Ten Level Test is the new Eurogamer feature series in which MMOs compete for our love in a knockout competition. We pair them off, play each for ten levels, and then uninstall the one we had least fun with. For a full explanation of the rules and quite why we'd attempt this madness, and for an introduction to all eight contenders in the first Ten Level Test - EverQuest II, Vanguard: Saga of Heroes, Lineage II, Final Fantasy XI, Star Wars Galaxies, City of Heroes, Guild Wars and Dungeons & Dragons Online - visit the Editor's blog. Here, we'll waste no time in getting stuck into the first two gladiators in our test, Sony Online Entertainment's EverQuest II and Vanguard: Saga of Heroes.
One of the most important moments in the entire MMO experience occurs before you even hit level 1. Creating a character is a critical choice on both a gameplay and a personal level; you're looking for interesting and appealing class designs, an avatar you like the look of, a sense of variety, a delicate balance between customisation and charisma.
Vanguard offers 19 races, but don't get excited: six of them are various shades of human, and there are four varieties of elf. You also get orcs, goblins, halflings, and a rather unsettling and badly-proportioned selection of wolf, fox and cat-themed furries. Only the big-boned Lesser Giants stand out from the crowd. The male models are almost exclusively horrible, barrel-chested pin-heads with constipated expressions; females, thankfully, are a little more attractive.
EverQuest II also offers 19 races, but this time it's an enticing smorgasbord of pick-and-mix fantasy: not just dwarves, elves and gnomes, but anthropomorphised rats, frogs, cats, lizard-men, trolls, ogres, fairies, and a kind of bald alien thing. They're organised into good, evil and neutral factions. Their slight charmlessness is more than made up for by the insanity of this racial melting-pot: in EverQuest II, you can be an evil fairy, or a sentient frog. Surely this is progress.
Vanguard offers 15 classes, limited on a per-race basis. These cover all the conventional archetypes, but it's still a good spread with plenty of specialisation and a few interesting concepts, especially the Bard - a troubadour melee-fighter who can compose his own spell-songs - and the Monk martial artist. EQII offers no less than 24, although these largely split into different sides of the same coin, according to good/evil alignment - which is also the only restriction on choice. With such appealing and unusual titles as Swashbuckler, Inquisitor and Dirge, there's something for everyone.
Character creation is an easy win for EverQuest II. The flexibility and choice is mind-boggling. Thus it was that Tenlevels the Ratonga Wizard was born - wearing a monocle and eye-patch at the same time, because he's just that evil - ready to take his revenge on the opening quest of every RPG ever. The rat punches back!
In Vanguard, I was briefly tempted by the thought of a Dread Knight giantess (is that so wrong?) but ultimately plumped for a lady half-elf Monk called Tenn Levels. (Ten was taken.) I opt for the new Isle of Dawn starting area and log in to the one and only European server.
Vanguard: levels 1 to 4
The moment I log into Vanguard for the first time, a tree falls over. An NPC seems to be doing some logging of his own. In itself it's nothing remarkable, but in the normally inflexible landscapes of MMOs, it's still an unusual sight.
An NPC called Tan Fen Greatcloud - who, like most inhabitants of the Isle of Dawn, wears a Fu Man Chu moustache and speaks in an accent of questionable political correctness - spins an exciting-sounding setup about all the village's warriors being missing, and defending a farmstead from a hobgoblin menace. But when I report to the next quest-giver in the chain, he orders me into a swamp to kill Gataro Podlings instead. These turn out to be giant walking tadpoles.