[LOTRO] How not to check out new content

So there has been a new patch into LOTRO with new instances, a new raid, and a new part of the epic book and since I have a lifetime sub, I thought I would go check it out.

Of course, you can’t really check out the new bits of epic book quest until you’ve caught up with the part that you probably should have finished earlier. So this is where our heroine started her journey, trying to remember where she’d last left off.

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While picking up my old quests and exploring/ getting lost in bits of Enedwaith that I had forgotten even existed I found a random stone that was glowy and clicked on it! Ping! A new deed popped up.

What this picture above means is that there are other mysterious glowy stones to find and if you can find all of them then your character will get a new title. “Calm before the Storm” is actually a pretty cool title I think, and this is a good example of how LOTRO deeds aren’t quite the same as collection quests but can sometimes have a lot in common.

As an explorer type of player, I love this stuff. It’s more interesting than just, “I see a shiny, I pick up a shiny, I put it in the right collection” which you get in Rift and EQ2 but you are still encouraged to go explore and find stuff. (Note: who am I kidding, there are probably player-generated maps online with all the mysterious stones marked on them but I’m going to pretend that isn’t true.)

Whilst still on the catching up phase of my questing, I failed the cardinal rule of things that you should do when you check out new content!

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Yup, this was the hole I later fell down and died, even though burglars actually got a new ability this patch to Safe Fall. (Colours look weird because it was dark and underground so I’ve turned up the contrast for the screenie.) So when you log in after a new patch – check whether your trainers have any new skills to teach you!!!

One thing about LOTRO as a game, and the questing in general is that it genuinely does run at a different pace to games like WoW or Rift which have been more optimised to stop players getting bored. In LOTRO, it is entirely possible that you will be sent to the other side of the zone to find a remote dwarf fortress with a hidden entrance – and it may take you over an hour to find it. Some quests are quick, some are not. After a while, I find that I adjust and quite enjoy the slower “scenic route” but it really isn’t a game for all tastes.

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And then, when you are least expecting it, they remind you that you’re in the LOTRO world with links to the main storyline and foreshadowings about where your character and companions may be heading in future.

One of the high points to me of Enedwaith is a solo section where you are able to sit in on a council of the neutral tribe of Dunlendings who you have been assisting. An envoy from Saruman has arrived to try to recruit them to his faction. You are there to represent the Dunadain (because the rest of the Grey Company is busy losing its collective bows or something). It’s a very well written scene, and will be a delight to LOTRO fans. The Dunlendings decide to stay neutral, but make it clear that they prefer your deeds to Saruman’s honeyed words.

And with that, I’m finally just about caught up to the new stuff. Arb has already tried out one of the instances and was raiding last night and her initial feedback has been pretty positive. I’m looking forwards to finding out for myself!

The problem of stealth in MMOs

Melmoth writes about his fabulous Warden in LOTRO – it’s a very powerful and capable class, and great for both solo and group work. It can tank a bit, has some self heals, ranged as well as melee attacks, gets some AE capability, and can even teleport around the map (very useful in LOTRO, which has a large world map).

Whereas my burglar …. has stealth. Which doesn’t work all that well in groups, in raids, or against tentacles (this is a real tentacle by the way, not a tame pond one in the garden).

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Stealth classes are usually popular in games. Being able to pick your fights is a huge advantage in PvP – the classic stealther attack of leaping out of hiding and backstabbing an opponent is fun to play (and a nightmare to balance).

Stealth has advantages in PvE also. In particular if you are an explorer.

  • Ever wished your game had a pause button? If you are a stealther, then it does. Any time you need to get the phone or grab a drink, just hit the stealth button. Your character will (probably) be safely there when you get back.
  • Ever needed to get to a quest mob that is behind a bunch of trash and wanted to do it quickly? Stealthers can usually avoid a fight whenever they want to. It’s great for exploring dangerous terrain also.
  • Or even if you’ve ever just wanted to check quickly if a quest mob is present, stealth saves the bother of having to clear an area unnecessarily.

But stealth simply isn’t that great an advantage compared to just being generally badass. You won’t notice this so much in WoW because the classes are all generally very powerful. But if a champion can mow through mobs almost as quickly as a burglar can stealth, then stealth isn’t really much of an advantage. Avoiding combat is never as rewarding as killing mobs in most MMOs.

Most players like to mow through mobs. A rogue-type class that dances around with crowd control, debuffs, and juggling survivability cooldowns is never going to kill a bunch of mobs as fast as the plate wearer with the devastating AE attacks. In WoW they just gave rogues better AE, and watered down the roguelike feel of the class.

In games like WoW that have become so focussed on the group content, and where the main object in instances is to clear then as fast as possible, rogues and their stealth playstyle has no purpose. The tank pulls, the healer heals, and everyone else AEs. No one wants stealth or the more strategic sneak-and-dodge pace of pulls which goes with it.

LOTRO isn’t quite the same style of game. They do provide many more quests which ask characters to scout out an area – something which stealthers can do quickly and neatly. There are entire zones (ie. most of Moria) where simply exploring and finding your way around is a big challenge, and stealth can be really useful. There are solo dungeons where a stealther can explore and set up ambushes without worrying about a group zooming ahead of them and just nuking everything anyway.

It may be that the different pace of a soloing stealther is one that can never really fit into a group based MMO. Not unless the whole game was about thieves (which would be pretty cool, actually). Maybe stealth belongs back in the era where games were more about exploring and less about quick badges and achievements.

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!

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.

LOTRO: living the fanfic dream?

Lord of the Rings Online is a game that you either love or hate. This will largely revolve around how you feel about Tolkein’s world. If you love it, you’ll put up with the duller parts of the experience and revel in the fantastic parts. If not, you’ll spend a lot of time being bored and wondering what the fuss was about.

It’s an MMO that you have to treat as an experience as much as a game (ie. some of the gameplay leaves a lot to be desired, of which more later.)

Quick LOTRO update:

My runekeeper reached the dizzy heights of level 21.

On the bright side, she does seem to have come on in leaps and bounds as a soloer. still not great but I feel able to handle 2-3 mobs of my own level, and either win or survive long enough to get away. I still like the general class design but find some of the abilities a tad weak, I don’t really like the amount of time it takes to switch attunement from healing to damage. It’s really designed for use in groups, not soloing (a mob will probably be dead before you’re fully attuned for damage).

On the downside, she is now deeply ensconced into questing in the Lone Lands. It’s pretty dull, to say the least. This is your grandmother’s style of questing. “Kill 10 Lynxes.” “Now go back and kill 10 spiders.” “Now go back and kill another 10 lynxes.” “Now we’d like you to run from one end of the zone to the other and back again.”

People in general have been very friendly, polite, and literate. It’s a game that tends to attract an older, more cooperative crowd. I’ve been offered free crafted goods, help with quests, and company while I ran from one end of the zone to the other. Even the person who asked me for help in a low level quest in a distant zone was polite about it.

Enough Lone Lands, what about Moria?

my burglar

my burglar

So, bored of the Lone Lands quests, I was nudged by my guildies to log my old burglar in and check out some of the new content. She was last seen at level 50 stuck halfway through volume 1 book 8 (if you know what that means, you are probably groaning and remembering that quest).

Harbouring painful memories of the past, I decided to ditch the old content and head straight to Rivendell to pick up on the prelude to volume 2. Note: Volume 1 covers the storyline quests for the original game, Volume 2 is expansion content.

(If anyone is interested in comparing experiences, Zubon@Kill Ten Rats has been checking out Moria also, but unlike me he wasn’t lazy and finished off volume 1 first :) )

I spoke to Elrond who remembered me, touchingly,  and sent me off to help the fellowship prepare for their journey onwards. This led to a series of one man instanced quests in which I was able to go and talk to them, get chatted up by Boromir (any time Sean, your place or mine?), and was finally invited by Elrond to come and see them leave.

It’s well written and convincing and … yes, feels as though you’re there in the film with them. Gandalf even turns to your character as they leave and says that he wishes  you could come also, but they could only take 9. (Silly? Well, maybe a bit, but you’d have to have a heart of stone to be a Tolkein fan and not be even a little charmed at the conceit.)

There is no other game that offers this kind of experience. For all the great things that Wrath does right (and there are many), you feel like an adjunct to the NPCs. In LOTRO, even though you actually ARE an adjunct to the NPCs, you feel as though you personally are part of the story.

The experience is then somewhat dulled because you’re back to regular questing until you get to the next part of the storyline (ie. book 1). It would be funny if it wasn’t so sad.

Remember those ‘Kill 10 lynxes’ quests I was talking about in the Lone Lands? They’re back with a vengeance. And I grant a special mention to the Pembar questline that sent me back to the same half orc settlement no fewer than 5 different times, from 2 different quest hubs. Often to kill the exact same mobs again and again. That is what regular questing is like in LOTRO, with some exploring for traits thrown in.

I am very very lucky to have a wonderful sister who plays a Captain which means I didn’t have to actually ride down from Rivendell to Eregion — Captains can summon you around the world.

At any rate, I got around to book 1 which again was a brilliant, immersive and well narrated experience. It involved some nicely put together instances, side quests, and again I was deeply involved in the story. The writing is simply superb. Also, when an NPC gets grabbed by a tentacle from a murky pool and tells you to run — RUN!

But the best part is that at the end, you are presented with a legendary weapon of your very own.

Say hello to my little friend

The legendary weapons that level with you are one of the big draws of this expansion. And they are utterly brilliant in concept.

Your weapon gains xp any time you kill something (I am told there are special weapon xp gaining instances at max level also). It also has traits, which are similar to glyphs in Warcraft. Each trait typically affects one of your abilities. So for example, my burglar’s dagger increases the range on one ability, increases the crit chance on another, and so on. The difference is, when your weapon goes up a level — which happens very very fast at low levels — it gets some weapon xp which you can spend to either increase the power of one of its traits or increase its base dps.

Every 10 levels, you can go and have your weapon reforged, which gives it an extra trait. You also can occasionally do quests which reward you with a scroll of naming that lets you add additional abilities to the weapon, such as extra damage to a certain type of creature or a change in the weapon’s damage type.

Suddenly, those grindy quests became a lot less dull for me. I was levelling my cool dagger! And I’m told that eventually you get to name it yourself also.

I find this legendary weapon mechanic far far more fun than it has a right to be in practice. And it is my top pick for ‘ideas that WoW will nick for its next expansion.’

So, in summary so far

I think that Lord of the Rings Online is a game of extremes. They do some things brilliantly, awesomely, incredibly well … and others are painfully lacklustre. So how you feel about the game will depend very much on:

1. Are you so entranced by the good parts that you can overlook the dull parts?

2. How much do you like Tolkein’s worldbuilding? Have you ever secretly wanted to adventure in Middle Earth and meet the NPCs from the books?

To an extent, 1 is true of most games. Just in LOTRO the great bits are so amazingly good, and the dull parts are … amazingly dull.

And now if you’ll excuse me, my dagger is just a few kills short of level 11…