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.