This week marks an important milestone for the MMOG industry, even if people won’t necessarily understand the full impact just yet. In many ways, EverQuest Next: Landmark is boldly leading us into the future of online gaming for a few major reasons. In one fell swoop, the Landmark alpha challenges what we think we know about what an MMO can and perhaps should be, and it does so by making the players matter in ways we haven’t really experienced before.
These were some of the thoughts swirling around in the back of my mind as I took my first virtual steps in Landmark for the alpha preview event hosted at the SOE studio. The members of the press gathered for the event were treated to a full afternoon demo session, and during that time it also dawned on me that I was experiencing firsthand the nexus of something far bigger than what it appeared to be on the surface.
It’s no secret that I’ve been a very vocal supporter of the ideas behind Landmark for most of the past year. What we were shown last year at E3 looked and sounded incredibly cool, but this week I was able to see that promise fulfilled. If I had any doubts that SOE could pull off the very ambitious vision that they’re attempting to achieve with Landmark, those were summarily evaporated like an ice cube on the surface of the sun.
While I could easily sit here and wax poetic about the game and amazing work that SOE has managed to achieve up to the current state of the alpha client, I’m sure many of you are wondering more about some of the particulars as to why that’s the case. I’ll do my best to provide as many answers and details as I’m able, so read on for my full hands-on impressions.
In many ways, Landmark is like having this giant lump of virtual clay to shape into whatever form you can imagine. From the practical to the fantastical, even at this early stage you can largely achieve some pretty damn cool things with the current toolset.
When it comes to sculpture, you can go about achieving your vision in a number of different ways. Most of the press assembled during my demo period took an additive approach. In other words, they looked at the space around them and created a pretty wide variety of things by combining the various materials we had at our disposal.
For my part, I decided to take more of a reductive approach. I also opted to forego the ability of our admin-level characters to build wherever we wanted, instead going the route of staking a claim on a plot of land and seeing what it’s like to build within the current confines that a single claim provides.
The thing I found most interesting in the current claim system is that you have the ability to choose where in space you wanted your volume of buildable space to exist not only along a horizontal plane, but vertically as well. For example, if you know you’d like to build a taller structure above the surface of the world, you can scroll your mouse wheel in claim mode to shift the volume marker upwards.
I took the exact opposite approach by shifting the volume into and mostly beneath a moderately sized hillside on the edge of the forest. The idea was to see if it would be possible to create something similar to Neriak; in other words, buildings and structures contained within a larger cavern rather than out in the open world.
You can go about this kind of excavation process in a couple of different ways, depending on how quickly or particular you’re aiming to be. The delete tool ended up being my best friend for this first phase, as it allowed me to very quickly drill into the hillside to create a basic cave entrance, and then continue hollowing out larger chunks of the interior space.
One of the handfuls of items you’ll start out with is a torch (we had a stack of them in our inventory to work with). These props proved to be invaluable for a couple of different reasons. While working on the exterior of my cave entrance, I quickly discovered that it can get pretty damn dark outside at night. While the night cycles through pretty quickly (it’s currently set at 10 minutes, but this will be tweaked moving forward), it was nearly impossible to see what I was doing under the canopy of trees at night. Placing some torches helped me continue working, and also made my subsurface excavation process far easier to manage.
Optimally, characters themselves would have the ability to emit light from something more like a personal torch. Not only would it be far more practical than having to physically place torches in odd places in the world just to be able to build at night or inside, but it would also be a very worthwhile nod to the original EverQuest concept that certain races have a more difficult time seeing at night and needed to equip something to help them see, be it a torch, a fire beetle eye, or otherwise.
In the more blocky state of my excavation, a couple of the developers noted that the combination of torches, hallways, and ramps had a bit of a Tomb Raider vibe which was totally apt at that point. At its largest size, the delete tool using the cube brush is large enough to make perfectly sized hallways or corridors for your character to walk through.
I can see how players could very easily create their own dungeons; and once things like placing NPCs and utilizing the power of StoryBricks is worked into the game, that dungeon could become fully playable. The implications of this are pretty major when you think about it. Not only could that space become a dungeon, but it could just as easily become something more like a capture the flag map.
As I continued the process of hollowing out the hillside for my makeshift mini-Neriak, I switched between a few different tools to quickly and easily begin working in some more detail. The pickaxe that you’ll use for harvesting metals while out in the world can also be used for digging into the ground a bit more roughly so that you can achieve more of a proper cave-like feel instead of having blockier walls.
Chunking out bits of soil with the delete tool scaled to various sizes also allowed me to use the smoothing tool to create some areas of more interesting textures. For example, it was pretty easy to begin adding things like stalactites and stalagmites that looked and felt like they belonged in that particular cave.
The paint tool did end up adding a hefty amount of trial and error into the mix, as our accounts had a variety of options within each material tab. So not only can you decide you’d like to paint the surface of your creation with something like obsidian, we had as many as a dozen different types of obsidian available to work with.
The trial and error ended up being a lot of fun, especially when discovering how the light from my torches bounced off of one material versus another. At present, you can very quickly undo up to 20 times using the same keyboard commands you’d use in other Windows programs. In fact, basic keyboard commands will be your best friend for a lot of building tasks such as copying (Ctrl+C), pasting, (Ctrl+V), and even undo (Ctrl+Z).
As noted in my initial article from the alpha kickoff event, progression works altogether differently in Landmark than it does in most other games. Not only will you use crafting stations to create things like the slightly more complex building tools / skills, but this same concept applies to most other things as well.
Our characters had a lot of the cooler parkour movement abilities unlocked, but some of those will even be something you’ll unlock over time as you progress various aspects of your character. Curious to see what other people were building, I spent a good chunk of time just scampering around, and enjoyed the process of moving through the world just as much as the excitement of exploration itself.
This helped drive a very important point home for me. Namely, that Landmark is perhaps one of the truest implementations of a sandbox environment that we’ve seen in the MMO industry so far. Even without a full suite of features, UI elements, and social systems in place, Landmark is already a very engrossing experience that taps into a number of different parts of your gamer brain at once.
Add things like the absolutely top notch music that Jeremy Soule has been creating for the game, and I consider it a major leap into all new territory for the industry that an alpha client – as rough around the edges as it may be – is one of the most overall engrossing gameplay experiences I’ve had in a very long time.
I tip my hat to the team at SOE for managing to achieve all that they have with Landmark so far, and am very excited at the prospect of being able to help them continue that process through letting founders have access to the game at such a critical stage in development. To be perfectly honest, it’s refreshing to have a developer willing to take a leap of faith with and for their fans rather than assuming they know what those same fans want better than they do themselves.
So far I’ve truly only scratched the surface on my overall thoughts and impressions of Landmark, but rest assured that I’ll have plenty more to share with you moving forward. In particular, you’ll definitely want to check back with us over the next few days for a pair of interviews focused on what types of things we can expect to see added to the Landmark alpha between now and the closed beta phase.
Reuben got his start in MMOs with the launch of EverQuest and has been playing necromancers ever since. He currently plays EverQuest II on the Antonia Bayle server where he runs the Shadowed Circle guild. Reuben also spends his time as the arch lich (aka editor-in-chief) of the Ten Ton Hammer network, and likes to think he knows a thing or two about massively multiplayer online games.
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