An insiders report from Norrath

I had the opportunity to be a beta tester in the final phase of beta testing for EverQuest, which was released by Sony last week. Being in on the ground floor of this one, I can say that I think it will challenge Origin System’s Ultima Online for the title of the most popular online role-playing game.

The first time I logged on, I was thrilled to see all of the options for creating a character. Everything from the usual gender, and class to race and religion was included as a changeable option. As a long time Ultima Online player, where you can only be a human, I was trilled to see the addition of other races besides human. The options include Barbarian, Dark Elf, Dwarf, Erudite, Gnome, Half Elf, Halfling, High Elves, Human, Ogre, Troll and Wood Elf.

The race you chose has an impact on a number of things, besides the obvious role playing opportunities. These include your statistics, your racial abilities, your choice of classes, your choice of gods and who will like you and who will want to kill you. Yes, there is a lot of racial prejudice in the game, and I think in a fantasy RPG, this is a good thing. Never have I played a paper RPG where the entire world was one big happy family.

The statistics go way beyond the simple three used by Ultima Online too. EverQuest includes strength, which effects melee damage and weight allowance, stamina – for hit points and fatigue, agility – for dodging and your starting AC, dexterity – which effects your chance to hit and playing instruments, wisdom , which effects priests spell casting and resistance to mind spells, intelligence – which effects skill gain and mage spells, and charisma – which effects faction standing, merchants prices and charm success.

Some of the special racial abilities include foraging, gaining levels faster, hiding, infravision, regeneration, sense direction, slam, tinkering and ultravision.

EQ also has a class based system. It lets you pick certain skills, but also allows you to pick anything from the skill list, as if you were making your own class, or not bother with a class at all.

Currently there are 14 classes in EQ including Bard, Cleric, Druid, Enchanter, Magician, Monk, Necromancer, Paladin, Ranger, Rogue, Shadow Knight, Shaman, Warrior, and Wizard. But according to the FAQ, they plan to add more classes in the future. For better or worse, you don’t have any choice, beyond picking a class, in what your starting skills are, until you complete your first quest.

Your first quest is finding your guild master and then you are given several training points which you can use to improve any skill, bearing in mind that certain skills require that you be a certain level before you learn them. There are 16 gods to chose from and they include everything from a god of storms to one of hate.

Once you actually enter the world, the first thing you will notice is that EQ has a first-person interface. You can adjust the view to third person if you prefer.

Sure the first person interface is a lot better than the top-down one Ultima Online players are used too, but my problem with it is that the viewing area is a small window in the top middle portion of the screen. Commands and text are displayed in a box under the display window and there are two panels on each side that display a list of commands, equipment and other options. While I was not that thrilled with the interface, GiN’s chief editor walked by my desk while I was testing and thought the interface looked great. I have to admit that after a while it grew on me as well.

There was also major selling point for me, and the thing that finally won me over this the first person view. I thought it was great and a major improvement over other games of this type. I was in the game about five minutes when it started to rain. I was thrilled with this detail.

I was walking around looking at the wonderful graphic details of the land when I herd what sounded like thunder. I was just about to look out my window, when I saw little streaks of rain starting to shoot across my screen. I did not get to experience either snow or fog, but I understand that these weather conditions also occur within the game. There are also some really neat terrain features within the game and each city is truly unique.

I was in the gnome city, and it’s completely underground. You can even swim under water. But don’t forget to come up for air. I know a big question for me and many of my coworkers and friends was the housing situation in EQ. Housing was always a big problem for me in UO.

But I think EQ has solved the problem. Players can rent existing houses and rooms, solving the cluttered landscape of UO and the problem of finding a place to plant your home. The only possible problem that I can think of is the possible shortage of rooms for rent. But that can easily be solved by having GMs create a few more buildings as demand grows.

As a magic-using character I was happy to see that EQ did away with components for the most part. The magic system is primarily mana based. With a mages’ mana based on intelligence and priest spells based on wisdom, you simply have to wait for your energy to recharge. However, I did read that some of the spells will require components, though none of my spells were of that high level.

As far as pricing, it seems to be about equal to Ultima Online, though I really wanted it to be cheaper. You can get the game for about $45 in a retail store. After your free month runs out, you have to pay about $9 a month to keep playing, just like Ultima. Sony does let you pay for six months ahead of time, and gives you a bit of a break if you choose this option, dropping the price to about $8 a month. But as far as pricing, Everquest is no breakthrough. Though it is slightly less expensive than Ultima Online, I doubt the slight price drop alone will convince many people to convert.

At this point I am eagerly awaiting GiNs full review copy of the game. I rate the beta of EverQuest at 3½ GiN Gems, but I am certain that rating will increase once I see the final version. There are always a few glitches with a beta, and it was fun helping Sony to iron them out.

I hope so see everyone in Norrath in the near future. I’ll be the inquisitive character, trying each door and sniffing around in the dark corners of the empire’s cities.

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