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.
Players with serious-sounding role-playing names are running around, but they aren't chatting. That's okay for now; time to let the elegant, soft-focus vistas and surprisingly attractive starting armour sets sink in. This is a pretty game, and despite being younger than EQII, it's better-optimised and runs more smoothly. The combat's slow but rhythmically rewarding: the Monk builds up and releases "Jin" in a rogue-style combo system with a kung fu twist.
Despite its unpromising start, the quest chain leads into a satisfying mini-adventure in the atmospheric, foggy marsh. Vanguard's world has a distinct feel, pitched somewhere between "realistic" low-fantasy and the all-out high-fantasy madness of WOW and EverQuest. I'm intrigued.
EverQuest II: levels 1 to 5
Here I am, Tenlevels the evil rat wizard with his evil eye-patch and evil monocle, in Evil Town. Bad fairies and lizard-men run about, doing evil. I have Sonic Vision, which turns the display an inverse monochrome, but otherwise seems to do nothing useful. It's still awesome.
EverQuest II is busy. The chat channel is permanently buzzing with talk here, on one of two UK servers. Everyone's got a lot to say for themselves, including the NPCs, who often chat through pages and pages of exposition before they hand you a quest - and it's all fully (if woodenly) voiced. So that's where those ten gigabytes went.
Off I wander on my quest to kill some little ankle-biter elementals. Or rather, I don't, since I walk five steps out of the town gate, where there are hordes of the things, spam a few lightning spells, I'm done and I've already levelled up. I chop some wood as well, just to feel active. Rats have high cholesterol.
EverQuest II explains itself really well. There are slick tutorial NPCs in town to talk you through the basics and there's a guide to the economy in your backpack. In fact, the game is falling over itself to please. It awards experience like it's going out of fashion, tops up your health and mana every 10 per cent of a level (which, at this stage, is pretty much every kill), and helpfully puts your new spells in your action bar as soon as you level up. You don't even need to visit the trainer.
I'm chewing through quests, enemies and levels. An hour, a few wolves and a few more elementals later, and I'm already level 5. I've barely stepped out of town and have no sense of the dim, hemmed-in landscape. I'm standing in a cave wondering how these latest ridiculously overpowered spells fit into my rapidly swelling suite, and what the Heroic Opportunity spell combo system is all about, when EverQuest II deals its ace.
A very polite person whispers me and asks if I'm new to the game. Why yes, I am. Then would I like to join their guild? They can offer me advice and help.
I agree. Suddenly my chat channel is awash with green welcome messages. "What happens at lvl 10 then tenlevels?" "I decide if I'm doing another ten levels." "lol good answer." "Welcome again dear - if you have any questions or need help please do not hesitate to ask."
This isn't a twelve-year-old boy looking for signatories to get "Might of the Screaming Abyss" off the ground. This is a large, established, friendly, eager and welcoming community that wants to help people love its favourite game. An hour into EverQuest II, I already have a home. It feels like the Test is over.
Vanguard: levels 4 to 7
"You leave the farmstead and focus on what lay ahead." The tenses may be mixed and the sentiments cheesy, but the little messages that pop up in your log as you move around Vanguard's world are endearing all the same. This is a role-playing game through and through, and it believes in its fiction.
I enter a burning village to save some villagers from the rampaging Hobgoblins. Target selection is proving a bit of a chore and I'm noticing a few animation and texture bugs - a bow appearing in Tenn's hands when I'm throwing shuriken, some floating around, some see-through NPCs. The combat is still paying dividends, though. At level 6, I start learning finishing attacks, critical hit chains and defensive counters. This is clearly a game of consequences rather than mindless clicking.
I take a break in town to find out what Diplomacy is all about. I've been seeing NPCs offering "interviews" that require a certain amount of "presence" to start. This is a whole alternative levelling track, complete with its own quests, clothing and equipment, where you play conversations like card games, employing conversational gambits with musical motifs. It's fascinating, and Tenn looks quite fetching in her Diplomacy civvies - but I have combat levels to gain. Some other time.
Into the Hobgoblin cave, and Vanguard shows its true colours. It's tough, even at this level, before death penalties kick in. Taking on two enemies at once is a challenge, respawns are rapid and unforgiving, and some quests are solo-friendly in theory rather than practice. I bump into a Dread Knight who doesn't want to group, but we warily agree to pick off one half of each pair of enemies for an easier life.
After several deaths, quest completion and a hairy run out, I repair to town and check out crafting before logging out. It's even more complicated than Diplomacy. Vanguard and its community still aren't welcoming me with open arms, but it's working some kind of spell - I've been absorbed in its world for hours now.
EverQuest II: levels 5 to 10
It's Erollisi Day, EQII's ridiculous parallel-dimension Valentine's. I get mail from a "secret admirer" with a "roses are red" poem in it. I'm an evil rat wizard. Why is everyone being so nice?
I gather rubble, kill a wolf for a spoiled girl, find an exciting mystery loot item shimmering on the ground that turns out to be a Shattered Froglok Bone Fragment. Later on, I loot a moth. The visual effects are great, but the animation is terrible, and I still have no idea what's beyond these looming, dark hillsides.
Round about level 7, EverQuest II's Stepford dream starts to turn sour. My wonderfully friendly and welcoming guild doesn't seem to do or say anything but congratulate each other on levelling up, or gaining Achievement points (EverQuest II's second character advancement track, where points awarded separately of levels can be used to specialise your character). Something good seems happen to someone in the guild every five minutes, and the chat channel is a ceaseless stream of "Gratz".
Congratulations? Or just mindless gratification? You can have too much of a good thing, you know. I have tons of spells but they're all either burst damage or damage over time, and it doesn't seem to matter what order I use them in. I barely need to walk any distance from quest-givers to start killing, and the spawns come to me before obligingly keeling over under my lightning bolts.
The in-game help manual is excellent, an example to other games of this kind, but it can't tell me where the sense of adventure is. A few dozen skeletons, a handful of bats, too many pages of actorly droning, a couple of hours and five rounds of "gratz" later, and Tenlevels lives up to his name - but I don't feel like I've been anywhere or done anything yet. I've got a guild, but I've never met any of them, and I haven't fought with anyone by my side.
Vanguard: levels 7-10
Within an hour of logging back into Vanguard, I've got something better than a guild: someone in my friends list. An enemy we both needed to kill for a quest was refusing to be soloed, so we partied up and spent a happy half-hour slaughtering (and still dying) in the wheat fields. Afterwards, I pick up a couple of bags from a guy giving them away for free in the village - free if you win a quick-draw typed round of rock, paper, scissors, that is.
The combat is a world away from EQII's. In fact, I can think of few MMOs where the skills and systems are so clearly defined, and thrown into such sharp relief so early in the game. Moving on from Hobgoblins to the Isle of Dawn's real menace - the Ulvari, sinister, Samurai-themed magicians from another dimension - the game is already awarding some really nice armour and weapons as quest rewards and drops.
But it's not giving them away for free. Soloing requires actual concentration. Some of the difficulty is down to the terrible respawn management - a pause before you're attacked by the enemy that's suddenly appeared next to you would be fair - but most of it is good, honest massively-multiplayer game design. Just because you can solo, doesn't mean you should want to.
Soon I'm off on the final quest chain of the Isle of Dawn, taking me - via Vanguard's one gratification, an early ride on a winged mount - to a temple high in the hills. It's so exasperatingly difficult, and the trek back after a death gets so tiresome so quickly, that for a while Vanguard's fate hangs in the balance. But, realising that the game is just encouraging me to group rather than forcing me, I give it the benefit of the doubt.
Responding to a plea for help in chat, I find myself in a group with one, then two, then three, then four others, and suddenly we're rampaging through the temple, slaying Ulvari and pleading with elemental gods and riding weird elevators and dousing our armour in blood and killing an actual boss. It's enormous fun, close to a proper instanced dungeon experience, and a well-judged climax to the Isle of Dawn. It's also intriguing to note how differently - but equally well - my class plays in a group. I go back for my rewards: a cloak, a title, a trinket and the last piece of a handsome armour set. I am Apostle Tenn Levels, Hero of Dawn. A hero already - and it feels like it.
To top it off, a screenshot of the moment I hit level 10 has magically appeared in my profile on the Vanguard website. Now that's witchcraft.
At level 5, it seemed a foregone conclusion. At level 10, it was no contest - but the result was the opposite of what I'd expected.
I'm more immersed in Vanguard's world, I'm more invested in my character, I've had more fun with other players, I've had more challenge and reward from its combat system, I've been more surprised by its setting, more involved in its storytelling, more impressed by its beauty. EverQuest II is a very well-made game, with a clearly healthy community, that transparently wants to be all things to all MMO players. It's easy to get along with, but in these first ten levels it's so concerned with not doing anything wrong that it forgets to do anything right.
Of course, I've just played the newest and best Vanguard has to offer. I have no idea what's around the next corner, and to be quite honest, I'm scared the whole edifice might fall apart. Conversely, I would trust EQII to keep on delivering a steady, playable stream of polished content all the way to level 80.
But that's not what Ten Level Test is about. A game is judged on what's happened in the last ten levels, not what might happen in the next. And on those grounds, there can be no doubt: Vangaurd is a clear winner.
EverQuest II, you are uninstalled.