20 November 2009

Lord of the Rings Online Shadows of Angmar

 The Lord of the Rings Online: Siege of Mirkwood
First look: Underappreciated MMO offers a download-only expansion

We haven’t covered LotRO much recently. There’s no dark reason for this, no sinister conspiracy – it’s just that this is an MMO that’s remarkably adept at keeping its head down and getting on with things. On the quiet, it’s accrued a massive and very happy audience. On the eve of its new expansion, it seems a good time to peer at what the game as a whole is like these days, and more importantly, why.

“LotRO is the world’s best PvE game” claims producer/spokesman Jeffrey Steefel. It’s an important distinction – while factional warfare tends to be a big theme of many MMOs, in LotRO everyone’s on fundamentally the same side. Sure, there’s monster play mode to dip in and out of, but the ongoing war is strictly against the big bads of Mordor and assorted Middle Earth beasties. Digital-only expansion Mirkwood builds on that. “There are at least 100 hours of gameplay here,” reckons Steefel. “While most of the content is designed for high-level players, there are several new improvements and content for new players as well, including an upgrade to LotRO’s combat system, which delivers more responsive attacks.”

So, has LotRO become, like EVE or Ultima Online, a tough nut for newcomers to crack? Well, not really. LotRO is made from very familiar MMO systems, and that’s a key reason why it’s been a quiet success: it doesn’t overcomplicate anything. Against this is that it’s possibly been a bit too sleepy. “We have been very focused on what we call the New Player Experience (NPE),” says Steefel. “We’ve gone back armed with feedback from our players and data from over two years of operation, to refine the experience to get players into the world and the story faster.” So, while Mirkwood won’t immediately have much to offer anyone who didn’t stay with LotRO beyond the free trial, the game as a whole is now rather more ‘straight to adventure.’

Perversely, adventure isn’t the most interesting element of LotRO, from where we’re standing. What’s more fascinating is how the game’s community has slowly turned it into a tranquil Tolkien paradise. The music system grew into a major aspect of the game after players pushed it as far as it’d go, while fishing, crafting and, that great wishdream of MMOs, player housing, means there are a whole bunch of ways to be a homely Hobbit if you’d rather avoid beast-stabbing. How much of a focus is this sort of thing for Turbine? “I don’t believe we will have an expansion dedicated to our Music System (Lute Hero?),” says Steefel, disappointingly.

Meantime, a headline feature of Mirkwood (a raised level cap is the biggest of biggies, inevitably) is the henchmen – AI soldiers players can purchase, train and equip for scenarios called ‘skirmishes.’ The skirmish concept is neat – essentially, you create an instance on the spot, which you and your chums can join from anywhere in the game. You can then run it over and over again, thanks to randomised objectives. The soldiers mean you’re able to tackle much tougher stuff than you would be on your own, or even if you were in a small group. It’s going to be a great way to level up.

Any hope of them crossing over into the game as a whole? “By restricting the soldiers to the skirmishes, we can craft our skirmishes with more specificity and provide more unique and balanced AI for the soldiers. To put them on landscape would add orders of magnitude to the balance complexity and would, by definition, require us to dumb-down the soldiers’ AI, which we really do not want to do.” And, perhaps, filling the world with military types might spoil that idyllic fantasy that maintains, even in the face of the impending War of the Ring…

Mirkwood itself is a place of foreboding forests – it’s best known from the Hobbit, as a place where Bilbo ran into a bunch of giant spiders. That said, Turbine are steering away from the events and places of the Hobbit, as they want to store that stuff up to coincide with Guillermo del Toro’s 2011 movie.

Instead, the story-arc of Mirkwood has been compared to a sort of D-Day incursion against the Nazgul, culminating in a 12-man raid against one of said Dark Riders atop a hulking Fellbeast. Yep, essentially Mirkwood is Tolkien porn. “The epic story we are exploring and unfolding in the game is intrinsically tied with the War of the Ring and the players’ epic journey as part of that story – this will always be a big focus for us,” says Steefel, epically.

So Mirkwood isn’t a jumping-on point in and of itself, but combined with two years’ of changes, updates and fan-service, it makes for an uncommonly characterful MMO. There’s a reason LotRO has survived – thrived, even – when so many of its peers have opted for harakiri. Still, we really would love to see Lute Hero.


Post a Comment

Copyright @ 2008-2010 Game Center | Gaming Center | Powered by Blogger Theme by Donkrax