As you may have noticed from my post on the LOTRO lore, Allarond rides again in Middle Earth after I finally cashed in on an insanely good clearence deal for the Moria expansion.
(Aside: I was not expecting to enter my expansion key and receive 30 days of game time - WoW most certainly does not include time in their expansion boxes, and I'd heard that the same was true for most games' expansions.)
Overall, it's been a positive experience. I feel obliged to offer that disclaimer, because this post may come off a bit nit-picky and negative. This is a minor drawback to the game's frequent retrials - I've had plenty of opportunities to come back and notice the major improvements to the game, so those are all old news. Now that I'm actually spending some time in game, I'm free to notice minor and not-so-minor places where the game has NOT improved while I've gone.
The Rigors of Travel
Somewhere on the other side of this ditch, the slope becomes shallow enough to climb. As far as I can tell, the only way to figure out is to run into the wall until you find a spot where you can make upwards progress.
Travel so far has not been too painful. I have a one-hour hearthstone equivalent that I can place at a location where I am questing, and a second one-hour racial swift travel spell to return to the town of Bree. Sadly, my horse will not go into Moria, so I'm going to be mountless for probably the majority of the expansion (there's a rep grind involved in claiming a Moria-capable goat mount).
The game's auto-mount travel system is slow but offers players the opportunity to hop off the ride mid way, using it as a shortcut to get places without fighting the local wildlife en route. I'm still a bit disappointed to find a network of invincible goat taxis in Moria, but I guess I wouldn't like the place very much if there weren't any.
One major feature, which I noted during a retrial, is that one of the outdoor zones in the expansion allows players to unlock nigh-instant "swift travel" routes to old quest hubs through completing the local quest deeds. In practice, this system has worked out very well. I end up unlocking the swift travel routes just as I finish each hub, so it isn't a huge waste of time if I discover that I missed a quest and have to backtrack.
Inventory and Crafting
LOTRO starts new players off with a total of five 15-slot bags, which seems outright generous compared to other games. Then you loot a warg and collect five separate items. The hide is for crafting and the claw is a tradeable item used for a class quest. The paws, the tooth, and the ear are vendor trash, each of which stacks to 10 items. If you're killing a lot of Worgs, you'll end up with a lot of stacks of items. Thankfully, the default UI displays the vendor value of everything you are carrying, so that you can tell what to trash WHEN your inventory gets full. It's often worth pitching a weapon worth 5 silver to make room for a paw worth 2 silver, because you're going to end up with a stack of 10 paws, and you can't stack the weapons.
I wrote about the new crafting guilds during a retrial. LOTRO uses an irritating "critical success" crafting system, where you have to pump out dozens or even hundreds of non-crit items that no one wants to get the ability to have a CHANCE of creating a crit success item that someone might actually pay you for. The crafting guild tackles this in two ways - players can create items that are worth rep instead of vendor trash, or players can use these tokens (the recipes have a cooldown) to guarantee a critical success on certain recipes. This was a huge improvement.
The article I linked back in November points to the defunct Massive Gamer site - suffice it to say that Sanya Weathers warned me to go and complete the quest line to unlock the use of legendary weapons FIRST and then complete the remainder of the content outside Moria. If you do not do this, you can expect to have to grind out 20K weapon experience, at about 70 item exp per kill after having completed all of the local quests.
Fortunately, I was warned, and had plenty of quests to do outside the mines while I worked on leveling up my new weapon. I can see tremendous potential in this system, which allows you to customize your weapon over time. The only problem is that most of the possible attributes are not very good.
My weapon's bonuses include "rend bleed damage" (I don't even have a skill called "rend", nor anything that specifies that it causes bleeding damage, maybe this is the passive damage proc that spears cause?), damage with a horn attack whose primary purpose is an AOE stun, and two defensive abilities (one active, one stance) that I don't use because they gut my DPS, and every second that I extend combat is another second in which an additional mob, respawn, or patrol may come to kill me. When I "reforged" the weapon at level 10, I was given the choice of one of two new bonuses, both of which were similarily situational. There are a handful of highly powerful and useful abilities, they're just buried on a random table along with a dozen not so useful ones. The end result is that the only good use for my points is to enhance the weapon's base DPS - which is still lower than the crafted weapon I had been using before the expansion.
The thing is that none of this is accidental. Turbine is counting on the miniscule odds of actually obtaining a perfect weapon to provide a continual time sink of replacing your current weapon with a slightly better one. You know, this reminds me of the time that Gandalf vendored Glamdring after getting some random mob drop, and how Aragorn broke down Anduril for parts after beating a raid encounter.... oh wait, no, that's exactly what did NOT happen with the named legendary items that this system explicitly refers to.
No escaping the deed grind
One thing that I hadn't noticed was that my quest log is now 3 slots larger than it used to be. Apparently, you get an additional slot for every 10 deeds you complete. I am very disappointed that Turbine decided to put this sort of a bonus there.
Players will complete the deeds for quests and exploration relatively easily in the course of normal play, but many of LOTRO's deeds are no more interesting than "go kill 300 orcs". Killing 300 orcs is fine when the only reward for doing so is cosmetic, or when the orcs are one of several alternatives for obtaining the reward. The thing is that LOTRO's deeds are tied to "virtues", stat bonuses which stack with gear and cannot be obtained by any other means. For reference, I get significantly more stats out of the traits I have slotted than the "relics" that are socketed in my legendary weapon, or from any two pieces of gear, and none of my virtues are actually capped. Going without virtures is like going without pants - you can do it, but there's no reason why you would want to.
Virtues are currently capped at 10 ranks, even though there are more than 10 deeds that award most of them, so players do not need to complete every single kill deed in the game. They do, however, need to pick at least some of the kill deeds, or forever accept lower stats than players who did not. Once you're done killing 300 goblins in the zone of your choice, it's time to kill 300 animals in a different zone for a different virtue. You can only equip 5 virtues, so you used to be done once you're done with those fifty deeds (some of which were easy quests etc). Now, instead, they're pushing you to keep on going if you want to expand your quest log.
Isn't this "optional"? Sure, in the way that everything in an MMORPG is optional unless you've been kidnapped by power levelers who will shoot you if you don't level their characters for them. That does not mean that the trait grind is a good idea. Being sent around the countryside to slaughter thousands of NPC's with maybe a sentence of explanation of why they need to die is probably the least interesting aspect of the game. Having done so once has frankly taken a huge bite out of my interest in trying other characters, who would have to start the pointless kill grinding all over again from scratch. On top of all that, the system devalues the game's otherwise deep cosmetic title system, as players who want the stat bonuses have to FIRST earn the cosmetic titles.
In short, Turbine should have worked to REDUCE the emphasis on this system. Instead, they realized with shock and horror that some players might be finishing just the traits they needed and then skipping the rest of them, and they had to rush off to find some other incentive to rescue the rest of their timesink. I am not impressed.
What I expected and what I did not
Overall, I did not expect to be thrilled with the state of Turbine's endgame timesinks - I've gotten pretty tired of WoW's versions of the same, and Blizzard's are far more involved than telling players to grind 300 orcs. Traits and reputations weren't enough to keep me interested in the game the first time around, and it doesn't look like continuously replacing "legendary" items will change that part of the game substantially.
One thing I did NOT expect to find was significant challenge in the solo game. I had initially concluded that my Champion had been nerfed, but I've since heard that they actually made a conscious decision to buff mob damage across the board for the expansion. The result has been precisely the sort of solo challenge that I've been missing of late - WoW's solo content is trivial, while EQ2 content tends to jump straight from easily soloable to needing a few group members very quickly.
So far, Moria has been a stretch of pushing the envelope to see what exactly I can accomplish. Even if Turbine's "endgame" does not deliver, and the deed system discourages me from making alts (in fairness, I also did not have a second class I was dying to try in the original game, though the new Runekeeper class from the expansion sounds interesting), it looks like there are easily a few months of quality dungeon-exploring entertainment to be had here. If that's my last word on Moria in a few months, that's certainly not a total failure in my book.