When you sink - or invest, I should say - hundreds of hours into a character, you wish the levels passed more quickly. You want more abilities, more points to spend on more skill trees. When you get buffed from Level 1 to 80 in an instant, however, and are assaulted by EverQuest II's bewildering and immense collection of abilities, you realise why they make it take so long. It's to stop your tongue from falling out of your mouth, and your brain evacuating itself out of a tear duct. You need that long to let things sift in gently.
I don't even bother trying to tidy up my hot bars. I've been sent on a Virtual Package Tour of EverQuest II's fifth expansion, The Shadow Oddyssey, an area that'll eventually be uncovered by the second phase of the D.I.R.T.Y. excavation in the Sinking Sands. This tour wasn't a time for deep questions. There were no developers present, and our thoroughly charming tour guide was elegantly coy about questions like "will we get to kill that dragon please", and equally reluctant to respond to the follow-up of "no really, kill the dragon, it would be so cool".
We start off in Innothule. This is the only place in the expansion where you'll see sky - if you don't count the rubble-strewn swirls of the void as sky. Innothule is where the airships arrive and depart, and it's the hub from which you'll access that void. There's not much going on at the moment, but we're assured that the courtyard we're in will be packed with vendors and over 400 quests, including the new crafting quest chain. These quests will also take seasoned craftsmen to locations from previous expansions - our guide admits that it's "rather involved" - but there's unique armour and jewellery in it for anyone putting the hours in. If you're not a crafter, then don't swim into the bleakest pits of despair. There's also an actual Unicorn to be obtained by crafters and adventurers alike. No-one's explaining that process, but if we were forced to guess, the phrase "rather involved" might pop up.
We're invited to run around and have a look at Innothule, and "soak in the Gnomish influences", but nobody moves an inch. Either that, or they're all looking around with their left mouse button down, to prevent turning their avatar. I wonder if there's some kind of etiquette at play, here? Don't crane your necks and gawp at the Gnomish influences, like a dumb tourist?
Unsurprisingly for a game with a long history, The Shadow Odyssey slips more than occasionally into nostalgia. Players of the first EverQuest might like to slip in a pair of misty pink contacts: our first destination is Lower Guk. It was infested with undead frogs in EQ1, and it's infested with undead frogs now - but graphics have happened since then, and there's a light mist of spores in the air. I'm almost immediately snared by a trap, which had no noticeable visual cues. This is annoying, but it wasn't in combat, so I see the funny side - and we meet a minotaur called Aruun Vleeze. Aruun is slain by the GM god-hammer, and his death triggers a set of platforms.
They call it a puzzle, but that's a flattering name for dodgy platforming in a genre that really wasn't designed for it. However, there are no lethal drops, so it's more light relief and a time to heckle the guy who keeps missing the jumps. "Come on mate, the instance resets in 12 hours." There's a little bit more EQ1 nostalgia as we come across a massive reanimated hand, thoughtfully scratching itself, and after being pointed towards a strange alliance between Ykeshan trolls and undead Frogloks, we're off to Befallen.
Befallen is an area that was built by the Knights of the Order of Marr's Fist. It's a fortress, designed to fight off the orcs and bandits of the commonlands. However, if you call your fortress Befallen, you're begging for hot undead action. Sure enough, when Gynok of the Bone Bladed Claymore worked his way into their trust, the result was a betrayal, a curse, and everyone became a little bit posthumous. The Order of Marr's Fist still roam the area.
The Bonegrinder is our first impressively-named mob, and our host takes the opportunity to point out his "snap on" armour. This, she explains, is a system that gives the dev team more options with armour. I ask what snap-on means, and how this results in more options; I get this reply.
"It's the way that they're making armour now, rather than revamping all the skeletal structures in game to allow for more and newer options for armour texture."
It's a response that leaves me baffled enough to understand that I'm asking the wrong person, so I refrain from tech questions. Besides, someone has just found a shiny, and started dancing with it.
Befallen, like Lower Guk, is heavy with undead themes. Mistmoore is another zone from the original Everquest game that you'll explore, and it's the first place we're taken to that isn't overrun with zombified types. Sure, there are vampires and ghosts, but this place had just been excavated; you'd hardly expect a Walkabout Sports Bar down here.
We're taken, first, to an area ceilinged by a rotating glyph, through which you can see... another glyph. It's worth squinting, though, because above that glyph, you can just about make out the underneath of a dragon, walking around. It's impossible to see a dragon's tummy without thinking of Bilbo Baggins accidentally finding Smaug's soft underbelly, and something seven years old in me wants to punch that dragon in the face. But, it's a long way away, and not in the direction we're going, for now.
The police force of Mistmoore are the Libant, and to progress far through the zones here, you're going to have to become a fully-qualified member of their rank. That means some faction grinding, but it will open up the next level of the dungeon, and get you closer to that dragon. For now, we're taken to somewhere a little more civilised.
Mistmyr Manor is the home of Mayong Mistmoore, and it's where he goes to forget the pressures of being a powerful vampire. It's populated by the ghosts of his serving staff. They're preoccupied with their living roles, and fuss over the dust on his open coffin. These people are the quest-givers here, as well as your combatants; many are keen to have you out of their workplace, but others will see uses for you. Maybe you'll get asked to dust his coffin - none of the quest-givers are here yet, so I can only guess. A dusting mission would be almost as good as killing that dragon.
We're teleported upwards, to Mistmoore's Ravenscale Repository. We're now standing on top of the first glyph, but still underneath the second. This means we can get a less obscured view of that dragon, who's pacing around like a polar bear in a zoo. It looks likes he wants a fight, I say. Can we kill him?
It seems not - we're taken instead to a huge chamber, populated with 60ft tall statues, very much of that classical "coming to life, stamp attack" genre. Mayong Mistmoore is here, talking to his head archivist about some artefact called the Ankh of Ydal.
This area contains six treasures, each squirreled away in an ante-chamber, and protected by enchanted tailor's mannequins and spider-bodied creatures. It's impossible to get a handle on the difficulty of these zones, because we've all been buffed to hell and back. For information, the zones will scale, from 50 or 60 to 80, to suit the level of the first person to enter them. Take heed, mentors - enter the instances in the right order.
Najena's Hollow is our next stop. The entrance to this place is dazzling, an excellent piece of design by Noel Walling. If Lower Guk's platforming silliness was Super Mario Bros, Najena's Hollow is Bowser's Castle; a huge inverted citadel with a strong theme of the underground volcano. It's the only zone so far that deserves an introductory cinematic; and it doesn't just give you clues about your destination, it's hugely impressive.
To enter Lady Najena's home, there's a set of puzzles to lower the lava flow, and expose the huge corkscrew staircase that takes you into her laboratories. Well, I say "puzzle" - in fact, it's four switches guarded by mobs. As far as challenging interactive puzzles go, EverQuest II is no Dungeons & Dragons Online: Stormreach. Once inside (a longer process than I'm making it sound), the area has huge smithies, and mesh floors that carry you over a relentless lava flow. This leads people to suggest that this might be a destination for the crafting quest chains. Another coy refusal to answer from our tour guide leaves us dissatisfied, but I'm quickly distracted by something that sounds like the quacking sound from Whigfield's 90's hit, Saturday Night. "Is that a duck?" I ask, instantly regretting it. It turns out that it wasn't a duck.
The Hollow is populated by fire elementals, as you'd expect - but fire loves air, and there's a heavy presence of Djinn-like Prexian air elementals, too.
Our final destination is a Void zone, the Palace of Ferzhul. It manages, in terms of open-sky living hell, to outdo Najena's Hollow graphically. There's something about voids, and I'm sure this isn't just me, that makes them innately awesome. In both the sense that they inspire awe, and the sense that they make you go, "Oh man, I'm totally inside a void. Awesome". Our guide claims we're lucky to see it - it hasn't been working for the previous tours.
After months of online development, the void storyline will find resolution in the Shadow Odyssey. Even the monsters look more substantial, more serious, here - the Brutes guarding the opening area just look three times as deadly and awesome as anything else we've seen. Then again, you can put a skeleton in as much snap-on armour as you like - whatever that turns out to mean - and you still won't be able to stop imagining it saying "nyah, you broke my staff" in a nasal whine. Skeletons always look a bit too happy. These guys couldn't show pleasure if they tried, and they're all the better for it.
The Gods are trickling back into Norrath, too, with two more turning up on the God Bus from exile: The current Prime Healer, the odd-headed manorexic Rodcet Nife, and his embarrassed predecessor, Anashti Sul. Anashti didn't just huff off in a strop when mortals entered their realm like all the other Everquest gods, she was voted into oblivion after bringing undeath to Norrath. It'll be interesting to see how two returning Prime Healers get on, especially if they have to share a flat. To quote Family Guy: I smell a sitcom!