Wednesday, May 27, 2015


As I briefly noted earlier, I've started casually playing through The Lord of the Rings Online and found it a surprisingly relaxing, fun experience. Not too much to report, but I figured I'd share a couple of observations.

Things I like:
  • Fantastic sense of place. It feels like you're "really" in Middle-earth.
  • Rather good writing. There's only so much you can do when your game design requires you to have thousands of quests, leading to endless variations on "Kill 10 Crebain!" and "Collect 20 wild mushrooms!", but they're presented in a way that contributes to the overall narrative ("The enemy has sent birds to spy on the path taken by Frodo!") and setting ("With the threat of war in the south, we need to make sure Bree has enough food stockpiled to survive the disruption of trade and farming!"), and the writing itself is solid... not too goofy, not too dark, nicely congruent with the feel of Tolkien's voice.
  • Terrific customization options. It probably says a lot that, thus far, the time I've most been tempted to spend money on the game was to buy a particularly pretty cloak (sky-blue with Telperion woven in silver threads on the back). And I love how you can present yourself with one outfit while gaining the gameplay benefits of another.
  • Wonderful music. It's thematically rich and varied, catching my interest and never outstaying its welcome. Best of all, it seems to be tied to your current region, so I expect I'll continue to hear new music throughout the course of the game.
  • Well-sized content. I imagine this will change as I progress, but at this point, I feel like I can make good use of whatever time I feel like spending in the game: just a few local quests if I'm hopping on for a quick half-hour before bed, or an entire chain of events and instances if I have a couple of hours to play on the weekend.
  • The community seems good. I dropped off the global chat channel so I don't hear a whole lot, but people seem well-behaved and generally friendly. Since arriving in Bree I've also seen a lot of fun-looking roleplaying events around the Prancing Pony: dance parties, plays, in-character bantering, and other fun activities. (I'm playing on the Landroval server, I imagine this can vary a lot from one server to another.)
  • The integration with the canonical story is surprisingly well-done. I was kind of dreading meeting Aragorn and Gandalf and other major characters, but so far it has blended in quite well, both in terms of the books' timeline and the representation of the characters.

Things I'm a bit indifferent to:
  • The economy seems out of whack. I think it's a by-product of them trying to hurry new players through areas where they used to spend a lot of time, but it feels really weird that I earn, say, 80 copper pieces for finishing a quest, and 400 silver pieces for opening a Hobbit gift. Thanks to the rapid progression in RPGs, though, it's not that big of a factor... I'll quickly outlevel any new equipment anyways, so the only thing I'm expecting to spend any money on soon is housing and cosmetic outfits.
  • Combat is... fine. I dunno. I hit three keys and every enemy dies before it reaches me. Again, this is probably due to rebalancing, and I'm sure it gets tougher at higher levels; hopefully it also gets more interesting, because at the moment, there's no reason for me to use 80% of my skills.
  • Crafting. Right now, the main issue is just that you outlevel your gear so quickly that there's really no reason to spend time and effort making new items. I imagine it becomes more useful once your progress curve slows. They made an interesting design choice that requires cooperation across multiple professions in order to craft most items (e.g., if you're a weaponsmith, you'll need materials from a metalworker); if I get into this, I imagine that I'll need to hit up the auction house semi-regularly in order to make the stuff I want.
  • Voice acting is really minimal. It reminds me a lot of the Baldur's Gate era: you'll get a short voiced phrase that accompanies two paragraphs of written text. It isn't bad, as such, but that sort of in-between state feels weird these days; I'm much more used to games either going full-text and letting your imagination color them in, or fully voicing them for maximum impact.

Things I dislike:
  • The sheer proliferation of currencies is absurd. Three types of specie (copper, silver, gold), mithril coins, turbine points, various types of marks, medallions, tokens, barter items, badges, and more. I hate it. Each merchant only accepts a particular type of currency, and I have no idea how I'm supposed to earn most of them, or what I can do with some of the ones I have.
  • It's to be expected in a free-to-play game, but it's aggravating to see the developers intentionally cripple aspects of the game to make it painful for people who haven't spent money. The most obvious is the limit on currency (2 gold coins), which leads to a UI nag every time you loot any money or sell an item. I vastly prefer Failbetter's F2P philosophy, which is essentially "Provide a great and complete experience to all players, and offer to sell more and newer experiences to players who want more."
  • And, given that there is a store, it's bafflingly hard to use. I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to figure out how to get into the store from the website, only to finally realize that it's impossible. You can only browse and purchase from the in-game browser, which has an awful, janky, ugly interface. All I want to do is browse through it on my desktop browser, where I can actually read about stuff and compare items and complete purchases.
  • Overall model and texture quality is rather low. It's mostly a factor of how old the game is, and I'm amazed that the environment itself holds up so well.
  • This is a rather unfair complaint, but I'm a bit bored by the lack of choice in quests. I've been trying to instead focus on the choices available to you as a character: which quests to accept or decline, where to go, how to spend your time. Still, my time with Star Wars: The Old Republic spoiled me for having interesting, engaging, branching storylines in my massively multiplayer roleplaying game, and it's increasingly hard for RPGs to keep my interest without offering a similar degree of agency over how the plot develops.

As you will not be shocked to learn, I've been taking some screenshots of my experiences and assembled them into an album. It's pretty interesting to look through... a mixture of gorgeous settings and badly dated graphics. 

We'll see where things go from here. I'm up to level 19, pretty significantly overleveled for the content I'm currently doing in Bree; as with currency, it feels like Turbine has shifted the XP curve to hurry people along to later content, but that does mean that if you try to actually do everything in the game, you end up getting no meaningful rewards from the quests. Anyways, I'll wrap up the stuff in the Old Forest and Barrow Downs, along with any other Ranger business, then head on into the Lone Lands. I'm on a trajectory for reaching level 30 before terribly much longer, at which point I'll make the call whether to start spending money on the game or not. So far, the pleasures of adventuring in Middle-earth have outweighed the pains of playing a somewhat dated free-to-play game, so I won't be shocked if I stick a quarter into the machine to keep playing a while longer.

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