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.