The story kernel of Volume III is a good one. We have a side story to the core Lord of the Rings tale: gathering the rangers scattered across Eriador and bringing them to their intersection with the main story. No-name rangers became minor personalities before, and now they are back. There is a brief Crowning Moment of Awesome after you have united the Grey Company when they dogpile on a couple of bosses. That’s right, buddy, this Hobbit has a pack of Dúnedain at her back.
The execution is mixed, neither the highs nor the lows being particularly extreme. You get to “nice” and “meh” but not “awesome” or “appalling.” Ravious rather liked the prologue, but I thought of it as “go to Rivendell and watch people talk very slowly.” Yes, with nice visuals.
Should I put the requisite travel rant here? I still have post-traumatic stress from riding across the Trollshaws repeatedly in Volume I, and Volume III immediately sends you across the zone on a route with no swift horse. Mirkwood gives you swift horses between adjacent stables; can I get one between Rivendell and Thorenhad? The travel is so bad that the quest reward options let you give up your reward to teleport to the next quest giver.
That said, I kind of agree with the “wide-ranging = epic” approach in Volume III, Book One. We are going back to Volume I, collecting a bunch of friends and contacts, and advancing their stories. Having them spread across almost every early zone works in that respect. The downside is the gameplay (or lack thereof) while traveling, which is compounded by putting some of the rangers in far-off corners. Let me give you examples of good and bad.
The first is the worst. Rivendell to Thorenhad is, it bears repeating, a horrible ride, followed by the discovery that your ranger is not in Thorenhad. Go ride around mountains to the corner of the zone to find the cave. Your visit to Esteldin will also send you to a cave in the corner of the zone. Evendim and Forochel, normally bastions of horrible travel, instead have the quest contact start an instance for you. A ride across a third of a zone adds nothing to the gameplay, especially after riding across an entire zone. Skip it. Good job on the later instances, Turbine developers, and please remember this when you revamp the content in a few years.
You quickly realize that Book One is templated. Find a ranger, the ranger needs you to do some task for him, check him off your list and on to the next. (As Oz says, it would have made more sense not to force a particular order.) The first is the worst again, but Ravious has already mocked that. All the later quests either have the ranger accompany you or give you some reason why you are going off alone while he does something else.
(Random thought: where are the women of the west? (Dúnedan is “man of the west.”) I never thought about it much during Volume I, but after the cast in Mirkwood, it rather stands out that we have no female rangers. Not that the books had many large female roles…)
You already know the gameplay template for quests. Clear 2-6 groups of 1-3 normal enemies, defeat 1-3 signature bosses (one at a time), click something. Some quests will skip to the end by having you activate the signature enemy directly. There is some variation. We get a new skirmish, but you already know the skirmish template, too.
The gameplay is solo for the whole of it. This is forced-solo in most of the instances. The skirmish, of course, scales.
Visually, Book One is great. The instances make good use of the new water graphics, including having the Evendim instance be a shallowly flooded ruin. The Forochel instance is beautiful with shimmering ice. It contrasts with the fire in the new skirmish, although my primate brain was less impressed with the shiny fire than usual.
In terms of story, Book One is also great, although you must accept it in the spirit it is offered. We have a series of related vignettes updating characters from Shadows of Angmar™. If that sounds really dull to you, and you do not care why “Calenglad Remained,” as the old quest had it, then this will just suck. If you read all the quests and remember all the characters, this is exquisite continuity porn. The Forochel instance again gets bonus points there.
There are some petty demands upon the heroes of the realm. You are required to carry groceries as part of the epic quest chain, like that time back in Volume I when you were sent to buy honey. Book Two opens with your finding a farrier. Enedwaith’s “boar-droppings” quest is not actually part of Book Two.
The travel is contained within Book One. Book Two brings us back to Eregion, with an erratic southward motion, through the northern half of Enedwaith. This is all very reasonable and self-contained, in the Mirkwood model.
Maybe it is something about Eregion, but the first half of Book Two gives me an overwhelming feeling of “get on with it.” Once again, Eregion stands between you and the new area, this time as a required obstacle unless you want to backtrack on the epic line. You want to get to Enedwaith, to new toys, and here we are back at the gateway to Volume II.
The better part of the Eregion section is a new public instance and how it links to the story. We have competing tribes of uruks. We have a diffuse ruin to explore. We delay for a clever trick that anticipates disaster to come. It is a good nugget of interesting stuff in the midst of “can we please get to Enedwaith?”
Book Two ends us to Enedwaith. It is not an entirely promising continuation of the story. It is tied to the story of the zone, so I could save this until tomorrow’s post, but let’s address the epic-specific bits here. The goal is to head south, and the Grey Company seems so willing to delay and engage in side-quests that they must know they are in a CRPG where time does not pass. I understand that securing safe passage is important, and we do not want to leave threats or spies at our back, but these guys seem to be touring the zone as much as the players are. They know they have months until the next Book.
Most notably, they broke up the band. You spend all of Book One getting the Grey Company together, then they get spread across Enedwaith. Drop a ranger or two at each hub, scatter a few more around for mini-hubs, perfect. Guys, stop worrying about demon goats and go help Aragorn.
The more reasonable part here is making friends with the Dundeling tribes. This combines safe passage, denying Saruman an ally, and protecting the homeland. Most of that, however, is part of the Enedwaith zone rather than the epic book. You will make friends and raise reputation through other quests. The Grey Company is distracted by making friends with this one guy, who turns out to have no influence or even respect amongst his people, and then tracking down the origin of his sword.
Priorities, guys, eyes on the prize. I know we re-visited Volume I, but let’s not get absorbed in someone’s familial history again when we know that Aragorn is veering off course and needs your help. But, and I know you will be shocked by this coincidence, the side story’s side story ties back to the main narrative in a way that trails of mysteriously as it waits for the next epic Book.
Most of the heavy lifting in terms of re-gathering the Grey Company and making friends with the southlanders takes place via the Enedwaith quest hubs rather than the epic line, which may pass unnoticed for the first half of the zone as they overlap. We will address that tomorrow.
In terms of quest rewards, rather nice so far, particularly in Book One. There is a lot of item advancement xp to be had, and you get free scrolls to improve your legendary items. I already had a nice Second Age bow, and the quest rewards gave what would have been days of optimized, hardcore skirmish and daily quest grinding. The non-LI rewards were laughable for long-running players, since we have radiance armor from the past two years, all of which is better than these rewards.
Upon reflection, Volume III is so far less epic than expected. We have a series of vignettes that build somewhat, but the first two Books have added detail without advancing the tale much towards Mordor or even Rohan. It provides a spine for taking the action to Enedwaith and organizing questing there, but the gameplay is familiar and the story development small. There is only one more Book left in the meta-deed, and I feel like we have barely started upward on the story arc. Either things pick up quickly, the story runs very long, or we are getting a very small epic tale this Volume.