There is a Lt that Never Goes Out…

…Well, until he does. Repeatedly.

To set the scene, the Lieutenant of Barad Guldur is the current final boss in LotRO. He rides a fell beast, and he’s /actually/ a Nazgul. Yes, we get to fight a Nazgul in Book 1, but not to actually kill one until the end of the Mirkwood content. It’s an unforgiving fight and we’ve been plugging away at Barad Guldur for at least 6 months – months that seem to have dragged for me.

I’ve made no secret of my disdain for the design in Barad Guldur, though I’ve enjoyed all of LotRO’s previous raids (The Rift is awesome and you get to kill a Balrog, Helegrod has a massive undead dragon as a boss and is the only 24-man content in the game, Dar Narbugud has some interesting boss fights, through a multi-boss adventure). Barad Guldur has 3 boss fights. You can do all of them in normal or challenge mode. But that means instead of 6 bosses, you have 3 bosses that you fight twice in the course of conquering all the content in all possible ways. To me, that made it feel like it dragged on a lot longer.

We’ve also had a rotating raid group which doesn’t help with getting content down fast, but has been more sociable, for sure. So while I’m sure the length of time we’ve been bashing away at the content has suffered because of this – it’s just a fact of life for our kin and has only really impacted me because we don’t have many Capts so even when I want a night off, I tend to sign up to make sure the numbers are reached.

The start of Barad Guldur is awesome, a gauntlet you have to complete within a timeframe (it resets completely after 45m) where you rush up flights of stairs and get waves of Uruks, goblins and wargs. As chaotic fights go it’s awesome, and just the kind of content I like. But, after that, the instance falls a bit flat for me. The fights continue to be interesting, the first few times anyway, but they’re slow and repetitive. And, of course, because of radiance, you can’t just plough through bosses 1 and 2 on normal mode just to get to the Lieutenant fight.. no, it makes more sense to gear up the raid as much as possible with both normal and challenge mode armour drops. That definitely helped our survivability.

Anyway, back to the Lieutenant. The fight takes place at the top of the tower (and yes, if you wipe you have a stupidly long run up a zillion flights of stairs to go back to the fight). In the first phase, the group attacks the fell beast with the Lieutenant mounted upon it, and when it gets down to 150k health, the Lieutenant will dismount and the next phase begins. DPS is king in the first stage (without going into dull tactics), there’s a huge benefit to getting to the transition as quickly as possible. The second phase, involves tanking the Lieutenant and killing the beast and then the raid can concentrate on the final boss in phase 3. That makes it all sound so simple. It’s a very unforgiving fight and not much fun for melee, generally. There’s 10% power regen only throughout the fight. If anyone dies while the Lieutenant is dismounted, we’ve had almost certain wipes (though, I believe it’s not a certainty and there are tactics to deal with that, but not ones we’ve mastered).

So it’s taken us a while, and has felt like the longest slog in my raiding career. And yet last week we did it on second attempt, and this week we did it first time. It’s a relief sure. A pain that I’m top of the loot list and don’t especially want the armour drop (radiance is being got rid of next update and it’s not a great stats set for Capts), but I still think people should thank me for not being selfish and taking it anyway, cos I’m a total brat :-). But looting aside, it’s a definite relief and one that couldn’t have come soon enough. Not sure WHY we suddenly made this progress. We barely got the numbers to raid from the start of December till last week, to the stage the raid group almost fell apart. Without going too much into kin politics though, we really thought our chances were all over, until someone from outside the group suggested we might not go again – and suddenly sign-ups were up, we recruited another couple of possibles and last week managed to get locks for just the Lieutenant from the other raiding group in the kin (because not enough of us could make our initial raiding night when we’d traditionally do bosses 1 and 2).

Four-week break and not having to go on Friday seemed to do the business, though. But then this week we repeated the triumph after having cleared the first two bosses on Friday and then killed the Lieutenant first time. Obviously sometimes a break and a bit of a push is needed. Yes, we tweaked our tactics a bit, but not so much that I think any of us thought we’d have such a massive push of progress (previously we’ve killed the beast only 4-5 times, I think and then wiped within 30s). But, it’s all good and whatever it takes. Our kin is very good at killing the final baddie just before new content emerges, and we’ve done it again. Hurrah!

BUT.

TURBINE SUCKS.

Because there are no bodies to take screenshots of, they disappear immediately. And that SUCKS.

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

outsidedolguldur

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.