don’t know if I could have continued playing the game if all that work was taken away.

The Shadow Tree and the AA Grind – While The Shadow Odyssey did not see an increase in the adventuring or tradeskill level caps, the alternate achievement (AA) point cap was raised from 140 to 200 points, giving players disappointed in not receiving an adventuring cap increase something to strive for. SOE also gave players a third talent tree, called “Shadow”, in which to spend their points.

The Shadow tree harkens back to the early days of EQ2 when players did not choose their class at character creation but instead started out as a generic character, then did quests to chose their archtype (fighter, scout, mage, priest) and then progressed to finally become a class at level 20. The Shadow tree has four lines within the tree in which to put points, with each line having a requirement before you can put AA points into it. To use a ranger as an example, a player can immediately put points into the “General” line of the tree. But to put points into the “Scout” line, a player must have spent 120 AA points in all trees and at least 10 points into the “General” line. To put points in the “Predator” line (available to rangers and assassins), a player must have spent 140 AA points in all trees and at least 10 points in the “Scout” tree. To put points into the “Ranger” line (which has some really nice abilities), a player must have spent 170 AA points in all trees and at least 10 points in the “Predator” tree. The names of the lines, except for the “General” line, will change depending on a player’s class.

Is the Shadow tree actually worth spending hard won experience points into? Do you remember earlier in this post when I wrote that players complained that the content in the Moors of Ykesha was too hard? The monk I did the grey shard runs with had the same complaint until he took advantage of the free AA respec players received with the expansion and started spending points in the Shadow tree. He told me that after he did that, he was killing the mobs like he was used to. In fact, he thought he might have been having an easier time killing those level 77 mobs than he was used to.

The one thing I think players have complained about the most about alternate adventure experience is how much of a grind getting those last points is. I am currently at 178 AA points and even though I expect the next expansion to come out in November, I am wondering if that is enough time to get those last 22 points. I don’t think that SOE supplied enough content to keep the climb to 200 from becoming a ratonga on a treadmill kind of exercise. Hopefully when GU 52 comes out in June that the extra 80+ quests and changes in the conversion rate of combat experience to alternate achievement experience for max level characters will make earning 200 points an obtainable goal.

Conclusions and final comments - Despite the massive wall of text above, I'm still missing a lot of content from the expansion, mainly the raid zones. I haven't stepped foot into the raid zones so I don't feel qualified to say anything good or bad about the raid content. I also didn't write about the Lavastorm update in GU 51 or the delay of the fighter revamp since those are not really part of the expansion and this post is a look at TSO and the changes the expansion made to the game.

I have this post tagged as a review, but even after playing for six months I think this post is more accurately called my impressions of The Shadow Odyssey and not a review. SOE designs their EQ2 expansions to last for a year and game updates and patches will change, for better or worse, the quality of game play during that time. However, I have probably played EQ2 for 300-350 hours since November 18, 2008 with over 100 hours of that spent in the expansion zones, so I think I have some valid ideas about TSO.

So to answer the question I posed at the beginning of this post: was the expansion a hit? I really think I'm going to have to wait another six months to answer that question. I have found this expansion to be a little bit like EQ2's graphics. When I started playing EQ2, the graphics didn't look too good because I was playing on a laptop. The game looked better over time as I upgraded my computer equipment. I'm having the same type of experience with The Shadow Odyssey. While the beginning of the expansion showed promise, I hit a snag as I grinded out content in order to get better equipment. But with the better equipment and the decision by SOE to not increase the level cap allowing the rest of my guild to catch up to the high end content, the expansion now looks like the equivilent of the "High Quality" setting in my video setting options. I'm hoping that the next six months' worth of content will show me a game I can say is set to "Extreme Quality".

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