Dragons of Norrath, the ninth Everquest expansion in six years, brings together the best elements of previous expansions and story lines into a single package. With features such as plot-driven single group missions, high end dragon raids, instanced guild halls, point-based equipment progression, and very useful user interface enhancements, Dragons of Norrath may prove to be the strongest of the nine Everquest expansions.
Back in May of last year, I wrote an article for the guild summit pompously entitled Loral's Evil Agenda. In it I brought suggestions based on my experiences and views for ways to improve Everquest in the future. I included seven main points I wanted addressed. Dragons of Norrath meets four of these seven items including increased single-group content, alternatives for corpse recovery, higher end point-based loot, and more Lost Dungeon style content. The other three have since become obsolete.
During the Summit I mentioned over and over how much I enjoyed Lost Dungeons of Norrath and how much I wanted to see a Lost Dungeons 2. Dragons of Norrath is as close as I could possibly expect. Dragons of Norrath is my Lost Dungeons 2, but it also answers many of the problems mentioned by the critics of the original Lost Dungeons expansion including cookie-cutter adventure types and a lack of good raid content.
For many, the guild hall alone is reason enough to buy this expansion. Each member of a guild, large or small, will have access to the instanced guild hall. The hall contains a teleporter to many known wizard locations for a hefty fee, a mana and hitpoint regenerating jacuzzi, a normal bank, a new guild bank that allows guild members to deposit items now available to other guild members, and a full set of tradeskill devices.
A non-instanced guild lobby leads to to the guild halls from the Plane of Knowledge. The lobby is available to all Dragons of Norrath purchasers whether in a guild or not. The Lobby contains the corpse summoners who, for a fee, will summon ressable bodies from anywhere in the game. This lobby also contains the "Guild Looking for Player" and "Player Looking for Guild" bulletin boards.
Dragons includes three new user interface enhancements: a weapon bandoleer, a potion bag, and a new in-game atlas. The bandoleer allows all players to swap between four sets of main, secondary, ranged, and ammo items. The potion bag lets players quickly activate potions without having to open up inventory bags. One nice feature of the potion bag is that it records the total number of potions of each type whether they stack or not. Drag a single invisibility potion over the potion box and all nine that you hold in inventory slots will appear. The atlas helps tie together the world for newer players. Players can click down from a game-wide map to individual continent maps, to zone-connection maps, and finally to the original Ykesha vertex-based maps.
I was happy to recently learn that the whispered in-game email system will be available to all players whether they purchase Dragons of Norrath or not. This email system will allow players to send messages to players not currently online. Future capabilities may include an ability to forward in-game messages to an out-of-game email address. This, along with the guild bulletin board feature, will help some guilds streamline their recruitment processes not to mention the general convenience of sending messages to off-line players.
The high-end cap on tradeskills will now increase to 300 along with a whole new variety of high skill tradeskill items. Rumors whisper of new cultural armor with very nice statistics and a new form of tradeskill augment along with its own specialized slot. Hopefully this increased skill cap will help players make the high powered, very high cost augments we began to see in Omens of War.
The mission system may be one of the most exciting innovations in Everquest since the original Lost Dungeon adventures. These story-based events take a group of players through a 60 to 90 minute mission. Unlike LDON's typical four adventure types, each of these missions is hand-made. Adventuring groups will plant bombs, rescue dragon eggs, attempt to forge or break alliances with goblin tribes, or investigate the tainting of ancient dragon nests. These missions take place across five zones starting at level 50 and working up to 70. Each mission has only one difficulty, but depending on the mission location, the missions scale up to Riftseeker-level difficulties.
Mission masters reward successful adventurers with shards, an in-game point metaphor that can be used for the purchase of new equipment or powerful augments. The highest power of these new items is a step up from the top-end LDON loot including augments with level 5 focus effects for nearly every focus type.
For the high-end raiders, Dragons contains the types of encounters that got most people raiding in the first place: dragons. Raid encounters include both overland and instanced raids including events beyond Anguish in difficulty. Raid content is hard to accurately review before an expansion comes but the dragon raids look to be a lot of fun.
Missions and dragon raids aren't the only content one will find in Dragons of Norrath. Like the last two expansions, Dragons of Norrath includes traditional overland zones full of some very impressive locations and dangerous beasts.
The dungeons in Dragons serve two purposes. One can enter a larger non-instanced version of a dungeon such as Lavaspinner's Lair and go on a traditional dungeon hunt, but Missions use an instanced part of that same dungeon. Certain passageways become unaccessible when working on the instanced mission version of a dungeon which keeps adventurers focused on the task at hand. This lets players choose whether they want to do the fast action mission or a more traditional longer dungeon crawl of the same dungeon.
The graphics of Dragons of Norrath continue to improve. Torchlight shines off of the hard shell backs of huge spiders. Lava flows down the scorched rock of the jagged teeth of the Broodlands. Ancient animated statues twist their stone heads to gaze over a land they have protected for thousands of years. The textures, bump-maps, and lighting of Omens continues to improve and it shows in Dragons.
As much as I gush about the new features and content of Dragons of Norrath, the expansion isn't without problems.
The largest of these problems is the obvious focus on players above level 45. In a new time where Everquest must compete against games six years after its release, SOE must spend what time it can reasonably afford to make the game appeal to a new audience. This drudges up the new question of the year: How can Everquest attract new players? Everyone has ideas, but it is clear that while a new expansion shows how strong this game can be, level 45 content won't attract level 1 players.
Many contend that the game already has an abundance of low level zones. However, zones alone aren't appealing enough to show the potential EQ now offers to higher level players. The rewards in lower-level content become quickly outdated by newer, more powerful, and cheaper gear available in the bazaar.
The mission system offers a huge amount of potential for lower level content. Missions could take younger players into older zones on a variety of new jobs that reward every group member for the work they do with new gear of appropriate power.
The recent revamp of Lavastorm shows how good lower level content can get. Large zones have areas for many level ranges. New improved quests offer updated rewards. Zone-based taskmasters offer experience rewards on top of the work of a typical experience hunt. While the cost of such a revamp is high, it is revamps like this that can offer enough exciting content at lower levels to compete with games like Everquest 2 and Worlds of Warcraft.
Level limit aside, Dragons of Norrath includes an abundance of content and features that take many of the best technological and game design concepts from previous expansions and weave them together into what may turn out to be the greatest of Everquest expansions. While it is impossible to fully review an expansion with months, perhaps years, of content in only a few days, I have little doubt that this expansion will be well worth the $30. I can't wait to dig in.
10 February 2005
Below are screenshots I took during my guided tour of the Dragons of Norrath expansion: