I was worried that skirmishes would pale. They have, for me at least. The problem is that they are so transparently procedural content, and that is not LotRO’s strong point. Let me contrast with the equally procedural Torchlight.
For those just joining us, “skirmishes” are a new feature for The Lord of the Rings Online™. Players defend one point or assault a series of points (and then defend against counterattacks), culminating in a boss fight. Half-ish of enemy waves come with a tougher “lieutenant,” and there are optional mini-boss “encounters.” Each skirmish setting has a pool of enemies from which it draws, so the Bree skirmishes give you half-orcs, bandits, and wolves while the Gondamon skirmish has goblins, wolves, and dwarves. Add a couple variations on each enemy, scale for group size, mix, and serve.
It is pure MMO combat, with a thin veneer of story. If you want a dose of MMO combat and have 20 to 40 minutes to play, skirmishes are perfect. Start from anywhere, pick your favorite, go. For what they are, they are excellent, although I have my issues with scaling, NPC AI, and some rewards.
I described these at City of Heroes content, and the assault skirmishes really are, down to the details. The way the fight-units are selected from a pool with an exacting formula, the spread across the map, the ambushes upon completing objectives, the bosses mixed with scattered fights, and the elite boss fight at the end: these are City of Heroes missions. The defense maps just bring the whole thing to you, simplifying it to a series of fights.
This is not why you are playing The Lord of the Rings Online™. City of Heroes specializes in it. There are lots of places for fantasy-themed MMO violence. Your core LotRO player is there for the setting, the story, the look and feel of Middle-earth. The setting and the community combine to form something other than WoW.
Conveniently, you say, skirmishes are intended as a side dish rather than the main course. The world is covered in hand-designed content. Skirmishes are there when you want a bit of quick fighting. This is fair, and it would be more fair were it not for two points. First, skirmishes are the big selling point of the “expansion,” the new tech that makes it something more than the usual updates that happen between expansion packs. Turbine has released zones, dungeons, and epic books before as part of the regular content; the tech upgrades and the level cap boost are what set this apart, and this is the big tech update. Second, skirmishes are one of two efficient methods for going through the new LI grind, improving legacies that now start worse because they can be made better. You are looking at 40 to 50 hours of grinding if you want to cap your new LI, for each LI. I suppose you could run that as one skirmish a day for three months, but that seems like an unlikely path to me.
(I must note that it is better than other LotRO procedural content. Areas with lots of procedural content but little to no hand-crafted content are just dead zones. See every east of the horse farm in Bree-land as an example: three motes of quest in a sea of meaningless spawns.)
A problem it highlights is that MMO combat is not really all that good. When you boil the game down to pure combat, that is exciting for a while, until you realize how little thought is needed for it. Repeat the same actions every time, plus or minus a few percent for particular enemies or based on perverse luck. 1 1 2 1 1 3 1 4 repeat. However we might feel about having killed 10,000 goblins over our MMO careers, it becomes rather transparent as the next wave of 2 or 3 goblins runs in. It is old school farming of the sort I have not experienced since the early days of Dark Age of Camelot.
Don’t knock it: this is great stuff when you want repetition, mindlessness, and/or bloodshed. When I was younger, slaughtering a thousand goblins sounded like an accomplishment, not a grind. Some days after work, I can appreciate a 20 minute spasm of violence as decompression. But there are still places that do it better.
I have been playing Torchlight, and the irony is not lost on me. Torchlight, for those just joining us, is Diablo II if the developers had to do it over again: streamlined with less demonology, more family friendly graphics, and a dog. It is map after map of procedural content, where the mini-bosses are just big versions of the normal enemies, the quests sort of happen along the way, and boss fights come every five levels.
Frankly, the combat is less intellectually engaging that MMO combat. Every class gets several active powers, but I have focused on passives, long-duration buffs, and specializing in a couple of active skills. I lead with summon spells, pop potions when necessary, and otherwise right- or left-click to victory. Hold down the right mouse button and things die.
Funny thing is, it does not have much more variety than the skirmishes do. Each tile set has about a half-dozen different enemy types. A few are shared across maps. The mini-bosses are just big versions of the little guys, rather than special lieutenants. (This does increase sanity in some ways, as I don’t know why LotRO Stormcrows hang out in every setting.) It does have a few advantages in this respect. The first is that these are new, rather than enemies you have defeated 1000 times already. Some skirmish enemies at the level cap are new, or rather new variations on old themes with one completely new for Siege of Mirkwood™. All these Torchlight enemies are new, colorful shinies, at least until I kill them 1000 times too.
The other two Torchlight advantages come from quantity. In a solo skirmish, I get 2 or 3 enemies at a time, sometimes two of the same one. I fight them then wait for the next monster pellet to pop out. In Torchlight, since I can one- or two-shot most enemies, they come in waves of six to twenty. I can get one or two of every enemy type at once or a huge mass of goblins. If I actually had all of one type at once, it would be a huge army that would look awesome, so that would still be cool. Also, you can see all of it at once. You can get those huge groups of enemies in full group- or raid-sized skirmishes, and again it looks awesome to see the huge wave coming. Your view in LotRO, however, is not conducive to seeing everything at once. It becomes a confused mass of bodies, with too much going on and too low an angle to get perspective. Maybe I should try moving the viewing angle to be more like Torchlight’s overhead view, although the walls and buildings that surround the skirmish areas could cause unfortunate camera problems, especially as I turn during the fight.
The graphics are simpler and clearer, and the abilities to track are fewer. That lets you take everything in. I have several bars of abilities on LotRO, and I need to use them to maximize effectiveness. Simple, plentiful, and fast seems to be my preference for procedural content.
The masses in LotRO do create a feel like the films, where you are on the front lines and can see only the enemies in front of you, with obvious masses of foes behind them and a troll towering overhead. And this is LotRO’s strength: creating a look and feel from a particular world. Some of the boss fights create the same Middle-earth feel in a different way, with dragons landing or trolls raging forth.
I just wish the gameplay contributed more, instead of highlighting the basic weakness of MMO combat.