Version tested: PC
You might think that looking like Bill Bailey (as many, many, unkind people have commented) would automatically make me a huge fan of fantasy stuff like Orcs and Goblins and Trolls and human-sized rats in dresses and stuff.
It doesn't unfortunately (or is that 'fortunately'?).
But I am a fan of Everquest 2, despite it featuring all of these things and more, although the aforementioned rats still give me the willies.
Why? Because there's lots to do. It looks great. It's fun. It's huge. Combat is good. And it's very, very polished.
Desert of Flames is the first expansion for said game, and focuses on the newly discovered, Arabian-themed city of Maj'dul, set on the island of Ro. It's a welcome change of environment for sure, and beautiful to boot - EQ2 always has been. But the sandy Arabian theme brings out a lighter and texturally rich side to the environment. It's like a breath of fresh air - if that's possible in the choking desert heat.
You get minarets, arches, people swooping around on flying carpets, camels, turbans, and more beards than a ZZ Top fan convention. It's very atmospheric and a little stereotypical in a Prince of Persia kind of way.
The expansion offers up three new factions - the Court of the Blade, the Court of the Coin, and the Court of Truth. As your standing with various factions grow and diminish, you'll notice that the other faction NPCs will become attackable unlike other hub areas in the game. On the flipside, the same NPCs may actually want to pick a fight with you, so be prepared.
You'll be farming these factions in no time - for loot and rewards - and other players won't be able to stop you. Another SOE game, the infamous Star Wars Galaxies, used to give you a TEF or temporary enemy flag if you were a rebel that attacked Stormtroopers, for example. Thus, imperial players could attack and essentially defend their faction. This kind of system is absent in DOF, and indeed in EQ2 overall - if you're farming faction points, there's no danger from other players stopping you. And vice versa, naturally.
If you do want to engage in player Vs player (PVP) gameplay, you can either challenge someone to a duel or wander off to another new addition, the arenas - and these are a lot of fun. You can take part in combat as yourself, or buy a 'champion', a creature with its own separate set of powers and own distinct look.
While there's a selection of creatures available to buy, you can find others as duel rewards or loot-drops from high-level NPCs. This means high-level characters still have an advantage, but that low-level characters can actually participate in PVP with no real danger to themselves. You can even just choose to observe the battles and bet on the outcome; a nice introduction to gambling for the youth of today.
Additionally, there are several game 'modes' available in arena battles. These include standard deathmatch and team deathmatch, as well as the EQ2 specific 'Destroy the Idol' (no, not Billy). There are only about four different arena stages, though.
The problem with the arena is that it makes PVP seem very 'detached' from the rest of the game; bizarrely it comes across like a mad version of Quake 3. There are additional spells and combat moves scattered around the arenas that competitors gravitate towards to gain an advantage, and vials of health and spell energy litter the environment. It's fast-paced and fun, but it does seem at odds with the rest of the game and serves as more of an entertaining diversion than anything else.
Hardcore EQ2 players have been chomping at the bit to get more high-level content, and for them this expansion is a godsend and will keep them questing for a good long while to come. Indeed, Desert of Flames is so aimed at high-level characters that they've increased the combat level cap for everyone from 50 to 60.
Increasing level caps is certainly one way of creating more 'content' in an MMO. It gives players something new to do, something to aim for. Grinding from level 50 to 60 is not easy as quests are usually significantly harder than what you'll be used to, but as you get into the flow of things you'll be able to level faster and you'll certainly be entertained as you progress.
For the weaklings among you, don't expect to last long or have much to do if you're below around level 45. One-hit kills and dying while just walking around exploring are no fun if you're a low-level character. This expansion will probably not be for you, unless you're prepared to invest a serious amount of time into EQ2 beforehand.
For example, we saw monkeys and beggars in the streets of Maj'dul with a combat level of at least 45, and while everyone knows that giving monkeys alcohol will turn them into unstoppable martial artists, it does seem kind of 'wrong' that such seemingly minor entities are so powerful. Indeed, creature encounters overall are much harder than before. It may be an idea to walk around with friends to take them on, as opposed to visiting the place solo, even if you're a super-tough player.
It's worth noting that the most recent EQ2 retail package actually includes this expansion, mainly because there have been sweeping changes within the game as a whole with the introduction of DOF. The change that will be most obvious to long-term players is that a number of professions have been drastically altered, and while this won't affect new players, it'll be a long, long while before you start to embark on the added quests the expansion brings with it. It's evidently good value for money, of course, but you won't be experiencing the high level content anytime soon.
Like the Trials of Obi-Wan expansion for Star Wars Galaxies, Desert of Flames falls down slightly not because it's not entertaining, not because it lacks content, not because it doesn't play well, but because its scope is too narrow to include everyone. If you're a high level character who's done everything in EQ2, then this expansion is a must, but hey, next time guys, release something that all your players can enjoy.
7 / 10