Okay, before I get going with my Desert of Flames beta impressions: full disclosure. I was really excited to get a chance to participate in the beta. But, I have a more than full-time real life job, I write this site and I'm in an EQII raiding guild. And believe it or not, I even go out once in a while. So needless to say, my time in the beta was somewhat limited. And, of course, a beta is only a beta and not a final product. You can count on my reviewing the final version a few weeks after it is released. If you don't want to be spoiled at all, don't read any further.
The Arena: Okay, a major feature of this expansion is PvP in the Arena. There are some who will probably completely ignore this area of gameplay, and that's fine, I am not a huge PvP person myself. There will be plenty of other stuff in the expansion for you to enjoy.
But back to the Arena. Well, you can forget about immersion. The fact that there are tons of health and mana power-up potions laying around everywhere makes it feel more like a Quake map than anything else. And that's not a bad thing, online FPS type games are a ton of fun and have a huge following.
So far, I prefer playing as my own character rather than an Arena champion. You will soon find that strategy is a huge part of team combat in the Arena. If you have a team where everyone is just running around randomly fighting you will be decimated by an organized team that works together in a concerted effort. And that is a great thing.
Even though I said I prefer playing as my own character, the Arena champions are quite cool too. They each only have four skills so team makeup and strategy are again important. Obviously, the type of game you are playing (i.e. capture the flag) is also critical. In the beta, arena champions were going for 1c but I am sure that price will be increased on launch. It's a nice break to play as a totally different character. Plus, they make fun house pets.
If you like PvP play and group strategy I think you will love the Arena. My main motivations to play MMORPG's are carrot-based (i.e. desire for levels and items) and social. And I have a feeling (and it's a pretty good hunch) that the rewards for the Arena will be not be enough to pry me away from working on my character. But, if my in-game friends are into it, I will likely join them for some PvP fun. And hey, I don't think you can overnuke in PvP, right?
Zones and Mobs: Basically, the zones and mobs are some of the best I have seen in the game to date. They are creative and visually appealing. I spent a lot of my limited time in Beta just walking around zones, invised, to oooh and ahhh and the cool areas and mobs. There seemed to be too many solo mobs for my tastes but there are plenty of group mobs as well so I guess I shouldn't complain. How quickly I forget how much I enjoyed soloing in the Nightblood area of northern EL before I found a great static group to play with.
Voice Emotes: I expected to poke fun at this feature but it's actually very cool. You have some options as to what you want your character to sound like and the voice work is very well done. However, I doubt they will really be useful in combat. With all the other stuff going on, I don't think you will be able to hear "heal me" and heal someone. It would be better to just look at their health bar.
Climbing: Bah. I chastised SOE for hyping this up as a major feature. When I did Twodragons posted a comment giving some really neat examples of how climbing could be used. However, in reality, the climbing seems pretty dull and used in an unexciting fashion. It's not a selling point by any means and, what's worse, it seems a bit quirky. I found a place called the Chimney where it is necessary to climb down a nearly vertical cave. Pretty cool looking area but I died three times trying to climb down. Also, since climbing is in the game it just makes you more frustrated when you see vertical surfaces you can't climb. My first opinion of climbing was neutral or mildly positive, but it's now heading towards negative territory.
Collection Items: Yeah, not a surprise or anything, but I was happy to see some new collection items. As some of my guildmates know, I'm a certifiable collection freak.
Music: I'm sure it gets old after a while but so far what music was in the beta was really good.
Armor: Meh. As always, I'm disappointed in the armor models, especially in the lack of diversity. Of course, what I've seen is very limited and the models may change. But, at this point in the game's life, seeing different robes that are identical or near color-swaps is getting to be unacceptable. I think it's time to dedicate some more resources to this area, as superficial as it may seem. The SOGA models are rumored to be coming soon, but that addresses the character models and not the armor models.
Factions: These are huge in the Beta. There are three main factions in Maj'Dul and you will have a reputation with each. People seem to love doing the faction quests and storming other factions' guard towers in Maj'Dul. Successfully storming a tower and planting a dagger in the captain of the tower guard can change it, and the surrounding territory, to the control of another faction. From what I can see so far the whole faction system will be a major aspect of play in the expansion and should up the fun quotient quite a bit. The risks and rewards feel very real. I questioned whether factions would be a big factor based on their limited effect up until now, but I am here to admit I was wrong.
Maj'Dul: Don't expect to come to Maj'Dul and relax by a stream the way you might in the Baubleshire. Pretty much everything you see in Maj'Dul is attackable. Guards for certain factions will probably want to kill you on site because of your faction standing. Meanwhile, the factions for a geographic area are changing from time to time as groups storm a faction's guard towers, as I discussed above. Then you have these mages flying around on carpets to enforce the law. There is plenty more craziness in this city which I will not spoil for you.
Spells and Combat Arts: I am not going to get into the combat changes here. But I will say some of the new spells are very imaginative and fun. Be prepared for a nice break from the usual. With that said, the majority of spells are just upgrades of the old ones. When I see a spell named "Improved Descry" as a new spell to replace "Descry" the creative part of me wants to shrivel up into a ball and cry.
Quests: So far I have not been blown away by the quests to the degree I was in Splitpaw. But my experience with questing in the Beta was pretty limited. The quest for a magic carpet will be sure to continue to raise controversy on the forums, though it is slower and looks different than the status carpet. Trust me, everyone will have a quested or status carpet soon enough because it has a game function other than just speed.
Tradeskill: You're asking the wrong person, sorry. Nothing to do with the expansion but I really liked this blogger's ideas for tradeskilling.
Raiding: No idea at all. But reviews from other players are quite positive.
Summary: I did a few informal polls of the large beta guild I was in, Testers of the Desert (thanks to those who answered me in Guild chat). Most were happy with the beta (I had to ask them to differentiate the beta from the combat changes). I asked, "What is your favorite part of the expansion?" The most common answers were "more levels" and "itemization done right." I have not really touched on the items due to lack of experience with them but several people did mention this. The answer to least favorite was overwhelmingly the climbing feature. I am not making that up to support my previous complaints, it was just what people said.
On the whole I am very excited about the expansion and can't wait to start playing. I'm not willing to call it a Splitpaw style homerun yet, but the ball is heading for the right field wall with some nice velocity.
However, if you are not level 50 and do not like PvP there is no reason why you shouldn't hold off on purchasing the expansion. Enjoy some of the great high-level zones and content EQII has to offer rather than rushing your way through to get to the desert. You won't find much to do other than PvP until you are 50, or at least close.
If you are level 50, well, you're probably going to be buying the expansion regardless of anything I say, but if you do so I don't think you will be disappointed. If you are not level 50 but into PvP, I think you will have some fun times in the Arena.
Just a note, I've focused on the expansion rather than the combat changes. But the main thing you will probably notice when the expansion hits is actually the combat changes, for a while anyway. You will have to do some serious relearning about how to play your character, and that is likely an understatement. Remember, I was reviewing the expansion here and not the combat changes so don't e-mail me saying, "Troubador's were nerfed and you suck, Aggro." In all honesty I won't be able to have a real handle on the combat changes until I do some extensive group play.
I may mention some of the stuff I probably forgot early next week.