LOTRO: Getting lost… and found again

For some people, the Great Time-Out of 2020 is a (forced) opportunity to get in a whole bunch more gaming time, and they are taking advantage of it. That might have been me a long time ago, but right now this enormous gift of time is being negated by having to handle and teach four kids at home while also adjusting my job duties at church to minister remotely. So while I kind of wish that I had tons of peaceful time to pour into gaming, the truth is that I actually have less alone time now than I did a couple of weeks ago.

But that’s OK, because when 8:00 pm hits, the kids go to bed, and I still get my quiet time. And these days that means my regular routine of logging into Lord of the Rings Online for at least an hour of adventures.

For the most part, it’s just more questing through Rohan. I’m starting to get into Fangorn Forest, which is one of the most unique wooded landscapes of the game, and as I’ve only really done this a couple of times before, it still feels pretty fresh to me. I’m still stubbornly resisting doing any sort of mounted combat, and let me tell you, when you stand in one place to let the enemies keep coming to you with warg flybys, you start seeing how janky this system is.

The spring festival started up last week, giving the community something additional to do — which is definitely welcome. Of course, I wish it was any festival BUT the spring one; I’m just not a fan of most of the activities with this one. The hedge maze and shrew stomping are annoying and stressful, so mostly I’m just grinding out enough tokens to get a hedgehog pet before calling it a day.

I do want to give Turb… Standing Stone Games serious props for turning on ALL of the content in LOTRO through the end of April. To my knowledge, the studio has never done this, and I saw a lot of people light up in excitement at the announcement. LOTRO’s biggest barrier to entry is the prohibitive cost of getting all of the expansions, so this at least temporarily gets rid of that. I can see dedicated free players speeding through as much content as possible to use up the expansions before they lock up again.

It doesn’t do anything for me personally other than to see a lot of excitement bubble up over an MMO that I love. The servers were definitely popping after the announcement, and I publicly stated that I hoped SSG would decide to make all of its older content permanently free to play. I think that could go a long way to sparking a new renaissance for LOTRO.

LOTRO: Galloping into Rohan

I’ve been so negligent on this particular post, because I’ve been meaning to write about heading back to Rohan on the progression servers for, um, weeks now. So I might have given the impression that I’m not playing at all when the reality is that I at least log in a decent play session once a day.

Riders of Rohan is, after all, one of the game’s biggest expansions. It starts what I mentally think of as the “southern” realms — Rohan, Gondor, Mordor — and the end of the northern parts that we spent a long time going through. But yeah, it’s HUGE. And it’s not even all of Rohan, just half of it, but that half is more than enough to keep me busy for a few months. I knew that I didn’t want to dawdle, because trying to blitzkrieg through RoR would be a fool’s errand.

Riders of Rohan was a massive effort at the time to pull off the kind of expansion that Mines of Moria was. Turbine really went all-out, and it shows. The whole realm of Rohan is so well thought-out, especially in its architecture and people, and it’s light-years different than the rather bland area of Bree-land when you compare it. I’ve always loved the Rohan houses and taverns in particular (and I can’t wait to get my own Rohan house later this year!).

The most common criticism I’ve heard — after how janky the mounted combat system is, which I agree — is that Rohan may be TOO big. There are tons of quest hubs and a loooot of open space to traverse (a necessity due to the mounted combat). I like the space and the visuals, but yeah, some of these hubs could be a little less involved. Too many of them are variations on “we don’t trust you, do these 10 tasks, now we trust you, now leave and go somewhere else.” There are some pretty well-written stories, but not enough to make up the landscape here.

I have completely eschewed mounted combat, by the way. The epic book forced me to get the mount, but the second I got it, I ignored it. I’ll stick with my trusty goat, thank you very much, and if I have to fight mounted mobs, I’ll stand in a spot and yell at them at a safe distance.

As with WoW Classic, this is pretty relaxed questing and fighting. Nothing that really demands my full attention, so I’m free to screenshot, check out details, and watch TV on the side. I’ve been making progress through the levels, hitting 81 and powering up my Echoes of Battle skill to something approaching usability.

And if I ever get irked with the repetition, I think to myself, “At least this is far easier on the eyes than Mordor!” Then I try very hard not to think about the fact that we have to go through Mordor again because I DO NOT WANT TO DO MORDOR AGAIN. But that’s in a few years and maybe an asteroid will hit me before then.

So for now, I’m trying to keep the pace going. Log in, power quest for a half-hour or so, and log out. Chew through this content so that I’m ready for the next live update or progression unlock.

LOTRO: Brown lands isn’t the adventure I signed up for

The current guestimate of the LOTRO community as to when Standing Stone Games is going to unlock Riders of Rohan on the progression server is mid-January. That sounds about right to me, and since SSG rarely gives us much of a head’s up on such things, I’ve been rushing to get the Great River region done so that I’ll be 100% ready. If I get done sooner, well, I have tons of Bingo Boffin quests waiting to fill the time.

It’s pretty mindless questing, for the most part. I do try to read the quest text and follow along with the stories, but when you’ve done it a few times already, it’s easy to shut off the brain and just go to where the glowy patches are on the map and Do The Things. I’m not really in it for advancement (I’m already 75) or money, but rather a sense of completion and the off chance that one of these quests will reward me with a unique armor or weapon skin.

That last one isn’t so far off, either. I actually got two cool pieces this past week which weren’t lurking in my wardrobe, and so I’ve been refining the above outfit with even better looks.

I don’t know why the devs saved the Brown Lands area as the last place you go in Great River, because it’s easily the ugliest part of what is otherwise an interesting zone. There’s a hint of an interesting plotline with one sad Ent who is looking for the Entwives and their garden, but otherwise, it’s just killin’ Easterlings, cats, bugs, and crocodiles. At least there are no flowers here for elves to make me pick. You have to count your small blessings, after all!

Looking ahead to the next expansion, I don’t share the angst over Riders of Rohan that I’ve seen among some players, but I do understand their concern over how many quests there are. It’s a huge region with scads of quest hubs and whatnot, but I still like it for the visuals and the uptick in storytelling. It’s been a very long time since I’ve been back in Rohan and I’m looking forward to revisiting it — even if the game is going to try to make me excited about warsteeds again. Man, that’s a lost cause, isn’t it?

I’m even more interested in hearing from SSG about the coming year of the game, but the producer only gets off his butt sometime in February for this, so we’ll probably be waiting a while. I have no solid guesses, other than some more Minas Morgul content and Rohan housing.

LOTRO: Finishing up Minas Morgul

Out of the four major game projects that I wanted to accomplish this month, wrapping up Lord of the Rings Online’s latest expansion ended up taking the longest. It wasn’t a bad thing, just a long journey, as it took quite some time to slowly ascend the tiers of Minas Morgul and do the approximately billion quests that were on each one.

But slow and steady Syp wins the race, and eventually I was not only level 130, but I had moved all the way to the epilogue of the Black Book of Mordor and finished pretty much all of the non-daily, non-fellowship quests in the expansion zones.

Honestly? It was probably the most satisfying LOTRO expansion I’ve done since maybe Rohan. I wouldn’t say that any of it was OH WOWZERS GUYS THIS IS INCREDIBLE, but it hit all the sweet spots of being interesting, keeping me moving forward, being accessible, and not being frustrating. I thought that going into Morgul Vale would be a nonstop haunted house, but in truth it was more like a sad and corrupted place where you could still see the outlines of what used to be beautiful about it.

The city itself was eerily reminiscent of Minas Tirith (for obvious reasons), although a little smaller and obviously far more evil. Right about the time I had finished going up and down and up and down the place, SSG added an interior stablemaster of sorts to let you ascend and descend quicker. Nice for those who come after me, I guess, but a little late in my case.

The stories? Some were pretty gripping and some lost me completely. I think LOTRO has saturated my mind with long-named characters to the point where I forget who most of these people are unless it is explicitly stated to me, and even then, I am often asking “why should I care about this one?”

I think the biggest disappointment was the Black Book of Mordor itself — the new epic quest line that wraps up in this expansion. The studio was really trying to tell a different kind of tale here, a sort of extended flashback and a mystery, but boy did it lose me constantly. I got the main gist — that there was a king of Gondor that got goaded into trying to assault Minas Morgul, got trapped there, and was slowly corrupted while his friends tried to help him get home — but so much of the epic was “dead people talking to other dead people” and I’m thinking, why does this matter to my character now? Why is this mystery important to the matter at hand? I guess it has to be because Gandalf said it was, but I never understood the urgency.

What were far better, usually, were the smaller stories. There was a really creepy quest that you’re getting decaying things for this small family living in a shack, only to be treated to an unnerving twist at the end. Minas Morgul is a sad place, but the saddest tale of all was the discovery of a bathhouse where the residents of that tier were drowned one by one in its waters.

There were heroes — Faramir and Eowyn return, huzzah — and comedic characters to help break the tension. I love the weird goblin Vaznik or whatever his name is and how he thinks he’s a king but he really functions as the Rangers’ sidekick. I could be up for more of him in the future.

In any case, I’m done. At least, until SSG adds more content to this expansion, which will obviously happen because there’s a big section down southeast that hasn’t been filled in with missions yet. For the time being, it’s a good feeling to have this expansion conquered so that I can turn my attention elsewhere in the new year.

LOTRO and the overdose of the questing system

If you ever look at the sales page for a LOTRO expansion or a loading screen advertisement for a zone or expansion, inevitably the very first thing that will be mentioned on the feature point list is the sheer number of quests that this pack unlocks. Two, five, six hundred new quests — this sort of thing is not uncommon to see.

Born in the World of Warcraft era, Lord of the Rings Online grabbed on to the former’s questing system and used it — as most MMOs have since — as the backbone of its narrative and gameplay operations. Quests drove nearly everything: progress, loot acquisition, story, movement.

And out of all of those quest-happy games, those WoW clones, LOTRO seems to have gorged more than most on quests. Apart from its lauded and generally more involving epic story questlines, regular quests have served as filler rather than flavor. I think they were more flavor back in the early years of the expansion — just go play through the Shire’s quests if you want to see a wide variety of tales told and activities performed via quests. These days, quests seem there to give us something to do. To pad out the time. To make that feature list tally seem all that more impressive.

So has LOTRO overdosed on quests? I can’t even fathom how many total quests there are in the game to date, but it has to be over 10,000. Your enjoyment of the game is relative to how much you like — or can tolerate — a barrage of quests. Conversely, the number of alts that one makes seems to go down the more quests you do on your main character (and subsequently realize that you will have to do with the next one).

The developers have created an interesting pattern in the last several zones and expansions. Really, this goes way way back, but I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately, especially going through Minas Morgul. The pattern goes somewhat like this:

  • You’ll arrive at a new zone or quest hub and hoover up four to eight quests waiting for you there.
  • Sometimes, one of those quests will be “complete 6 quests for Sir Questsalot,” which then triggers a whole bunch more rings (quest icons) over NPCs.
  • You’ll start working on the quests, most of which overlap in territory, while accepting a handful of new quests out on the landscape.
  • Turning in these quests, you’ll get even more quests that will, more often than not, have you go back to the *same* area you were just in. A third batch of quests will repeat this, often culminating with a mini-boss fight.
  • You’ll rinse-and-repeat at a quest hub until you finally exhaust all of the missions and are led — via a quest or two — to the next hub.

LOTRO’s developers obviously love the areas and cities they’ve created, and you know this because of how long they’ll keep you puttering about in a particular area. I’ve been slowly working my way up the terraces of Minas Morgul over several nights now, and I can tell you that it’s almost a joke how many quests keep sending me back to the same spots, just for different objectives.

It’s how the game is. It’s not a horrible thing, understand. Filler can be satisfying, in a way. Sometimes those quests prove individually interesting or tell a cool story. There’s a sense of advancement and progression. You can do a lot of things when you’re getting rewarded for it. And it is a great feeling to come back to a hub and unload a half dozen or more quest turn-ins in one go.

But sometimes… sometimes I get weary of the sheer volume of quests, which is why I wrote that post on streamlining the game for alts a few weeks ago. MMOs like The Secret World have instilled in me a much deeper appreciation for multi-stage quests that are fewer in number but boast more narrative and greater involvement. They feel like the name that these are given — quests.

After all, in Lord of the Rings, the Quest was given a capital letter to signify its magnitude, its journey, and its effort. Grabbing a handful of flowers in three minutes to shove into the hand of a bored elf doesn’t seem to merit the same name.

LOTRO’s Minas Morgul is a dark horse 2019 MMO expansion

When we get to the end of 2019 — which isn’t that far away, mind you — there will be some talk about the best MMO expansions this year. And there were quite a few good ones, from FFXIV: Shadowbringers to ESO: Elsweyr to SWTOR: Onslaught. In fact, lots of good word-of-mouth from many expansions this year. But what will probably be overlooked, both for the game’s age and the relative quiet rollout of the product, is LOTRO: Minas Morgul.

And the more I play it, the more I feel that this ignorance is a shame, because SSG’s content team really brought their best to this pack. The early Mordor Besieged bit was take-it-or-leave-it, in my opinion, but it really picked up when the expansion moved into Morgul Vale.

I think it’s a combination of factors that is making this expansion not just likable but much more player friendly than LOTRO has been since Mordor came out a couple of years ago. If I had to put my finger on it, I would say the factors were:

  • A big bump in gear power, maybe the biggest I’ve seen from an expansion or epic story update. Getting up to gear level 400 makes a HUGE difference in time-to-kill of mobs.
  • Fewer areas that are overpopulated with enemy mobs. This was a big problem in Mordor and even in pockets of the Vale of Anduin, where it would be impossible to pull a mob without getting an additional seven friends joining in the fight.
  • A visually striking zone that, while “evil” and corrupted in theme, is still very interesting to look at and navigate, unlike Mordor’s oppressive gloom.
  • Some very interesting quest lines that tell stories with twists and fun developments.
  • Plenty of milestones and stable masters to aid navigation.

I can’t help but continually compare it to Mordor and find this expansion vastly superior in almost every way. About my only complaint is that the solo versions of the dungeons that are required for the quest lines can be lengthy and a mite bit difficult, although I haven’t hit a wall anywhere yet that has required an urgent SOS to guildies.

I’m going to reserve final judgment for the expansion until I get into the Minas Morgul city proper — I’ve been doing all of the “around” stuff first. As long as the city isn’t too difficult to get through with tight quarters and mob density, I think this expansion might well be the dark horse of 2019’s releases.

LOTRO: The shocking story of Gandalf that you can’t handle!

So yeah, I’ve decided to use clickbait headlines for all of Bio Break’s posts from now on. Anything to drive up traffic, right? Ahem. Anyway.

Minas Morgul! I have spent most of my LOTRO time in the past couple of weeks charging through (well, plodding through, as I am wont to do) the latest expansion. I’ve already finished the Mordor Besieged map, which was fine if a little repetitive. Getting into Morgul Vale felt like the “real” expansion content — a new map (versus a repurposed one) dominated by the rather colorful multi-tiered city.

I guess I never really thought of Minas Morgul (the city) as the counterpoint to Minas Tirith, which probably illustrates how slow I am on the take. But it’s cool that there’s this dark version of the bright city, and I’m looking forward to exploring it. Probably will be littered with skeletons. That’s my bold prediction.

I’m happy to report that combat is still going fairly well. Not super-fast or anything, but between reworking my rotation and the jump in gear levels that the expansion epic quests provide, it’s more than enough to keep me moving through packs of mobs with little worry. At least I’m sweating less often than before.

However, when I switch over to my Minstrel, I’m much more content with that combat style. It feels way more satisfying and relaxing to yell at things and slam down a righteous beat, I guess.

The epic story moving through Mordor Besieged was, again, just okay. There were a few good moments but a lot more of those SSG-trademark “treading water” quests where you’re doing a lot of busy work but the narrative isn’t moving much.

Probably of most interest was the conclusion of that section, in which we did actually find out something surprising about Gandalf (I won’t spoil it, but it was a neat twist) and confront Sauron face-to-face. No misty apparition here; Sauron is in full lich mode, sporting a rather ugly face and a right arm that looks pent up with evil magic.

All in all, I’m really enjoying myself. I pass a lot of the time examining the details of the world, such as these fantastic doors in Grimbeorn’s home. Seriously, those are just amazing how it works in the trees and stain glass into the branches. And there are these little cute animals in the patterns behind it.