A first look at LOTRO raids. And tentacles are tentacool.

I never set out to raid in LOTRO. I’m not even sure what I exactly set out to do with my shiny new lifetime subscription, aside from hang out and just enjoy the game world from time to time.

But with much encouragement and help from Arb and friends, a few hints on how the dailies work, a lot of help with crafted gear, and being patiently brought along on a couple of 6-man instance runs, my burglar now finds herself with 50 radiance on her gear.

I am lucky to have guidance, because the endgame of LOTRO still feels vast and oblique to me. There are several 6-man and 3-man instances which give different types of token as reward. There are also a variety of 12-man raids. But these instances and raids don’t get outdated as quickly as the Warcraft ones (in which people are mostly just interested in the latest tier). Moria and Lothlorien (still, confusingly, in Moria) instances still give tokens which can be exchanged for useful endgame gear. In fact, some of that gear is best in slot pre-raiding.

So there’s not really a clear order in which you need to run these instances. All of them give useful tokens. And this is without even getting into Moria hard modes – which I haven’t yet touched. Anyhow, some of the raid leaders in my kin were also starting an ad hoc group to encourage newbie raiders to dip their toes in the water – literally – beginning with a raid on The Watcher in the Water. The Watcher is an Onyxia-style raid, with a single multi-phase boss, and no trash. The requirements: 50 radiance. So I signed up.

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Our raid leader had the patience of a saint. I am very grateful to everyone who came along, both newbies who wanted to learn, people on alts who wanted to try some raiding, and more experienced players who came to help anyway. We didn’t kill the beast on this occasion, but a lot of learning was done and we got through to the final phase of the fight a few times.

I have (briefly) attended previous LOTRO raids, but this one shows that the devs have been learning. It was a step up from anything I have seen previously in that game.

So, a fight in several stages. People needed to run around and be aware of where they were standing. Lots of adds, which were dealt with differently in the different phases. Random water spouts which meant that everyone had to stop what they were doing and run to the sides of the room. If you want to see a rundown of the watcher tactics, check here. But this could easily have been a WoW boss fight. And I think it would be a fun, popular one if is it was. There’s plenty for everyone to do, and who doesn’t like being picked up and waved around by a naughty strangling tentacle? (Yes, shades of Yogg there although I believe this came much earlier.)

One big difference is that classes have more distinct roles in LOTRO. A champion, for example, isn’t interchangeable with any other melee dps. My burglar can put out decent melee damage but she doesn’t have the AE capability that a champion would. And so in this fight, I have a different job to them for some of the time. There are debuffs/ corruptions to be removed, lots of different adds to be dealt with, combat buffs/ debuffs which need to be kept up, and if you get bored you can always throw in a Conjunction. Another difference is no addons. You’re stuck with the base UI and so is everyone else.

The Watcher has been criticised as a fight for the reliance on ranged dps. It’s not actually all that reliant on ranged dps other than, “Yes, bring some. There are a couple of adds which need to be taken down by ranged.” But this was an issue earlier in a game which didn’t have many ranged dps classes and only 12 slots in a raid.

Again with LOTRO, Turbine weave the title/trait/achievement system far more tightly into all aspects of the game than Blizzard ever have. Most achievements have two stages – stage one will reward with a title and stage two (more of a grind) will improve a trait. And these are currently balanced so that stage one is very accessible. My character got a title for fighting Watcher tentacles in our one night of efforts, for example. And this goes a long way towards encouraging you to feel that a wipe night wasn’t a waste of time.

And if any more inducement was needed, Arb informed me that it is possible to get a trophy from The Watcher that lets you put a pool in the garden of your in-game house. Complete with tame tentacle that might pick people up if they walk too close. Now I realise that first age weapons and radiance gear are all very desirable loot drops, but the notion of a tame pond-tentacle motivates me much more than any gear ever could!

Lord of the Rings Online offers a budget a la carte.

buffet (kawanet@flickr)

What is it with MMO payment plans and food metaphors?

Subscription games are often described as all you can eat buffets, and now Turbine is describing their plans for LOTRO as offering an a la carte option (if you don’t eat out much, ‘a la carte’ just means you get to order what you want from the menu). I guess we all just relate to food. Can’t wait to see the menu fixe, catch of the day, and pre-theatre quick dinner offers.

In any case, Lord of the Rings Online is about to become more accessible to new players – at least from a financial point of view. When the switchover happens (sometime in the Autumn, so probably Oct/Nov) the starting content/ zones will be available for free. And Codemasters also dropped a press release stating that the EU version of the game is going the same way.

Free players get a cut down version of the game, but as much time as they like to play around with it. And then if you want more, you can select which options you want and pay for those as you wish. Want another character slot? Buy one. Want more bank bags? Buy some. Want access to another zone? Buy that too. Plus the obligatory cosmetic gear. And as soon as you give Turbine any money at all for anything, you are classified as a Premium User and get a few extra perks for free. So there is a good incentive to make that first purchase, however small. You can tell that Turbine have some experience under their belt with F2P games and what western customers might want to buy.

Here’s the big (UK) list as to which types of subscriber get what. The ‘quest packs’ are zones, and since LOTRO zones do pack a lot of content, that’s going to be an interesting model to watch.

We won’t know for sure what is on offer until they finalise the cash shop. And yes, the F2P (free to play) players do get a limited subset. Only one character slot, a low gold cap, few bags, limited traits, self-service customer service (err, maybe that means access to web based help). But it’s enough to play the game and decide if you want to buy more.

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My gut feeling: feels like a smart conversion to me. LOTRO is a quality game – much heavier on the exploring and immersiveness than WoW. The quest design will increasingly feel old fashioned as newer games are released, so this is probably the right time to open it up, while people still remember and are nostalgic for earlier times.

Current players have mixed reactions. Turbine is evidently trying to give decent value to those who already have lifetime subscriptions – they still get pretty much unlimited access to the buffet plus a package of cash shop points every month. Whether monthly sub payers will also still feel that they are getting good value isn’t so clear. But at least they will have more choices on how to pay and if they decide to stop paying for a few months, they can still access their characters. The player base in general is also wary of an influx of F2P players. The LOTRO community has a good reputation, and for good reason.

But at the end of the day, an injection of new players should improve the game for everyone. The game is slower paced than WoW and casual friendly, and the type of people who will get into it enough to want to pay Turbine/ Codies are likely to be the same type who currently pay.

As for the lifetime sub, I noted when I picked mine up at half price that I was wondering what the future held for LOTRO. I don’t really feel burned that the game is going F2P. I still get about 6 months worth of subs out of it, plus the equivalent of lots of free stuff when they switch. I probably wouldn’t have bought it if I had known what they planned to announce and this doesn’t particularly endear me to Turbine/ Codies (a bonus for people who bought lifetimes recently would have done this), but I knew the risks.

And the chance of being able to get my husband and friends to try the game out in a regular group is something I look forwards to greatly. Maybe we can get even an EU blog/ reader guild going!

If you are curious then you could sign up for Turbine’s F2P beta. LOTRO is one of my favourite MMOs, and I’m happy that more people will get a chance to try it.

So what does this mean for current endgame players?

No expansion announcement. There is to be a new endgame zone, with quests and a new book in the epic story, which will all be released when the game goes F2P. It’s been about a year since the endgame players last got a new raid. Think about how WoW players start climbing the walls if they have to wait 6 months and you’ll get an inkling for how things have been.

Does F2P mean that the emphasis in LOTRO is going to be much more on casual or lower level players? We’ll have to see.

Massively have a great interview with Turbine, which picks up on many of these questions.

[LOTRO] The Future of Radiance Gear

Lord of the Rings Online is another MMO which is in a long, slow period at the moment. It has been a few months since the last content patch, which was fun, if a bit on the sparse side.

And the raiding scene is beginning to struggle. Which just means that more people are giving up on raids than are being replaced. And that means that perhaps the barriers on getting into raiding are a bit on the high side.

This warrants more explanation. In WoW, resilience was introduced as a pure PvP stat to differentiate PvP gear from PvE. In LOTRO, Radiance was introduced as a pure raid stat – mobs in raids exude a debuff that can only be countered if you are wearing gear with sufficient radiance.

It serves a similar purpose to resilience and means that players can’t use raid gear to run rampant over the monster play PvP areas. But in addition, there’s no point even entering a raid until you have enough radiance on your gear, so it acts as a kind of attunement/ gating mechanism.

And you get radiance gear from drops in various dungeons. For example, this is a guide written last year on how to get radiance for new raiders. If you are unlucky with drops, you may have to run those instances a lot, them’s the breaks. Oh and of course most other players by now are thoroughly bored with those instances so there won’t be a lot of random groups going.

So with this background, Turbine (and Codemasters) are running a poll to ask players how they feel about the Radiance gear which is used for gating raids.

Astoundingly to me, lots of players have voted for deed related radiance – that would mean that you could up your radiance score by killing zillions of mobs. Deeds are grindy, bears shit in the woods. No, Turbine should get a clue now and ditch radiance. It has served its purpose. It was never popular in any case. The people they need to lure into raiding now to keep the rest of the existing playerbase occupied with them are not the hardcore who will happily jump through all the grouping or grinding hoops. They are the people who may not be willing or able to organise their own group dungeon runs with a bunch of other players who are already bored of those instances and stand to gain nothing from them.

There are other options. EQ used to have a scheme whereby an existing raid guild could quickly attune new members. That type of facility comes into its own later in the expansion cycle when the flood of hopeful new recruits has dried to a trickle. Maybe crafting materials could drop in the raid instances to allow crafted radiance gear for new raider-wannabees also. But the view that you need to work for your raid attunement , whilst appealing to some, isn’t much help when your raidgroup needs new blood.

Gaming has moved on from when raiding was the high pinnacle of PvE to which to aspire. It’s still challenging and rewarding, but there’s no need to force people to grind their way into raid groups any more. The goal is to get more people into the raid game, not fewer. Right?

Cheap LOTRO Lifetime Subscriptions! But what does it mean?

Codemasters surprised us this afternoon by announcing a special offer on LOTRO lifetime subscriptions. This week, you can buy a lifetime sub to the game for £75 (that’s around half the normal price, I think).

It could be a clever promotion to encourage players like me who have dipped in and out of the game since it went live to finally take the plunge. And at that price, I have no hesitation about picking up a lifetime subscription myself.

Or does it herald a change in direction at Turbine? A move to more paid-for content patches and item shop together with a cheaper lifetime offer might be the new scheme. Or maybe if Turbine are shifting resources to a new game (say .. Harry Potter based maybe, since they’ve just been bought out by Time Warner) and plan to ease up on the LOTRO content, it would be time to charge less for the lifetimers.

In any case, it’s a good game with plenty to see and do, especially for Tolkien fans. And although no one knows what the future holds, it’s as good an offer as you are likely to get for the lifetime subscription.

Playing with people who have more/less time to game

In any MMO, there will be some people who play more, and some who play less. Unless you either always solo or always play in a fixed group who log in at the same times every week, you will hang out with both people who have more time to play and people who have less.

At the moment, I notice this because I’m playing more than one MMO (WoW and LOTRO). In one, I’m the ultra casual. In the other, I’m not. And in both cases, I play with people who spend both more and less hours in the game than I do.

Can it cause friction? For sure. People who play more hours will almost always have more stuff, more alts, more trade skills, more time to raid, more practice at the game skills, more friends/contacts in the game. After all, most ‘choices’ offered in MMOs vanish if you have enough time to do everything. (Which class should I pick? I’ll just level one of everything. etc.)

People who play less may be more casual, less skilled, have less gold. And that takes some adjustment. It can be frustrating for the lower hour players (why do I always have to be worse at everything? Isn’t there any one thing I can do that player X won’t pull out 17 alts who do it better?) as well as the more intensive players (how can Y not understand this simple thing?)

And of course, people often change their playing schedules. For example, at the start of Wrath a lot of WoW players featured it heavily on their gaming schedule. There was a lot to do – levelling, rep grinds, gearing up, organising raid groups. And as people get more bored or have completed more of the game, they tend to play less. They still have all the stuff and all the skills which they accumulated during the initial glut, but will spend less time right now. This type of play isn’t the same as a more casual player, even though they might be putting in the same hours.

Do you play with people who spend a lot more or less time in game than you? What issues have you found? And how do you deal with them?

In links we trust

  1. Can Gaming make a better world? Rick at /random writes about Jane McGonigals well reported speech at TED on this subject. But heck, we know how hard gamers work on problems like organising raids and killing raid bosses – which are social as well as mechanical puzzles. Would they be as interested in complex real world problems too? And here a local government blogger, inspired by the same TED talk, ponders World of Govcraft. Could people get more involved in local government and solving local issues if they pretended it was a virtual world?
  2. Scott Jennings writes at mmorpg.com about the hard numbers behind SW:TOR. How much money does this game need to make? How much has been poured into it so far? Is this model sustainable?
  3. Dusty shares some insights into social games. And particularly the mechanics that allow a player to progress by either inviting more people OR spending money. Paying to avoid socialising?
  4. Oh yeah, apparently some little Finnish guild killed the Lich King on hard mode. Awesome work, Paragon! Even now people are inspecting their lineup and preparing the inevitable whine posts if their favourite class/spec didn’t make the cut.
  5. Ravious finds that the way he sees his online community has changed. He feels more connected to other gamers (ie. bloggers, twitter community etc) than just to his guild in his game of choice.  And I’m going to twin this with a column in The Guardian where a journalist writes about the value of virtual communities – she’s comparing her son’s community in WoW with her favourite political bboard and concludes … that much of the experience is the same.
  6. Gevlon analyses why his undergeared project is floundering. His conclusions are on the button and won’t surprise any experienced guild or raid leader. People are shallow, fickle, and selfish. But that doesn’t mean it was wrong to try.
  7. Melmoth runs into some mobstacles in Moria. This is one of the big reasons why I was so delighted to escape to Lothlorien (it does get a lot better). Player vs Developer also describes why he thinks the LOTRO economy just isn’t working and the problem with emblems and multiple ‘currencies’.
  8. Fulugaris on Killing Em Slowly asks whether Burst DPS is More Fun?
  9. Brigwyn at The Hunter’s Lodge is calling time. It’s an awesome blog and he’ll be dearly missed, but as he says himself, “I’ve done pretty much everything in the game at least once.” Dwism also picked up on Whiny Post Day with a post about when you run out of fun (note: the tone of these whiny posts is of course whiny and does not reflect what the blogger is usually like ;) ).
  10. And the Big Bear Butt blogger gives some good and heartfelt advice to new bloggers. I don’t entirely agree that spelling and grammar aren’t important (some of your readers may not speak English as a first language and good spelling/grammar will help them) but it’s not something to fret about in your first draft.
  11. Finally, the press embargo on The Secret World was dropped this week. Ysharros is here with links to all the reports around the web from journalists who tried it at GDC.

LOTRO update, Final Fantasy screws the pacing, and can SWTOR really get 2 million subs?

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Mirkwood by Night (not sure how well this will come out)

The first time Arbitrary showed me around the daily quests in Mirkwood, I was scrambling along behind her hoping not to get lost. Although there are paths and roads through the zone, it’s also a big dark scary forest without obvious road signs all over the place. Strange as this sounds, obvious road signs (for no obvious reason) do feature in a few of the latter WoW zones. I never understood why Horde/ Alliance didn’t go mess with the signs in order to throw off the opposing armies.

A couple of the quests are scouting missions, in which you have to check out four different locations in order, and then report back to base. There are maps which help navigation, but still, when I started doing these dailies on my own I used to have to keep stopping (in stealth, naturally) to check my map like some kind of lost tourist.

No longer. I was able to save up enough daily tokens to buy a new horse for my character – a nice study black creature which seems fitting for a burglar. And I noticed that I was smoothly completing my scouting missions without having to stop and check maps any more. I feel like a veteran of the Mirkwood front!

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I took a screenshot of the new smoky black horse in Bree, since a screenie of a black-clad burglar on a black horse in a black forest might fail to impress. Whereas in WoW, your basic horse will do the job but the more expensive epic mount is faster, in LOTRO the advanced horse runs at the same speed as the basic one but it is a bit sturdier. Or in other words, you don’t fall off it every time a monster looks at you funny. Acquiring one was one of my in-game goals, and I’m pleased that the black one was the more accessible to me from the Mirkwood elves.

The other picture is a demonstration of why glowy daggers and stealthy burglars don’t really mix. Gosh, I wonder where the stealther is in this picture? Fortunately orcs are very very short sighted … or something.

In which I want to slap final fantasy 13

A couple of people commented on my affection for the extremely on-rails presentation of FF13. What can I say? I wouldn’t want every game I play to be linear like this but it’s refreshing to see it done well, like a palate cleanser. In general, the games I have most enjoyed on the PS3 so far have had strongly directed, well designed gameplay. It seems to be a general strength of console games.

Or in other words, I like smoked salmon and could probably eat it for every meal, but I also like other foods and some of them don’t go well with salmon. Ultra-linear, highly directed gameplay is not really what I look for in a MMO, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be fun in its own right.

Having said that, the pacing of FF13 became glacial during chapter 6. I don’t expect to actually feel bored during a Final Fantasy setting. Interestingly, it was the gameplay pacing that was off, the narrative pacing was fine. It’s perfectly OK to have a long sequence in which two characters who didn’t get along have to travel together, and along the course they learn to trust each other.

Just usually in films you’d go to a travelogue or montage sequence to show the passage of time without boring the pants off people via a sequence of forgettable fights.

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But I am a mercurial gamer and the game picked up massively in chapter 7. So now I love it again, I genuinely enjoy all of the characters and their development arcs, and can’t wait for our next session. It’s quite a feat of storytelling to show such marked character development for all of the main characters. They don’t quite pull off the marriage of gameplay with narrative, but I still love what they are trying to do.

Also, Lightning is awesome.

Can SWTOR really get 2 million subs?

A few bloggers have picked up on a report that EA chiefs have high hopes for Star Wars: The Old Republic, and are shooting for 2 million+ subs. I’m not linking to them all because what everyone says is, “Is that realistic?”

Yes. Star Wars is a big and very well known franchise. But if that was all it took, then why isn’t LOTRO larger than World of Warcraft? Still, it certainly helps to get word out of the door, and Bioware’s stonking recent record of story based games (Dragon Age, Mass Effect et al) surely doesn’t hurt either.

I can only conclude that:

  1. Bioware have a lot on their plate at the moment. They’re known to be working on Mass Effect 3, and almost certainly on a Dragon Age 2 (sequel). On top of that, SWTOR is a vast undertaking and also the most expensive project in EA’s stable at the moment.
  2. SWTOR is an incredibly risky project. I’m still amazed that both EA and Bioware chose to go the AAA MMO route at this point in time.
  3. SWTOR rather failed to blow reporters away when they tried a demo at GDC. People liked it, but no one came away saying, “Oh my god this is the next big thing, give it to me now etc etc.” Having said that, the trooper sounds quite fun – a dps class which can switch from ranged to melee and has big guns.
  4. I think they will get their 2 million subscribers. They may end up redefining what a subscriber means, especially if they go with a hybrid pricing model but they’ll get the numbers.
  5. I’ll play it! So now they only have to find 1,999,999 other people and they’re golden.
  6. But I’ll still wish it was Mass Effect Online rather than Star Wars …

And the gratuitous female fighter in platemail picture

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From Alice in Wonderland, of all things. But now I wish Tim Burton would take on The Faerie Queene as a project — I’d pay just to see the visualisations.

Thought/s of the Day: RMT

Surely the easiest way for a MMO to make money out of a cash shop would be to get a gaming licence and open an in-game casino? Why not take a page out of the book of games that were actually designed around players spending real life money as part of the game?

RMT in WoW

Suzina raised a storm on Kill Ten Rats with her account of gold buying in WoW. She started a new character, got to level 40, wanted dual spec and got sticker shock at the cost. But instead of deciding to defer dual spec until she could afford it, she chose to break the rules.

So when I realized that obtaining 1000 gold by level 40 was unrealistic, I made the decision to purchase gold. I bought about 1000 gold for about ten dollars from the Microsoft of gold-farmers. You know, that company that owns Allakhazam, THOTTBOT, WOWhead and a bunch of other fan sites? They got my ten dollars.

As an aside, I think she’s very unaware of what the gold sinks actually are in LOTRO. As a lifetime player, with plenty of time to amass gold, she might not know how punishing the repair bills can be if you’re raiding or instancing regularly. Or how expensive it is to level a crafting skill. Or how expensive those second age weapons on the auction house look to a new player who could use them while levelling. I could easily imagine a new player in LOTRO facing similar temptations if they were in a hurry to do any of those things.

In any case, I wasn’t intending to discuss her choice (which I disagree with). But rather to note that WoW does offer legitimate RMT. If you buy a pet from the virtual store, you can trade it in game (or at least trade the item code). The barriers to doing this are  to do with trust between players, and the fact that not everyone with lots of gold actually wants another virtual pet.

The second factor could easily be overcome using a scheme like EVEs where CCP sell time cards (for cash) with codes that can also be traded in game. Every player in a subscription game will use a month’s sub so there’s a constant demand. And players who have amassed lots of virtual gold might find it attractive to be able to trade some for game time.

So it would be possible to make legitimate gold buying part of the game. However, it will never be possible to take the illegitimate source completely out of the picture. Never. If a game card sells for £10 and is currently trading for 1000g in game, the black market only has to sell 1000g for £9.50 to make themselves more appealing to any player who doesn’t care where the money goes and just wants their gold.

This is why I’m all for the gambling licence. The genius thing about gambling games is that they make the RMT (or the bidding in other words) an actual part of the game.

[LOTRO] When I’m 65 (and eyeing up the endgame)

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Fortress of Dol Guldur
I have been playing LOTRO in a very casual way, on and off, for the past few months. I have the great advantage of being able to call on Arbitrary for help when I get lost, need some in game advice, or want help with some quest or other, but otherwise I’ve been playing mostly solo.

I played the game for a few months when it came out, which was long enough to reach max level at the time and then get very ticked off at the (then) endgame zones of Angmar and the associated raids and instances. I picked up the Moria expansion a few months after it came out (and was discounted) and spent another month or two delving into Moria and trying out the new legendary weapons. Again, I enjoyed my time with the game, but drifted away when my attention was caught by something else.

And then the new skirmishes that came in with Mirkwood caught my eye, and I knew that I wanted to buy in again for a casual trip to Middle Earth. And so, for the first time in about 2 years, my burglar has actually hit max level again.

You can see from this that the way for a game to encourage me to resubscribe is to bring in some new and shiny functionality in a way that is easy to try as soon as I log in on my old character. New zones alone won’t do it, because I might not be the right level. So even Moria might not have grabbed me if my character at the time hadn’t been high enough level to go play there.

So … how’s Mirkwood?

dgpics I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my time with the elves in Lothlorien and Mirkwood. Moria’s epic but thoroughly confusing 3D architecture gives way to the more pastoral wooded vistas of the glowing golden wood and the murkier .. err.. murky one.

Mirkwood also benefits from being smaller in scope than both Shadows of Angmar and Moria – it has an easily comprehensible overarching plotline and stays mostly focussed on that. You are assisting the elves of Lothlorien in their push into Mirkwood and assault on the necromancer’s fortress of Dol Guldur. It will surprise no one (who is familiar with the source material) that this later turns out to be a feint intended to draw the Dark Lord’s gaze and armies away from a small NPC fellowship that is making its way towards Mordor.

So in many ways, Mirkwood is like Icecrown. You are part of an advancing army. You don’t know whether you will be able to overcome your foe. There is a grand fortification at the end of your journey. As you get closer to Dol Guldur, the quest hubs are fortified army camps and the quests will encourage you to capture more of the zone in piecemeal fashion.

The epic book questline that runs alongside the expansion is also a winner. Again the LOTRO team keep the questline focussed and interwoven with both the lore and the expansion storyline. You are working with a small team of elves on a very important prisoner exchange. In the course of the questline you get to know the individual elves quite well, and you will also get to strongly dislike the prisoner who you have to escort to the exchange point. I’m not used to feeling this kind of connection to NPCs in MMOs, so it’s a tribute to the LOTRO writing team that they can evoke this kind of emotional reaction.

The individual quests of the epic book are also astoundingly well executed. There’s a good mix of exploration, solo scripted questlines, killing, gathering, and the team also take the opportunity to showcase the highlight of Mirkwood, the skirmishes. Some of the epic book quests are implemented as skirmishes, so not only do you have the option to bring some friends along if you have any (or you can do them solo, since they scale), but you can also replay them afterwards.

Aside from giving the player a variety of activities, the quests are also very immersive. That means that if your character is lost and frustrated, the quest will make sure that you are too. If your character is nervously scouting ahead through a spider filled tunnel, expect to be nervously scouting through a spider filled tunnel (they will drop on your head unexpectedly, oh yes.)

One of the highlights for me was a quest where you are hunting for a lost dwarf in the swamps. You are warned to be careful of the boglights, but the quest is also set up so that the boglights will fake being images of the dwarf. You run up to them, the image disappears and reappears mockingly just around the next corner. The quest map and quest pointers play into the illusion and will direct you wrongly to the next illusion. It is only when you abandon those things and start searching on your own that you have any chance to actually find the missing dwarf.

You can decide for yourself if that sounds awesomely immersive or just annoying. (It’s actually both, but I can appreciate what they were doing with the storytelling.)

One of the other shining points of the storytelling is that after the main storyline is concluded, you can access several epilogues. That means as you travel back through the zone and hubs, some of the NPCs you had interacted with will have new epilogue quests for you. These give some closure and let you catch up with how events affected some of the individuals, whether it be taking news to faction leaders, helping some dwarves to honor their ancestors, or helping to bury dangerous artifacts deep in the tunnels of Moria where they can never be used again.

I would have loved this in Icecrown, where so many characters are left with dangling storylines. The epilogues make sure that no one’s story is skipped.

Another highlight of Mirkwood is the referrals back to LOTRO and The Hobbit.

combolotroquestI’m hoping this is going to be legible, but it shows how Mirkwood quests involve you making sure that Gollum isn’t caught by minions of The Enemy, and making use of the secret entrance by which Gandalf once sneaked into the necromancer’s lair to talk to Thorin’s father (which happened just before the beginning of The Hobbit.)

Pacing and Gearing and Reputations and Assumptions

I am always nervous about logging into an old game when I know my character is not well geared. What level of gear or preparation are they assuming for the new expansion? Will it be frustrating to play if you are a year (or more) out of practice and away from the cutting edge?

Turbine did a fantastic job with Mirkwood, at least for players like me. You can tell this because the only times I was frustrated with a quest, it turned out to be because I was doing it wrong. I was easily able to pick up new gear as I levelled by handing in reputation tokens or completing quests. Legendary weapons are also very accessible either via the auction house or reputation items – the key is that they mostly will not have optimal legacy abilities, but I found it easy to pick ones that were good enough for me.

The reputation in particular is very well done. You pick up reputation for the local elf faction for pretty much everything you do, and the reputation vendors are scattered through the zone in such a way that the vendors for your particular level of rep will turn up just as you achieved that rep level. That probably sounds confusing but in practice it’s very easy and natural to access reputation vendors and buy upgrades for your gear as you work through the questlines and quest hubs.

I capped out my reputation just about as I completed the book questline, which is a good example of how well the pacing is worked out. (I had done most of the normal quests too and a few of the dailies along the way, but never really pushed hard for reputation.)

Endgame or not Endgame

lonelands Lonelands, believe it or not!

Another place the LOTRO team score high is in introducing the player to the end game smoothly. As you run through the last of the book quests, you get stronger pointers towards the instances and raids. You even get a few tokens slung your way – not enough to really buy anything but enough to direct you to the token vendors to see what else you might be able to get in future.

The daily quests are introduced in the last few quest hubs, and worked into the overall theme of the zone (they involve patrols, killing orcs, and so on.)

But eventually you will have to make the choice: do you want to engage in endgame or not? Do you want to run the instances? Do you want to run the raids? Do you want to run the dailies? Or are you going to focus quietly on other things until the next expansion. It’s a decision all MMO players have to make at some point.

And the prospect of trying to learn new instances when everyone else is running them on hard mode and advertising for experienced players in chat channels is not really enticing to me. I don’t want to see them that badly. Plus  I have very little experience of grouping, and although I’m fairly clear on what my class is supposed to do, it’s quite likely that I’ve missed some key points. I think I could figure it out but I’m not sure if I really want to or not.

But I am not quite done with Mirkwood yet. Book 3 is coming out soon and with it duoing in skirmishes, which sounds intriguing to me since I do have a friend who plays. And also a new epic book quest, also intriguing to me given how much I enjoyed the current one. And meanwhile I can try to figure out how to make some gold in this game, catch up with all the Moria quests I skipped on my first run through, and maybe even buy a house to play with.

It’s amazing how free you feel once you decide that you don’t want to get tied into the endgame grind.