I set aside a chunk of time this weekend to explore LOTRO's poorly-publicized third welcome back event. My rambling thoughts:
Stuck Outside the Gates
The bad news first was that the retrial does NOT include the Moria expansion. Allarond is already at LOTRO's pre-expansion level cap, and I was very hesitant to use up any of the new content in the zone outside Moria while level capped, for fear of running out of quests and being forced to grind kill deeds to level up. Tradeskills remained at the old caps (meaning that I was unable to mine the new minerals in the area around Moria), and I also did not have access to two of the highly touted features of the expansion - the Mines of Moria themselves, and the new legendary weapon/item advancement system.
Obviously, I got what I paid for (free) here, and allowing me to gain levels might not have been a good plan. Still, one wonders whether showing off the killer features of the expansion would have been a better way to convince players to resubscribe. Blizzard has somehow figured out a way to allow non-expansion owners temporary access to expansion content on their retrial program (any characters you make with new races/classes are temporarily unavailable once the trial expires, and you are allowed to gain experience until one point shy of the first expansion-only level), and I would argue that it's a more effective way of promoting the game.
This out of the way, there are a fair number of little tweaks that add up to a more polished experience.
- The devs have reorganized class traits - the game's version of talents/AA's/masteries - into sets. My champion has traits that focus on single target damage, traits for AOE damage, and traits for survival/off-tanking. Currently, I'm using the best individual traits I have without regard to sets, which means 2 single target, 2 AOE, and 1 durability trait. I'm not sure I'd be willing to drop any of them to complete a set, but there are two additional trait slots that I would unlock during the expansion, and some nice bonuses to be gained for going to 4 traits in one of the specialty areas.
- The game now has crafting guilds, very reminiscent of EQ2's system. Instead of crafting worthless junk to gain crafting experience, you can craft items which give you rep with a faction that will ultimately offer you high end recipes. LOTRO's guild recipes have a cooldown because they ALSO offer a large chunk of crafting experience. This means that they would be great for new characters leveling up, and perhaps a bit less great for players like myself who gained most of their crafting exp before the system was introduced.
- Looted quest items (ears/hides, plants, banners, etc) now disappear into your quest log, as with the similar systems in Warhammer and EQ2. LOTRO does not offer ways to expand your carrying capacity, but there's much less reason why you would need to now that these items don't take up space. I wonder how long it will be before Blizzard finally makes it onto this bandwagon?
- The new zone that I was able to get to has traditional auto-horse travel routes (get on the horse and watch it ride, with the minor perk that you can choose to dismount midway if you want), and new unlockable swift travel routes (the travel is presumed to occur offscreen) that you earn via quests in the zone. This is an absolutely great feature, one that the game was lacking at launch, and I wish more games would borrow it. By the time I've done all the quests in the Borean Tundra, it's safe to say that I've seen the place, and I really wouldn't be missing anything if the flight from Dalaran took place off-camera in a minute instead of 7-8 minutes of AFK time.
The Quest Helper: Very Well Done, But a Very Bad Idea?
LOTRO now has in in-game version of a quest helper - on the map above, areas where I have quest objectives are highlighted, much like Warhammer's version of the same feature. There's also a little arrow indicator on the minimap pointing towards the next objective for your current quest (amusingly, even if you are all the way over on the other side of the world), and the subzone name on your minimap will light up when you enter a new area to let you know if there are objectives to be found.
Overall, it's a very well-done system, and I might even prefer it to Warhammer's version. However, I'm less convinced that it's a good idea in this particular game.
As you can see from my little tracker snapshot, the vast majority of the quests I'm lugging around are to kill various mobs. What makes LOTRO stand out from all the other fantasy MMORPG's where I can kill mobs is the lore. I'm not just slaughtering ANY birds, I'm slaughtering birds that are carrying what they see back to Isengard. When the game gives you a tracking system as good as this one or Warhammer's, the temptation to just accept all the quests and let the tracker tell you what to do becomes very strong. That has the unfortunate side effect of removing the connection to the lore, if you're not bothering to read the lore in the first place.
The new feature is optional (they have it off by default, and labeled "BETA" to boot), but it's a sufficient boost to convenience that it would be hard NOT to use it. I just hope it doesn't end up detracting too much from the game as a whole.
Did this trial do service to the game?
Between the tracker's sapping effect on the lore and the lack of access to Moria/Lothlorien and Legendary weapons, I'm not convinced that Turbine did the game justice with this particular retrial weekend. They have demonstrated that the game engine is up and running, as pretty as ever, with more polish and way more content in the level 40-50 region (where many players, including myself, felt they hit a brick wall a year and a half ago). However, players who did not know these things seem unlikely to benefit from the weekend simply because Turbine has failed to advertise it - I never got any sort of email notice, and only found out about the weekend because I follow LOTRO blogs.
In terms of the big ticket items, the reasons why I should supposedly be setting aside one or both of the games I'm playing now to play LOTRO instead of waiting for even more improvements, the trial was a bit lacking. I'm not sure if the new classes are available or not (I have zero desire to ever play another LOTRO character, because I don't want to have to repeat all the kill deed grinding), but overall I didn't feel like what I saw this weekend was substantially different from what the game had in the past. Like I said, that's not necessarily a bad thing, I'm just not sure that it's what Turbine had in mind by (kind of) inviting former players back for the weekend.