Welcome to the realm of the horse-lords: LotRO enters into Rohan, finally
November 15, 2012 1 Comment
Well, after going on a year-long hiatus, I’ve returned. Well, I returned awhile back, actually, in preparation for Riders of Rohan, but that’s neither here nor there. Instead it’s time for me to be my usual hyper-critical self and draw upon the pros and cons of the new Lord of the Rings Online expansion and get doom-and-gloomy about the future of the game. Are you teeming with unimaginable excitement as much as I am? I thought so!
After the woefully-bad Rise of Isengard expansion, I decided to prepare myself before Riders of Rohan released. Expecting to have little quest content (as I reached a dry spell at 73 after finishing all the solo content a Hunter could in Dunland/Isengard), I took the liberty to work on all the deeds in RoI minus one tick on completing them plus lining up a bunch of quests in the Parth Celebrant area (namely the Brown Lands, as the zone was slated to be revamped to a 71 – 75 zone when RoR launched). So when RoR hit, where was I? Where no one else was–completing on-level quests in previous zones.
I did that for two days, hitting 77 before I finally stepped into Rohan proper, expecting very bad things. The expansion was actually pushed back a month due to extensive beta testing and said beta testers pretty much telling Turbine to do just that due to the number of bugs surrounding the game. After all, what was some more content starving for people who had been sitting around doing nothing but running the RoI instances and skirmishes for months on end?
Forth, new content!
But I digress. In fact, I started off the expansion pleasantly surprised. You see, one of my biggest complaints with RoI was the absolutely reprehensible doublespeak the Turbine marketing department displayed on the pricing options with RoI and its inclusion in the store. Purposely leaving back the option to buy the expansion in full on the store simply led numerous people to throw shoes at Turbine for a job well screwed. This time, however. Well, this time they surprised even me. Turbine not only had a full expansion option in the store, but it fully explained what that option included (in fact, the expansion option will also include the instance cluster that will be released “later”). For me this made me giggle like a little school girl, especially after amassing enough free TP to “buy” the expansion for free.
From then on was a rather enjoyable quest experience on the road to the level cap. There were some curve balls (I will obviously go into detail about those), but the plotline was otherwise well-done. Gone are the days of NPCs arbitrarily asking you to do their chores for them. In fact Turbine seems to capture the complex dynamic of the Rohirrim being a very proud people–most of the quests are designed around your character helping towns through third-party sources that would otherwise seem “dishonorable” amongst the town’s leaders.
Every hub’s leader seems interesting and dynamic. The quests aren’t just simple “kill x orcs.” Towns even have gripes with others as well. Cliving is an excellent example of this. The Reeve of Cliving and the Thane of the Ethengels have some serious beef. Essentially Rohan is still acting under King Theoden’s orders, which is to not engage against the enemy forces that march upon the lands. Some of the Reeves respect the king’s wishes, while others find loopholes around this, with one Reeve in particular pretty much telling Theoden to eat his own hoo-hah. A Thane under the Reeve of Cliving ignored such orders and lead his Rohirrim in battle, getting himself slaughtered in the process. His son, now the new Thane, blamed the Reeve for his father’s death, for the Reeve did not commit his forces to the battle. Causing a faux paus, the Reeve was challenged on merit and fought in a duel against the Thane. The Thane was mortally wounded in the duel, causing his mother to become Thane of the Ethengels. Distraught over the loss of her husband and son, she utterly hates the Reeve, especially when he gives her daughter safe harbor to stay in his city.
Of course they do say there’s two sides to the story, so I won’t spoil that bit in particular, but I’m just providing one such example that shows you that the things you will be doing in Rohan far extend beyond the common theme of “kill everything” (in fact there is one particular quest in Fangorn that tugs at the heartstrings exceedingly well). Don’t get me wrong, though. You still get to do plenty of that. In fact there is a roving band of Rohirrim in particular who aim to do that. Dubbed “the dudes from the RoR trailer,” these four riders pop up in all the towns you venture to as they ask the leaders to commit riders to fight against the Easterling horde that is invading from the north over the Anduin. Interestingly enough they’re a separate storyline in itself, not actually part of the Epic quest line.
Speaking of Epic quest line, the story picks right up from where it left, with Nona being taken to Caras Galadhon. From there you venture forth with the Rohirric dude that took her and Sigleth’s brother to venture into Rohan. It’s pretty interesting, actually. You don’t automatically end up in Rohan after one day, you actually undertake a journey to get there, riding a boat down the Anduin and stopping along the way to say ‘hey’ to people. One instance in particular is more a of ‘campfire stories’ sort of chapter, with everyone telling a story. What I found fantastic about this instance in particular is that you were given an option to tell a number of different stories that you had been part of in the last five years of the game, down to the telling of the Angmar Epic, to the Moria Epic, to the Mirkwood Epic, and the Isengard Epic. Personally I told the Angmar Epic–I still think the whole Narmaleth/Mordrambor dynamic was fantastic as far as Turbine’s creative liberties are concerned.
Eventually you get into Rohan. Can you guess what your first sight is? Yeah, that’s right, the mother-freakin’ Argonath! As someone who loves Gondor infinitely over Rohan, it sent chills down my bones to
look upon the kings of old see this fantastic landmark. What’s more is that Turbine, once again, proves to hone in on the original interpretation of the true Argonath–Isildur and Anarion both holding axes. And, thankfully, they didn’t do the Peter Jackson thing where it made them seem like they were carved straight into the cliff. Numenoreans weren’t simpleton fools. You’re talking about the people that built Minas Tirith and Orthanc (Isengard). Their stonework was so legendary that it made the Dwarves blush under those beards of theirs. The fact that it still stands thousands of years after its construction is a testament to the craft of Numenor.
Anyway, yeah. Like I said, the landscape and quests were all pretty well done (Hell, there’s actually a butt-tonne of quests–over-leveling was actually a mistake). The Falls of Rauros, the Seat of Seeing, everything–it was fantastic. Fangorn was very impressive as well, very true to the books. The design aspect of the Rohirrim was mostly in line with what it was like in the books. There were a number of cities that seemed to include stonework in their design, which is a characteristic very much unlike the Rohirrim, who are better known to be likened as the Saxons, who did not master stonework and their fortifications were vastly of the wooden variety. Of course I understand Turbine had to take some liberties with this, but it seems utterly ridiculous to have the fictional settlement of Snowbourn not only rival Edoras in size but make it seem like it a much, much better defensive settlement, as it was built within the remnants of an old Gondorian fortress.
Out with the new, in with the new
But enough of that. Let’s talk about what Riders of Rohan brought, shall we? First of all, everyone should be clear that only the Eastemnet was included in Riders of Rohan, or, as it has been called in common chat, Eastern Rohan. Western Rohan is still locked out. In fact not all of Eastern Rohan was included in RoR as well, but I’ll get to that later. It’s still a pretty vast and huge zone, probably an understatement considering the Nen Hithoel (the large lake-end before the falls of Rauros) is the second-largest lake in the game (Evendim is still numero uno). There’s also a number of instances that aren’t included in the game space but exist out of it (namely the Hytbold daily stuff).
Mounted combat was introduced. Honestly I was surprised when they said they were actually going to incorporate these feature. As horses in the game consist of what’s called “horse-pants” by the development team (which is essentially that you’re using an item that applies a cosmetic to your character to give it the impression that it is riding a horse when, in reality, it’s just using a different set of run/walk animations and setting your run speed to very fast), mounted combat would be a very tricky thing to do. It would mean actually adding a separate entity to the game, one that would have to be controlled in a different way and change the way combat works. And I must say that is certainly what happens here.
To put it lightly–it’s wonky. Few games have done mounted combat and the only one I’ve seen it done correctly was Mount&Blade. I still stand by that assessment. While Turbine did its best to apply the polish to this feature, it still feels sorely lacking and rather under-polished. For starters the combat aspect of mounted combat isn’t fully explained all that well. The tutorial to your war steed explains only how to control your war steed–it does not include the intricacies that are your skills or your role. For example, how does a Burglar, a back-stabbing, debuffing class, work in mounted combat? Or a Lore-master? Turbine’s answer was simple–make everything a DPS race. So for a lot of classes this has been a foray into territory their class had not experienced before (namely the Captain class, which is the highest-tier DPS class in all of mounted combat).
Secondly there’s really not a lot of options to skills in mounted combat. You’re given six class skills to work with and then you earn maybe four or five others through traits. It feels rather “empty” versus the combat experience on the ground. The sensation is something between standing in an icky substance that, while entertaining, isn’t exactly putting you in your comfort zone, so you instinctively want to stand where you have always been standing. I, like many others, tried to do this first–trying to accomplish the content while on foot. Eventually, however, you realize what an absolute cakewalk the game is when you are mounted. Cakewalk might not even be the right word–blindfolded while masturbating with one hand and being able to walk away from a fight without a scratch might be a better interpretation of what happens.
Yet for all its draw and interest, mounted combat suffers from one fatal flaw–the control of your steed. As I said before, for mounted combat to work, Turbine would have to create a separate entity outside itself for this to work, and they did exactly that. Moving on your war steed is always awkward. You’re essentially riding on a tram where you can control how fast it goes and in what direction it goes, but how fast it turns is dependent on how fast you are going. This is further marred by the fact that it’s extremely easy to get stuck on a piece of landscape in your mounted endeavors, which can cause what’s described as rubber-banding–the apparent belief that you are still moving forward but, after a few seconds, you are slingshoted back to a piece of the landscape you thought you had cleared. This happens all the time as the steed is always getting caught on the landscape, even if you are riding on clear and green fields. This is mostly because of the way the game is designed and the checks versus whether the entity is deciding on whether or not if it should get stuck. Personally I call the effect skiing, which has made me name my horse Ski-Doo.
Did I mention that your horse has its own levels? Oh yeah. Your horse has its own levels. Can’t you tell how excited I am by this? Anyway, yeah. Your horse has its own levels. This may seem like a good thing, as when your character gains levels he gains skills. This is not the case with your horse. Instead when you gain levels you gain trait points. Turbine seems to have taken a page from Blizzard by making horse progression relevant to three different trait trees you can trait into. Each tree reflects the active toggle skill you can have on your horse–one focuses on damage, the other focuses on support, and the last one focuses on survivability. Essentially to make your horse better you’re going to need to trait down the line. Thankfully it’s rather easy to level up your horse and if you do all the quests in RoR you’ll end up with a horse seven levels shy of the level cap (which is pretty good). However, much like horse combat in general, there is no explanation as to how these traits work or if they are useful or not. Thankfully there is an in-game option to respec your trait line if you make a mistake (and, surprisingly, it doesn’t include the store to use it).
However, for such a monumental undertaking, mounted combat seems to be more of a added feature, or a bonus feature, rather than the main draw to RoR. Most people have been okay with this fact, given just how wonky it is, and it is true that the vast majority of the content has you on your feet (some camps don’t even allow you to partake in mounted combat, meaning you need to be on foot to clear them out). This is probably reinforced by the warband feature, where roaming landscape mobs travel in packs offer a daily quest to complete. Some of these require groups or raids to complete and their rewards are paltry at best. If anything it’s a nice distraction for people to say, “Wow, this is really happening.” The verdict is still out on how long it will take until people get bored of it. Personally after fighting on my feet for five years I’m still very much liking the mounted combat aspect of the game, even if it is weak.
Still, it’s important to remember the greed of Turbine in this minor feature. One of the marketed features to mounted combat was that your war steed was going to get some pretty cosmetics, allowing you to retroactively change the look and feel of your horse with the tacks, saddles, etc. as well as the coat color and what not. It was hypothesized that you would have access to cosmetics on horses you already owned. Heh, that was a cute idea, wasn’t it? Turbine straight-up gives two big middle fingers to its player base in this endeavor. Cosmetics are few and far between that it’s one great, big joke. In fact the only cosmetics you are privy to the horses you own are the ridiculously-expensive store horses (gee, what a surprise). All those other horses you spent so much time earning? Turbine laughs at those horses. And the only coat color you are ever going to see without spending a dime on the store is 50 shades of Gandalf the Grey. As noted in the link you’ll need to spend even more money if you want your horse to look pretty in the game. Naw, I’m good, Turbine. Keeping it gray is my way of silently protesting. I call it silently protesting because even if I protested loudly you still wouldn’t notice. All-in-all this obvious cash-grab leaves a very sour note on the mounted combat experience on a whole; a reminder every time you mount your war steed that it will never look pretty until you drop money on it in the store.
Some other named features are the inclusion of pop-up quests, anywhere looting, and open tapping. These are all pretty self-explanatory but I feel the need to explain them a bit further. Pop-up quests seems to be the response to people frequently traveling back to quest hubs to pick up the quests and then go back out to further along the quest chain. Personally I’m conflicted about this feature. I like it in regards to how it works with warbands (i.e. you get a notice when you’re near one), but it feels quite lazy as far as it is concerned with regular landscape quests. There was a particular chain in Fangorn that has you come across an abandoned camp. As opposed to finding a book or a clue that led you along the quest chain, these pop-up quests appear like thought bubbles for your character. A minute later you are picking up bat shit. Even after you complete this quest the quest text hangs a lampshade over the obvious: “You have no idea why you were picking up bat shit anyway.” At least with the inclusions of NPCs it made sense why you were rewarded with money and items out of thin air.
Anywhere looting is perhaps my most favorite feature. It’s really more of a convenience than anything else. It was Turbine’s solution to the problem of when it came to looting things while mounted. Turbine’s logic was that they didn’t want players to deal with the headache that was looting if they were participating in an intense warband fight. This way it allows players to focus their attention on the fight rather than on the inventory management. However this feature extends beyond horse combat and is included for all landscape kills in the zones included in RoR. The system holds items in a “temporary” bag (with 50 spaces) that allows you an hour to loot the items (or throw them away). This is something I hope they eventually include to the entire game–I can’t tell you the number of mishaps of having an enemy run away into another group of enemies and then never being able to loot the body because of the challenge behind it.
Lastly we have open tapping. This one has caused some grief amongst the player base, as it has been considered another “making the game easier” tool. Essentially it removes all the problems around tapping, which is that if you were not grouped up with someone, you could not share the credit in defeating an enemy, thus making people group up if they wanted to share the credit. Open tapping essentially makes it so everyone is always in an “open fellowship” and all you need to do to tap is contribute damage against the monster to share credit. Also all XP penalties are removed and everyone has their own separate loot table. For some they have called it “the death of grouping.” I love a good doom-and-gloom but I wouldn’t call it that. If anything what open tapping does is try and tackle a problem stemmed from the fact that a lot of people just don’t group up, whether it is due to being anti-social (ironic if you are playing an MMO) or because you just don’t want to take the time to wait on someone else.
Except it doesn’t really cure that problem, all it really does is rewards the players that happen to be in the same area together and who aren’t grouped together. Which doesn’t make much sense, really, considering most players will group up if they are in the same area working together. Personally my gripe with the system ensures that the only way the game considers a player to have contributed in a fight is if they deal some damage to a mob. This can prove frustrating if you are in an area with lots of people. If you’re a Minstrel healing someone or if you’re a Lore-master dropping down debuffs you were not counted for contributing to the fight and thus were not receiving credit, even if you were grouped up with the person who was dealing the damage. They did, however, manage to change this with the recent 8.1 patch. Too bad it took them a month to fix this issue that was reported to be an issue as far back as beta.
You might’ve noticed that I haven’t talked about the rewards you’ll be getting in Rohan. Well, as you may have noticed, I generally tend to save the best for last. Or, in my case, that usually means I tend to save the stuff I want to complain about the most until later (sort of like descending into my own personal level of hate–we are now at Floor -2; men’s wear, kitchen appliances, and the grind that is Riders of Rohan). Quests in RoR rarely give out loot. In fact most of all the quests in Rohan tend to give only four things–character experience, item experience, mount experience, and Eastemnet tokens. The tokens should be familiar to everyone, as it is Turbine’s lovely solution to bartering for the items you want. This time, however, they’re not entirely gated by reputation and they actually offer some pretty good rewards. The downside?
Well, the downside is the really good rewards require buku amounts of tokens. Completing all the quests in RoR and not spending a single token on armor/jewellery will net you about 1,000 tokens. “Wow!” you say naively, “That’s a lot! I bet I won’t need any more tokens than that!” Ha ha, ahh. You poor thing. My dear friends, haven’t you heard? There’s no instance cluster with RoR. what do you think Turbine wants you to do while you wait for what seems to be an expansion norm these days? You think they want you to sit pretty on every reward within a matter of a month? No, of course not. They want you to grind, grind, grind your little Hobbit tuckus on the dance floor.
The really useful stuff, like the stuff that gives your LIs an extra ten levels or the stuff that upgrades your LI’s legs, etc. are 350 tokens each. So that means you can barter for maybe three or four very useful things before you run out of that ten-level run stock of tokens. The trade off depends on whether or not you want recipes for your craft (as, once again, they will not be found on NPCs but only off of landscape trash) or if you want stuff to upgrade your LIs.
“But wait!” you cry out, “Surely there are a number of adequate dailies that you can do that will allow you to earn a number of tokens in a timely fashion!” Oh no, please, stop! The naivety! It is killing me! Argghhhhhh! Actually there aren’t. There are a small number of dailies that has you running all around the Eastemnet looking for one, maybe two dailies that are under-leveled for the level cap that can maybe net you 10 or 15 tokens a day if you have a couple of hours to kill. Or you can work on the only end-game content in the game, which is Hytbold.
Hytbold, for the uninitiated, is a town in Rohan that was destroyed by invaders. Once you hit LV84 you are invited to
the biggest grind in the game help rebuild the town. This is not a traditional quest chain–you do not undertake one quest that leads to a slew of others. In fact it’s one gigantic grind. Essentially you need to rebuild the town brick-by-brick by turning in Hytbold tokens (separate tokens from what you’ve been earning from RoR quests). Turning in five tokens lets you rebuild some fences, for example, or brings in some people to town. You earn these tokens by doing Hytbold dailies. You do these dailies by undertaking a daily quest in Hytbold that allows you to only complete five Hytbold daily quests.
These quests can be undertaken between four different towns, each one representing the respective reputation faction. Yep, you guessed it, even the grind for rep is tied to these guys. Each town has three different NPCs that offer three distinctly-different quests–one offers a simple “mount up and kill things” quest, another offers an instance quest (one instance, but two quests in the instance), and the last one offers a sort of “laid-back” quest, which usually involves your character doing something stupid (like parkour climbing a beacon or playing tag with children). Also each NPC rotates specific quests to that specific hub, that way there’s some “variety” to this grind.
And for what, exactly, is the point of all of this? Well, my friends, there’s not much point to it to be honest. There’s a set of pretty teal armor, which is supposed to be Turbine’s answer to the soloers who don’t want to spend their time getting a raid set. However the armor is gated by a number of quests in the rebuilding effort–you pretty much have to rebuild the entire town to get a full set (there are workarounds, such as getting a 3/3 piece set–Hunters can do this with just eight easy days of Hytbold dailies). What else, you may ask? Another slew of rebuilding quests opens up crafting instances. Anything else? Well, if you rebuild the town completely you get a neat little title and the other barter NPCs for the other classes unlock (allowing you to work on armor for your alts on your main that has rebuilt the town). Other than that? Nope. No reason to rebuild.
Let me be clear. I like the aspect of Hytbold, but I think it was executed extremely poorly. By limiting the rebuilding effort to five quests per day the progress feels like an excessive grind that laughs as you go, mocking you up to the very end. I mean, sure, you can visually see the progress, and it seems pretty neat, but that’s about it. No one else can see how far you’ve come. No one else can utilize the things you have unlocked. You essentially spend two months rebuilding a town to become lord of nothing. And once you have completed the meta deeds for the Hytbold dailies your daily grind will look something like this: do the four mounted kill dailies and flip a coin for what your last daily will be. Hell, just to hit home how big of a grind this becomes is that once you have hit kindred with a faction a kindred NPC representative of that faction spawns in Hytbold and starts offering yet another slew of rebuild quests–these, in particular, require you turn in ten tokens instead of the regular five (if it hasn’t been clear yet, you can only get twenty-five per day). On the kindred quests alone you will need 660 tokens (27 days of grinding). To complete the the ally quests you’ll need another 17 days, totaling your effort to 44 days. Raise of hands of those people who want to do that with all of your alts.
We’re only half-way there
All-in-all the experience of Riders of Rohan was a bit mixed. I’m thrilled that we’re finally in a very important and interesting location. We finally get to experience a different sort of people outside the Elves and Men of the north. The landscape is also pretty breath-taking and the landmarks are extremely well-done. The story-telling aspect of the quests are also top-notch–it’s been awhile since I’ve seen such an effort taken on by Turbine (so much that I’m even willing to forget the utter lore-breaking that is the Draug
r and the other-worldly portal to another dimension in that one public instance). However one cannot ignore the other side of Rohan, the ugly side–the unpolished mounted combat (and the cash grab associated with it), the terrible barter system, and the lack of any true end-game content being replaced by a grind town (Hytbold). It’s an adventure to get to 85 but there’s little else to do once you’re done.
But what’s there to look forward to? Well, that I don’t know to the fullest. All I can really do is speculate. If Turbine follows their RoI pattern (and I see no reason why they wouldn’t, especially considering they seem to like to not release instance clusters with expansions any longer), the next update will see some minor usual changes as well as the introduction of the instance cluster. I predict no new zone will come with this update, just that it’ll add a new hub somewhere in the existing game world. People have been clamoring, suggesting that we’ll be going into Western Rohan immediately, but I laugh at that idea. Do I need to remind everyone that Turbine plans on dragging things out for as long as possible? Especially now that we’re so close to the end? No, my dear friends. I suspect after the instance cluster update they’ll add the one landzone feature missing from Eastern Rohan–the Eastfold (the zone directly south of the current Eastemnet landmass, where Aldburg resides).
Consider a few reasons as to why the Eastfold will be the next zone before the next expansion. For one the entire quest chain in the Eastemnet ends in Snowbourn, with heavy suggestions hinting that you’ll need to go south to stem the flow of Mordor’s orcs. Also consider the conclusion of the Epic quest line (skip this bit if you don’t want to be spoiled), which has you being locked out from crossing the Snowbourn into Western Rohan. Now consider the tidbits from within the lore, which is that Aldburg is the second-biggest town in all of Rohan (it was actually the capital before the seat of power was moved to Edoras, and it is also the home of the marshal of Rohan–in this case Eomer, and it’s where Erkenbrand rallies the force that eventually rides to the Hornburg and lifts the siege). Couple this with the fact that there are already some existing art resources over there and it makes sense that that is where we shall go next. Instead, I think, the next expansion will be West Rohan, with us leveling from the east to the west, all the way to the Hornburg and/or Isengard. Which goes hand-in-hand with my theory that we’ll eventually join up with the Grey Company, once again, and follow the path of Aragorn into Southern Gondor. This seems most likely if Turbine intends to get the most out of Gondor as well and further increase the longevity of this game.
Now, however, we must remain content with the fact that we have finally made our foray into a land a lot of us have been waiting to see for five years now. Time will only tell if Turbine’s longevity goal will hold true and if LotRO will continue on strong. Gone are the days when we used to have extreme content gaps and poor expansions. This, to me, seems like a good thing, but I’m not entirely convinced if this means we will make it another five years. I’ll cross my fingers as a Tolkien fan and hope that we will and continue to berate Turbine for faults thereafter, hoping that they will continue to improve the game and move away from the pay-to-win scheme.