EQ2: Simulating the Level Cap Experience Before the Level Cap
Of the games on my list to potentially return to, EQ2 was the strongest contender once its main detriment was out of the way with SOE making the PSS1 transfer optional. So I dusted off my Swashbuckler, by far my highest-level class, and continued my journey.
The first thing I did was leave Moors of Ykesha, where I had stopped playing many months ago. I remembered that I hadn’t liked the zone much. When I first logged in again, I was in a zone filled with gnomes and their contraptions. I don’t like tinkering gnomes, at all. In fact, I hate them. So I had to leave, that much was clear. After a bit of back and forth I ended up in the Sundered Frontier, a level 80-85 zone added about two years ago. Very slowly, I’m working my way into EQ2′s present.
The first thing I noticed was that I remembered most of the abilities of my swashbuckler. That is no easy feat, with EQ2 having probably the highest number of abilities that you regularly use of any MMO that I played. The combination of many abilities and long cooldowns means that two action bars of 12 buttons just barely fit my normal rotation abilities. Three more are filled with situational ones and buffs. So figuring out how to play the class again was one of the things I had been a bit worried about. Thankfully, that worked out well.
The second thing I noticed was that… wow, I was powerful! The great combat stat shift of 2011 had been followed by an equally great gear shift, which ended with my handcrafted titanium chainmail feeling ridiculously powerful. In fact, I would see barely any upgrade for the next 1.5 zones and 6 levels (or, in other words, about 75% of that particular expansion’s overland content!). I guess that helped with getting into gear again, too.
The third thing: I wasn’t 100% sure what the story was. I mean, I got part of it, but there were a lot of Erudites running around, but the city wasn’t called Erudin, but Paineel? And everything was kinda of floating in the air? It seems this cataclysm event that destroyed Norrath roughly six years before Azeroth had flung the area around Erudin and Paineel into the air. Some demons also seemed to have been involved and snacked up Erudin. You know, Erudites liking magic and all, and not really caring about whether that involves demons or something. Anyway. I liked being back, even if it took me some time to figure out what exactly had happened.
A Tale of Two Kinds of Levels
Most people reading this probably know, but Everquest’s supplement to adventuring levels are “alternate adventuring levels” or AA. They date back from the time of Everquest and can probably be best described as WoW’s talent system from the early days, but with a lot more levels, and consequently less return per point, for the most part (the exception being special abilities that are unlocked by spending enough prerequisite points in the tree). Rift’s Planar Attunement is quite similar in number of points available and return per point.
Contrary to how talents work in WoW or PA in Rift, you earn AA as you level, but more or less independently of your leveling rate. You earn AA for exploring now areas, killing named monsters for the first time, and a few other things. For every AA level earned, you get one point to spend in your AA ability trees. In addition, EQ2 has one of the coolest inventions of any game I played: the AA conversion sliders. It sounds really mundane when you hear about it: the slider allows you to define a percentage of adventuring XP to be rerouted to AA XP as you earn it. That allows you to level really fast (set to 0%), but somewhat neglecting your abilities. Or it allows you to easily lock at your level, while continuing to earn experience toward AA levels that you then can choose to spend right away or later. And anything in between! It so easily and elegantly solves the problem of outleveling content in a zone too fast. And at 0%, you can pick and choose really nicely which zone you’d prefer to play, skip the alternatives, and maybe even part of your chosen zone.
SOE wouldn’t be SOE, of course, if there wasn’t at least some downside to this. The first one is that you need to be a subscriber to get access to the slider. For non-subscribers, the slider is fixed at 50%. That is not too much of a problem for me, though, because I tend to subscribe to games for as long as I play them. The other problem is more fundamental. As the level cap increased over the years, so did the AA cap. And at certain “magic numbers”, powerful abilities and buffs await. That means that there is a tremendous power difference between a level 90 with 100 AA and with 300 AA. Which in turn makes it (I imagine) very hard to tune new zones properly.
For the last expansion, SOE finally decided that it needed to create an AA requirement. So far, there is only one of those caps on the way, and my guess is that it will suffice for a long time. While the level cap has been 92 since the last expansion (and will rise to 95 with today’s release of Chains of Eternity), you cannot progress past level 90 until you also reach 280 AA. At this level, the last powerful “heroic” ability unlock. The last 40 AA (up to the current cap of 320) do not unlock any more special abilities, and can mostly be used to round off some lower-tier improvements. So if you reach level 90 before 280 AA, your slider will be locked at 100% for the time being, and that’s that.
Plans, and The Foiling Thereof
Coming back with that knowledge, I was happy to notice that I was on a good path. I decided to pump up the slider to 75, and let the AA roll in. Two thirds into the Sundered Frontier zone, however, I realized that I might have a problem. Whereas at lower levels, I seemed to level faster than I could consume the leveling content, I now was going too slowly. Monsters started outleveling me, and my fabulous fighting power waned. This is in part because, as opposed to low-level content, there is not much choice in zones any more at the high levels. So with a heavy heart, I lowered the slider to 25%. By the end of the Stonebrunt Highlands zone, close to level 90, I had caught up with mob levels again. But it was clear that I would come out short on AA. In the end, I think I ended up with 238 AA by the time I hit 90.
To be honest, it could be much worse. Over the months and levels, I spent a lot of time of my swashbuckler exploring old content, even soloing some dungeons when I managed to get powerful gear and just shy of the green/gray mob barrier. I spent times at high slider settings, and all those things. Many people have fewer than 200 AA by the time they hit 90, even if they don’t powerlevel at ridiculous speeds. It’s still a weird feeling. There is content (even overland, solo content) I can’t access yet, there’s gear that I can’t wear, and I can’t progress towards them directly at the moment! All there is to do is to grind experience to get AA. It’s strange how you can enjoy one thing (leveling), and feel weird about another very similar thing (AA leveling).
I guess the difference is that the way of playing is much more similar to level-cap play: instead of following quest and story lines, I now have to pick and choose, backtrack, find other things to do. Except I can’t even run dungeons very well, because too many people seem to be 2 levels and one expansion ahead of me. So I’m in a bit of a pickle and have to reconsider what I actually want to do.
Of course, this being EQ2, with a ridiculous amount of content available at different levels, I found ways to stay entertained, and earn AA in the process. (I am not yet at 280 AA at the time of writing, though.) But this post is already long enough, and not writing about it right now hopefully will motivate to update you again in the very near future!