Then the big reveal came at last summer's Sony Live and what we got was something clumsily called Everquest Next Landmark. Yet even so, although Landmark came as a total surprise and was scheduled to appear first, focus remained firmly on EQNext. Everyone and his dog churned out reams of reaction, analysis and speculation in most of which Landmark barely got a mention. Then, somehow, the emphasis began to change as promotional videos began to appear, Landmark got some firm release dates, and this odd duck MMO-or-is-it became something you could actually pay money for, expect to play, and soon.
|You can tell it's a rich world. Even the flowers have particle effects.|
Now Landmark is here, at least for a given value of "here", one that reads "some of it's here and some of what's here even works". There's no NDA, bloggers are giving their impressions almost daily, showing off their creations (or apologizing for them), YouTube is filling up with "How To" videos. You can even go read the alpha forums without signing up for alpha. In short, Landmark is now A Thing.
Which is all well and good and heaven knows I'm enjoying it all a heck of a lot more than I ever expected to but it's still EQNext that I really want to play. As Wilhelm observed a while back, with the flowering of Landmark the flow of information on EQNext seems to have dried up almost completely. Not only that but Smed seems keen to skip EQNext altogether and move on to the next next MMO in his ever-shrinking yet ever-growing stable.
|Now that does look like Norrath.|
So, since SOE aren't talking so much about EQNext any more and since Landmark is what we have, let's take stock of what little we know and see where that takes us. My immediate reaction to the EQNext reveal last year broke things down into eight headings. One was Landmark itself and one (Collectible Classes) appears to be only intended for EQNext. Three more (Emergent AI, Combat and Dynamic Events) aren't due to arrive in Landmark until beta. We'll get back to those then.
That leaves three:
Looks - My initial reaction to the EQNext footage was that it looked very cartoony and I was happy with that. I like cartoons. Other people were less impressed. There were even dark comments in some quarters about it looking like Free Realms. Well, people who thought that way might be quite reassured by Landmark. It's nowhere near as cartoony as that video might have led you to believe.
|I smell Elf.|
In fact I don't think it feels cartoony at all. The screenshots sometimes look a little like animation cells but as computer game graphics go I'd say it's more towards the "painterly reality" end of the scale that Guild Wars 2 occupies. As for the worldliness of the world, even though the landscapes are procedurally generated and the number of biomes is very limited yet, still they have considerable heft. Some of the scenery is quite breathtaking and the transitions from biome to biome are relatively subtle and convincing. The lighting effects are as stunning as promised.
Once designers and artists get their assets down against this backdrop I would anticipate an extremely satisfying and immersive world to emerge. Playing Landmark has given me every confidence that, if nothing else, EQNext will both look sumptuous and feel like Norrath, two things that have hitherto never been achieved at the same time.
|I think I banged my head on a rock coming down. I'm seeing double.|
Destructability - When Dave Georgeson announced that EQNext would be constructed from destroyable voxels I was somewhat underwhelmed. It seemed like one of those gadgets that sound great when the guy talks it up in the store but when you get it home you can't actually think of much to do with it and it ends up at the back of the cupboard under the stairs. How wrong I was.
Being able to terraform the landscape at will is astonishingly entertaining, far more so than I imagined it would be, but in the context of EQNext it has the potential to add whole new orders of complexity to the gameplay. One of the very best things about the original Everquest, at least prior to the Planes of Power expansion, was the way it allowed players to come up with their own solutions to problems. Improvisation was very much the order of the day and there were many times when we worked with whatever tools we had to hand to get the job done dirty when we couldn't do it clean.
|The Ice Cream Mine Is Mine All Mine.|
Being able to manipulate the environment opens up so many possibilities. Just imagine the ranger, running back to the camp with a posse of goblins in tow, leaping over the pit trap the party has hastily been digging while she was out on the pull, turning to notch an arrow to her bow just as the last of the goblins falls onto the squirming, squealing heap at the bottom. Then imagine the smile fading on her face as those goblins begin to burrow through the earth, disappearing out of sight only to re-emerge seconds later, boiling out of the ground right beneath the party.
Realistically I doubt we'll see such an on-the-fly, interactive use of the destructible environment in PvE although with the famous Storybricks emergent AI who knows what's possible? In a PvP setting, though...well I wouldn't stand in one place for too long, that's all I'm saying. Either way, whether the full potential is joyously realised or whether it ends up being hamstrung by practicalities, having seen desructability in action I give the voxel revolution my firmest vote of confidence.
|Ok, just keep calm. A back flip ought ta do it.|
Movement - This was the throwaway at the reveal. Dave Georgeson kept calling it "parkour", which just made me think of Lady Penelope's chauffeur. I gave it a couple of lines. Lots of commentators didn't even mention it at all. Again, big mistake.
One thing SOE's MMOs have often been criticized for in the past is the appearance and animation of the character models. It's not something that comes in very high on my list of likes or dislikes for any MMO but some folks do get very exercised over it and even I notice whether a character "feels" right. Boy! do these feel right.
No doubt there will be polish passes to come but even at this stage character animations are clean and satisfying and movement seems comfortable and natural. With no NPCs in place there's no way to judge whether the big-eyed look that received some criticism when it was seen in the EQNext footage will, as promised, make sense in context with the Storybricks AI but I can say with confidence that player characters in game do not look either overblown or weird. Uncanny valley this is not, nor is it Mulan in Norrath.
|Hard to see, I know, but I'm up there somewhere.|
Better still is that "parkour" thing. Not only is it fun, which was expected, but like the destructibility it has enormous gameplay potential. The sliding down scree and slopes kicking up dust part is exhilarating and the forward rolls and somersaults are entertaining but at the moment they're just visual sugar because in alpha we can run up any slope and fall from any height. Once the physics goes in and the death mechanic along with it, that sugar is going to turn to salt, adding flavor to every roll and tumble. A good slide or a double somersault might save your life, or at least some repair bills. This is one kind of "action gaming" I can get behind.
What's more, demonstrating its intention to be more than just a gimmick or a simple background mechanic, movement becomes an attribute you can improve with gear. You can get items to help you jump higher and, of course, run faster but best of all you can get a Grappling Hook. Again, it sounds like an amusing toy when you read about it but once you get one in your hand it feels as important to your character as a sword or a bow. Add some mobs, especially ones with grappling hooks of their own, and the prospects for treetop chases and spectacular entrances and escapes abound.
And that's how it goes in the World of Speculation. Imagination knows no budgetary constraints. The reality of EQNext, when it comes, will probably be far more pedestrian and predictable than any of that. But then, that's what I thought about Landmark...