Dragon Age, and the unending battle of fluff vs crunch

I am still working my way through Dragon Age, and still thoroughly enjoying the game. While people agree in general that the game is of high quality, there is a split of opinions online as to how well it actually works … as a game. All of these games which tell stories have to provide a mix of storytelling (ie. exposition, introduction of NPC characters, exploring the world) and actual gameplay. So it isn’t surprising that different players value different parts of that mix in different ways.

Brainy Gamer has a fair summary of gameplay issues, particularly with how persuasion works in the game. (This has been an issue with pen and paper games since forever also. How DO you play a character who’s smarter or more persuasive than you are in real life? In P+P we either roll the dice, or the GM shrugs and has the characters respond as though you were being convincing.)

evizaer picks apart the combat gameplay

Mitch Krpata finds that the game doesn’t do anything to show a non-RPG guy how to play or relate to it.

It’s also not surprising that a lot of MMO players are really digging Dragon Age. The mixture of quests, exposition, combat gameplay, and large world setting isn’t that different from the MMO standard, but being a single player game, DA is far more tailored for the single player experience. The UI is familiar, the basic tactics are familiar (crowd control? heals? tank? check.)

Neither is it surprising that a lot of gamers like the game, but criticise the gameplay. It does feel awkward to show such awesome storytelling, and then follow it up with a scene where you run around picking up everything that isn’t nailed down. That doesn’t really help the story, and it feels old fashioned. Really, everything your character owns or acquires should have some sort of story behind it, whether you earned some money and bought it from a merchant, or it was gifted to you. Picking up loot from random monsters is often daft, and grabbing everything in sight in town is just stealing.

I also agree that letting you queue up commands on characters in combat, or switch to a full turn based option, would have improved the combat experience. In many ways, DA isn’t even trying to raise the bar or change anything major about RPG gameplay – a genre which is old and already feels strained. Even as a roleplaying game, DA is an awkward mess of old skool D&D tricks such as old fashioned puzzles, problems that can be solved by killing more stuff and dungeons with the equivalent of 10’x10′ rooms with traps and wandering monsters, and more modern RPGs which take a more story based or character based approach and offer more nuanced moral dilemmas.

But still, somewhere along the line players have to decide whether the good side outweighs the bad, and that’s a personal decision. Whether the fluff (everything that isn’t direct gameplay, like dialogue, story, worldbuilding, character design and animation,  achievements) outweighs the crunch (hard gameplay, stats, how gear relates to performance). And when the fluff is this good, it feels churlish to ignore large steps forward in one side of the game and just cavil about locked chests.

Dragon Age is one of the most immersive RPGs I have ever played. The human noble origin brings tears to my eyes (I’m a sucker for stories where a character’s beloved parents die, probably because my mother died young). I have felt genuine regret at decisions I have taken in the game, I’ve certainly wanted to shout at some of the characters. And I’ve laughed at others. That sort of strong emotional response shouldn’t be brushed away as ‘Well, the storytelling is OK I guess.’ It’s far more than OK. It’s the response you feel to a good film or a good book. This is why people love it, and the tactical gameplay is probably better than most MMOs.

You can’t compare that to a game on rails like Uncharted 2. Yes, the cut scenes in Uncharted are great. But they’re just bridges to the next platform/shooter section. I don’t care about those characters, except that they amuse me. The cut scenes in DAO are interactive, and although that just means picking options from a list, it also means that you have ways to drive the story forwards in different directions.

As a gamer, I’d love to see better gameplay for interpersonal interactions. There’s no reason why dialogue shouldn’t be as exciting as a shooter – it’s easy to imagine scenarios where someone’s life could just as easily depend on how a conversation proceeds as how quick a player is on the draw. It’s totally fair to criticise DAO for not even trying to advance the state of RPG gameplay.

But it feels harsh and one dimensional to me to fail to note the advances the game has made in the areas of storytelling and immersion. I never wanted to cry when I was playing Uncharted 2 (except possibly in frustration at not knowing where I was supposed to go).

5 things I learned about Dragon Age

edited to add a link to the review: Read it here — it’s now up on the web.

PC Gamer this month features a glossy and rather glowing full review of Dragon Age — this one is notable partly because of the writing but also because the reviewer played the whole thing through to the end (he comments that it took him about 80 hours for his first epic playthrough). Even the editor notes:

The last two months have been excrutiating. We’ve had Dragon Age in the office for what feels like an epoch, and John’s been raving about how sensational it is almost daily.

There’s also a pre-review in Eurogamer. And as a sign of EA’s confidence in the game, they note:

It’s an important game, then; we got an indication how important (and how big) when publisher EA started distributing a complete PC review version to press months before its release. That never happens.

OK, enough of the behind the scenes stuff, what have we learned about the game itself.

  1. There will be two modes of play. Easy which is similar to MMO style play, and Normal where you can pause to set up actions for each party member repeatedly during the fight.
  2. In addition, you will be able to set up combat tactics for members of your party, similar to the way you could program behaviour into your party in FFXII. So you can set them to heal when they get low on health, switch from range to melee weapons, and so on. It sounds as though it can get quite complex if that’s what you want.
  3. Similarly, if you are interested in picking out a complex talent and skill spec for your character and party you can do it. If not, they can be set to skill up automatically along preset paths.
  4. Dwarvish culture — we’ve heard a bit about the elves, humans and mages. Dwarves have a complex caste system by which young dwarves take the same caste as their same-sex parent (ie. dwarf girls get their caste from their mother, dwarf boys from their father.) Then there are casteless dwarfs, unrecognised as members of society and with their ancestry removed from dwarven history (so presumably their children are fated to follow in their footsteps.)
  5. How your fellow party members feel about you will affect some romance options (apparently there are gay romance options too, my money is on the naughty tattooed witch for the female one because only ‘naughty’ girls are ever allowed to be bi in games, but I’d be happy to be proved wrong) but also give them gameplay buffs, unlock personal quests, and determine whether they leave or not.

If there was one comment in the PC Gamer review that really intrigued me, it was discussing  NPC vendors who follows you around:

Treat them as more than a shop, talk to them, and the details of their past emerge along with a surprising ethical quandary.

What I’d give for an NPC merchant in a MMO who rewarded you for treating them as more than a shop! In any case, the reviews sound as though the game is everything it has been described as and more. Reviewers praise the immersiveness of the setting and the sense of detail and having experienced a world, not just a game.  Phrases like ‘the RPG of the decade’ and ‘it feels like the consummate, traditional PC RPG’ are not bandied around lightly.

How will I survive the countdown to release date now, dammit?! I already decided that my first character will be the city elf fighter — the city elf beginning involves a wedding, an abduction, and possibly a rape, so I’ll try to model her on The Bride from Kill Bill. Anyone else got any ideas for characters?

[rhetorical question: I'll survive by playing Torchlight, clearly. And maybe playing Dragon Age Journeys, the free flash game that goes live tonight.]

Review: Free Realms

Free Realms is Sony’s engaging new teen-friendly MMO, and as Zoso so wisely sums up, “It’s free and it has realms.” I’ll go into that more later but in practice Sony claim that you can access about 60% of the game without paying.

The game itself is bright, friendly, and doesn’t have heavy hardware requirements. There’s plenty to do and see, it’s very easy to get started, and Sony are keen to impress on parents how safe an environment it is for kids. Free Realms is also exceptionally polished for a newly released MMO, and the pretty avatars have a good variety of quests, mini-games, and different environments to explore.

It is a super game for casual players, or even just players who like casual games. Whether or not it has the kid appeal that Sony are hoping for remains to be seen.

So we begin

One thing that the team have gotten very right is how quick it is to get into the game. You sign up on the website and can create your character before you even load the game up.  You can choose between a human or a small winged pixie, and although the range of customisation options isn’t huge, it is  easy to create a pretty avatar of your own. It’s also nice to see a choice of dark-skinned options for characters. I loved the character design, they’re nicely drawn and appealing.

For naming, you have the choice between using the semi-random name generator (it’s random but you can tweak it) or submitting your own custom name to be approved later. If you go with the latter, you will then get to generate a semi-random name to use while the approval process is going through. They were approving the names very quickly when I tried and it’s an innovation I wish more MMOs would use, particularly on RP servers.

Then you select the ‘play’ button and after a few minutes wait for the initial download, you pick your server and you’re in. The game continues to download segments while you play, which is why the initial download is so fast. I love this system of content delivery. You get straight into things without having to either buy a box or wait several hours for a massive download and it’s been working very smoothly indeed.

The starting tutorial is laboriously slow and non-optional, and holds your hand while you move around and try out a couple of careers. But that’s me speaking as an MMO vet, and it’s a small enough price to pay so that kids and people who are newer to the genre can have a quiet environment in which to find their feet.

Free as in bird

One of the endearing things about Free Realms is that there are so many choices about what to do. And no penalties for making ‘incorrect’ choices. If you aren’t in a mood to do quests you won’t regret it two months later. If you get bored of mining and decide to go have a beach party with some friends, it doesn’t matter.

It can feel very confusing when you are first thrown into the world proper. It’s so bright and so shiny and there are lots of icons all over the place beckoning you to go and investigate, and no railroaded directions on what to do next.

What you SHOULD do next is go and play. Try things out. Lose the mindset that says “what’s the optimal thing for me to do next” because there probably isn’t one.

To me this takes the notion of a theme park game up a whole notch. I have seen real life theme parks that were less theme parkish than Free Realms. you only have to look at the (beautifully colourful and interactive) map to see how the different attractions are laid out. Want to play chess or do some demolition derby? It’s easy to mouse over the map until you find the nearest chess table or driving minigame.

There are quests around also if you’re stuck for things to do. And you only have to talk to any of the local trainers to be introduced to one of the many in game careers.

A look at the careers and minigames

There are several careers in which characters can progress and endearingly, you can switch between them whenever you want. Each one is distinguished by it’s own minigame, and as you play the minigame you can go up in levels (I’m not really sure why this matters, but for those who like to see numbers ticking up the option is there):

  • Kart Drivers play a racing game
  • Demolition Derby has a Mario Kart minigame
  • Cooks have a set of minigames where for each recipe, you get to chop, smash, slice, fry, and stir your way to victory.
  • Mining and harvesting share a bejewelled-alike pattern matching game.
  • Brawlers have a more standard MMO experience, where you select hotbuttons to use your different attacks on mobs.
  • Card Duelists have a fully featured card playing minigame which is based on a Magic: The Gathering style of collectible card game. There’s some decent depth to the game, it’s beautifully implemented, and good fun to play.
  • Pet Trainers can train their pets in a Nintendogs type of setup. Note that you do have to shell out real cash to acquire a permanent pet, but you can pick up temporary ones for free in game to practice your training skill.
  • There’s a post office career too that I haven’t tried yet.
  • And there are other careers that are only accessible if you choose to pay the 5$ pcm subscription (medic, wizard, fighter, blacksmith, archer).

Of the ones I tried, the card duelling and the harvesting bejewelled game were the real winners for me. I thought the car steered like a slug in the demolition derby, and the brawler just wasn’t interesting (I have a WoW account if I want to play that kind of game, after all).

You will notice though that there’s nothing here that’s very novel. All the mini-games are based on tried and tested games. You can also play chess, draughts or several versions of tower defence (which is one of my favourite casual games so no complaints from me), none of which have careers attached.

Despite being aimed at kids, the mini-games themselves offer a good level of challenge. Bejewelled is bejewelled. The game comprehensively beat me at chess (but to be fair, so do 9 year olds). The cooking minigame required fast reactions if you wanted to get the best scores.

Mini-games as a way of life

Most things that you do in FR will take you into a minigame of some sort. If you see a mob and want to fight, you have to walk up and click on it to get into the fighting minigame, for example. And it did make me think about how dull MMO playing often is. The ‘minigame’ of farming mobs is simply a lot less interesting than bejewelled. Although the FR minigames are way more fun than typical MMO solo fights or crafting, they aren’t visceral in the same way.

One thing I did note is that despite the bright cartoony graphics, I don’t find the game at all cute. I think this is down to lack of personality but I can’t really put my finger on anything in particular.

So where are all the people?

I found it surprisingly difficult to add people to my friends list. You can do this either by seeing them in game or by being on the same server at the same time and typing their name into the friends window.  Since you pick your server when you log in (another subtle but smart innovation) it means you need to prearrange with your friends to be online so that you can friend them. It doesn’t really feel like a safety measure because random people try to friend you when you wander past anyway (you do get to option of whether to allow them to be your friend or not though). There are also no guilds.

As far as playing with others goes, you can certainly play against other people in some of the minigames. The card duellist, car racing, and demolition derby in particular. Keen spent more time playing the MMO-type side of the game in beta and had fun grouping up with friends to go kill stuff (he liked the dungeons, which I haven’t seen yet).

So there are options to play with and against other people. But the minigames I liked were just as good solo. I’m hoping at some point  to try some of the group content but given the total lack of a looking for groups function and the difficulty of adding people to the friends list, I’m at a loss to figure out how. Can’t see me getting the other half to try this one.

Show me the money?

If you do decide to give Sony your money (and they’re reasonably shameless about asking for it), you have two options:

  1. Pay the $5 pcm subscription for access to all the careers and sub-locked quests. I think there is also a level cap for regular careers if you aren’t a subscriber but I hadn’t hit it yet. Since you don’t need a particular level to play the minigames I’m not sure how much this matters.
  2. Pay for tokens which can be used to buy items in game such as a permanent pet, clothing, and booster packs for the card game.

I think a lot of people will take them up on the monthly sub, it’s cheap and does unlock a fair amount of content. But the main money maker is likely to be the card booster packs.

Collectible Card Games (CCG) have the ring of gambling about them. You pay your money and get your booster pack and if you are lucky you’ll get powerful or rare cards. If not, then you won’t. CCG in an MMO where there’s pressure to keep up with lots of other players sounds like the sort of environment where if you don’t pay, you might as well not turn up. It’s like being in constant tournament mode.

I’m not sure if they have some kind of ranking system which will match you against people who have spent similar amounts (I’m betting not, because that would negate the idea of spending more to be better than others) but I wouldn’t want to be the parent of a keen and competitive card duellist.

Good Points

  • It’s pretty and has low hardware requirements
  • Quick to set up and get started
  • Very polished implementation. Fun minigames.
  • Lots of choices of things to do in game. Very easy to switch from one activity to another.
  • Lovely map.

Bad points

  • Friends list is awkward.
  • It’s not actually free to play, although a lot is. Adjust expectations accordingly.
  • A little unfocussed. Is it trying to be fun for kids or fun for adults?
  • Poor customisation options. Maybe because it’s trying to be simple for kids but you have very limited options to rearrange the UI, remap the keyboard, etc.

It’s harsh to complain about what isn’t there in a new MMO. After all, this is just the beginning (and a very polished beginning it is). But Sony do have plans for the game:

There are some things that we actually have talked about, but they just didn’t make it in time for launch. We do still have soccer coming. I know Smed has been talking about that a lot. I can’t give any exact dates for any of these because we’re in player feedback mode right now. So we really want to make sure that the game is solid, we’ve nailed all the bugs and that we’re paying attention in the forums and paying attention to what people are talking about. So that’s our first priority right now, which is making changes and pleasing the customers that we already have.
We do still plan to let you have a garage and let you customize your car, which was always something we’ve talked about. Also some new jobs that we have in the works, but that’s all I can talk about that’s in the pipe. It’s not close as in next month, but it’s definitely something you’ll see sooner rather than later.

Hopefully one of the new jobs in the works will be the rock star which is hinted at enticingly in one of the pictures in the loading screen that shows a female character with a guitar.

I can’t help being disappointed that there’s so little educational content in a game aimed at kids. Even a couple of minigames involving words and numbers (Scrabble and Sudoku?), a world map (Risk?) or a little more reference to real world mining and extracting techniques in the mining minigame would have gone a long way.

When Sony talked earlier about the lack of directed quests making more room for kids to create their own stories, I was also expecting more … storytelling tools. A fashion designer maybe, or collaborative drawing package, but no. What they actually meant is that there is no story. There’s no lore, no background to the world, no reason to do any of the quests besides ‘NPC x has lost her chickens, go find them.’ One of the other things that makes the card duellist stand out is that the introductory quests actually do have a story.

So the game is great as far as it goes. The mini-games are fun and challenging. I hope it’s successful and finds its audience. I’m sure I’ll be hanging out in Free Realms (my character is called Linnet Lightfoot) also for the odd game of penguin defence or to do some mining. I may even try the subscription or succumb to the temptation to get the permanent pet (I can’t stand Nintendogs is the stupid thing, just one of the  cats looks exactly like my cat and … yes I know, it’s very lame but still tempted). But if this is the future of MMOs then I’ll bow out after this generation of games.

You see, I like my stories.

Other Reviews

Syp explains why he wasn’t all that impressed

Dusty@ Of Course I’ll Play it tries the game with his own kids

Jennifer’s first impressions are mixed

Tipa has a technicolour review with lots of pictures.

Tobold really liked the card game, if only Sony would let him give them his money

A little touch of Spellborn in the night

Maybe I shouldnt have picked the thin setting

There is such a thing as too thin

The Chronicles of Spellborn (TCoS) is in beta at the moment, and I was bored … a dynamite combination. And so Spinks the Rogue Trickster was born.

Spellborn is a fantasy MMO, so you will be running around doing quests, killing boars, casting spells, crafting stuff, listening to other people noob it up on the zone channel, wondering what happened to your bag space, and all those other much beloved features that people expect to see these days.

The more unusual features, which I’m going to dwell on, are the combat, the immersive use of stats, and lack of gear dependence.

There are both PvE and PvP servers. On the PvP server, there are safe zones, but after you get out of the starter areas, it becomes more of a free for all.

And although I didn’t level up high enough for that, PvP in this game is going to require quick thinking and good observational skills, because there’s no way to tell what class/discipline an opponent is just by eyeballing them. You have to see what they do and then react.

So let’s start at the beginning

Character creation lets you pick between two different races: Human or Deva (a satyr-type demon). You can pick between three different builds, from skeletal thin (as in the screenshot above), athletic, and an adorable fat suit that I wouldn’t expect to be so popular. Although the temptation to make a Fat Bottomed Girls guild and only let fat characters in, and sing Queen covers as we roam the landscape cutting bloody swathes through our more svelte opponents is quite high.

You pick your base class from the three standard choices of warrior, rogue, or caster. You will later (at level 5) pick a discipline in which to specialise, which is basically your class. Each base class has three subclasses to choose from.

And if it sounds as though there isn’t a ranged class, think again. Due to the way the skills work, classes have a wide range of skills, Guild Wars style. Just you have to decide which ones you want to slot for any particular situation.

So, for example, my rogue has a full suite of ranged attacks. If I wanted to set her up as an archer type, it would be very easy to do.

You have a wide choice of skin and hair colours and a reasonable range of styles. (My test character is blonde because I was briefly obsessed by trying to make her hair the same pale colour as the skin. I’d have had better luck matching skin and hair if she’d been black. Will do that next time, and there are hairstyles and faces that would look good like that.)

Clothing wise, you are not actually stuck with a standard set of newbie gear. You can design your armour from sets of different parts that you mix and match. Again, don’t read too much into the fact that my test character looks like a scrapheap. The customisation is limited but you do have some scope to pick your own look. The armour is also all dyeable.

If you change your mind about gear later on, as well as being able to pick up drops, you can also buy any of the chargen armour in towns.

Note: every character, regardless of base class, uses the same chargen. This means that you can’t tell from the gear what class someone else is. Yes, casters can use heavy armour and two handed swords if they want. But the gear is largely just for show.

Once happy with that and you have picked a name, you are dropped into the newbie tutorial. This is a little solo instance where you can practice moving around, interacting with NPCs and items, and try a few simple fights.

And then you’re off into the outside world.

Look and Feel

The game uses the Unreal Engine and although the proportions on the characters can look mildly odd, the way they move and fight looks very fluid. The starting area is attractive, and characters fit well into the world. I mention this because in some games the world is gorgeous and the characters feel tacked on, or move so badly that it’s painful to watch.

That isn’t the case here.

Combat!

Combat is what really sets this game apart. There are three main reasons for this:

1/ The reticule. You have to target an enemy in order to hit them. Like a FPS, this is done with a targeting reticule in the middle of your screen. It changes colour to red when it is moving over something which you can attack.

2/ Moving around in combat is important. You can actually duck out of a mob’s melee range to avoid a blow and then run back in. Mobs have to aim at you in order to hit you, so if you are good at moving around, strafing, and so on, you can take almost no damage.

3/ Skill selection. When you go up a level, you can pick one of a number of skills to add to your skill deck (ie. the skill deck is the set of skills you currently know). From your deck, you assign skills to your combat quickbars. You use the mouse or number keys to pick a hotkey and the left mouse button to fire it, while aiming at the enemy. But wait, there’s more. The quickbar is actually a set of three (initially) bars. And after you have used an ability, it rotates to the next bar automatically (after the third bar it goes back to the beginning). So when you assign skills to the quickbars, you have to think about which order you might want to use them in. Does one debuff need to happen before another attack? When might you want a heal to be available? What about ranged attacks?

So once you have set your quickbars up, combat is an involved mixture of selecting abilities, moving around, keeping the enemy targeted, and watching your quickbars rotate to gauge what ability will be available next.

There is also a semi-complex set of buffs and debuffs to add into the mix. Some abilities do more damage if an opponent is debuffed in specific ways.

It takes some practice and I’m not sure I’d ever be good at it, but it is for sure a lot less dull than standing around and hitting frostblast repeatedly.

Meaningful Stats

We’re very used to seeing stats on our character sheets which aren’t very meaningful. They mean something to the game mechanics, sure, but aside from amounts of health, you wouldn’t notice them by looking at characters.

Spellborn isn’t quite like this.

There are three main stats: physique, morale, and concentration. When you go up levels you get some points to assign between there. And as a general rule, warrior classes specialise in physique, rogue classes in concentration, and caster classes in morale. NPCs and mobs have these stats too, and they will affect how they fight.

Physique affects how quickly you move. And since dodging and turning are  important in combat (not to mention running away!), this is one of the more important stats.

Concentration affects your attack speed. In game this means how quickly your quickbar wheel rotates between one attack and the next.

Morale affects how much damage you do.

So for example, a boar in game has low physique. Even if you didn’t know this, you’d see how slowly it turns in combat. Wolves, by comparison, have high physique and are much quicker. So there are subtle differences in mobs that you fight beyond how much health they have and what spells they may or may not cast.

And if you debuff one of these stats on an opponent, you’ll see the effect immediately.

I like this. It’s a nice change from having to squint at little icons to check what debuffs you have up. Although you can do that too.

On the downside, if you get attacked by a pack of mobs who all debuff the same stat, you can end up in some serious trouble. I was able to run away from a load of humanoids who all debuffed my Physique… but I was running very very very slowly. Fortunately I was able to strafe a bit to avoid some of the hits which is how I survived, but it is a bit savage.

Gear in general

Gear is basically cosmetic in this game. But each item has slots into which you can add sigils (ie. thingies with stats, if you find or make them). Don’t expect to know what class someone is just by looking at them.

My summary, from the heights of level 7

I really liked the combat. It felt involving and immersive. Needing to keep the opponent targeted lent the whole thing a very FPS feel, although it really isn’t a first person shooter.

So if you’re looking for something like that from a fantasy MMO, definitely go try Spellborn. I also think the skill deck has the potential for some fairly deep, tactical gameplay. I liked how my rogue could have easily fitted herself out as ranged OR melee dps. Or probably even both, but I’d have to juggle skills around and really decide which I wanted.

At higher levels, this will get more interesting due to longer quickbars, more bars, and more skills to choose from. At low levels though, trying to decide which skill to learn on reaching a new level is quite overwhelming.

It is also bizarre to me that the tutorial stopped just when it was about to get to the complex parts of the combat/quickbar system where a tutorial might actually have been useful.

The newbie quests themselves weren’t very exciting. Kill ten boars cropped up on more than one occasion. But to be honest, I was happy to have something to practice my noob combat skills on, and that’s what the starting quests are all about. There is a definite paucity of mobs in the starting area when lots of other people are questing too. The areas themselves were attractive and once you got past the whole ‘kill ten boars’ness of the quests, they’re written well enough.

In the next zone up I did more exciting things like lead lost cows back to pasture!

The world building and lore that I picked up was intriguing. There are politicking great houses, a world broken into shards, and lots of history that I didn’t really understand. But it was really the combat that I found more enthralling — the starting areas and quests are serviceable but not more than that.

I liked my roguelet well enough, the trickster looks to have a fun bunch of things to do. Sure, I saw casters soloing groups whereas my main experience of soloing groups was ‘how to run away from stuff’, but that could just as easily be my inexperience at strafing around and moving in combat.

I spoke to one guy who had a high level trickster on the EU game and he really liked it. So take that as you wish.

More reviews:

Dragonchaser has a great first impression post here. And for another view, check out Melmoth’s first impressions.

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…