From the outset, Lords of Everquest seems to have plenty of potential. For starters it is based on one of the most successful games of all time, one so addictive it is often referred to as “evercrack” and so dominant in the genre of MMPORPGs that it is seen as a benchmark by which other similar titles are judged by. Sony Online Entertainment, the publishers, have a strong reputation for quality titles, such as Everquest itself and Planetside. The developers Rapid Eye Entertainment, while new, have a pedigree of their own, being made up largely of ex-New World Computing personnel. New World Computing has a long and illustrious history, and were responsible for a host of top selling titles, including the Might and Magic series, and one of my all time favourites, Nuclear War, from as long ago as 1989. With that kind of pedigree, one would expect great things of Lords of Everquest.
On first appearances Lords of Everquest looks to be the business. The graphics are top quality, and as good as any you might expect in an RTS game. They are very Warcraftesque, and in fact much of the game feels more than just a passing tribute to this RTS great. From the little animation of your selected unit in the bottom left corner, to the slightly annoying inability to select more than a handful of units at a time, it resembles this classic in a number of ways. It is, however, obviously aimed at a more mature market than the candy-cute orcs and necromancers of the Warcraft series, and is something I personally prefer about this title. The units are extremely well detailed, and beautifully animated, and draw upon the great depth of imagination found in its title of inspiration, Everquest. The landscapes are also keenly designed, with the kind of graphical advances you would expect of any Triple-A RTS title released this year, like realistic water and gallons of explosions and special magic effects.
Lords of Everquest, however, is marred by some awful path-finding. The problem isn’t in the units ability to find their way around the map, in fact they are very good at calculating routes through some very tricky terrain. No, what LoE suffers from is the inability of units to move out of the way of each other, to allow troops at the back to pass. What results, then, is constant log jams in narrow corridors. If you have melee units in front of ranged, and the ranged units get attacked from behind, watch in horror as your melee units stand idle, unable to find a way past their own team, allowing your lightly armoured ranged units to be butchered. Allied units are even worse, and act as a mobile wall that is both immovable and completely impenetrable. Friendly units moving out of the way of others is something that has been a part of RTS path-finding since the very first Westwood titles, so it is amazing to see it missing from a game of this calibre. One can only think that this is a design decision, as the developers seem more than capable of programming excellent route finding in other aspects of the game. If it was a design decision, it was a very poor one, as it leads to endless frustration.
Battles in Lords of Everquest can become a strategic mess. Units only really have one stance, and that is extremely aggressive. There are other stances, like defend, guard and hold position, but units immediately forget these the moment you move them, causing them to revert back to extremely aggressive. Units will also break off any move instruction to immediately attack anything within a very long range, so once your army starts running after something, it is extremely difficult to pull them back into formation. Disengaging from a battle when you are losing, an absolute must for high level RTS tournament gaming, is nigh on impossible. If units aren’t attacking when you don’t want them to, they are not attacking when you order them. Units seem not to be able to come to grips with the path-finding, and when ordered to attack something they are unable to reach due to the aforementioned problems, they have a tendency to stand where they are, doing nothing, even if they are being attacked. Right-clicking your own units in battle also seems to cause similar confusion.
Hotkeys exist, but only for the construction of buildings and for some individual Lord spells. There are no hotkeys for selecting buildings, for ordering the building of units, or for finding your Lord quickly in the heat of battle. However, the game does offer a few fairly modern RTS features like the ability to queue units and technologies, and the option to toggle the magic units between auto-cast and manual. It is really disappointing that a game can have such great graphics, and some obviously intelligent interface designs, and yet be lacking in some of the most basic elements that have been developed in RTS gaming over the last decade. What it all adds up to is a veritable horrorshow on the battlefield, because of an inability to pull off any kind of strategy other than bombarding your opponent with everything you have in one great gush of units. Even though much of the game is streamlined to remove busy work, from the one easily gathered resource to the auto-casting magic units, you end up doing twice as much as you would expect due to poor design decisions and missing functionality.
The single player part of the game starts off well enough. The storyline ties in nicely with the Everquest world, and the character acting for the most part is very good, bar the occasional cringe-worthy colloquial accents, and some of the individual units voices are wonderful. The cut-scenes are all created with the game units, and work reasonably, although the lack of facial animation and somewhat awkward gesticulations of the characters takes away from the storyline immersion. The early missions are great, but as the missions progress, and you find yourself building up larger and larger armies, the problems start to creep in. Obviously the bigger the army you need in the game, the more the previously mentioned interface issues spoil the fun, and they are exacerbated by the missions being design on single maps that force you to walk through one trigger after another, by generally giving you only one narrow path to follow. Narrow paths, as you will already have learned, are a nightmare with the game’s weak pathing.
As you get further into the missions the frustration builds. Because you are deprived of strategic choices through an inability to reasonably control your units, each mission becomes a cycle of wait and attack, with the pauses being a lot longer than the battles. You are forced to pause, while you rebuild and heal your units, because the only way of overcoming your obstacles is by having a big and powerful enough army to destroy them so completely you have enough left over for the next challenge. These pauses become longer as the missions get more difficult, as you are forced to wait longer for your army to heal or rebuild. Because of the way the units charge at anything, including your precious healers, you also will find yourself reloading the mission repeatedly in order to complete it. Thankfully there are a lot of missions, and some of them are very good, and you can complete them for each of the three factions, once for each of the four lords.
In addition to the single player, you also have multiplayer skirmish mode. Lords of Everquest has its own match-making system through SOEGAMES.NET, but when I checked in a week after release, it was completely empty. Well, it may have had games being played, but they weren’t being reported anywhere. Anyone entering SOEGAMES.NET would likely be disheartened by the lack of people, whether there was anyone there or not, so it is hardly an environment that encourages you to stick around looking for a game. Despite persisting repeatedly, on several occasions, in every room, and endless waits on the almost sadistically misnamed “quickmatch” option, I gave up. The system does provide you with automatic patch updates, which in the unlikely event of you ever playing someone, will
at least ensure that you both have the correct version. The patch I received at the last minute didn’t bother to tell me what it contained, so if it addressed any of the issues in the review, I wouldn’t be able to tell you about it.
There is a single player skirmish mode, as well as LAN options, to make up for the ghost town online, and this works very well, excepting the aforementioned problems, and a few specific but minor gripes. The excellent graphics, explosions, spells, sound and animations from the single player missions carry over into the skirmish mode, and could provide for a lot of fun with a group of Everquest minded friends. On the more open maps, and there are plenty of them, the niggling interface and pathing issues become less of a problem, and you can just build up a mass of your favourite units and set them on your enemy for some satisfying battles. The only real complaint about the single player skirmishes is that the AI opponent refuses to resign until beaten down to the last remaining bone pile, which it spreads liberally over the entire map. It also hides groups of units in inconsequential corners. So, instead of receiving victory celebrations after what can be some beautifully rendered base battles, you have to bore yourself by traipsing around the map searching out every last unit and building before it will resign. This is another RTS issue that was addressed many years ago.
Lords of Everquest has a number of problems, but underneath it is actually a very sound game. It is just unfortunate that these, mostly minor, problems can cause a great deal of annoyance during game play. Almost all of the issues I have raised in this review could be fixed with a bit of judicious patching, but any patch will probably come to late to save this game from its demise. It is a shame, because the game looks set to go down as one of the RTS flops, when it came so close to being one of the greats. For the moment, I can only recommend it to players who aren’t remotely hardcore about their strategy games, and would enjoy playing out some glorious battles using units derived from their favourite game of Everquest. I managed several hours of enjoyment out of the single player missions too, before they became bogged down in the later stages. If you are an Everquest fan, used to reading books while patiently waiting for re-spawns, then you will probably not mind doing the same while waiting for your group to re-build while camped outside the next battle scene in the campaign mode. If these are the people that SOE were aiming at, then they have achieved a reasonable level of success, the rest of us will have to either pass on Lords of Everquest, or wait until the game gets properly patched.