Life’s been busy which means, of course, I’ve been beaten to the punch on getting more thoughts on the LotRO Beta out into the blogosphere. With Open Beta looming, I thought I’d better get on it.
There’s a lot of good stuff out there already about LotRO’s seven cardinal classes: Champion, Guardian, Captain, Burglar, Hunter, Minstrel and Lore Master. LotRO’s site has a fair summary. Tobold also did a pretty accurate quick summary of each IMHO and is definitely worth a read.
I’ve had a chance to roll at least one of each and take each of them at least through the noob instance to get a general feel and take a few characters up to about level 20 (out of 50). As I’ve mentioned before, there is evolution but not revolution in the rock-paper-scissors class archetypes typical to MMOs. Other than certain racial restrictions on class availability, race selection doesn’t seem to have much of an impact on class viability. A hobbit Guardian (tank) seems about as effective as an elf, dwarf or human version of the same.
Each of the classes definitely seems very solo-friendly and additive rather than required for most fellowships (groups). A Guardian (tank) and Minstrel (healer) may be an easy choice for more difficult encounters, but I was not left with the impression that they are mandatory for most encounters. Most classes have some kind of self-heal and Captains have a group heal over time buff that reduces the need for pure support classes. This could change at the higher levels, but opting for covering all the bases, I haven’t had the chance yet to level a character that high.
With LotRO’s attempt to remain consistent with the lore, magic use is supposed to be somewhat suppressed. As a result, group buffing and other typical MMO magic use is more limited to combat situations (e.g., the Captain’s group heal over time can only be used after defeating any enemy). The result seems to be a much more flexible system for group encounters that wont simply require a cookie-cutter tank-healer-dps group template.
Character progression follows the a familiar experience driven leveling process but is very quest heavy. Grinding mobs just doesn’t seem to provide the bang for the buck if you are trying to level quickly. New abilities become available and trainable as you level. In a slightly interesting twist, “active” abilities—your primary attacks and special abilities—become trainable on the attainment of even numbered levels while passive abilities become trainable at odd ones. This is a minor but nice feature. Rather than the now familiar two-levels between upgrades, advancement can feels like its on going rather than in big chunks.
One other nice feature is that active abilities scale with your character. Once you learn a particular type of attack (e.g., Shield Swipe), your proficiency in it increases as your character progresses and you use the ability. You do not need to train new levels of that ability as you progress, merely the new ones when they become available.
In addition to typical XP based advancement, players can complete accomplishments which give “traits” aka “talents” as rewards. Traits can be equipped for a small fee at a Bard in most major population centers. Over time, your character can acquire a variety of class, racial and legendary traits which allow customization and re-customization of your individual character. Characters are limited in the number of slots in which to equip various traits, so you have to choose a bit like a card game which traits you want play from your deck at any given time. Reconfiguring traits, at least at the lower levels, didn’t seem excessively expensive, nor did it escalate, so it appears to be a feature that would allow players to experiment and even to prepare for different challenges in different ways without spending all their hard earned coin to do so.
The now familiar rested experience bonus attempts to help level the playing field between those who play a great deal versus the more casual player. There is no mentoring option however, so I suspect alt-itis will be required to keep groups of players at the same level if they desire to do so.
Crafting professions are intended to be interdependent in LotRO, forcing crafters (other than the Scholar) to exchange needed items to advance their skills. Initially, players must choose a “vocation” of three crafting professions. The LotRO site has a good summary here. The armsman vocation, for example, consists of the prospector, weaponsmith and woodworker professions.
Each professions follows a two tier approach to proficiency: skill is first advanced until proficiency in Tier One is attained, then Tier Two recipes become available and you can work on gaining proficiency in Tier Two and/or continue working on Tier One until “Mastery” is attained. To become a master at the highest levels, you must achieve mastery in each of the lower tiers. Mastery unlocks additional options when crafting which requires the addition of certain rare items—typically odd drops from mobs. Each item crafted at the lowest levels typically yields 8 points toward the attainment of proficiency (200 points require), so it feels a bit less grindy than other MMOs.
Most professions typically require specific tools and a specific workplace (e.g., workbench, forge, etc.) as well as some purchased consumables (e.g., wax is required to process Rowan branches for woodworking, etc.). Crafting an item simply consists of having all the necessary materials, tools and workplace for success. The gathering professions include a resource detection “radar” skill to detect resources in the wild.
As of this writing, the devs are still balancing the attributes of crafted items and drops, but it appears that crafted items at the lower levels will probably not be as good as drops, at the higher levels certain crafted items will be superior. Depending on drop rates, the ready availability of crafted items may make them viable interim equipment solutions. For example, with my Guardian, the shields I was able to make initially were better than anything I had come across for sometime while I was able to find comparable or better drops or quests for other armor items. I found advancing my crafting skills in LotRO to be much more satisfying than WoW and much less time consuming and frustrating than EQ2.
Deeds and Titles
In LotRO, there is almost a secondary game that offers a welcome respite from the typical level grind. Players can earn titles for various accomplishments which can be equipped to let the world know who they are reckoning with. A few examples, upon achieving level five without being “defeated” aka dying, you are awarded the title “the Wary.” If you make level 10 without being defeated you can be known as “the Undefeated.” Similar titles abound for various accomplishments like slaying various beasts (Feather-Foe, Web Slasher), completing quests in a given area (Guardian of Ered Luin), crafting (Master Apprentice Farmer) or even founding or belonging to a kinship aka guild (Founder, Member, Leader). These are fun diversions and provide a nice alternative reward system
In addition to titles, deed provide a means to drive game play and yield rewards in the form of new traits which can be equipped. Similar to EQ2 collections, deeds don’t require a specific quest, rather the player is given the laundry list when an item is attained. For example, the “Places of the Dwarves” will reward the player with a new trait for having visited a number of lore driven locations fostering exploration and immersion into the lore. Tired of following quest chains? Go explore Middle Earth and be rewarded for it.
There are a number of other nice features and maybe a few annoyances in other aspects of the game. First, the basic UI seems reasonably well thought out despite criticisms I’ve read. The UI is very WoW like and uses most of the same keyboard commands for similar functions, so the learning curve should be minimal for WoW and EQ2 players alike. A nice native feature is the ability to easily move any UI element on the screen. Toggle on ctrl-\ move it, toggle off, done. Most of your character-related information is accessed conveniently from tabs off one character window.
Quickbars. Button bars currently aren’t scalable which I didn’t find to be a problem, though some may find them too small and the icons a bit busy and indistinct. Being a keyboard quickbar player rather than a mouser, this didn’t bother me, but in higher resolutions, small buttons could be a mouse target challenge. There are three additional “quickbars” available for use as well as the standard 1 through = bar. Each of these come pre-mapped to ctrl, alt or shift+ the 1 through = keys. These can be locked always on or only appear when ctrl, alt or shift is pressed.
Bags. Currently each character comes with a full complement of bags. I don’t know if this will change in Open Beta or on release, but nothing is more annoying in an MMO’s noob experience than to constantly run back to a vendor to off load trash which clutters up your 4 starting bag slots. I’m thankful that this hindrance has been removed and we’re given a full set of bags to start.
Quest tracker. Active quests appear on the right side of the screen along with their current objective (e.g., kill ten x, speak to y). Each quest has an almost too ubiquitous ring icon next to it. Left clicking the ring will open your quest log to that quest. A nice convenient feature so you don’t have to fumble through your log looking for where to go/what to do next. Right clicking the ring icon will give you a number of options to access the looking for fellowship (group) tool to either identify yourself as on that quest or to look for other players to join in.
Looking for Fellowship. The social panel has a fairly decent who/looking for fellowship tool. Basically is a /who panel with a range of filterable characteristics like class, area, level, etc. and the ability to simply put a /who note on your character. Elegant, simple and easy. Amazing that WoW still couldn’t get get this right after several iterations. Don’t want to be bothered with random tells? You can select “anonymous” and be excluded from the /who lists. Nice.
Infrastructure. LotRO incorporates all of the now “standard” MMO features like bank storage, mail, auction, taxi service and return home.
One annoyance is that there are no shared bank slots and bags can’t be stored in the “vault.” I’m hoping some of this will be addressed before Open Beta or a subsequent patch. With the diversity of ingredients for crafting, storage could be a challenge. Couple this with a current mail tax on sending items (20% of vendor value, but this may change) and I see a storage crisis developing.
Stable masters provide horse bound taxi travel between destinations that have already been visited and “swift” (instant) travel is available over longer distances. One nice feature is that you can “dismount” at any time along the non-swift travel routes. Favorite hunting ground half-way between towns? Just hop off. Of course that means you’re walking the rest of the way, but its still a nice improvement and fosters exploration.
The kinship (guild) system is fairly standard. A race specific or all race charter can be obtained for a nominal fee, though currently there is a minimum of 6 members required to create a kinship. The kinship UI is part of the social panel and doesn’t currently allow customized ranks or titles, only Leader, Officer and Member. Guild founders, leaders and member are given a special title which they can equip too.
Monster Play. LotRO’s take on PvP, monster play is available after you reach level 10. Visit a scrying portal and you enter a mob character selection screen and can choose a high level persistent monster character or characters to play in PvP zones. I only briefly experienced it, but these PvP only monster characters have their own quests and rewards. While I only hopped in briefly, it seemed like all the fun of WoW battleground PvP without all the headache and frustration. It was fun, but for my play style, it may be a welcome diversion but not a reason to buy or not buy the game.
For me, the combination of a highly soloable game coupled with a few alternative modalities of gameplay make LotRO an attractive game—at least from a casual gamers prospective. While balancing is still ongoing, the game is still fun and I’m looking forward to spending a fair amount of time there. As I’m not generally much of a PUG player (too many bad experiences in WoW), I’m looking forward to dragging a few of my regular gaming buddies in to LotRO. I’m a founder but am not ready to pull the trigger on the lifetime subscription yet. Hopefully, Turbine will keep that option available for the future. Six months after release if I’m still interested, I might be willing to make that commitment.
Whether the game has the legs to sustain itself will ultimately depend on how Turbine finally balances the game before Open Beta and the rate at which they can provide new content patches or expansions which the game will cry for relatively shortly after release. Eriador and the Shire in particular is a good place to start, but players are already drooling at the opportunity to explore Moria, walk the streets of Minas Tirith and storm Isengard. Even so, the game has a high degree of polish (especially compared to Vanguard) and while there isn’t anything particularly revolutionary about LotRO’s design or gameplay, it is the mother of all fantasy IPs out there and one in which many MMO players have long been waiting to explore. Lets hope Turbine can deliver the goods over the long haul.