Last week SOE released Everquest's eighth expansion in five years, Omens of War. There is no way to fully review an expansion after only one week, so consider this the first of at least two reviews of the expansion. In later weeks we will discuss whether the expansion filled in all of the gaps it intended to fill. For now we focus on what we know so far. Omens of War is a very strong expansion and well worth $30.
Omens includes a lot of new, useful, and fun zones to hunt in. There are eight over-land zones starting at level 45 and quickly reaching into level 65 and 70. There are three sets of instanced expeditions, the sewers, catacombs, and hollows. One locked zone awaits the arrival of big fancy people, and a set of Justice-like instanced group and raid trials await the corpses of level 70s.
The zones in this expansion look great. The wide open wastelands of the Wall of Slaughter stretch to the crushed walls of the Dragorn keeps. Ancient bridges cross the canyons of the Ruins of Dranik. All of these zones resemble lands at war, with scorched earth and skies of smoke.
Unlike Planes of Power, the better hunting zones of Omens are unlocked. The instanced expeditions guarentee that any player above 45 can find a place to earn good experience with little competition.
Omens has only one locked zone and none are expected to see it right away. Already we see treasures coming from the furthest reaches of the Muramite Provingrounds (sic) and Riftseeker's Sanctum. Flags prevented this sort of gold rush in Planes of Power and Gates of Discord, but the advantages of unflagged zones outweigh the disadvantages.
It is no surprise that characters began reaching level 70 two days after release. Characters have been at level 65 for a long time and not being at the top level seems unnatural. Many seek to reach that top end not because they want it but because they feel they deserve to have it.
More troubling is where they go to get it. Instead of joining five friends and exploring these new lands, fast-track hunters head to the Plane of Fire. Message threads string across the net with discussions of the Plane of Fire and the experience within. Some report waiting in lines to kite at the tables, the single best place to earn experience in the game. If ever a place needed to be modified to increase the risk vs reward, that is it.
The alternate advanced abilities in Omens appear far more useful than the ones we saw in Gates. Most continue the progression of previous AAs such as critical damage increases, healing increases, and stat increases. Some offer a lot of utility such as a ninth spell-gem and five more buff slots. For 25 AA points, one can up their mana regeneration cap from 15 to 20. Each class has a few unique and interesting abilities as well.
The shiny loot of Omens appears to fill in the power gap between level 65 single-group hunters and high-end professional raiders. We now reached a point where a character can level from 1 to 70, gear up with bazaar, Ornate, and LDON loot, and then earn gear in the high-end of Omens without ever needing to raid to get better gear. Raiding always offers greater rewards, as it should, but single-group progression now has a bridge deep into Gates of Discord and the high-end of Omens of War without requiring raiding.
The task system improved a lot since the early days of beta. Tasks break up into a set of four sub-tasks involving exploration of places best left alone, shady meetings with Wayfarer agents, collecting four shiny things, and killing ten evildoers. Tasks range from level 5 to level 65 with more tasks on the way in coming weeks. Their difficulty varies but I completed two or three different ones by myself at level 65, not bad for a weak and pasty cleric.
The greatest improvement to the task system is the scaling reward. While some classes solo much better than others, players earn rewards based on class. Clerics, paladins, and warriors who generally have more trouble hunting alone receive a higher reward than necromancers, bards, and wizards who can complete tasks much faster. The rewards of the task system make it useful without ruining the rewards of grouping. Triggered beasts and events locked for the triggering player would add a lot of excitement to the tasks. Perhaps that is a feature we will see later on.
The graphics in Omens are astounding. Detailed carvings and erosion on walls look good enough to run a hand over. Torchlight shines on the scaly skin of a Dragorn as it rushes down a hallway. Red eyes shine bright from the six eyes of a Chimera. Moonlight shines off of the water over the Abysmal Seas. Breath frosts out of the mouths of the hunters of Halas. Everquest's look improved much in the last five years and its visuals never cease to amaze me.
The lack of description and options for graphic performance makes these new graphics inconsistent from user to user. A new "advanced" tab in display options offers shadows, reflective waters, pixel shader 1.0, pixel shader 2.0, vertex shaders, reflective waters, and a few other options. It doesn't include Hardware TnL (don't ask me what it stands for) and Vsync, the option that tells the game not to run faster than your monitor can display. Vsync may be the most important feature to make Everquest look solid on faster machines and the only way to enable it is to put a "Vsync=1" variable under "Defaults" in one's eqclient.ini file.
Everquest needs a better interface for display settings with better auto-detection, a simple slider bar or check box for the features to enable. Most important are descriptions of what each feature does and what types of systems should enable it. Few people know what a pixel shader 2.0 is and no one should need to.
In the mean time, players must work hard to understand all of the available settings and figure out which they should use.
SOE released a lot of smaller features in Omens as well. The voice macro system lets tanks shout "Heal me, dolt!" when my eyes stray over to my Tivo too much. Guild tributes let officers donate junky gear so other members can have an extra point of mana regen. Custom titles ensure you can pick the title you liked the best. I always preferred Venerable to Exarch.
Omens is a great expansion. Excellent unflagged and unrestricted zones, new levels and AAs, new shiny loot for both single-group hunters and raiders, top-notch graphics, and a lot of fun new features make Omens one of the best Everquest expansions. It takes time to find all of the nooks and crannies in such a game, no one can write a complete review after only one week of play, but so far Omens is a lot of fun.
20 September 2004