If my experiences with two new massively multiplayer online role-playing games have taught me one thing, it's that if I really wanted, I'd never have to interact face-to-face with another person again.
I have all the friends and enemies I can handle thanks to "EverQuest II" and "World of Warcraft."
A word of warning to anyone new to the genre: these games require a lot of time and money to fully enjoy. There's no "game over" screen, and the goal is personal growth, not a high score.
Think of them as neverending virtual fantasies where you and thousands of other players, similarly sitting in front of computers, can interact and take part in a larger, overarching story.
Good or bad, tall or short, warrior or warlock, it's your choice to be whatever you want to be.
"EverQuest II" from Sony Online Entertainment is a sprawling, refined sequel to one of the most popular and influential online games in the United States.
It takes the best parts of the 1999 original and adds flashy graphics and other tweaks. My favorite? Many of the "NPCs" (that's short for non-player characters) actually speak in recorded voices when you interact with them.
It's a vast improvement over reading dozens of dialogue boxes, and one that adds to the game's otherworldly sense of believability.
"World of Warcraft," meanwhile, is a completely new offering from Blizzard Entertainment.
The company, known for its real-time strategy games, brings the characters and settings from the older "Warcraft" series to the persistent world of Azeroth.
"EverQuest II" should appeal to hardcore gamers and fans of the original who can devote months of their life toward perfecting their characters. It was slow going at first. As a brutish barbarian, I had to invest hours slashing monsters before I could even enter Qeynos, one of two rival cities that serve as the true starting points for exploration and plundering in the massive land of Norrath.
The story and lead characters borrow heavily from such epics as "The Lord of the Rings." There's the usual tale of good versus evil, even a race of furry-footed haflings that bear more than a striking resemblance to Frodo and his band of merry hobbits.
From the start, "World of Warcraft" had a faster pace.
After creating my character from a list of eight different races and nine different classes, I was battling critters, collecting treasure and gaining valuable experience.
"World of Warcraft" delivers immersion in other, more subtle ways. I never experienced a load screen while traipsing from one area to another. With "EverQuest II," load screens are common between different areas and serve as a reminder that I'm still playing a video game.
One thing that always helps me gauge games is what I'll call the time test. It's simple: If a game holds my interest for at least an hour, I know I'm on to something good.
That happened with both of these games.
With "World of Warcraft," about five hours passed before I thought to check the time. "EverQuest II" was similarly engrossing, though by the end I had much less to show for my efforts.
Like a carrot dangling in front of a horse, these games always promise something better over the horizon.
Each game has excellent three dimensional graphics but very different styles. For a fantasy game, "EverQuest II" takes a rather realistic visual approach. "World of Warcraft" has a more cartoonish but equally impressive appearance.
I got better performance on my home PC with "World of Warcraft," which runs on Windows and Macintosh computers. "EverQuest II," Windows-only, has some nice details like shimmering, roiling water, but I had to turn down some graphics options to get smoother action on my 2.4 gigahertz Athlon 64 system.
Like any massively multiplayer game, cost is a consideration. Both of these T-rated games costs $50. You get the first 30 days for free but both charge a monthly subscription fee of about $15 thereafter.
If I was on a budget and had to choose one right now, I'd go with "World of Warcraft." That's a personal preference, however, and if you prefer a more time-sucking challenge you'll probably find a lot to like with "EverQuest II."
Three stars out of four for "EverQuest II" and three and a half stars out of four for "World of Warcraft."
On the Net: