What I’m playing: World of Warcraft, LOTRO, Guild Wars 2

World of Warcraft

Time for a little update on my current evening rotation, which pretty much keeps cycling through three MMOs. Let’s start with WoW, because I absolutely loved the fact that there were swimming skeletal fish in Tirisfal Glades and wanted to use this pic for a header.

Anyway, I’m kind of stalled once again with my Death Knight. There are odds and ends to do, but now that I’ve got flying and four (!) legendary items, I feel a lot less motivated to clear out my quest log and run mythics. So instead I’ve found myself spending a little time here and there with my baby Undead Warlock, who hasn’t even hit double digits yet.

Let me tell you, those early levels are really rough. Not hard, combat-wise, but very slow. I didn’t even get my pet until level 5 or 6, and burning stuff down before you get your second DoT is just a pain. Suck it up, I tell myself. Deal with it and enjoy the Halloweeny scenery. I always did love this zone.

Since this is a Horde character, I have no characters to shuttle her money or bags, so it’s pretty much a start-from-scratch scenario. That’s fine for an alt, and there’s no rush to get to the cap.

Lord of the Rings Online

10th anniversary activities continue to consume me (and that’s fine, since I am not feeling particularly hurried to get back to the Wastes). I run the delivery quests every three days for the easy tokens and otherwise plink away at the scavenger hunts. I’ve done all of the Year One quests and two of the Year Two — but there’s a sticking point with that last one.

You see, there’s a quest to re-do a bunch of Volume 1 instances via reflecting pool, which wouldn’t be a problem except I haven’t done Volume 1 on this character at all. So I either give up on a meta-goal of doing ALL of the scavenger quests or I suck it up and do 26 books of an extremely long epic questline in a row. I’m not fully committed to the latter, but I am working on it when I have nothing else to do. I figure I have until mid-July, so it might happen. Might.

I do want to procure a few of the anniversary rewards, like the goat mount and some of the cosmetics. I am very, very happy with the scavenger hunt rewards so far and eager to see what future weeks hold. It’s been such a weird trip around the world, sometimes frustrating (I am not a fan of LOTRO’s stable master system and all of the hard-to-remember town names and where they connect). I’ve probably spent more mithril coins than I should have on quick ports, although I’ve also strategically set bind points at three spots around Middle-earth to get to regions when I need to.

Guild Wars 2

Still really enjoying the relaxed return to this game as I level up a new Engineer (now level 27 with no boosts). I have kind of a formula I’m following, which is to work on zone completion until I unlock the next personal story chapter, then stop to do that, then resume zone. I’m sticking with the human zones for the most part right now, although I did digress into Asura territory when I ran out of on-level human areas to do.

I was happy to see that Heart of Thorns dropped in price for good yesterday, so for $30 I felt that it was time to finally get it. If nothing else, it gets me the Scrapper elite specialization and gliding in the future, so I’m down for that. There’s such a mountain of content to climb to “catch up” with the current releases, and I have serious doubts that at this pace I’ll be ready for the expansion… whenever it gets here. I do have a level 80 boost now, but I’m really reluctant to use it. Don’t see the need, really; I’m enjoying the journey and am not going to skip ahead to the expansion story.

The great LOTRO anniversary scavenger hunt

There’s kind of this running joke-slash-trope among MMORPGs that developers tend to get lazy during their game’s anniversary and throw fireworks at the players as the “big reward.” Fantasy, sci-fi, ponies… always fireworks. Don’t get me wrong, fireworks are neat, but they’re garnish when we’re looking for a real dish.

In 2012, LOTRO started to center its anniversary festival around fireworks, perhaps to a greater degree than we normally see in MMOs. Still, fireworks. Not as thrilling as a haunted burrow or interactive theater. But this year for the game’s 10th birthday, Standing Stone has given a new centerpiece for the festival that’s definitely main course material.

The new content this year is the scavenger hunt, in which players try to fill out themed cards in order to unlock new quests and rewards. The concept is that there’s a tier for every year the game’s been active (so, 10 in total), and in every tier there are three different cards. Just by doing a single card (say, a Year One card), you access the next tier (Year Two), but if you do all 30 of them by the time this wraps up in the summer, then you get some really nifty rewards.

Last night, our kin was on fire for the scavenger hunt. With 30 ahead of me (and yes, I’m going to attempt to do them all), I need to pace myself. One a night feels about right, and I started out by doing Frodo’s Year One tour of Middle-earth. There’s a lot of nostalgia here, and in this particular card, I had to visit some key locations for Frodo’s journey and perform some basic tasks (such as dancing on the table at the Prancing Pony). The main difficulty was trying to figure out how to traverse the map, as I don’t have that many teleport skills on hand.

All in all, it took me about 40 minutes, with the most difficult section being a return trip to the Dead Marshes, which tripped me up because there’s no stable master there. I ended up with a housing item, Farmer Maggot’s dog as a pet, and… a SCRAP OF PAPER! BEHOLD ITS MIGHTY POWER! Also some tokens, which I put into the “Buy Syp Another Goat” fund.

Oh, and we all got this incredibly sweet dragon fireworks launcher as a 10th anniversary gift. I take back a little of the shade I threw at devs for their fireworks obsession, because I’m going to use this all of the freaking time.

There’s some controversy going on about the scavenger hunts right now, namely that they’re pretty difficult if you are low-level (or even mid-level). I’m assuming that the devs thought of this and have at least one card per tier that can be done by a lowbie, but even so, some people are going to be rankled that the 30-quest rewards are going to be out of their reach.

For me, I might be in trouble with Year Two. There’s one to do a bunch of Volume I instances, which would be no problem except that I’ve never done them before (I skipped Volume I on this character) and can’t access them in the pool of reflection (or so I assume). So if I’m going to do that, I’m going to have to suck it up and do the entire Volume I, which could take a while. Maybe there’s a way to group up and have a friend pull you into their instance? I’ll check into that.

The crowd was certainly rowdy and celebratory pretty much everywhere I went, especially the Party Tree and Bree. Lots of impromptu concerts, feasting tables, and (of course) fireworks displays. It really felt like a genuine party, what with all of the food and dancing and crazy social gatherings. LOTRO hosts a community that kind of likes being together, and that shows.

I think that the scavenger hunt is a brilliant idea, capitalizing on the game’s enormous landmass and repository of content to date. It also is a wonderful shot of nostalgia, a nostalgia tour if you will, and I really don’t mind going back over the places that I used to haunt. If nothing else, it’ll keep me busy enough as we continue to twiddle our thumbs and wait for Mordor.

7 MMO cosmetic wardrobe systems, ranked

Here’s a little thought exercise I’ve been going through lately after having a discussion about cosmetic systems on the MOP podcast. We had been asked which was the best MMO wardrobe system, which I initially thought was an easy answer… and then, long after the podcast was done, started to revise my response. Ultimately, I asked myself how I would rank the systems present in the MMOs I’ve played the most in the last, oh, five years or so, and this is what I came up with going from best to worst.

WildStar

There’s a lot of factors that go into a truly great cosmetic wardrobe system, and believe it or not, WildStar checks off most of those boxes. It’s got great armor design, plenty of cosmetic pieces, a system that remembers loot you’ve collected, multiple outfit slots, two dye channels, fun dyes, and an accessible system (which is a change from launch, which required you to talk to a specific NPC). I adored being able to create and wear different outfits based on my mood, and I was often torn on which one I liked the best because they were all pretty awesome. WildStar usually get a lot of props for its housing, but I think its wardrobe deserves praise too.

Guild Wars 2

Initially I had put Guild Wars 2 at the top, but upon further reflection, I had to acknowledge that there are two big flaws with its wardrobe system: It makes you pay to change individual slots (via transmutation charges) and it doesn’t allow for multiple saved outfits. Apart from that, it’s pretty brilliant, with several dye channels, loads of colors, expressive pieces, and all the buttflaps you can stomach. Finding and obtaining skins is an enjoyable metagame for GW2, that’s for sure.

RIFT

On paper, RIFT has almost the full package. It remembers skins, has multiple outfit slots, is ridiculously easy to use, involves weird cosmetics, and so on. Other than the dye cash shop and the smaller color range, I’d say it was almost perfect… except that I just don’t like about 90% of RIFT’s armor designs. They’re not bad, per se, just not what I want to be trouncing around in, and there are strangely few store outfits that even slightly tempt me to purchase. Probably shouldn’t complain; better armor art and I might have gone broke.

The Secret World

TSW’s strength in cosmetics is that it’s a rare MMO that uses modern outfits rather than fantasy/sci-fi ones (for the most part) and is thus a fashion that is more identifiable to players. People in TSW just adore dressing up their characters, sometimes the more outrageous, the better. Wonderful array of choices are offset only by a lack of dyeable outfits (although some pieces come in multiple colors) and no multiple outfit saves. It’s nice that there is a convoluted fashion to even equip cosmetic weapons, but it really should’ve been more like the regular outfits in accessibility.

Lord of the Rings Online

LOTRO sits squat in the middle of this list with plenty of strengths but plenty of weaknesses as well. On the plus side, it’s another MMO with a community that does a lot of dressing up, and the game has done a lot to make this as robust as possible. Dyes, multiple outfits, varied designs, cosmetic weapons, etc. But on the minus side, the wardrobe itself is a little creaky and unfriendly, especially when compared to how many MMOs these days are saving EVERY new design whereas LOTRO has a hard limit. And you have to manage it by hand. Plus, the dyes aren’t that great, with only one color channel for (most) pieces and the dyeable area often being small.

World of Warcraft

For a major MMORPG, World of Warcraft suffers from a kind of lackluster system. Admittedly, the fact that it has one and it’s gradually improved is far better than launch, but seriously, transmog is pretty sad when you compare it to the field. No dyes, no multiple outfits (I’m not really that keen on just changing gear’s appearance rather than having a separate and toggleable cosmetic outfit), no way to do it on the fly, new gear overriding older transmog looks and requiring more money for new transmogs, and no quick check boxes to turn off helms and capes is all in dire need of addressing. To its credit, WoW has fabulous and fun armor design, which goes a long way to smoothing over the issues presented here.

Star Trek Online

Let’s throw in a couple of Cryptic efforts to be well-rounded. STO never really impressed me with its outfits. Sure, you could mix-and-match uniform elements, there were some (but not many) colors, and you had a small handful of outfit slots. But generally you aren’t collecting new looks while you play (most uniforms are simply bought through the store), and the interface is a little unwieldy. Sometimes it’s just more interesting to let your gear do the visuals for you, since they can be more detailed and futuristic.

Neverwinter

At the bottom of the barrel, Neverwinter does the absolute bare minimum to qualify as an MMO with a cosmetic system while making it as unfun as possible. Two cosmetic-only slots for specific items, no thank you. It’s a system that you learn about in the tutorial and then promptly forget going forward.

Now I know that there are plenty of other MMOs out there with great wardrobe systems, like EverQuest II, but I wanted to rank ones from games that I was most familiar.

LOTRO: Battle at the Black Gate

All the roads we have trod, all of the sacrifices we have made, all of the struggles of our time… have led to this. A door. A king. A wizard. A futile battle. A slim hope.

And here I sit at the beginning of the end of Lord of the Rings — the main storyline, at least. Update 20 unloaded the next book of the epic, bringing the slowly progressing Army of the Host to the front door of Mordor. With no more ways to tarry, delay, and procrastinate after 10 years of playing out the events of six months (just like M*A*S*H and the Korean War!), the final battle must be joined.

There are a few observations that I’ve seen made about Update 20’s epic story. It’s short (which it is). It’s not as grand as the Battle of Pelennor Fields (which it isn’t and couldn’t be anyway). It ends on a cliffhanger (true). It’s quite good (indeed).

Dude, where’d you get that mount? Sauron rep? I could grind that!

The fun begins with a chilling showdown between the good guys and the Mouth of Sauron. Unlike the freaky-deaky movie version, the LOTRO Mouth is a guy with a hat that goes a little too low on his head. He’s still pretty effective and boastful, but so is our side. Boasting and threats are thrown around, but in the end there is only one outcome: open war.

Following a short cutscene, we’re thrown right into the battle. It’s much different than ones in the past for this game. It’s right on the enemy’s turf and is slightly skewed in favor of the bad guys at a ratio of 75 to 1. As I tried to explain to my kids, it’s not a battle that the Free People expect to win. It’s a delaying tactic that’s being employed at great cost.

The game tech obviously cannot show movement of large armies and a dynamic battle, only an illusion of it, but at least that illusion is well-done. Lots to see around you and the quests keep you moving like crazy all over the place.

With so many people killed or not present from the Battle of Pelennor Fields, I really only recognized the Fellowship. I think a couple of Grey Company got killed by flying Nazgul, which made me marvel that after a decade of wanton Grey Company slaughter that there are any of these guys left to murder. The Secret World’s Orochi and the Grey Company have an exchange program going on, or so I heard.

The whole affair did wrap up incredibly quickly, more so than I anticipated even with the warning. Part of it is that there just wasn’t that much to do with this fight; it’s not as long or involved in the books as Pelennor Fields was. The other part is that Standing Stone obviously wants to keep the full conclusion of the battle as a prelude to the Mordor expansion, so a cliffhanger we go. At least there is a teaser of sorts in a cutscene…

For me and mine, with the epic done for now, I think I’m going to take a break from this bleak land and head back to the Shire to do the full Bingo Boffin questline on my Lore-master. That should be a nice change of pace, and I’d love to get it done before the new anniversary quests start coming out at the end of this month. 52 quests in a week? Sure, I can do that. Right? Right.

LOTRO: Mordor litmus test

Finally I’m getting a little bit of time to talk about the new Lord of the Rings Online update, what, two weeks after it dropped? I has excuses, though! The first few days of the patch were absolutely atrocious, with mind-bending lag and players mobbing all over quest objectives until I flung my hands up and logged out to play an MMO that actually worked. LOTRO, seriously brah, get your act together. No MMO that’s been out this long should still have stuttering, lag, and rubberbanding like this.

Anyway, my other excuse was a week at Disney, so by the time I was actually able to play through the new zone, I’m well and truly behind the rest of the pack. Frodo’s probably already tossed the ring into the volcano and gone on holiday.

I think for many players, the Wastes is a sort of litmus test for the whole upcoming Mordor expansion (which, by the way, I really wish Standing Stone would start talking about more now that we’re in spring). The zone isn’t in Mordor but it is Mordor, and I’ve heard many people saying something to the effect that they’re expecting to extrapolate what Mordor will be like from what we’re seeing here.

For me, I honestly hope it won’t all be this grim and dour. Make no mistake, the Wastes are as far from a beautiful locale as you can get in LOTRO. I am hard-pressed to think of areas more bleak. Angmar, maybe. It’s a blasted landscape with toxic sludge, ruins, enemy encampments, and an airspace full of Nazgul (“Nazgul One, this is Tower Control. You are cleared for landing.”)

Since I’m coming off fresh from the beauty of North Ithilien, it’s not a problem. I can take a little grim and dour from time to time. Can’t have all of the zones winning pageants, after all. But the thought of the next six or seven zones being like this is a little disheartening. Maybe the devs will justify some greenery in Mordor as a response of nature following the destruction of the One Ring and the downfall of Sauron. We’ll see.

As I said, I’m not as far into the update as some and have barely started the new book. Mostly I’ve been pursuing side quests and showing off the Black Gate to my kids, who wanted to know why getting close kills me. “Because developers” is not an explanation that they understand (or I do, really).

I will say this: The zone is kicking my butt. I miss the days when my Lore-master was a terror over the landscape with a pet that would eternally hold aggro and down mobs without my intervention. Now it’s a fight to the death in every encounter, and my lynx no longer holds aggro for more than a second or two. I’m not quite over my head, not yet, but I know that I’m undergeared in the essence department. I have more than a few empty spots on my armor, so I’m sure that’s hurting me. I’m dutifully picking flowers (why is this still a thing in a zone where practically nothing grows?) and hoping that quests will start paying out essences again.

I do wish that the zone would have more than one stable master. The Wastes is firmly enemy territory, and other than a temporary encampment of the good guys, there’s nary a sign of civilization or sanctuary. Again, what does this bode for Mordor, even along an advanced timeline?

One thing I would love to see in our efforts is perhaps a Hytbold-ish approach to renovating the landscape and maybe bringing it from ugly to semi-livable. LOTRO has several spots where the Free Peoples are moving in to reclaim formerly occupied areas, and that could justify Mordor being both oppressive and welcoming in stages.

LOTRO: There’s a dead pig at the end of this post

Dang LOTRO, where do you get off looking so pretty a decade into your lifespan? I swear, Minas Tirith and it’s many interiors are the best-kept secret of MMO cities right now.

Anyway, before we get to the dead pig at the end of this post (steel yourself, mighty warrior), let me recount to you the crazy ride that I have been on this past weekend. Anticipating the drop of Update 20 this week — whether or not it actually happens — I bent my willpower to trying to finish up North Ithilien so that I could be fully ready to move on.

Of course, I find that whenever I’m focused on finishing up a zone or expansion or what have you (especially for the first time), the game seems to delight in unloading even more quests at me just when I thought I was all done. The good news is that I’m fully caught up in the epic book, but the bad news is that I kept discovering more and more and more quest chains as I scrambled to clear out my log.

And as pretty as North Ithilien is, getting around it is a major pain in the Hobbit butt. There are only two stable masters (three, if you’re being kind and include Osgiliath), it’s hard to ride directly to places when you go off-road (and there’s really just one main north-south road), and that milestone cooldown is still wildly too long. LOTRO devs, could you look at how short WoW’s hearthstone is and maybe consider bringing yours down a smidge?

Another drawback when you’re pressured for time and trying to get everything wrapped up is that there’s a good incentive to stop reading quest text just to get things done faster. I’m trying to absorb the information, but there are too many different chains and I missed a few of the boxes so that everything is jumbled up in my mind.

Hey you know what’s the best thing for you when you have a brain injury and migraines? To have a “nurse” play a shrill flute three feet from your ear. That’s what Middle-earth calls modern medicine.

I did get sucked into a lengthy quest line involving a healer who joins me for a road trip to get some bonus flowers and assemble the pages of a medical book. That was a scavenger hunt and a half, what with retracing steps all of the place and even being forced back into Osgiliath. Could’ve done without that.

Probably my favorite bit was from a quest that I had somehow overlooked early on that took me briefly into Mordor with Gandalf and Aragorn to destroy the bridge to Minas Morgul. It was such a terrific bit of staging, and seeing that city nearer than before gave me chills. Can’t wait to go there!

I love this girl. She might be a total bookworm — and even takes one with her into battle — but as a Lore-master, I approve. Plus, she’s pretty wicked with that sword!

Some of the mobs in the ruins and caves even approached kicking-my-butt levels of difficulty if I wasn’t paying attention. I got too used to my LM steamrolling over everything with my pet. Guess those days are gone?

I promised that there would be a dead pig at the end of this post, and I do not fail my promises. Actually, many dead pigs, here to remind you that LOTRO isn’t always scenic vistas of Rivendell and the Shire. It can be pretty gross too at times.

LOTRO: The North Ithilien tourist

Today I feel like gushing a bit about Lord of the Rings Online’s North Ithilien zone, because I feel like it’s one of the most attractive (definitely in the top five) zones in the game right now.

I wasn’t expecting too much, since other Gondor zones ranged from “adequate” to “battle scarred,” but this one really surprised me. Maybe it’s because I wasn’t really paying attention when it was first added to the game (not having been playing at the time), or perhaps it’s because this zone shares a mountainous border with Mordor, a land not renowned for its pristine beauty.

But North Ithilien? It has been a joy to quest in, just for the uplifting visuals.

The zone is a strip of land that rests between the mountain range and the Great River, so there’s a pretty severe downslope going from east to west. It’s kind of a Swiss Alps meets Mediterranean atmosphere, with great vistas around you most of the time.

Going about this zone, I’m reminded of one thing that LOTRO does really well, which is to create outdoor spaces that feel more wild and natural than what I usually get in MMOs. Lots of varied and leafy undergrowth, interesting trees, and landscape that looks like something that formed over time rather than cooked up in a dev lab to be jigsawed together with other random areas.

My only complaint about North Ithilien (other than the whole flower picking thing, but that’s another post) is that the river gorges and rocky terrain can make it a little more difficult than I’d like going north to south or vice versa, especially when off the road.

Can’t have a LOTRO zone without ruins, even in the “Garden of Gondor!” I always try to envision what these places looked like in the height of their glory.

I love good examples of environmental storytelling, like in this area. There are burned tree trunks and mounds of bones, but all of it is overgrown, suggesting a nasty battle and possible Orc occupation a while ago.

Orc runes carved into one of the trees. Wonder what it says (“GROK WAZ HERE!”).

This troll must’ve been caught unaware in the sunlight and turned into stone. You can see that the moss has started to grow on his chest, suggesting that a good amount of time has passed.

I feel that the zone is hard to capture in screenshots… it just feels much more pretty and alive when you are there.

Meanwhile, Gandalf turns to the north — to the Black Gate and our destiny. It’s a sober reminder that the beauty behind us may be our last for a good long time.