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.