Mobhunter: Review of the Serpent's Spine

Nearly two months have passed since the release of the Serpent's Spine and with one major patch and a few minor ones released, now is the perfect time to review Everquest's twelfth expansion, the Serpent's Spine.

The Serpent's Spine is the largest expansion since Planes of Power in the number of zones and the variety of content. It offers content at all levels of play from brand-new level 1 players all the way to high-end level 75 raid zones. The Serpent's Spine is a huge contrast to the smaller and heavily instanced content in Dragons of Norrath and Depths of Darkhollow.

The Serpent's Spine includes thirteen large non-instanced zones and two instanced raid zones. The zones are huge, rivaling those found in Omens of War, Scars of Velious, and Shadows of Luclin. Unlike many large static zones in older expansions, most of the zones in the Serpent's Spine are well-used. It isn't uncommon to find a dozen players in each of the zones and many more in the higher-level zones at any given time. This is a great change from Prophecy of Ro where many new zones sat deserted and empty shortly after release.

As a new starting city, Crescent Reach is the first zone to let younger players see powerful dragons up close, but it lacks the same power and awe as the rebuilt city of Freeport. For example, all of the guild masters for every class all reside in one large hall. The cleric guild master and the necromancer guild master stand right across from one another. It feels like a college career day instead of a guild hall. The graphical lag in Crescent Reach is also the worst found in the expansion.

The new Drakkin model gets mixed reviews but it is clearly nice to see a model that sits correctly, has armor that reflects light properly, and doesn't fall apart when it sits on a horse with a shield. Hopefully this new model will lead to the rebuilding of player models for all races in the future.

What Crescent Reach lacks in awe it gains back in quests. There are tons of quests throughout the city for every level. These quests don't end with Crescent Reach either, one will find dozens of quests throughout all of the zones in the Serpent's Spine. There are quest arcs for exploration, hunting, and an arc that can follow a new player from level 1 all the way to level 75.

The Serpent's Spine offers piles of huntable content at all character levels and equipment power. The designers intended to bring many of the techniques they use for higher-end content in recent expansions down to all levels in the game and they succeeded in this. Lower level players have many "single-group raids" they can experience as well as common quest arcs found typically at higher-end hunts in older expansions.

For high-end players there are between four and six huntable zones depending on levels, Alternate Advancement points, and gear power. Direwind, Icefall, Vergalid, Valdeholm, and for some, Frost Crypt and Ashengate all offer good challenges, good experience rewards, and good loot for those hunting there. Most importantly, the zones are very popular making it much easier to find a group and get to hunting.

There are no instances for group content in the Serpent's Spine. Some players complain that this lack of instancing has returned the game to the dark ages of spawn camping, kill stealing, training, and other vileness that accompanies large amounts of players piled into one space. However, instanced content would likely have made the new static zones much less popular. With so much instanced content in the game already, there is little reason to include it in every new expansion. Instanced content, however, is the only clear feature missing from this expansion.

Equipment rewards are one of the big drivers for players to experience new content and the Serpent's Spine includes a lot of it. There are many new armor sets at all levels except a level 60 set. The level 75 single-group armor comes in multiple pieces, is clearly more powerful than Qvic class armor, and rivals the class armor found in Theater of Blood. Ashengate and Frost Crypt include many high-end items close in power to the high-end raid items of Gates of Discord and the non-Anguish raid armor in Omens of War. Tier 2 spells also act as a solid catalyst to get players hunting in various zones.

The high-end spell system is the best ever developed. Instead of making high-end spells simply dropped and increasingly more rare at the highest levels, spells in the Serpent's Spine are broken down into tiers. The lowest tier includes nearly every level 71+ spell for every class and can be purchased from merchants spread around the new zones. Tier 2 spells add a bit more power and drop across the higher-level hunting zones. Tier 3 spells drop off of raid targets and use a system similar to the Omens of War rune system.

Overall, the spell system lets players power up quickly upon leveling, I added five new spells to my spell book seconds after leveling to 75, without removing the desire to hunt for more powerful versions in the new hunting zones.

Any expansion that includes new levels will quickly become popular. Leveling is the fastest and easiest way to increase in player power. The level increase opens up older high-power content to new players. For example, the MPG single group trials and the Depths of Darkhollow spell arcs are much more easily done at level 75 than it was at level 70. More players will be able to defeat older raid targets and older content that was extremely challenging at lower levels. New piles of Alternate Advancement abilities also increase this power and give players new reasons to hunt for experience.

Along with the large amount of lower level content and high-level single-group hunting areas, The Serpent's Spine has the largest amount of high-end raiding content since Gates of Discord. The Serpent's Spine includes two full high-end raid zones that rival Anguish in the number of raids. This doesn't even include the static raids and the instanced Vergalid raid. The large amount of high-end raid content gives high-end raiders a wide range of content above the Demiplane of Blood and Deathknell level. These high-end raid zones include a new tier of class armor as well, something not included since Anguish.

One big complaint I have with the Serpent's Spine is that it does nothing to address the power gap between raiders and non-raiders. Yes, the level 75 non-raid armor is a good step up from what was available before, but it could have been more powerful without hurting older raid content. I will cover this problem in more depth in a future article.

When beginning to ponder this article, I tried to think back to older expansions to determine how this one compares. From the factor of raw features and usable content, no other expansion compares to the scope of the Serpent's Spine. No expansion since Luclin included level 1 to max level content. No expansion since Omens offered a level increase as substantial as TSS. No expansion since Gates offered as much high-end raid content. The Serpent's Spine sits high on the list of expansions and towers above the expansions released over the past two years.

The Serpent's Spine is an extremely strong expansion that offers new levels, spells, AAs, equipment, and huntable content at all levels of play. It is a great breath of life in a game that continues to grow well beyond its seven year life. At $30, it's a steal.

Loral Ciriclight
4 November 2006