[The Lord of the Rings Online™: Shadows of Angmar™] Or, “A Weekend in The Lord of the Rings Online™: Shadows of Angmar™. Yes, it is my turn for a “first impressions” post. You already know that Ethic has pre-ordered it, so we have at least one rat-hunter there.
Short version: it’s WoW. Long ruminations follow.
At least in low-level play, this is WoW, with less cartoony graphics and different IP. The basic game is the same, from the keyboard controls to the quest-centric play that guides you from one NPC with a symbol over his head to the next. There are some improvements over other games and a few design decisions I do not approve of, but this is Yet Another Fantasy MMORPG.
For me, that is not nearly as bad of a thing as I thought it would be. I have not played YAFMMORPG in quite a while. I saw a bit of the betas of Hero Online, Dungeons and Dragons Online, World of Warcraft, and Horizons. I played a few levels on a friend’s Guild Wars. That is it for recent years, since I stopped playing Dark Age of Camelot in its second year. There was a month or three visiting Asheron’s Call again somewhere in there, but I have mostly been playing City of Heroes and Villains with a few stops in EVE, combined with some fairly long gaps in MMO play. (Of course, you notice I still speak in WoW terms, since most of my friends play it, and hey I would like you to understand what I am talking about.)
This means that the game has the feel of something New and Refreshing, while still being extremely familiar. I think many games are relying on the same thing by making a slightly different twist on YAFMMORPG. Fan-favorite Aggro Me endorsed Vanguard on “Freshocity” grounds; his review is basically that is a worse version of WoW with a Diplomacy system that could work someday, but it is something new!. He calls it the best fantasy MMO since World of Warcraft and EverQuest II, which means it beat, what, Dark and Light?
Anyway, this is my first impressions post, and I have yet to really talk about The Lord of the Rings Online™: Shadows of Angmar™. My first impressions were strongly tied to a history of games, and I immediately compared it to the competition. I don’t know about you, but I have trouble seeing these games in isolation anymore. The Lord of the Rings Online™: Shadows of Angmar™ feels comfortable because it rests on a large body of gaming history that many of us share. If you like fantasy MMOs, this is another one. If not, you should have jumped ship by now.
For your convenience, I have a few things labeled “Wow, what a great idea!” This means an evolutionary improvement, a good feature that other games should steal, or it was a good idea to steal from other games. I will criticize things with “Boo!” No bold probably means YAFMMORPG.
Race options: man, dwarf, elf, hobbit. I guess that is what you would expect from Middle Earth, rather than gnomes and minotaurs. Still, boring in this day and age, without an option for the furries, trolls, etc. I have a friend who might detonate at the notion of, “Can’t we put some sort of cat- or frog-person into The Lord of the Rings Online™: Shadows of Angmar™?” Then again, he can recite the lineage of the elf kings. It’s the right decision for the setting, but it still bores me.
Class options: potentially interesting. You have probably read that there is a fig leaf over healing under the name “restoring morale.” They heal. Anyway, you have: (1) melee DPS w/ AoE; (2) tank; (3) melee buffer; (4) ranged DPS; (5) healer/buffer/ranged DPS; (6) pets and crowd control; (7) melee debuffer. At least, those are the official characterizations; some comments on that below. Anyway, this is a perfectly serviceable mix, with two secondary healer options in the buffer and pet caster. I have stated my preference for skill-based systems, but this is a fair class-based system. Tank, healer, and damage, with a few toys on the side.
Character creation: mild boo. Games keep making character creation simpler, trying to prevent you from making any meaningful decisions at the start. “Why let newbies gimp themselves?” you can almost hear them thinking. So you pick race, sex, and class, then tweak the appearance. The appearance tweaking is extremely small. Hey, everyone, you are competing with City of Heroes here, and no one is coming even vaguely close. I know you expect us to customize our appearances with equipment, but new players don’t get to see that, and most of us are going to look 90% the same in the end anyway. This is dull! But frankly, you the player are used to it by now, and again it is fine for the setting. Still, if one of your big customization options is “slightly different nose,” you lose seven coolness points. Seven!
Character creation comes with name recommendations. This is a good thing. Players picking any damn thing is somewhat distracting in Middle Earth. WoW is just fine with Moocow the Tauren Druid, but it is jarring to see Bloodrayne the Elf Hunter. And I was in a CoH supergroup with Blood Rayne2 until someone reported her name over a year into it. Still, can we not be freaks while playing in literature? Of course, every sane version of “Eladorin” and “Alfric” and “Theodrus” will be exhausted within a year, so maybe I will get used to seeing xKillerAssassinx the Hobbit Burglar.
The character selection screen is actually notable for its visuals. Your character is in a 3-D environment, and the camera moves rather than your character if you spin it. Wow, what a great idea! It’s just a tiny little touch, but I like it. It is even a recognizable part of the world in miniature! Little things matter.
Okay, tutorial. It’s a tutorial. You learn to move and click things, you beat up a few bad guys. In The Lord of the Rings Online™: Shadows of Angmar™, you also get introduced to a heavy hitter or two. Reactions to this have been mixed. In one sense, cool, Gandalf! Elrond! Black riders! In another, hey, why did you invite me along if Gandalf is just going to ace the troll? Is this a preview of cool things to come or just rubbing in the fact that I am an extra while the big name characters are playing out the real story off-camera?
A good thing is that the different races’ stories interlace. You get more of the story if you play through it from several races. This continues through the early game, with one race’s story setting up or filling in pieces from the others’. I liked that in City of Villains, when you set up or reacted to the City of Heroes story arcs, and I like it here. On the other hand, what is with the elf tutorial’s ending? “And then 600 years passed.” Wait, what? That kind of makes sense for elves, being ancient and all, but what?
There are two newbie zones, one for men and hobbits, another for elves and dwarves. It is kind of lame that hobbits do not start in the Shire except for the tutorial cameo, and the elves do the same things as the dwarves, but we’ll get there. Instead, the early game takes place in little instances of part of the world. Wow, what a great idea! I have no idea how many are created, but it keeps you from having too much interference from the other 10,000 new players who are also trying to get six wolf pelts. The beginner quests take you around this little demi-zone and carry you to level six. This is a great way to reduce lag and crowding, like how City of Heroes had Atlas Park 1-12 on each server in the early days. The downside is that, unlike CoH, there is no way (yet?) to move between the instances. If you and your friend both create dwarves, you may not be able to play together until level 6. That will not be acceptable when the game goes live; if you want to play with your friends, you want to do so now, not after you know what you are doing.
The newbie zone is like pre-Searing Guild Wars, only better. It is the most brilliant method of recycling content I have ever seen. You end your time there with an instance, which in one case again reuses part of the newbie zone map. After that, you go to the real world, where everyone is. If you are an elf or hobbit, you go to where your race lives. If you are a man or dwarf, you stay in the same spot, but the “real world” version is higher level. You have the same map (with a few tweaks), but with higher level foes on it. Maybe I will get bored of seeing the same map, but this is just brilliant to me. Most games have a newbie area that you go through quickly and never see again. There is really great stuff to hook the new players, but it all gets flushed because it is meaningless after level 5. The Lord of the Rings Online™: Shadows of Angmar™ keeps it alive longer and uses it as the early-game crossroads, rather than taking away all the territory you learned. It improves the illusion of a dynamic world while mixing the familiar and the new. Wow, what a great idea!
I do not know how great the replayability is. That tutorial wears if you try it a few times a day, as I did while testing some things. You really zip through it after your first time through, since you know where everything is and have already read the text. Bonus: you can re-read your completed quest text. Hey, City of Heroes, we could use that. Anyway, if you are thinking about pre-ordering the lifetime package, will you be exceedingly bored going through the same early game content? It is not as though there is an alternate chain of quests for the early levels. I have no idea. City of Heroes had more early game quest options, and the style of play even in different types of the some archetype were varied enough to make the early levels some of the best fun in the game. I do not know if I will want to refill my The Lord of the Rings Online™: Shadows of Angmar™ deed log an eighth time the way I ground badges in CoX. WoW players, any insight on how it felt to make that third dwarf? Does familiarity breed contempt, or is there no place like home?
Another drawback of the newbie zones is that they do not scale perfectly with numbers. We all suspend disbelief when the epic foe we just defeat respawns 30 seconds later. This is just a convention of MMOs, and if the quest is to bury a body, we expect a corpse on the surface 30 seconds after someone buries it. The problem is when you run along during those 30 seconds. This was notable because I was invited to beta just before the stress test. You are sent on a quest to get x, which is a ground spawn, but 50 other people have the same quest, so you could run over the spot a dozen times without seeing the quest objective. This leads to lots of questions in the broadcast (/ooc) channel, which annoy existing players because the answer is obvious, except that you can miss obvious things that are not there when someone grabbed the goal ten seconds before you got there. Meanwhile, some quests are bugged, or the directions are non-obvious, so you don’t know if you are an idiot or have bad timing. Closed beta players were frequently hoping for the weekend to end and reduce the population.
One thing I had all but forgotten was the YAFMMORPG ritual slaughter of furry creatures. Lynx, spiders, pigs, cows, wolves, rats, bears, slugs, toads, eagles, and any other sort of wildlife: you will be killing hundreds. Yes, there are goblins and little cave monsters, but you spend a lot of early level time getting meat and hides. If your guild is PETA-friendly, good luck grinding the goblin spawn until you get to non-wildlife quests. The only rats I have found so far are in the elf post-Searing starter area, with no quest to kill ten of them. Hey, guys, what about us?!
You still have a lot of “kill ten rats” quests under various names. Cull the wolves, get pig meat, fight the bandits, whatever. The Shire wins in terms of flavor for having courier quests, though. Literal courier quests: there are 13 quests to help the mail system. Yes, hobbits level by carrying mail, and you can too if you visit the Shire. Mail is time-sensitive, though, so you must immediately head out once you pick up the satchel. Also, you cannot run near Nosy Hobbits, because they make you lose and start over. (Why? I have a sword. Stay out of my mailbag.) Also, while doing a “carry this” quest, you cannot fight or use skills, so you are just running through.
Let’s keep talking about “Wow, what a great idea!” in the Shire. There is another set of quests involving carrying pies, 14 or 15 including 12 for the deed log. Here, you avoid Hungry Hobbits. Yes, your Shire deed log includes 25 instances of delivery quests, which collectively improve your Patience. I will explain that in a bit. Anyway, there is a similar set of quests about retrieving eggs (watch out for the rooster!) and carrying baskets of them. Another quest involves rescuing chickens. You can pick potatoes. Life is pastoral, mixed with violent invaders and of course the ritual slaughter of furry creatures. Dwarf and elf lands give rewards for visiting ancient ruins; The Shire shows you around farms and tourist sights.
Okay, let’s go to the deed log. Wow, what a great idea!, similar to CoX badges. The deed log is a book that lists various things you do, and it increments up until you get a reward. You slot these rewards into your character as titles or “traits,” which are assorted bonuses. For example, those hobbit delivery quests improve your Patience, which is a trait that can be slotted for improved out-of-combat mana regeneration, higher wound resistance, and better defense against ranged attacks. I think of the deed log in CoX badge terms. You have your exploration badges from visiting various locations. You have achievement badges from defeating goblins, wolves, spiders, and whatever else in that zone. You have accolades from completing quests in each zone. You also get rewards for using your class skills, so hit that button 1,500 times to get a slottable bonus to it! Not dying will get you titles, so see how far you can go without running out of “morale.” Your new deed log entries pop up in the lower-right corner, sometimes unexpectedly. This appeals to my inner completist and desire for little rewards for progress.
Having two tiers (or more?) of “defeat wolves in the Shire” reminds me of the difference between CoX and standard MMO combat. It is hard to go back to fighting one enemy at a time. Conveniently, they mostly spawn that way, but it is a big shift when being a hero means fighting one shrew at a time, rather than diving solo into a gang or a cluster of rock monsters. Again, you are probably used to this, as am I, but I kind of miss actual heroics where three level-minus-two enemies are not a serious threat. Again, YAFMMORPG convention.
Let’s talk classes.
- Most of my time was spent as a dwarf minstrel (healer). I was mostly solo, and when in a group I did not do a lot of healing. Instead, it plays as a pretty nice ranged DPS class. Your ballads (buffs) are attacks, uninterruptible with no significant casting time. So yes, you pull out the mandolin and blow up your enemies. Near-zero downtime with great ranged attacks, even if the range was not very far. No item dependency, because the damage is by-spell not by-instrument. You can play on the run, so you can kite.
- I did not enjoy being a captain, probably because I did not get a decent melee weapon as a drop early in the newbie zone. My damage was exceedingly weak, and soloing as a buffer is somewhat silly. This may have no bearing on long-term play.
- Hunter is the official DPS class. It did that pretty well, dropping enemies more quickly than the minstrel with lower survivability. Level four was a big jump in damage because of two chained attacks. I started killing melee enemies faster than ranged enemies because of a follow-up attack that worked if the barbed arrow hit; you tear open that wound for quadruple damage, which usually finished the enemy who I shot a few times as he approached. The special bow attacks have a casting time, so you are a normal MMO wizard with item dependency.
- The other class I played a bit was the loremaster, the pet/CC class. I did not play far, but the pet was not doing much. It’s a bird, and not a scary one. Again, the ranged DPS was nice, especially when the bird debuffed the enemy’s fire resistance. Bird gets a moment of aggro, debuffs, I set the enemy on fire, and he fell down.
In most games, the classes do not really take their roles until the mid-game, so all of this may have no bearing on anything at all. Still, first impressions.
One thing I was used to from City of Heroes continued: skills that level with you. Wow, what a great idea! Instead of buying Quick Shot I, Quick Shot II, etc. as you level, you just get Quick Shot and it levels with you. Failure to include this mechanic means you lose thirty-eight coolness points. I do not want to re-shop for all my skills over five or ten levels, and I do not want uber/suck levels based on when I get Sudden Strike VII. The passive skills do seem to need to be re-bought, however, so you get Parry I, Parry II, etc. Half a loaf.
You pick one of the trade skill professions which is a basket of three trade skills. Boo! Why don’t we force dependency by making it physically impossible to gather all the materials you need for your trade? Now the economy better work or the entire crafting system goes down the drain. It looks like most or all of the trade professions have the necessary harvesting skills for one of the two other skills, so maybe people will just specialize and mostly ignore the third. My dwarf went for the one with no dependencies at all, and I could probably trade a lot of gathered materials, if that mattered in beta. Seriously, should I just hand the strawberries I found to a cook, or are people using the auction house?
Standard YAFMMORPG procedure: you level from quests and slaughtering furry creatures, but your trade skills increase from use. Gathering gives you 0, but making ingots or treated wood gives you some. Making armor, weapons, etc. raises those skills. You get a title for filling a bar, then another for re-filling it for mastery of that basic level. Filling the bar the first time lets you start the next level, so you can work on journeyman once you become an apprentice. At least, you can in the gathering professions; I needed to run two zones over to improve my tailoring once I filled the apprentice bar. Boo! Do not make a dwarf run from the dwarf lands, across the hobbit lands, and into the human lands to advance his trade skill past the basic level. Do humans need to run and talk to dwarf smiths to advance? If my destination is not on my map or on the next one, I should not need to run there as a side-mission that takes me away from my main quest line. That’s dumb, even if it gets me some Shire sight-seeing (pies!).
Wow, this is really long. Let’s close with monster play.
Since I ran two zones to Bree, I stopped at the spot for monster play. This is a great idea, but I will need to see how the execution goes before I decide whether it is a good system. Monster play is the PvP of The Lord of the Rings Online™: Shadows of Angmar™. One side continues playing PCs, while the other zips over to the bad guys. You get a level 50 baddie, like a big orc, wolf, or spider. You can fight the PCs and you can do quests for destiny points. Destiny points let you buy permanent improvements for your monsters or temporary buffs for your PC. The quests include taking castles, which are a lot like DAoC keeps. You go there in a raid group, fight through the defenders, and defeat the captain of the guard to retake the spot for your side. Fight your enemies in the open fields or war over the castles. Quest NPCs exist in the various castles, so you may need to reclaim them to turn in quests. I imagine the heroes have various reasons for being there, including PvP and good access to top-level resource spawns. The monsters have the obvious advantage of numbers and insta-50s, while the heroes have a larger variety of classes and powers in each class, along with the benefits of having leveled while the monsters start fairly vanilla. It looks like the same pool of destiny points applies to all heroes and monsters on your account for the server, so you can stock up on one character and cash in on another.
Right now, I am having trouble separating monster play from the babble going on throughout it. Anyone could make a level 50 monster, while there were few top-level heroes. This meant that monsters owned the zone and were constantly shouting about what cowards and wimps the heroes were. Yeah, real tough guy there, with your insta-50 and your twenty friends against the six heroes who showed up.
I should probably say something about the story line and the epic quest that carries you throughout the game, but I cannot. First, it is pretty standard YAFMMORPG stuff so far: monsters, corrupt cousins, kill ten rats and carry the box quests. The instances I have done are pretty neat, usually recycling a fragment of the world for a mini-dungeon. Frankly, the crafting quest that required me to travel across two zones disrupted my epic quest and distracted me with other things; I have leveled a few times away from my main quest line, and I need to finish or delete many hobbit quests. Also, the server was brought down several times over the weekend, and nothing disrupts a group like being kicked off the server.
So I am back to my original question: is this worth buying a lifetime subscription or am I never going to play after beta? I don’t know yet. If WoW offered a lifetime subscription at a discount rate, would you buy it? Most people would save good money on that. This is basically WoW gameplay with less cartoony graphics and a Tolkien twist. I do not know if the late game is as item- and raid-centric as it has been in WoW. I don’t like item-centric play, but it seems that I could grab a minstrel or loremaster and ignore much of that. Also, I like trade skills.
I enjoyed it, but I do not know if I will keep enjoying it in the long term. It is hard to tell what is New Shiny! and what is actually good play. Ethic has two copies, and it could be fun to do the same here and have a KTR couples group going, if my wife is interested (she has yet to be fully exposed). That would be a $500 gaming investment for me, which is kind of huge, even if it means I have paired MMO accounts forever.
So contemplation goes on. I may post some mid-game thoughts and my wife’s reaction.