Wednesday, May 14, 2008

My Characters: Let Me Show You Them, Part 3 (Allarond of Gondor)

Lord of the Rings Online hit the scene a bit over a year ago. They had good timing - Blizzard's expansion had just come and gone, leaving many longtime players shocked to discover that they'd hit level 70 in a month or two only to find the same old raiding endgame they'd been so eager to leave behind. Many of us wanted something new, but not TOO new, and the game that I referred to as "World of Tolkeincraft" fit the bill nicely.

I tried a minstrel in beta and enjoyed it during the low levels, but I was concerned that the class' DPS would drop off at medium-high levels, so I rerolled a Human Champion named Allarond when the game went live. Now sure, the game allows you to hail from places like Rohan or Dale, but for me nothing says LOTR quite like Gondor, and indeed, "of Gondor" was the only title I wore above my head for the six months I spent playing the game. In some ways, that sums up my LOTRO experience - there are many games out there where you might be known as "Goblin-foe" or "Warg-Hunter" (and, perhaps not as many where one might be known as "Weird of Worms", whatever the heck that one means), but only One License to Rule Them All in which a man can hail from Gondor or become a Protector of the Shire.

Turbine spent a lot of time and effort on the starting areas, perhaps because they knew that these are the first places a player sees (playing a large role in whether they stick around). Elves and Dwarves start in an area west of The Shire that doesn't get much attention in the books, but Hobbit characters begin their careers in The Shire proper and humans begin in the vicinity of Bree. These areas have the right mix of original content and interaction with NPC's who actually appeared in the books, and the zones look as you might imagine they would; I actually got lost frequently in the Old Forest, and preferred to go there only during the day so that I'd have more light to work with.

Class design in the game is very well done. The minstrel concept does slightly strain credibility (LOTR lore doesn't really allow for instant healing and resurrection, so the health bar is called "morale" and being stabbed repeatedly by a band of goblins makes you demoralized and forces you to "retreat" - thus minstrels do what MMORPG players would think of as "healing" by "restoring morale"), but the class had a nice combat pace to it and good survivability. I've already discussed how true to life playing a Warg in PVMP was. The champion is also a lot of fun - picture a prot pally who does AoE damage actively (i.e. abilities that hit enemies in a frontal arc) instead of passively, wears heavy armor, has a few panic buttons to restore his own health, and generally controls crowds by killing them.

Unfortunately, there were also some relatively major flaws in the game.

The Grind System
I've already panned the deed system, which forces you to run every quest and kill hundreds of every mob just to get current traits to put in your trait slots, in the process ruining the title system by ensuring that almost none of the game's many nifty titles will actually be rare. Actually, the deed slope starts off at a nice and friendly pace - in the starter zones, players might actually complete titles in the course of their normal activities. This leaves a relatively fun choice - go and kill a mere 50ish mobs (a quest or two's worth, give or take) for an exp award and a trait or move on. Unfortunately, as players level up these tasks shift from a fun bonus to "the devs ran out of time to implement content, so they hope you won't notice if they quietly crank the number of kills up to an absurd 720 for certain kill deeds in Angmar".

Travel revisited
I've also already panned the game's travel system. Bree is the geographic center of the game but players will be required to jump back and forth between zones on opposite sides of Bree as early as their late 20's. At these mid levels, so-called "swift travel" routes (in which the travel occurs off-camera) are rare, meaning that, when you run out of quests in the western part of the Trollshaws at level 30 and have to get to Evendim, life gets ugly. You will have to run though half of the Trollshaws (mounts aren't available until level 35) to Ost Guruth, ride the slow autohorse all the way across the Lone Lands (Turbine implemented a much much much needed swift travel shortcut for this after I quit the game) and half of Breeland to get back to Bree, run across the city to its West stable master (yes, the city has two travel NPC's, with a swift travel route between them for the extremely lazy), swift travel from there to Michel Delving in the SW corner of the Shire, take the auto-horse to the entrance of Evendim in the north central portion of the zone, and then possibly another autohorse to the portion of the zone that you actually wanted to get to. Unlike WoW, you cannot queue up your connections before you depart, so you will actually need to be at your keyboard to start each leg.

If you thought that last part sounded long, imagine doing it a few times per week. I had my "map" (hearthstone) bound in Bree until level 29, when Men get a second hearth to Bree (in exchange for, you guessed it, killing 150 wargs - no, wargs you killed before 29 don't count), Hobbits get a less useful hearth to Michel Delving, Elves get a hearth to Rivendell, and Dwarves get a hearth to their mostly useless capitol city (sorry Dwarves). I don't think I've actually used my map for its intended purpose (getting back to your local quest hub because you have to sign off and don't have time to run back) since about level 10, it's always been set at one of the extreme non-Bree locations to allow me to mitigate some of the horrible pain of traveling. The auto-horse system was actually excellent for traveling within a zone (you can dismount at any time if you're willing to abandon your fare), but horrible for traveling in between zones.

(Edit: The above comments, of course, don't apply if you happened to roll a hunter, in which case you get access to nine various "teleport" spells to just about anywhere you'd want to go. )

Bad Reputation
Turbine didn't even have their reputation system ready to go at launch, resulting in a screwy situation in which they patched in retroactive reputation gains for previously completed quests months after finally adding a rep system. The system was idiotic - for example, the reward for reputation with the Men of Bree was a bunch of level 40ish gear; problem was, the only way to gain said reputation was to farm up hundreds of reputation tokens from even more hundreds of mobs, at which point you would have outleveled the rewards. Turbine finally did a WoW-style reputation, wherein players have actual choices on how to gain rep, in the most recent content patch, but the rewards still seemed lackluster compared to the crafted stuff I bought off the AH. The one set of rewards that are worthwhile are a set of swift travel routes to various out of the way locations that need them, but I'm nowhere near the requirements for any of these, and don't see why I should be required to grind just to keep travel between the game's 3 major cities (Bree, Rivendell, and the Lossoth capitol) from being a painful painful long haul.

Out of Content
The reputation debacle was actually part of the really big, game-breaking issue with LOTRO, which is that there's not enough LOTRO. LOTRO zones are larger than Outland zones, but essentially their entire game at launch was about the size of WoW's expansion. Players have more than enough to do in the 1-15 range, but a solo player will have to start pingponging to opposite sides of the map as early as the mid 20's level-wise. The lengthy travel example I gave above didn't actually even exist at launch, because it took them an extra month and a half to patch in an absolutely vital entire zone full of solo content for level 30ish players. That got the game to the point where players could actually reach level 40, but woe to the solo player who did since there was absolutely nothing to do solo once you got there, unless your idea of a good time was grinding 300 lizards to level. (Don't take my word for this, an official dev diary in December - remember, this game launched and started charging money in April - described the process of gutting and overhauling the entire freaking zone of Angmar for a then-upcoming patch - something the closed beta testers could have told them was necessary eight months previously.) Most of my friends who had come over from WoW quit, but I struggled on, because I did not want to abandon my champion so close to the level cap. And then, finally, I gave up a third of the way into level 48. My bill date had arrived, I had exhausted almost all of the solo content other than deed grinding that would be available to me for the trip to 50, and I had frankly started to hate the game.

As I mentioned, last weekend, Turbine re-opened the doors to former players to see what they'd done with the place. What they've done is finished the level 40-50 content. They redid Angmar, added an entirely new level 45-50 zone, and expanded the Misty Mountains as well. I have no interest in testing this out on another character (who would have to repeat content that I have no real desire to play again), but I'd imagine that the trip from 40-50 would be relatively pleasant. I was able to finally reach level 50 (in the process, completing somewhere between half and two thirds of the new quests introduced in the last six months over a single weekend in which I had a lot of other stuff to do, though I was over-leveled for much of it and thus cleared it more quickly). There are many things I love about MMORPG's, but being charged 100% of the price for enough content to complete 80% of the game isn't one of them.

That said, this game is the closest we've come to another WoW, and I'd whole-heartedly recommend it in its current state to any WoW player who wants to solo some new content while waiting for Wrath to arrive, provided you don't expect there to be anything in particular to do once you get there. (There are always more deeds, and even more quests, but why waste potential sources of exp by doing them while level-capped?) The game also comes with virtual world features that put WoW to shame. Players can throw on cosmetic outfits over their armor, if you'd really like to swashbuckle in a dress, dye their armor so it doesn't mismatch horribly, change their hairstyle at a barber, and purchase both player and guild housing. (One wonders if Turbine reads the wishlist of stuff WoW players want that Blizzard won't give them and tries to go out and implement those things.) All of these in addition to a wide variety of iconic locations from the lore.

Allarond, Champion of Gondor, Protector of the Shire, Hero to the Lost, and, yes, Weird of Worms, eagerly awaits the forthcoming Mines of Moria expansion. I'm just going to wait for 6-12 months after it comes out for them to actually finish it.

No comments: