Day begins to break as you make your way through the forest. Tall, ancient trees surround you and alien vines curl upward in search of the sun. The forest was once on flat land, but the plains gave way a hill and a hill became a mountain. You didn't intend to be here, but you're looking for something... a place to call home in this new untamed world. You leave the shadow of the forest and step foot on the crest of the mountain. The morning sun shines down on a valley outstretched before you.
In that valley floating in mid-air, is a twenty-story solid monolith of polished wood. And a home built entirely of stone and copper spheres. And a stone TIE fighter.
Welcome to Everquest Next Landmark.
Landmark is what precedes Sony Online Entertainment's next big MMO, Everquest Next. At first glance it looks like a much-improved Minecraft. That's probably the easiest way to explain the game to the layman, but there's so much more than that. Sony Online Entertainment is giving players a big world to explore even in the game's current alpha state. That world will include exploration, mining, crafting, harvesting, achievements, and even combat at some point, but the version I played (and the version available to some players today) focuses on the earlier part of that list.
I began at The Hub, which the neutral area at the center of each island in Everquest Next Landmark. (Each server currently consists of 20 huge, procedurally-generated islands) The Hub is the safe spot that every player starts at, with no mining or building allowed. Players can teleport between each server's islands and in-between servers here. From the Hub, players radiate outwards into the island's wilderness searching for resources and a place to claim as their own. It's digital manifest destiny.
You'll begin with the weakest version of the pick axe and axe tools, allowing you to do simple gathering and harvesting. Once you're outside of the Hub's area of influence, you can start mining the ground or chopping down trees immediately. Unclaimed land is free-for-all, but you don't have to worry about trying to make a new start in a smoked-out no-man's land if you're behind the pack; Landmark is smart and the land will heal itself over time after players have razed it to the ground. Mine a vein of copper? Eventually that hole will fill in with some resource that makes sense for that biome. Alpha only contains two biomes at this point: a harsh desert area with gnarled trees and cacti, or a lush forest. Each biome blends in and out of each other seamlessly and SOE told us that there will be two more biomes coming in the future: a snow-covered tundra and a volcanic wasteland.
Outside of The Hub, you can also begin to build structures with the stone, dirt, wood, and other materials you've collected so far. The problem is these structures are bound by the same rules as any other action you take in unclaimed land: eventually the land will heal itself and wipe away your changes. If you want what you build to remain, you need to stake a claim and make an area yours. And to do that, you need a claim flag.
According to SOE, the flag should be available in the alpha from the very beginning, but the plan is that eventually you'll need to craft each one. Drop a claim flag in an area and it's yours, with an additional buffer zone around the claim area to prevent another player from encroaching on your territory. The buffer zone is still being tweaked, but the idea is that it will stay sizable enough to let you expand your original claim in the future.
In my demo, I decided to lay my claim down on a tall mountain range; each claim also gives you the right to the area above and below your immediate claim. With my area claimed I began to dig, more for my own edification than for any real purpose. Everquest Next Landmark will eventually have caverns below the surface for players to explore, but the alpha version is more horizontal than vertical. I dug for 20 minutes straight and didn't hit the bottom of the world, but there's also nothing to explore down below at the current time.
That was one constant at the press event I attended; SOE wants to make people understand that this is alpha, not closed or open beta. These are the earliest building blocks being shown to the most hardcore of fans, because this publisher wants to build the game with the help of those fans. SOE has plenty of features on the table that aren't in the game yet at this point. Oceans, rivers, lakes, and lava - any body of fluid liquid - currently doesn't exist in the game nor does the bucket tool needed to collect those resources. Combat and hostile mobs are also planned for later inclusion. Farming is currently out, as are Achievements.
But what is there in this alpha build is amazingly compelling. I love games like Minecraft, Terraria, and Starbound; Everquest Next Landmark is this those games on steroids (and it will be free when it finally launches). SOE is building the game to get players in quickly; you can start exploring and building immediately. The build tools were intuitive for the most part, allowing me to select, add, delete, and smooth out my creations with ease.
Beginning from my new claim, I decided to build the first fortress in the Williams empire. SOE gave us admin-building powers and unlimited resources so we could get a feel of what players can get up to in the later stages of the game. So I switched to the first tool, the malleable Selection Box, and deleted a huge part of the mountain. Then I started at the bottom. It took me around five minutes to get a hang of the first few tools, and another ten minutes to build a simple room with set of stairs. With the base of my tower established, I moved the Selection Box to cover the small structure I had built.
Then I hit CTRL-C.
Yeah, copy and paste is in the game. That's part of SOE trying to make building in Landmark as quick as possible. While Minecraft might be your first attempt at a comparison, in practice what I played with is closer to a 3D Photoshop. In addition to adding, deleting, copying, and pasting, there's a paint tool to easily change what materials comprise your creation, a line tool to create angled surfaces, a heal tool to restore the world to its original state, and a window to change your material/brush selections. Once you switch over to the Photoshop mindset, everything clicks into place.
Your copied selections can be instantly pasted, or saved as a template for later use. Templates form the backbone of Landmark. They allow you to save your creations for later use (like Photoshop's custom brushes), so once you've built an awesome home, statue, or other object, you can always have it available.
Templates also have another use. When you make a claim on an area, you have to pay an ongoing upkeep cost to keep that area. If you've gone for too long without paying your upkeep, your claim will be revoked. When that happens the game creates a template of everything you've built within that area and credits you back with the materials used. That means the only thing you really lose is the specific spot you built on. SOE told me that's to prevent the world from being littered with unused creations without also penalizing players for being gone from the game for a long time. (It's possible that you'll be able to have a friend pay your upkeep in your absence. Pre-paying the upkeep cost isn't an idea SOE wants to entertain at this time.)
Within another fifteen minutes I had added ten stories on top of my first floor, creating a tower that spanned the entire mountain. Hitting CTRL-V shows an outline of your selection and where it will fit in the world before you ultimately add it. You can move the selection on any axis and rotate it freely. I probably could've built the entire thing in less than fifteen minutes, but in the build I played the game puts your selection wherever your cursor is, so I had to fiddle with each floor to get it to line up right. I was told this is still in flux, and SOE may allow your pasted selection to start where the original currently stands.
With night coming, I dropped a wooden crafting station in my tower of stone and began crafting a few torches to light my base. Torches and certain other objects belong to a class of items called Props. The world of Everquest Next Landmark allows you to build some interesting things, but the voxels that you're building things out of have a minimum size, so certain objects need to be built outside of the gameworld and imported in. These objects, including torches, chairs, tables, doors, and other miscellaneous household items, are currently created by the development team, but SOE says eventually players will be able to create them using tools like Maya and Blender and have their submissions become a part of the game.
Player-created Props and the Templates I mentioned earlier can also be uploaded to SOE's PlayerStudio market. That means you can sell your best creations, or buy that special something that catches your eye. Perhaps you want a heroic statue to go in your throne room, but you don't have the time or patience to build one. Go on PlayerStudio, find the right one, buy it, and it's yours to place in your claim!
There's just so much players can do in Landmark. Within our demo time limit, other press members had built spires reaching into the sky, floating castles, underground lairs, and even a wooden phallic object (SOE has tools in the alpha to stop players from building things like that). Our limits didn't exist, but your limits in Landmark only come down to collecting the resources and crafting the right tools for the job.
Crafting and exploration are the core of progression in Landmark. Health and Stamina are raised by collecting crystals out in the world, but everything else is crafted. Want to double jump or sprint? You have to craft those abilities. Classes in Landmark are switched by changing outfits and weapons, which have to be crafted. Advanced creation tools like that Paint Tool? They also have to be crafted. You'll need to head out into the world, find the right resources and craft the right items to get to the bigger and better stuff.
There are no static levels, instead there are player Tiers, which are raised by crafting the right tools and armor. Even using better crafted items requires that you be at a higher tier. Once you've checked off the boxes for a Tier, which could include making certain items or getting to a specific level of Health and Stamina, you'll level up and get an achievement as well.
Player Tiers correspond to Tiers out in the world itself, with each successive tier having better materials available to it. Want to build a throne of Obsidian? You'll have to wait until you've reached a later Tier, because your starting pick axe can't even dent the material. In the slice of Landmark I played, the world Tiers weren't working quite yet, meaning veins of ore dotted the landscape. Eventually, these veins will move underground and to places that make more sense: if you want copper, go find a mountain; if you want obsidian, mining near a volcano is your best bet. Players will have to walk the world or dig down deep to find what they need for their creations.
Even in its pre-Alpha state, I came away from my demo completely excited by what Sony Online Entertainment is building here. In fact, what I played and what I was told makes me wonder if Landmark may not outshine Everquest Next itself; the ability to build and explore to this level might be enough of an epic adventure for players. Landmark will be a full experience with building, exploration, trading, and selling, crafted largely by the players who will start in the alpha today and in subsequent beta periods. It's like any other Steam Early Access game, but on a grand, wider scale. There's potential here and players are getting into game early enough to possibly make real contributions to how the game will turn out. I look forward to seeing what the players and SOE can build (and break) together.
Note: USgamer's travel budget isn't huge, so SOE covered travel expenses for the trip. Do with that information as you will.