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EverQuest II: Rise of Kunark Hands-on

EverQuest 2 had a terrible launch.

Since then, its quests have been markedly improved. The enormous experience punishment for death is mostly gone. Solo play is more viable. Zones have been revamped, and character classes refined. All expansions include the previous content, so catching up to the crowd isn't a problem. Sony's done a decent job of salvaging its user base in this respect.

Considering this, I went into the newest expansion beta with open eyes.

The Ruins of Kunark was the first expansion to the original EverQuest. Seven years later, The Rise of Kunark marks the fourth expansion to EverQuest 2, the sequel to Sony's groundbreaking MMO. This updated version essentially adds the same features that Ruins did: the lizard-populated continent of Kunark, an increase in level cap, a new playable race, and "epic" quests.

In fact, the continent of Kunark in this new expansion is essentially a total reconstruction of the original land mass, right down to some of the same dungeons and zones. Players of the original game will recognize locations such as Karnor's Castle, Sebilis, and Veeshan's Peak, all redone in the EverQuest 2 engine, and re-imagined to accommodate the sequel's comparatively-futuristic timeline. For instance, while Sebilis was the capital of the lizard-like Iskar, the area has since been turned into a war-zone, transformed by invading hordes of frogloks in a sort of Kermit Apocalypse.

Because the Iksar already exist as a playable race in EverQuest 2, a new species was added to Kunark, the equally reptilian Sarnak. These red and green man-dragons possess characteristic horns and mouthfuls of dagger-sharp teeth. The Sarnaks' long tails actually give them somewhat of a hover mode when jumping as they flick them back and forth through the air. It's a strange effect, and not particularly satisfying. I prefer my characters to have some sort of weight to them, to where I feel solidly grounded in the world. As it is, the Sarnak feel as if they are playing on a moon--and in EverQuest 2, the moon has already exploded.

New Sarnak players will begin their journey in Timorous Deep, a chain of islands dotted with Asian architecture, giant redwoods, and the token over-sized spiders. Karnor's Castle will be one of the first landmarks you encounter, and it appears to stay faithful to its previous form, right down to appearing bland and uninteresting, Castle Blah. Its residents include Drolvargs, werewolves with maces and ugly, overbearing turquoise shoulderpads. Coupled with some rain, the whole portrait was uninspiring, and a little depressing.

One encouraging note is that Kunark's larger areas will no longer be separated by discernible zone "gates." Loading them up is fairly imperceptible now. Unfortunately, the lack of any coherent design within the open plains is still an issue. In one wide-open plain, cougars, rhinos, long-beaked birds, and cacti with eyes all milled about within a few feet of each other. Their detailed character models set against the flat, barren terrain textures clashed more intensely than any two warriors I encountered.

And that's where EverQuest 2 still needs work. The core RPG now seems functional to the point where it's a contender for your money, but with so many other options, it still falls short, failing to provide any sort of captivating environments or innovative features. There are times when the overall blandness is pierced by an interesting building, or a pretty pool of water. However, zoomed out and taken as a whole, the game still strikes me as just plain muddy.

From the perspective of existing EverQuest 2 players, this expansion will likely meet your needs. Your level cap has been boosted to 80, there are more spiders and winged monsters to dispatch, and you've got a new race to mess around with. It's a traditional MMO expansion in that sense.

For my part, The Rise of Kunark feels more like a long, slow slide back into Ruins.