LOTRO: Two strode in, and death followed behind

I find it oddly charming and comforting that even in the deepest midst of Sauron’s domain and power there exists a tribe of free folk who stubbornly cling to their land even as the enemy encamps all around them. I gladly accepted the offer to head into the Red Sky Clan’s camp and visit with these wild natives, feeling refreshed to see friendly faces and architecture that isn’t trying to secure a spot on a heavy metal album cover.

OK, so it’s no four-star Hilton, but after a couple of zones of unrelenting hostility and no real “good guy” camps, I’m almost weeping with joy to see this. It makes me miss the more upbeat areas elsewhere in Middle-earth, and I make a mental effort to push that aside and focus on the task at hand, lest I get bogged down in despair.

It doesn’t take long before I convince the tribe to help me and whatever non-puking Rangers there are about to assault the nearby fortress of Kala-Gijak. Everyone assembles, a hush falls over the swamp, and then the head Ranger tells me to go in solo and pretty much kill everyone, destroy everything, and then stand aside as the army rolls in afterward to claim all the credit. Uh… no. Why don’t you come with me? I mean, the second I start killing people — and you want me to slaughter at least 30 Orcs! — it’s going to arouse a little suspicion and negate any advantage that surprise would have. Let’s just go together?

No?

Fine. But I’m keeping all of the Orc ears this time.

Fortunately, I do bump into a wandering Minstrel who just so happens to be doing the exact same quests as I. We gladly team up and start taking the place down. With one player, it would have been a horrible slog, but with two, it became pretty tolerable. I would assume that more would just steamroll the place. Gee. Wish there was an army at my back.

Methodically, we go through the camp, towing death behind us as an overworked, underpaid intern. My companion does seem to run literal circles around every enemy he attacks, but as he’s contributing both DPS and heals, I’m not in a position to complain.

Mission accomplished, we hack our way out and return to the camp, feeling that we could have single-handedly won the War of the Ring if only Aragorn had put us onto the field sooner.

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LOTRO: What is old is new again

When you’ve been playing an MMORPG long enough, what was old becomes new again sooner or later. You see quests repeat, mobs reskinned, biomes reused, and old issues come up again in new ways. So why do we keep playing? Because sometimes it’s not the well-worn bits that keep us entertained, but their arrangement and decor. Mix and match and dress things up in interesting ways, and we might forget that we’ve done this plenty of times already.

I was thinking this while fighting “Ash Claws” in Mordor’s Bloody Gore. Despite its gross pustules, spiky bits, and reddish hue, these critters are the same cave claws that have popped up all over the game up to this point. Still, I suppose you can’t expect every zone to contain 100% unique flora. It’s just not practical. So a few brand-new models plus plenty of reworked older ones, and there you go. Has a fresh feel to it as long as you don’t stare too hard.

Grumpy rangers being grumpy while I save their life. I’m sorry, but were you out gathering ingredients for a miracle cure at considerable risk to life and limb? No, you were babysitting your friend and probably sipping too much of the king’s wine. Suck it down and take your medicine like a man.

The adventures continue across the Bloody Gore. Since the zone is kind of a funnel, it’s pretty obvious what direction we’re heading (if the giant vampire-looking castle wasn’t any indication). Don’t know why I’m so eager to head into a cul-de-sac of death, but that’s this game for you!

Probably the only question mark that I had for this region was a mysterious passage that jutted down into the hills and ended in a milestone on the map. What could this be? The quest “unexpected allies” took me to meet one of the incredibly rare semi-friendly races of this country, some more members of the… slightly thick tribal people that we last saw in the deep forests of Gondor. Hey, I’m all for any help I can get, because Gollum knows that the Rangers aren’t the dependable sort.

But of course, what is old is new again, and so I must prove myself worthy to yet another group by performing all manner of tasks. I would love to see this in real life: “You want to become my friend and gain access to my club house? Go murder a lot of animals and bring me back their body parts. Also rob a pizza delivery driver and snag us a few deep dish delights. That’s a lad.”

Does Middle-earth have an asylum that could handle the mental trauma that my character has endured?

LOTRO: Waist-deep in blood

At some point, you’d think that any sane character in my predicament would stop, take stock of the situation, and decide that a swamp filled with probably-blood, oozing with disease, and populated by mutated creatures wasn’t worth it. After all, Middle-earth is saved. We’ve done our bit for king and country, it’s now time to retire to a nice cabin on the lake and binge on Netflix for a while. But noooo, here I am, waist-deep in blood, taking up the role of cleanup crew once more.

It’s my fate in life.

Despite my moanings, the Bloody Gore has proven to be a fascinating zone. It’s another one of LOTRO’s creepy-ambient places, with sights and sounds that are so off as to constantly telegraph “GO AWAY. WHAT ARE  YOU, MENTAL? COULD WE BE ANY MORE OBVIOUS AS A DETERRANT?”

I do take exception to one bug that I keep encountering, which is that the occasional mob will become both invisible and non-targetable, all while beating the crud out of me. Thank goodness my pet for some reason can see and attack it, or else I would have no hope.

It helps that those dorky Rangers are back to, y’know, get hurt and die again. True fact: There were 108 named Rangers at the beginning of LOTRO, and we are now down to just four. Another true fact: I made that up for comedic effect, but you get the point.

One Ranger gets infected by something, perhaps drinking the water after thinking that it was cherry Kool-Aid, and our only hope of a cure comes from this Gollum wannabe up here. He goes around stealing stuff and giving everyone attitude, and he’s currently my favorite NPC in the game. I like a bit of ‘tude after being around so many prim and proper people.

I took a brief break to go buy some item level 330 gear with all of my ashes. I got excited when I saw that I had over 1,100 in my wallet… and I felt true despair when the vendor showed me that most gear pieces were around 400 apiece. I got two, which is two more than I had before, but still, it doesn’t look that promising.

Thanks to the more spread out nature of the zone, the kill ten rats quests (of which there were some actual rats) were fairly relaxing and enjoyable. Feels good to get a lot of things done at once, especially if you get grouped up with some kinnies who are in the region. Seeing a large list of creatures to kill and items to loot get whittled down in record time is quite satisfying and a good end cap to a long day.

LOTRO: Bloody Gore

You know that things were getting bad when I consider a blood-red swamp of misery to be a marked improvement on the landscape of Mordor so far. But it’s true. Also, hi Puddleglum peeking out of the right side of the frame!

To be honest, I had just about had it with LOTRO’s Talath Úrui. I know I’ve complained about this before, so I’ll keep it short here, but it’s a simply miserable zone in design, looks, and especially quests. The whole place is “take two steps, walk into a giant public dungeon area, spend the next three days slowly finishing quests in it, rinse and repeat.” There’s so little imagination on display and the quest flow is so poorly constructed that it just feels like the devs threw up their hands and surrendered when it came to this place.

And so I was more than ready to move on when I’d finished the epic story in that area. On to the last zone of the expansion, Agarnaith!

Agarnaith, or the “Bloody Gore,” is a huge shift from the ash-strewn volcano zones that mostly came before. Like Lhingris, it offers some visual relief with lighter skies and actual vegetation. Granted, it all looks like the place was just visited by the elevator from The Shining, but I can deal with that. And actually, it’s a really unusual and somewhat unique look for MMOs. Can’t think of too many other zones that feature a red swamp, although LOTRO did have one once before (Agamaur in the Lone-lands).

It all feels so much better to be questing here. The mob density, at least in the first half of the zone, is more typical LOTRO and not the crazy-packed insanity of some other parts of Mordor. And even better is the travel: The valley here is mostly wide-open, so there’s little in the way to keep you from picking a path and going. I don’t usually like it when MMOs hem me in overmuch in zone design.

I do have concerns about the big fortress that I see on the horizon and its difficulty, but then, it’s only one after I’ve already braved a half-dozen or so Mordor strongholds to date.

LOTRO: Revisiting the Haunted Burrow

With a desire to take a small break from the general oppressiveness of Mordor and feeling in the spirit of the Halloween season, I took a jaunt back to the Shire to revisit one of my favorite haunts in Middle-earth: Bilbo’s Haunted Burrow.

It’s been literally years since I’ve been back here. The year it came out, I was all over the Haunted Burrow for the better part of a month and most likely completely burned myself out on doing all of the quests and whatnot. So this time around I was more interested in being a tourist than a dedicated adventurer. Fortunately, the Haunted Burrow caters to both.

I still maintain that the Haunted Burrow is one of the best MMO haunted houses ever designed. It’s rather compact and oddly themed (being in a Hobbit hole, which are usually known for being quite cozy), but the intimacy of the rooms, the vagueness of the maps, and the disorientating navigation all work to make this place feel much bigger than it is.

It’s not a quiet place, I’ll admit that right off the bat. There are screams and jump scares and noises galore no matter where you go. No music; the soundtrack is all special effects and ambiance, which works well to create a haunted house-like feel. There are secrets everywhere, including hidden doors, secret chests, and misleading doorways. A smattering of scared hobbits are wandering about, and some of the tricks that Bilbo left behind can stun, startle, or mess with you.

I just enjoy looking around. It’s all slightly tacky and not-so-serious, which is exactly how I like my Halloween decor. This place does make me wonder how messed up Bilbo was to create such a place with the sole intent of sparking an adventurous spirit in his fellow hobbits. I think he should’ve been a lot more concerned with liability rather than inspiring his friends, because this place is a death trap waiting to happen.

Here’s a detail I never noticed before: A mounted warg head where the candle produces smoke out of the nostrils. Two minutes later, this whole place is aflame (I bet), but it’s worth it for that special effect.

There are many quests to run in the burrow and I vaguely recall getting quite good at them so that I could rack up a lot of tokens. The lazy man’s way is to only pop in and grab the four free chests (the three hourly ones in the “safe” room and the daily chest in the basement).

It would be cool if the devs would somehow expand this place or add new content to it, but I’m content to see it come back every year and offer a scary yet controlled space for us weak-spirited trekkers to explore.

Going on a Hobbit trek in LOTRO

In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit.

This hole, in fact. Bag End. And it’s here that marks the beginning of both popular Middle-earth tales. Recently in our house, we’ve started reading an illustrated version of The Hobbit. I’m taking my time, doing about 15 minutes and a few pages at a go, making sure that the kids are tracking what’s happening. Oddly enough, they are totally crazy about the *songs* that are in the book and my singing interpretation of them. I’ve had some requests for encores. Anyway.

So as part of feeding into the imagination and excitement of this book, I took my kids on a Hobbit tour of LOTRO. We’re only to Rivendell in the book, so I made sure not to jump past that to any story spoilers. But we did head over to Bag End to poke around in Bilbo’s old home.

By popular demand, we had to go visit “Bilbo’s trolls” in the Trollshaws. Lots of laughs were had at the thought of birds pooing on these statues over the years.

I had a thought, since we had just read this passage, and wondered if there was the cave that was mentioned as being nearby. The one where Bilbo gets Sting and all that. I had never thought to look before, but this time I poked around…

And lo and behold, we found it. Cooking pots and all. I was pretty impressed that it was not only there, but that you could see the keyhole in the middle. Alas, there is no way to get inside, but I’m pretty happy to see it there.

Next stop was the Last Homely House in Rivendell. My daughter was disappointed that there weren’t silly Elves hanging out in the trees singing down to us as in the book. Gross oversight there, devs!

And we made sure to say hello to Bilbo, old Hobbit that he now is. My kids agreed that he did NOT have a sufficient amount of hair on the top of his feet, but oh well.

Back in Bree, I noticed that the stage near the Prancing Pony has a Hobbit-themed backdrop with the whole Smaug encounter. Thought that was pretty cool.

LOTRO is pure torture

Well THIS is another fine mess you got me into, Puddleglum! Thanks to you and Mr. Squirrel here for sitting idly by while I was captured and am now being tortured. Fun times. Can’t wait to write it all down in my diary. If I have opposable thumbs left at the end of the day, that is.

FLASHBACK: Two hours earlier.

I log into Lord of the Rings Online, feeling a little under pressure (internal pressure) to keep moving in this hellhole of a zone. I’ve arrived at the very doorstep of Naerband, the supermax prison that towers over the landscape, but for the past few nights, I haven’t seen any groups coming or going. I wait for an uneventful half-hour to see if I can find a partner to blitz through this place, but no such luck.

Time to do it the hard way.

I summon Puddleglum, who has become my go-to pet in Mordor as of late. The Bog-guardian actually tanks well while putting out some respectable ranged damage, and that translates into personal survival. After a light snack, we head inside to see what there is to see.

Lots of internal fire damage. I’m guessing that stone isn’t flammable and that this is in part the result of Mt. Doom blowing its top. Still, lots of creatures hanging around in a half-burning jail. Might be time to evacuate, is all I’m saying.

Naerband is big, one of the public dungeons that Mordor seems to prefer, and without any companions I play it safe with pulls. Fortunately, for all of its ominous presence, it’s not as hard as I first thought. I’m able to carefully take down guards and progress at a slow and steady pace, working my way through the pocket full of quests that I picked up earlier on.

I do that trusty dungeon strategy of always hugging the left (or right) wall and seeing where that takes me, and lo and behold, I end up mapping the full place and finishing up all of my quests. Two hours of blood, sweat, and tears, but it’s a satisfying experience. Plus, I always like checking out prisons in MMOs. Devs get creative in these spaces.

That’s when some kid gets captured and I rush to his rescue, only to be captured myself. Looks like I’m doomed for some rack action while my faithful pets look on while I scream at them to disembowel this Orc, but nothing doing. I anticipate coming out of this a few inches taller than when I started.

But then the Human Torch shows up and nudges the warden to find more fuel for her fire, so I’m let off the hook. Seriously, at this point I need a well-organized chat to keep track of all of these post-Sauron villains. I’m guessing “always on fire yet still walking around” means this one is a pretty serious threat, but I’m not able to take her on. Not yet.

Instead, I am given the opportunity for a jail break, which is at least the second large-scale one I’ve participated in in this game (thinking back to Isengard). At least I’m not mopping up Orc puke and backtracking constantly this time around. And at least getting out of here means that my sentence at Naerband has been commuted — time to continue on with my journeys!