The franchise that blazed the trail for persistent world role-playing deploys in the popular realm of real-time strategy with Sony Online Entertainment's release of Lords of EverQuest. The game is designed to posit the intricacy and immediacy of modern RTS gameplay in the rich cultural setting of the world's most popular MMORPG.
Players choose one of 15 Lord characters to develop and command armies composed of hundreds of units, including Humans, Elves, Dwarves, Fiends, Dragons, and other creatures familiar to thousands of traditional EQ gamers. Three playable factions offer three different styles of offense, defense, and development.
Though presented as a true RTS, Lords of EverQuest brings a wealth of role-playing elements to the style. Lord characters earn powerful abilities as they proceed through the game, and units of all types gain experience and level up. Hundreds of different special items allow players to customize their armies as they outfit their troops.
The single-player campaign features 36 maps and boasts over 75 hours of gameplay. Like many of the best contemporary real-time strategy games, Lords of EverQuest also offers free access to dedicated online servers, allowing up to a dozen players to vie for superiority in single-battle sessions.
I'm all for game companies expanding really popular brands into new areas -- assuming they do it right. EverQuest, for example, is a hugely popular MMORPG. Sony apparently agrees with me and thought that gamers might want to see that universe brought to other genres. Unfortunately, the first result of trying to extend its popular world, Lords of EverQuest, is a mess of a real-time strategy game that's unlikely to appeal to either EQ loyalists or RTS fans.
The problems begin with the single-player campaign, which consists of vaguely related missions strung together by poorly written cutscenes. The game takes place in EverQuest's world of Norrath, 10,000 years before the timeframe of the MMO. Three multi-race factions are duking it out over ... something. Exactly why these three factions are at war with each other is a mystery created by the campaign's atrocious storytelling.
The single-player missions also suffer from an incredible lack of strategic depth. Instead, they lead the player around by the nose, herding armies into obvious linear paths and offering "challenges" based on trigger points, scripting, and strategic puzzles. Anyone who's ever played an RTS can beat the game's campaign in less than a weekend.
Part of that is because the game itself is so incredibly unbalanced. Put simply, there are a handful of "must-have" units that -- if you have enough of them and they're raised to a sufficient experience level -- can make you virtually unstoppable. An army with a half-dozen or so healers, a group of Defilers, one or two other types of units, and a sufficiently experienced lord can essentially wipe the board with any opposition. Every other unit is just a waste of pixels.
The game's one real cool (though hardly original) concept is how units "level up" in experience. Basically, this means that units will get stronger and stronger based on the amount of combat they've survived. Should a unit reach level six, it can be knighted and get new powers. Unfortunately, this gameplay mechanic fails in practice. When your lord reaches a sufficiently high level, he or she essentially becomes a buzzsaw, ripping through hordes of lesser units without effort, reducing the need to have many knights or high-level units around.
In a way, though, that's a good thing, because if winning the game required a lot of high-level units, players would be screwed by the awful movement and combat AI. Your troops don't have much of a problem getting where they want to go -- unless they're marching with other troops, which means that they'll frequently get tangled up in each other and just stop walking for a few seconds. Sending a large group of troopers anywhere on the map is a virtual guarantee that you'll end up with a long string of soldiers spread across it -- easy prey for opponents.
When troops enter combat, things get even worse. I don't know who's been slipping the PCP into the wells of Norrath, but Lords of EverQuest's soldiers are the most bloodthirsty I've ever seen. There's no attitude control for troops, and unless you give a "hold your ground" order every time you move a unit, they'll aggressively pursue enemies like there's no tomorrow. It's all too easy to lose troops that way. Ironically, despite their aggressive pursuit, actually getting units to fight is also a chore. Units often seem confused about who and when to attack, and they frequently stand around even while being pounded by enemy soldiers.
Base building is also a mess. First, there are just too many damn buildings. Lords of EverQuest contains over a dozen different structures, most of which do nothing except produce one or two units, their attendant upgrades, and otherwise just take up space. Constructing every building available produces a base that's just too big to be easily managed or defended. Hasn't anyone in Norrath ever heard of multi-function barracks or a research pavilion?
Placing the buildings is difficult, too, because there's frequently no indication or feedback to tell you which patch of ground is suitable for construction. I played in desert levels where I couldn't build on sand that seemed to be only slightly different from the sand right next to it.
Perhaps there would be some redeeming strategic value in the game if SOE had tried to make the factions distinct. Alas, that's not the case. I'm hard pressed to remember the last time I've seen such a uniformly generic group of units and functions in an RTS military. Flyers, healers, frontline grunts, missile units, spell-casters -- they're all here and they work exactly as you'd expect with no innovation at all. To top it off, learning one army's abilities means you've learned all three. Except for surface appearance, there's no functional difference at all between Lords of EverQuest's three sides.
It would have been nice if your controllable creatures were as fun as the monsters you have to fight. Each game level is scattered with neat-looking neutral creatures like a fire-breathing beetle and a swirling dust devil filled with bones. Don't get me wrong, EverQuest fans will get probably get a kick out of controlling "Iksar Defilers" and using races they're familiar with from the MMO, but if you're not an EQ fanatic, what you've got is a group of painfully generic fantasy tropes slugging it out.
The graphics are nice, including some clever water effects, swimming fish, waving trees, and ambient wildlife like hawks. The sound effects in Lords of EverQuest are almost uniformly bad, though. The game's music is mediocre, the clang and noises of clashing armies is simply pathetic, and spell effects make an array of silly "whoosh" noises. A big deal was made over the caliber of voice-acting talent in the game, but even these professional actors run the gamut from barely passable to simply awful. Fairuza Balk, who provides the voice for Lady T'Kal, epitomizes the term "phoning it in," and I don't even want to talk about one of the female Dawn Brotherhood generals whose faux-Scottish accent almost made me lose my haggis.
As I said before, the idea behind Lords of EverQuest was a good one, exposing its fans to a new genre and RTS fans to the EverQuest franchise. If SOE hopes to reach either audience, though, it's going to have to do it with a much better product.
People who downloaded Lords of EverQuest have also downloaded:
Lord of the Rings, The: War of the Ring, Lord of the Rings, The: The Battle for Middle Earth II, Lords of the Realm III, Lord of the Rings, The: Battle for Middle-Earth, Magic & Mayhem 2: The Art of Magic, Lords of Magic: Special Edition, Magic & Mayhem (a.k.a. Duel: The Mage Wars), Master of Orion 3
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