Everquest II: Echoes of Faydwer is the third expansion to Everquest II, and the first since the launch of the title to add a new race (the fae) and a new starting area (Greater Faydark).  This expansion brings back memories of the original Everquest, of Kelethin, the Crushbone Orcs, and a number of memorable items. 


Of course, times being what they are in MMO-dom, everyone’s chasing after World of Warcraft, and not catching them.  However, the question here is more, is this a viable purchase for someone new to Everquest II?  Will it give them a reason to pick the game up if they’ve never played before, or if, like me, they played at launch and never went back?  Or is this primarily an expansion for those who own everything else, and only want the new content?


(Review note:  This game is reviewed on these system specs:  Athlon XP 2400 (2.0 Ghz), Radeon 9800, 1 GB ram, Windows XP Professional SP2, and a 19″ LCD running at 1280×1024)

When I first installed EQ: Echoes of Faydwer, the first thing that hit me is that the game is pretty.  From the moment I created my first fae, setting the various shades of the character’s hair, wings and eyes, it was easy to tell that the graphics in this game had the potential to be very in-depth, especially if you have a machine to run it on.  On my machine, even at medium settings, it’s still a very pretty game. 


Even once you get out of character creation, the whole sense of “wow, this game is pretty” continues.  As we’ve known since before the launch of EQ2, the game sports some serious graphical effects, both on the characters themselves as well as on the environment, including some incredible use of shadows, light and water effects, and just the depth of detail that’s available on all the character models as well as other items in the game.  It really makes me wish I could give this game a whirl on a machine sporting dual Geforce 8800 GTX’s, just to see what it’s capable of.

The first thing to be said about EQ2: Echoes of Faydwer is that the music continues the game’s tradition of being very lovely.  Not only do you have the strains of the original Everquest, tweaked and refined into EQ2’s theme, but all of the areas in Faydwer have new tunes which fit the areas.  The main melody of Greater Faydark, for example, is a lilting song which really fits in with the forests and wildlife of Greater Faydark.  The music makes a solid transition from exploration to combat as well, and back again.


The overall quality of the sounds in the game is good, if not excellent.  There are some sounds which can get rather annoying with repetition, including the crafting sounds.  Granted, this is rather in line with other MMOs, so it’s more of a minor annoyance than a serious issue with the game itself.


As with Everquest II, the voices are in full force, with most of the major characters in the game having fully voiced quests.  The voices are nice, but to be honest, the way I (and apparently many MMO players) play, the voices are nice at first, but after a while, you find yourself reading the text faster than they’re speaking it, and clicking right past it.  Still, the game carries with it a quite impressive vocal pedigree.

As with many PC games, MMOS in particular, the controls in EQ2: Echoes of Faydwer are almost completely customizable.  This means that if you’re used to the controls in any other MMO, you can probably customize the ones in EQ2 to fit that mold.  One of the major control differences is the inclusing of a context-sensitive left-click.  When you kill a monster, left-clicking on it loots it.  When you click on a NPC, you hail them, or open their shop if they’re a merchant.  When you left-click on a resource node, you begin to use it, and so on.  You can still right-click as with other MMOs and choose from the available actions, but it’s nice that they’ve simplified the controls a bit.


The camera in EQ2 is a little awkward to use at first, as it tends to drift right behind your character’s head.  This is easily corrected though, and for the most part the camera is easily controlled by holding and dragging the right mouse button, with zoom features controlled by your mouse wheel.


Really, once you get used to the quirks of EQ2’s control set, and customize it to your own designs, the game is fairly easy to control for just about any player.

One note at the beginning is that since Everquest 2 patches rather often, you’ll have a few hours (on DSL) of patching once you install from the 2 DVDs that this game includes.  Luckily, that includes the base game as well as all three of the expansions, which makes this a great item for those who are new to Everquest 2 in general.


One of the odd things about EQ2: Echoes of Faydwer is that before you even choose your server, you create your character.  Once you’ve done that, then you get to choose your server.  Once you’ve done that, you get to watch the opening cinematic, if you wish, then are off to the newbie area.  While the good and evil races have the starting area that they’ve had ever since Everquest 2 begain, the Fae get something rather different, starting in The Nursery, a small area with its own share of quests and training areas, as well as a beginner’s crafting area.  Once you work through the quests there, it’s through Echo Echo Canyon and into Greater Faydark. 


As with Everquest before it, Greater Faydark in EQ2 is ful lof platforms high up in the trees.  This time, however, the Fae have an advantage:  their wings.  Not just cosmetic effects, a fae’s wings allow them to glide down from any height, basically giving them a permanent safe fall as a racial bonus.  They are, however, rather small (about waist high to a human child), so those who don’t enjoy playing the smaller races might want to remember that. 


As with most of EQ2, Greater Faydark is full of quests.  In fact, there are so many quests in the area and in Kelethin itself that I found myself turning off my combat experience (a feat you can do at any time with both combat and crafting experience) just so that I could continue to do the quests without out-leveling them.  As with most MMOs, quest rewards range from faction and coin all the way up towards magical items.  There are also bounty quests that you can undertake for faction alone, to help you keep your faction high with the various groups in Everquest 2. 


Crafting is a large part of Everquest 2, albeit a flawed one.  The way crafting works in EQ2 is this:  You start out as a level 1 crafter, with the ability to try out any tradeskill until you reach level 9.  At level 9, you have to specialize in a group which allows for three tradeskills to be improved to level 19.  At that point, you have to choose the one skill you wish to specialize in.  The drawback is that you cannot at any point change your mind and try another skill.  If you choose a tradeskill you don’t like, your only option is to create a new character. 


Considering EQ2 revamped the class structure to avoid just this, there’s almost no reason for the tradeskills to still be this way.  Also, the crafting itself is hampered by the fact that it relies almost entirely on rare drops from your various harvesting runs.  While the base items that you get through the various tiers of gathering will create decent items and equipment, the majority of the player base wishes only the best, and thus the rare items are necessary.  Not only are the items required to make the items rare, but the recipe books themselves are rare drops as well, increasing the complexity required. 


Unfortunately, this trickles down toward equipment as well, as the majority of players will be buying equipment from player merchants, and the prices are not cheap, mostly due to the rarity of the drops and recipes above.  This means that, especially at lower levels, keeping yourself equipped and with the proper spells can be a very laborious task, even if you are yourself a crafter.  The system seems to presume that players will work together, one gathering the items that they need for their own equipment, skills and spells while crafters will gladly create those items for them.  Unfortunately, again, due to the rarity of the drops for the best items, harvesting is more of a chore than it really needs to be.


Another issue seems to be the UI itself.  While the base UI is very nice, and allows for skinning of the UI if not complete customization (like World of Warcraft), the in-game map is very small, especially for larger areas like Greater Faydark.  The ability to zoom in, or have a smaller mini-map would have been very beneficial when looking for certain landmarks on the map itself.


Of course, this doesn’t mean that the game isn’t fun.  There are lots of areas to explore, tons of monsters to destroy and a horde of quests to weed through.  It’s entirely possible to spend the entire time from level 1 to 70 in the area surrounding Greater Faydark without ever exploring towards Qeynos or Freeport, which is a nice addition, giving new players more choices on where to go and what to do.

Let’s just say right off the bat that EQ2: Echoes of Faydwer is a fantastic value for a new player to the game.  $40 will get you not only EQ2 and the expansion, but also the first two expansions and a free month of gameplay (valued at $15).  This allows people new to the game the ability to jump in and have the entire world available to them, needing only the Adventure Packs to have everything EQ2.  There’s also more than enough gameplay packed into the two DVDs to justify the price.


The only question remains, will the game hook the new player and keep them paying the $15 a month for a subscription (or $18 or so with all of the extra features, or $25 if you want the Station Pass, and the ability to play five MMOs, including the just-released Vanguard, which is by far the best deal).  Considering SOE’s tendancy to update the game at least once a month with somewhat major patches, odds are for it.  The only major issue with SOE’s updates is that they shut down once a week for ‘maintainence’, which is very 1999.  Haven’t we progressed far enough by this point that we can do rolling restarts without shutting the game down for an hour once a week?  Yes, it’s only an hour…but as we all know, MMO players do not take down time very lightly.


At any rate, if EQ2 even remotely interests you, and the trial makes you want the game, this is by far the best way to go, and other MMO publishers would do well to learn from this.  Bundling the previous expansions and the main game with the latest expansion is a great way to get older players and new ones alike to buy your product.

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