Mobhunter: Depths of Darkhollow: In-depth Preview

Nearly a year has passed since the release of Worlds of Warcraft and Everquest 2. With such fierce competition, many worried that Everquest was finally on the downward spiral. We worried that these new games would have features and functions impossible in a game like Everquest and that the EQ development team would be hard pressed to add anything unique or interesting to Everquest that hadn't been done before.

We should not have worried.

Depths of Darkhollow is Sony Online Entertainment's tenth Everquest expansion in six years. It is, by far, the most bold and innovative expansion ever released. While other games struggle to keep up with features like LDON adventures and the Mission System, Depths of Darkhollow adds unique, useful, and fun features never seen in any other massive online game.

Since the difficult release and lackluster response of Gates of Discord, SOE has improved Everquest with every expansion. Every expansion improved upon the strengths of the previous and Depths of Darkhollow appears no different.

One would assume that a tenth expansion in any game would have difficulty improving upon the original game and nine previous expansions, but Depths of Darkhollow shows once again how far this six year old game can go.

Let's dig in. We start with the basic content found in most expansions and end this preview by looking at the more radical features: spirit shrouds, monster missions, and evolving items.

Depths of Darkhollow includes six new large static zones including The Undershore, Stoneroot Falls, The Ruins of Illsalin, Corathus Creep, The Hive, Dreadspire Keep. The release of Depths of Darkhollow also included a rebuilt Nektulos forest for all EQ players including those not purchasing the expansion. These zones scale from level 45 to level 70 with three zones tuned for level 68 to 70 hunters. Dreadspire Keep should give a good challenge to those bored of Riftseekers.

These static zones include a wide range of design from huge statues and torch-lit tent cities to huge suspended stone bridges crisscrossing huge chasms. The EQ artists found an excellent balance between the hyperrealism of Everquest 2 and the epic, but cartoony feel of World of Warcraft. The design and architecture of Depths includes a lot of detail without sacrificing the feeling of epic fantasy.

Dreadspire Keep, the end-zone of Depths of Darkhollow, is not locked by a raid like the end-zones in most previous expansions but instead by a single group event. Dreadspire is an entirely different style of zone, one of such strangeness that it must be seen and heard to be believed. You will travel through the depths of shadowy hell only to find yourself walking into the set for Masterpiece Theater with a pale-skinned butler handing you a warm glass of brandy.

Since Lost Dungeons of Norrath, every Everquest expansion has included instanced single group hunting areas. Dragons of Norrath included the Mission system and Depths further capitalizes on Missions by adding over forty single group missions from level 55 to 70. Depths of Darkhollow changes the path towards mission progression from the ways of Dragons.

Depths mission progression consists of a set of missions in each of the static zones. You are rewarded for each mission accomplished and again when you complete a set of missions in each of the zones. There will be random rewards for those who do a mission more than once, but unlike Dragons, you will be rewarded for completing a variety of different missions rather than completing the same mission over and over.

Here is an example. You and your ragged band of adventurers meets an important figure in the Depths of Darkhollow who sends you on a mission. You go on the mission, fight a big horrible creature and its minions. When the boss is defeated, your group is rewarded with a dropped item you may divvy up as you choose. If this is the first time you or any of the others have done this particular mission, you will receive a one-time reward that may be a piece of gear or some other tasty treasure. Future battles against this mission will still drop a piece of gear off of the boss, but future one-time rewards must be received from different dungeons you have not yet defeated.

One important note and change that may frustrate some players. Mission entrances are sometimes very deep in hostile zones. Getting TO a mission can become as difficult as the mission itself. These missions are tuned to include the time it takes to arrive as well as the time it takes to complete so they shouldn't become much longer to complete than missions in previous expansions. It can be frustrating, however, to accept a mission and not actually begin it until after an hour of traveling.

Depths of Darkhollow also includes some single group events (I heard them referred to as single group raids, a term that made my head spin but my heart soar) that are triggered by a group but take place in open zones. These are a mixture of instanced missions and regular overland killing but the idea is unique. This fits well with my previous request for more interesting single group content than static hunting and boring boss monsters.

Many Anguish-level raiders found the high-end raids in Dragons of Norrath to be too easy and not rewarding enough to hold their interest. Once Overlord Mata Muram was defeated in the Citadel of Anguish more than a few times, these raiders had little to do. Depths attempts to pacify and perhaps humble these high-end raiders.

Depths of Darkhollow includes two dozen events and raids ranging from 24 person elemental level events to 54 person Anguish and post-Anguish level raids. Anguish raiders can expect over a dozen 54 person high-end raids. This will hopefully give high-end raiders more than enough challenge and also offer further parallel progression paths for lower-end raiders to reach more powerful challenges and greater rewards.

While not a level-cap increasing expansion, Depths offers a bit of character progression. Depths includes about a dozen new AAs for each character class for a total of perhaps 200 points of further AA progression. Depths includes one new discipline for melee and even a new discipline for hybrids, something they have requested for some time.

Spell casters will see two or three new spells for each caster class in the level 65 to 70 range. New forms of spell research will allow players to research previously dropped spells from older expansions including the elusive 69 and 70 runes from Omens of War. The exact details of this research is still unknown but acquiring these spells should be less frustrating than in the past. [Update 9/12/2005: I found out today that these researched spells will only be up to level 65, not up to 70, however my understanding is that there will be greater access to Omens 69 and 70 spells within Depths of Darkhollow.]

Now we will look at some of the unique features of this expansion.

One of the greatest challenges and frustrations of a massive online game comes when two friends both play the same game but one quickly outstrips the other due to longer play times. Soon these two friends, who used to hunt together often, cannot hunt together at all due to such a wide level range. A Penny Arcade parody of Worlds of Warcraft covers it well.

Other games have found ways to solve this problem. City of Heroes included the sidekick system that raised the level of one player to meet the other. Everquest 2 included the Mentor system that let one player lower his or her level to that of a friend. Everquest added a big twist on this mentor system with Spirit Shrouds.

Spirit shrouds allow players to polymorph into a monster of their level or below in increments of 5. These monsters are broken up into archetypes called "templates". Each template includes a set of skills that meet a typical character archetype such as melee, spellcaster, healer, utility, or tank. There are eight sets of spirit shrouds with over twenty different monster models and over thirty different shrouds total.

My good friend Nanyea wrote a detailed look at spirit shrouds and I recently wrote an instructional guide to spirit shrouds. I also wrote a previous article called What Will Play as a Monster Mean for EQ feature.

The primary purpose for spirit shrouds is to allow higher level players an opportunity to effectively hunt with lower level friends. It meets this job very well. Shrouds also let players try out templates vastly different from their own. If you spent most of your time playing a pasty cleric, you can now try out playing as a melee, spellcaster, or tank.

At higher levels, shrouded monsters become less powerful than characters of the same level. Much of this is based on the large equipment and Alternate Advancement power increases at higher levels. Shrouds should allow players to switch to a needed archetype if a group is missing one core member, but they will not be able to hunt in the most powerful areas. A group of three primary characters and three shrouded characters should to be able to hunt in places like Wall of Slaughter and the lower Dragon missions.

However, if a group cannot find one core class for a hunt, they might consider monster missions instead.

When I first heard about Depths of Darkhollow I was most excited about spirit shrouds. After my first Nagafen monster mission, I changed my mind.

Monster Missions are the best feature of Depths of Darkhollow. Monster missions let any group of four to six players of any level and any class face a challenge as monsters in an instanced scenario. Monster missions open the door to entire new possibilities for challenging encounters. They are self-contained events under perfectly controlled environments and power levels. They are easily balanced and not affected by any outside influence. They are the most fun I've had in EQ in a long time.

There are twenty such monster missions in Depths of Darkhollow. About half of these are in the depths itself while ten go back to old world zones to let players face some old world challenges. Imagine invading Freeport as a band of pirates. Imagine fighting off the undead hoards as froglok paladins in lower guk. Imagine breathing waves of fire upon sniveling raiders who invade in an attempt to steal your Cloak of Flames. The possibilities are endless. My only hope is that we continue to see new monster missions added in the future.

Depths offers a new form of equipment known as "evolving items". These items grow in power the more you use them. They may start off as weaker pieces of equipment but the more you use them, the stronger they get. There are several dozen such items in Depths of Darkhollow. Intelligent items are a rare subset of these. These items will actually communicate to the player through emotes and possibly tells. Though these items will be quite rare and unique, they will be available to single group hunters as well as high-end raiders.

Depths of Darkhollow is the first expansion to offer a box prize so useful that I will suffer the traffic of Washington DC to buy my copy retail rather than download it from SOE directly. Those who purchase the retail version of Depths of Darkhollow will receive an in-game clockwork boar mount. This mount is comparable to the 10k plat horse and drogmar mounts but with a unique model and look. Rewards like these offer an incentive to retail outlets to carry this expansion and it is these boxes on the shelf that bring new players to Everquest. Unfortunately, poor retail systems between the US and other countries make it nearly impossible for non-US players to receive such a reward.

Depths of Darkhollow shows how far Everquest can evolve. While many questioned how long a game like EQ can survive, we only have to look at the ingenuity in expansions such as this one to see how far Everquest can continue to go. Depths of Darkhollow offers all of the strongest features of a good solid expansion along with two of the most radical concepts I have seen in any roleplaying game. Considering the hours and hours of content this expansion contains, it is easily worth the $30 price tag. While time will tell for sure, Depths has all of the signs to be the best Everquest expansion ever released.

Loral Ciriclight
9 September 2005