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.

LOTRO: Back to Mordor’s Future

Hello Minas Morgul! It’s been a couple of years since I ran into the volcanic wall that was the Mordor expansion and felt my joy drain away to grumpy resolve. LOTRO got a lot better after Mordor, giving us Northern Mirkwood, Dale-lands, some non-descript hill zones, and most recently, the gorgeous Vale of Anduin. We’ve had a good run in pretty places, but now I guess it’s time to go back into the land where evil never sleeps.

And even though I’m lukewarm on Mordor and wishing that SSG had more interesting features and surprises to throw our way for this expansion, I guess I should be happy that we’re getting a new LOTRO expansion, period, in 2019. Plus, if the team only had the resources to concentrate on something, I’m glad it’s world building and story. That’s what LOTRO excels in these days, anyway.

Hey, we got a nice upgrade for the mostly-ignored Hobbit Presents panel! I’ve heard several people comment positively on this, and I agree with them. It’s a small thing, but the new panel looks way better. Plus, now we get a better array of presents, including what seems like daily boosts to our virtue XP. That’s welcome.

Right away, I could tell that this was an odd expansion. For starters, there are only two zones with it, and the first one is a reworked slice of Mordor that takes place in the distant past. So, time travel for a good long while in a zone. That’s definitely different. And it’s actually welcome, since why not go back to the Second Age? See Mordor as something other than a wasteland? I mean, it’s not pretty, but at least there’s a sky and (bare) trees and scrub grass.

I think that the story hook here, that the team has been building up to for two years now, is compelling because we have no idea where it is going. What’s up with the Black Book and Isuldir and Mordor and all the rest? I kind of want to find out. That is motivation.

I’m really glad that the expansion quests are starting to help me gear up a bit, because my Lore-master is total weaksauce these days. It still takes too long to burn down mobs in the blue line, which is why I switched over to red for a hot (ha) minute. I tried it, but it didn’t really gel for me, plus I wasn’t noticing any great improvement on the time-to-kill factor, so I went back.

There were certainly a lot of other players running around questing, which I almost didn’t need to see because it once again sparked Hunter Envy in me. I used to LOVE my Lore-master and Captain, back when they could actually kill things, but now they’re like the plodding grandpa running after the faster-killing classes like Hunters. When I see one of those bow bozos kill a mob in about five seconds, I develop a hard eye twitch.

But really, at this point, I’m committed to this class. I can’t start over and I’m not going to pay something like $67 (!) for a level boost. Plus, even if I am horrible at killing, I still love having pets and the unique visuals. I also am leveling up a brand-new first ager that has better stats, so that should help out in the long run.

My simmering frustration over DPS led me to pulling my rotation apart and examining everything I had in my not-considerably-small toolkit. And that’s when I rediscovered Wizard’s Fire, which the devs stripped of its DOT status a while back and I disregarded. But when I slowed down to really look at it, I realized that (a) it’s an instant ability with no cooldown, (b) does a good chunk of damage, and (c) also issues a heal when my pet flanks. And you know what flanks a lot? My Bog-guardian.

So I adjusted my rotation, took out a couple of underperforming abilities, and worked Wizard’s Fire in as my spam attack once I got my DOTs set up. And you know what? It was like the game flipped over into, if not easy mode, than normal mode. Mobs went down a LOT faster, and I was able to do 100% of my rotation at distance instead of closing the gap to work in staff attacks.

This boosted my own morale for the rest of Mordor. I’ve always thought that if I could just fight at a normal time-to-kill, what I used to have in the game, then I’d be a lot more satisfied. Now, I can put that to the test.

A vision of a streamlined LOTRO experience

With 530 posts here on Bio Break, nine years of coverage on both Massivelys, and 12 years of play, clearly I am a fan of Lord of the Rings Online. There’s something fulfilling and deeply enjoyable about this ongoing journey through Middle-earth that keeps me coming back to it. But even so, I would be the first to admit that one of its biggest — and yet largely unspoken by the community — flaws is that it is a very alt-unfriendly MMORPG.

That’s not to say people avoid making alts; plenty of folks do. Most of the ones I know personally play LOTRO as their only MMO, and so alts make sense for them. But whereas I have scads of City of Heroes alts, in LOTRO, I have less characters on the selection screen for all servers combined than I have fingers on a single hand. I just don’t make alts in this game.

Why is that? The primary reason is time and length. The journey through LOTRO is more or less linear: You progress through level-gated zones, led by an epic storyline that is tailored to take you through the right places at the right time. And since there isn’t a lot of options how you are going to progress, you’ll be doing the same thing with each character.

And that “same thing” is plowing through literally thousands of quests. LOTRO’s design is very quest-centric, with each zone and expansion adding hundreds of additional missions to keep the playerbase busy and happy. If you were doing those quests when they were released, then you probably experienced them at a measured pace, but that’s not how it goes for most people who haven’t kept up. They’ve been buried under loads and loads of quests that simply take a whole lot of time to get through.

LOTRO has good quests and some really great questlines — Bingo Boffin and the epic storyline in particular. But it also has filler coming out of its ears. There’s kind of this running joke in the game that the writers are desperate to milk out every last ounce of potential content from the source material that they keep players backtracking and making very tiny baby steps forward in their journey so that Frodo and Sam are running laps around them in comparison.

So here’s my thought today about the alt problem. When a player hits the level cap, it should trigger a second game mode that offers a much more streamlined leveling experience. I’m not talking about simply upping the XP (although that would be the easy and most probable method); I’m talking about paring down the obscene number of quests so as to only give players the most essential ones to complete in order to experience the key elements of the story and move more quickly through the world a second, third, or even seventeenth time around.

Another option would be for this “new game plus” would be to eliminate ALL side quests and level fully from the epic alone. Just increase the rewards and XP from the epic to compensate, and players could jet through the game at a much faster pace. If they’ve already done all of the flower picking and pie running on at least one character, why not let their alts have an easier time catching up?