The Myth of Character Customization

With LotRO open beta rolling out and the official release later this month, more and more people are getting a chance to take a more serious look at the game.  The same occurred as Vanguard went open beta and into release.

In reading comments and forums posts, one thing I find interesting is the amount of weight people put on character customization.  Yes, everyone wants to be unique and above average, but let’s be serious, does this really matter in the grand cosmic scheme of things?  It certainly seems to.  When its bad, it really does seem to matter.  But when does “better” become the enemy of “good” by consuming resources better spent elsewhere? 

By “character customization” I do not mean item and clothing textures per se, but I do mean the ability to say, thin or thicken one’s eyebrows, or to select between slightly blue and slighly more blue eyes, or a bold chin or a slightly less bold chin.  Mea culpa, I certainly spend a fair amount of time on the character customization screen (even in WoW if you can believe it), so I’m not immune to this anthropomorphic narcissism.  I assume that game devs are simply responding to increasingly loud player demands.   Go them.

But does any of this really matter?  Consider that if you play in first person view (*shudder*), you never see your character at all.  Consider also that if you play in 3d person over the shoulder view, you will become intimately familiar with your character’s backside.  And that backside (your dorsal surface, not your derriere), from nearly the first moment you enter the game, will be covered by armor, a cloak (if you choose to show it) and a helm (likewise).  Even if you don’t show your cloak and helm, you are treated with the view of the back of your own head, so maybe hairstyle matters.

But doesn’t customization then at least make you appear unique to the rest of the game world?  I’m not so sure that faint scar I put above my left eyebrow is really going to help my guildies or friends pick me out of a crowd, nor the slightly-less-than-[blue][green][purple] eyes, etc.  Or the fact that my handlebar moustache with double braided beard is a particular shade of red.  You get the point.

Since I run in 3d person mode most of the time (and, as a healer, typically zoomed fairly far out for maximum situational awareness), I find I visually identify my friends and guildies mostly by what they are wearing or by the oh so convenience billboard hanging over their head with their name on it which I recognize…

So I ask the humble question, is all the time and effort spent by devs to create highly customizeable avatars really the best spend of limited development resources?  Doesn’t it really just turn into a performance hit at somepoint as the client needs to keep track of a thousand different bits of information for each character rather than say, a hundred or ten?  Would some of that dev time and money be better spend on better mob AI or animations or polishing the combat system?

Yes I recognize this is heresy, but the deeper question is what do we really need in an MMO to create a meaningful and unique character identity?  Is a floating player name enough?  Height and weight/build?  Hair/facial hair style?  Skin tone? Player customizeable clothing items (cloaks, shields, standards, tabards, etc.)?  Or am I completely missing the boat and do we, in fact, need infinite variability in all aspects (even more than mere sliders for variation of a trait)?  Is it an identity thing or a world-diversity thing?

One interesting tidbit for further thought.  I posted in the LotRO beta forum asking for an NPC eyeblink feature, something I thought that is subtle but goes a very long way to adding to the living feeling of a game world (much like the now standard character breathing and fidgeting animations).  The response I got was telling: such a task would be a collossal undertaking (I don’t disagree) and considering how much time and effort the team had recently been putting into further avatar customization efforts, it was unlikely that such a frill would be undertaken prior to launch.  A completely rational response.  Character customization 1, immersive world feeling 0.

LotRO In-Game Movies Available

A few days ago, Turbine made the in-game movies available for download and installation for existing open beta users.  For those of you that have no idea what I’m talking about, the beta download did not include various cut scences and expository movies such as the character creation movies (race and class) and the transitional newbie zone movies that caused Wilhelm2451(tm) such consternation and confusion a while back.

Of course, I already rolled a bunch of alts before I saw the post, so now I’ll have to go roll another bunch to see the noob transitions. 

The download which totals about 500MB can be found here.  Enjoy.

Lord of the Rings Online Impressions from Beta: Part III

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.

Class Archetypes

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 Advancement

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

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.

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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

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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.

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Other Aspects

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Take Away

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.

 

 

LOTRO: Some Visual Contrasts

A lot is being written about how good LOTRO looks, including a good deal by yours truly.  And by and large, I think it looks very good.  Now by “very good,” I mean that as an average grade.  I guess I’m kind of a hard grader.  In LOTRO’s case, more often than not it results from a combination of wonderfully greatly awsomish things and a few things that are, well, maybe not so good.  To give you an idea, I thought I’d post a few screen shots of what I mean.

Here is an absolutely gorgeous bridge near Celondim by the Elf starting area.  You’ll note it is intricately detailed and arches gracefully over a river with a waterfall cascading down a stone hill in the background.  The Elf starting areas have a fair amount of vertical relief, so graceful curving stairways and elevated platforms in a similar style abound.

Next to the shot of the bridge, however, is a typical waterfall.  Blech.  Its hard to believe this is even part of the same game.  Hard, angular and the speed of the animation is too fast giving the impression of watching an old silent movie sped up.

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Throughout, the LOTRO team has devoted extraordinary efforts to create a truly beautiful and immersive world.  Two examples below demonstrate the point.  On the left is the sign outside “The Mad Badger” inn in pre-apocalypse Archet.  The sign is, well, a mad badger.  Just like you’d expect to see.  A real sign.  Not a generic sign that only reveals its content in a tool tip when you mouse over (though it does that as well).  Each of the inns and other signed buildings have an equally unique designs.  A very nice touch.

Next is the wall of some ruins just outside Archet.  This one is a small self-contained contrast.  Note that the wall texture when close up is fairly pixelated, though it looks great from anything more than a slight distance.  At the wall’s base, however, the ground texture is shaded creating the impression that runoff from the wall has collected over time and deposited moisture or eroded material as one might expect.  A small touch but you definitely notice these things when they’re not there.

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One thing I’ve noted as a minor annoyance throughout the betas is how the graphics engine handles rendering distant objects.  In LOTRO, distance objects are blurred and are rendered in high detail as you get closer.  They don’t seem to gradually get more detailed or fade into the high res version, but seem to just click into the next level of detail.  The nest shot shows what I mean.  The detail on the cliff face in the distance is already shown in high resolution, but the top of the same cliff and beyond is left blurred.  This isn’t a clever, split-second rendering on the fly effect.  It persists over a fairly wide distance range even with most settings set fairly high.

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Also, while terrain elements like mountains, rocks, pallisades and buildings seem to always appear, foreground objects like trees will suddenly pop into view when you move into range.  At times its a bit jarring.  These next two shots show what I mean.  On the left, my hobbit burglar, Sloblo, is a short distance from Archet which you can see in the distance (the pallisade behind the big rock).  As I walk closer, a giant (and beautiful) tree pops into view partially obscuring what I used to be able to see when I was further away…

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Continuing on a theme, here is a shot of a beautifully detailed fence along a road outside Archet.  Note Solobo’s shadow playing across the individual rails and the effect of the light reflecting off the different sides of the rails.  Now, right next to the fence is one example of excessively angular, planar hill terrain that seems to plague certain areas.  This is a theme across the landscape and one I hope they fix before open beta or launch.  Green grassy rolling hills these are not, though as the screen shots above show, something LOTRO is capable of achieving, even if only in visual effect.

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More on attention to detail versus the bigger picture here.  I think the sheep is very nicely done.  Though a static screen shot doesn’t do it justice, when the sheep moves, its fleece moves in several independent segments giving the impression that when it shakes, the wave moves through its fleece with each segment oscillating independently very much like any heavy coated animal would when it shakes.  Very nice touch. 

Back to the big picture, waterlines are hard and linear even though the water looks gorgeous and has come a long way from earlier betas IMHO.

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Finally, the stars you see at night are the actual constellations as viewed by Tolkien from England.  Here above Denoin you can see the familar sight of the Pleiades.  You will easily be able to pick out Ursa Major (or Plough or Big Dipper), Orion and any other you care to mention.  The only challenge you may have is that the night sky may appear a bit overwhelming to those urban dwellers who may be used to seeing only the brightest stars.  If you care to notice, you’ll also see the actual moon which moves at a game appropriate rate across the sky.  I’m not sure whether it phases, but on Saturday the 24th it appeared as full in-game when it should have been a waxing half moon IRL.  Of course, with short game days, it probably doesn’t make sense to cycle in synch with a real lunar month.  Still, very nice small touches.

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With just a little more attention to the bigger world environment, I think LOTRO would be approaching WoW’s sense of environmental continuity but with a much more rich, dramatic and less cartoonish effect.  Many of the interior spaces are already extremely well done, so I’m hopeful that the polish on these items gets applied before release.

Lord of the Rings Online Impressions from Beta: Part II

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.