Monday, October 19, 2009

Welcome back to Lord Of The Rings Online

I played The Lord of the Rings Online for a month back in July 2008. I didn't set up a recurring subscription, just played the free month that came with the game. But afterwards, if you'd asked me "why not?" I would have found the question hard to answer. There was nothing specific I could put my finger on, just that, like many other MMORPGs, LOTRO didn't quite "grab" me.

A well-timed email from Turbine arrived the other week, offering a free reactivation of my account from October 15-21. I was in a bit of an MMO lull, my World of Warcraft subscription is still active but I've not been playing a lot since the spectacular disintegration of my guild a couple of months back, so it was a fine time to revisit Middle Earth. They had released their first expansion, The Mines of Moria, since I left, and the word around the internets was that the game was in good shape with a small but satisfied subscriber base.

I spent a fair slice of the weekend playing: I took my dwarf champion Maligalin from level 23 to 27, questing around Bree and in the Lone-lands. I finished Book One of the epic questline and did the first couple of quests of Book Two. I got up to expert weaponsmithing and completely mastered journeyman weaponsmithing. And I knocked off a few deeds along the way. So now I'm ready to ponder what I'm liking and what I'm not.

What I'm liking

First thing I noticed when I got back in: wow, my memory of what a good-looking world this game has was not wrong. It is seriously attractive. I've always been an advocate of art direction being far more important than polygon count or shader complexity - which is why I laugh at people who say WoW has bad graphics - and LOTRO's artists have nailed it. This really is the world of Peter Jackon's movies brought to life. The rolling landscapes, the ancient ruins, and especially the doorways to hobbit-holes in the side of hills - just perfect.

Captain Beliandra stands in front of a hobbit-hole in north Bree

I don't think I really got my head around the character development options when I played last year. But I'm digging the way that the unlocking of virtues and class traits through deeds adds another dimension to your character development beyond a straight line from level one to sixty. I'm quite happy with the class traits I've unlocked on my champion - I currently have Deadly Strikes, Vicious Strikes and Blood-lust from the Berserker set equipped, since I figure questing is all about pouring out the single-target damage. But my virtues I'm not so happy with, I know I don't have five slotted which I can look at and say "yep they're all great for me". And I like the feeling that, instead of just focusing on leveling, I could choose to pore over deed lists and figure out what I could do to improve my virtues.

Crafting, when you get right down to it, is just another example of a "fixed set of recipes, make a bunch of rubbish to get the skill to learn better recipes" system, like we've seen in so very many MMORPGs. But I do think LOTRO has done more with the paradigm than most. With the mastering of tiers to open up the chance of critical success, the optional rare components to boost crit chance, the different quality tools, the single-use recipe drops, the quests to learn new tiers of crafts, and the crafting guilds with their rep grinds: they have certainly put in a lot of stuff to liven up what could easily be a pretty stale mechanic. I can't deny that it got me interested in keeping my weaponsmithing progression going alongside my levelling,

What I'm not liking so much

I find LOTRO's combat.. fiddly, I guess. I feel like my champion has more moves than he really needs: why do I have both Swift Strike and Wild Attack as fervour builders? Having Savage Strikes, Brutal Strikes and Relentless Strike as finishers to spend two, three and four fervour respectively seems like overkill - flexible, but fiddly. And the mechanics of queueing up skills, waiting for them to start their animation, then queueing another skill, while monitoring my fervour (which ticks up by itself over time when I'm in my offensive stance, as well as being generated by moves) and dealing with short cooldowns (four to ten seconds on a lot of skills).. well, I find myself spending fights squinting at the wee buttons on my action bar. It's obviously going to take more than just a solid weekend of play to get a reflexive feel for this.

"There and Back Again" - it's not just a alternative title for The Hobbit, it seems to be a guiding principle of LOTRO quest design. I lost count of how many times a questgiver would do something send me off into some den of goblins to kill a bunch of them - and then send me back there to, oh, gather some crates - and then send back there again to kill their leader. I'm not a fan of the hyper-streamlined quest design WoW has moved towards with Wrath of the Lich King, which seems designed to prevent you from ever going somewhere twice to do two things rather than making a single trip. But really, even in a couple of days play, I was feeling the overkill on the back and forth.

What I'm not sure about

LOTRO is a game that gives you ample opportunities to grind. But I don't think it really insists that you grind.

Certainly the levels I gained from 23 to 27 didn't require any grinding: there were heaps of quests and I found myself doing a bunch that were well below my level purely because I got into the rhythm of doing anything an NPC asked me to do.

The monster-slaying deeds can be a grind and then some. Some of them, like wights in the Barrow Downs and goblins in the Lone-lands, I completed in the process of questing. But others, like killing a total of 240 crebain (blackbirds) are a little intimidating. But then you have to ask yourself: why do it if I don't want to? To be honest I probably wouldn't even slot the trait that it provides (Honesty, giving bonuses to power, fate and armour), but even if it was something I would use, slaughtering hundreds of birds for a few stat points is surely optional unless you're a hardcore mini-maxer.

Crafting, if you gather all your materials yourself, seems to require some grinding. I got a lot of barrow iron while questing but I was still a distance from mastering journeyman weaponsmithing by the time my progression had taken me into areas where it had been left behind and replaced by tier three ore spawns. So this meant some running around Bree-land mining. I don't see this as a bad thing though: mastering crafting probably shouldn't be something you can do without making any extra effort, just gathering everything you see while you're levelling.

What's next?

The point I'm up to in the epic questline is a group quest, "Breeders of the Dead". Given that I'm in Australia and thus my evening play time is deep in the middle of the night for the North American playerbase, it will be interesting to see how easy or difficult I find it to get a group. The server I am on, Elendilmir, I chose because it was recommended for Oceanic players, and I've seen a few mentions of Aus/NZ guilds, so hopefully I'll find it at least reasonably alive during Aussie primetime.

First two days impressions, though, are pretty positive. I'd say I'm leaning in the direction of at least splashing out the $9.99 to buy the Mines of Moria expansion and the month of playtime that comes with it - it's a generous deal and really not too hard for Turbine to sell me on!

I shall write more in the days to come.

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