December 6th will be a big day for EverQuest II! Today, Sony Online Entertainment has officially announced that on the 6th, EverQuest II becomes free-to-play. Furthermore, game update #62 - Freeport Reborn, and the latest expansion, Age of Discovery, also go live on the 6th. The developers were kind enough to invite me along on a press tour of the new features, and there are a lot of new things coming up for EverQuest II.
The new Age of Discovery expansion moves away from a focus on new zones, instead bringing a host of game features and gameplay improvements, as well as the return of the Beast Lord class. Along with the other features comes the ability to take an NPC apprentice for your trade skill and the ability to reforge items to customize the stats they provide. The Beast Lord class was a fan favorite in the first Everquest, and I got to play around with it a little during the press tour. Beast companions are segregated by family, and level with the player, so that all companions of the same type behave the same regardless of which one was tamed. However, the companion's appearance can be changed based on which specific mob was captured by the player, allowing players a degree of bragging rights and the ability to use the animal of their choice.
Another new feature that the developers were exicted about is the Dungeon Maker. It allows players to build their own dungeons, populate them with mobs that will stand in place, patrol, or randomly wander, and use a wide variety of decorations. Once the dungeon is finished, other players can go explore and fight through it. There were a few nice touches to the system that I thought were well done; for one, player characters themselves do not enter the dungeons. Instead, each player has a stable of monster avatars they can use, each with limited abilities but able to fulfill the main party roles. This means a player could explore one dungeon as a healer, the next as the tank, and go into a third with a spellcaster. Since some of the avatars are found through exploration, it also gives people some of that show-off factor when they find something really cool, and it helps the developers balance their dungeons. Second, in order to help curb potential abuse, each dungeon is rated based on the total challenge involved in clearing it. The developers didn't share the exact algorithm, but I could see the dungeon challenge rating changing based on what mobs I spawned and where they were. Players are not rewarded for finishing a dungeon until they reach the end, preventing people from creating scenarios that offer a lot of reward for little challenge.
Finally, the expansion also brings in Mercenaries; NPCs that can be hired to help out in your party for a period of time. They take up one of the party slots, take a share of any loot, cost the hiring PC a set amount of money at periodic intervals as they are paid for their services, and are tuned to be helpful but not as good as an average player. They come from a wide variety of races and classes and are intended to help players clear group/duo content if they can't find another player, or help a party fill a missing role. Aside from the normal mercenaries found at the major guild halls, other mercenaries can be found out in the world, along with "super mercenaries" that are significantly stronger and tougher than other mercenaries, but cost much more in comparison. Mercenaries that are found outside of the guild can then later be hired at the main guild.
The Freeport Reborn update provides a sweeping rebuild of the city of Freeport, the major city for the evil races. Freeport has been cleaned up and restored, with new stories introduced and a new ruler in charge. The developers explained that they had been unhappy with Freeport's previous portrayal as a wretched, scummy hive of villainy, and Freeport is now the shining becon of a militaristic, expanionistic lord. It is still quite evil, but in a more tyrannical, controlling sense instead of the chaotic, run-down feeling it had before.
Age of Discovery pre-order information can be found here, and a letter from the producer here.