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Lord of the Rings Online Impressions from Beta: Part II

25 Feb

With the NDA lifted, piles of reviews are starting to populate the blogosphere which mostly report positive experiences. My general impressions have also be largely positive, but Brent’s recent Virgin Worlds Podcast #53 raises a number of interesting and valid criticisms of the current state of the game. As I mentioned in Part I, I want to take a stab at describing more of what I think the game is and is not. I think you’ll see that while LoTRO (and probably no other imminent MMO) is certainly not a WoW-killer, there is quite a bit in the game if it suits your idiom.

MMO-Lite?

Definitely, but I don’t think that’s so bad. Character advancement is definitely weighted toward quest-driven advancement rather than simply a mob grind. I suspect hack and slash types may find this a little boring. The designers seem to have tried to take a kill 5 rather than 50 rats approach though I was still rather surprised at how quickly I was able to level without feeling like I was trying to level up. Quests are plentiful, but the downside is you really need to do them to progress.

Most quests are quite solable, though there are a few which are designated “group” quests which may be accomplished at-level with a small group, or a few levels later solo. Quite a bit of the game seems very solo-friendly and a reasonable amount of progress can be made in a relatively modest block of time. While I’ve been known to “grind” away most of a weekend in a game, I feel like I can make noticeable progress either leveling, exploring or tradeskilling in the mythical 2-hour block in LoTRO.

With my highest level character at level 16 (out of about 8 characters), character advancement, at least through the early stages, seems more incidental to experiencing the game rather than the point. I don’t think this is so bad and is one primary reason why I’ve been enjoying the game.

Adult Swim

I’ve called it WoW for adults and I think that still holds true– at least while we’re in the beta. Its not WoW in terms of polish, but its not EQ2 or Vanguard in terms of complexity or to the extent I’ve experienced, depth.

It’s a fair criticism of the game that the massive lore of the books is both the game’s biggest strength and biggest weakness. The absence of grindyness and early PvP seems to sidestep the juvenility that seems inherent to games like WoW. While there is humor in LoTRO and even whimsy (roll file footage of Shire pie eating contest), its art and quest design are far from farcical– again leaving a distinctly mature impression. The overhang of the lore, however, is palpable and you can’t help feeling that the devs felt limited in how far they could push game design beyond certain key lore-based constraints.

Likewise, the game’s deviations from the classic rock-paper-scissors class archetype design seems to require a bit of a rethink in familiar class roles while being far from revolutionary. LoTRO’s seven cardinal classes: Champion (melee-dps), Guardian (tank), Captain (combat support), Burglar (debuff-dps), Hunter (ranged-dps), Minstrel (healer) and Lore-Master (crowd control-dps) depart if not break from familiar character classes.

Despite criticisms to the contrary, I’ve not found combat to be button mashing exercises. At higher levels, different combat skills can chain together to create meaningful alternatives depending on whether your are solo or with a group, trying to get and hold agro, control mobs etc. I’ve succeeded in encounters where I was previously defeated by changing my tactics and combat skill usage.

Each has aspects familiar to any MMO veteran, but LoTRO’s attempt to reconcile the traditional holy trinity of DPS-Tank-Healer with the lore (i.e., there weren’t hordes of Istari stomping around Middle Earth) will require some adjustment in both gameplay and expectations. Battles are, well, battles, rather than Eleventy-First Birthday Party fireworks displays.

Fan-boy Three

Like other MMOs based on well-known IP, there is little to reveal but much to see. By and large, players aren’t given extensive lessons in the lore, but the game is not and cannot be the same experience as that in the books. No player will join the fellowship, and your little Freaudoh will not bear the ring, so life in Eriador takes on a “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” quality—bit players experiencing life between the scenes otherwise dominated by the stars with top billing.

So while the IP provides a wonderfully rich setting for a game, it just simply doesn’t provide as clear a roadmap for an MMO. Certainly the devs made the call early-on that an Orcs and Goblins versus Humans, Elves, Dwarves and Hobbits MMO with PvP ganking on the Brandywine Bridge wasn’t going to fly. Even with Monster Play, LoTRO’s take on PvP, adventuring in Eriador is a PvE experience.

That said, I’ve still found life in Eriador to be reasonably interesting. I’ve definitely had to consciously get out of “tourist” mode to really start enjoying the game. There was definitely a brief period of disillusionment or frustration with the game after I had seen most of the tourist sites. A real feeling of “is that it?” until I went back and started to get into the vibe of the game. It is an MMO and not a theme park though there are plenty of theme park attractions. I suspect there may be many Middle Earth tourists who will initially be drawn to the game simply to see Middle Earth rendered in glorious 3D that will leave frustrated wondering what the hype was about.

To be fair though, life in Eriador is also ONLY that—life in Eriador. We can’t dungeon crawl through Moria, scale Isengard or doorbell ditch Sauron at the gates of Mordor—yet. This unfortunately leaves one wanting quite a bit more from the game with the hope that expansions will follow relatively quickly. I almost feel like this is the Eriador expansion to the full game which doesn’t quite exist yet. Even so, however, I still find the game compelling and complete enough to provide me with a fulsome experience.

More to follow in Part III.

 

 

 

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Posted by on February 25, 2007 in Uncategorized

 

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