Thursday, September 15, 2016

The Mines of the Siege of the Rise of the Riders of Helm’s Deep

I’m occasionally struck by the big disparity between how long I spend with a particular piece of entertainment and how much I write about it on the blog. Particularly with the artsier games I’ve been playing lately, a game might say something really interesting over the course of just an hour or two, which will get a write-up that’s of comparable length to a roleplaying game that I’ve played for dozens of hours.

The biggest example might be Lord of the Rings Online. It’s been my side-game for a while now. I’ll go for months and months without even opening it, but when I’m in the mood to lose myself inside Middle-earth, it’s waiting there for me to dive back into it. It continues to be the most relaxing video-game experience I’ve had. The gameplay itself is rarely challenging… there are tons of activities you can choose between, only some of which require combat, and that combat almost never poses a worrisome threat.

Playing LOTRO may be the most peaceful, rejuvenating experience I regularly have apart from hiking. This may not be coincidental. Both take places in huge, expansive, gorgeous areas, one real and one virtual. Neither requires a whole lot of active thought, so my mind is free to wander while I feel like I’m making progress. I can feel a faint pride in my achievements and improvement without ever feeling like I’m being compared to someone else or need to compete to prove superiority.

Even when I am in the periods where I play a lot of LOTRO, I tend to take my time, which is definitely the best way to approach this. The game probably won’t satisfy people who are looking for intense tactical combat or looking for excitement on the bleeding edge of advancement. It’s at its best when you’re roaming through the landscape, spotting ruined watchtowers atop overgrown hills, spying a flock of doves soaring over Lindon, seeing the sun set from the foggy swamps of Dunland. This is a game where you immerse yourself into the world rather than prove your mastery over it.

As I write this, I’ve finally crossed over the Anduin and into Rohan. In geographic terms, this brings me roughly halfway to Mordor from my start in Ered Luin. In gameplay terms, this is the start of the “Riders of Rohan” expansion, the fourth of the game (after Mines of Moria, Siege of Mirkwood, and Rise of Isengard). My progress has been erratic. I’ll tend to move ahead to new areas that appeal to me, then backtrack and finish epic quest storylines for older zones, then spend some time wandering through areas for crafting materials, then get distracted by seasonal festivals, then catch up on Bingo’s adventures, then get back more or less on track with on-level content.

All that being said, I finally wrapped up the main Mines of Moria epic quest long after leaving the mines proper. In some respects, I really like doing these quests once I’ve overleveled them. Once you are ten levels above the enemies in an area, they turn gray, and will no longer attack you. This makes it much easier and, more importantly, quicker to finish the quests. Between the faster progress of epic quests, and ignoring the standard landscape quests (which I either did long ago or am skipping altogether), I’m able to keep track of the main storyline: who these characters are, what they’re doing, what our goals are. I found, for example, that while I enjoyed the Grey Company plot, I had a really hard time keeping track of the individual rangers. When blowing through the Moria quests, though, I could focus on their particular story, of pride and determination and doom, and it had a pretty powerful impact.

There are narrative advantages to this approach, but the gameplay can suffer a little. In particular, the epic quest line tends to reward the best equipment (well, better than standard quests at least). If you get them on-level, they’ll be the most useful items for quite a while, But, getting capstone items to Level 60 quests when I’m level 74 means a lot of experiences of “Ooooh, that looks awesome!” immediately followed by “Too bad this yellow gear from Dunland is better than that.” But, again, LOTRO isn’t hugely challenging anyways, so it isn’t worth worrying too much about.

I completely skipped the Siege of Mirkwood content, though I’m sure I’ll eventually come back to it. I wanted to get to Rohan so I could pick up my War Steed. These are an advanced type of mount: larger, faster, and more powerful than the standard horses you’ve been able to get before now. I’m not sure how much I’ll enjoy mounted combat proper, but I wanted to get a horse so I could start leveling it and maybe getting cool caparison at future festivals. War steeds are also much faster than normal horses, which could come in handy when I’m backtracking through earlier content again.

Mounted combat was a new mechanic added for Riders of Rohan, many years after the game first launched and many years before now. It’s been very interesting to encounter things like this: new ideas that were added to the game, with a lot of initial excitement, then later refined, then later… not exactly abandoned, but moved on from, with less emphasis as newer features came along.

Playing LOTRO sometimes feels like going on an archeological expedition: not only uncovering the rich history of Tolkien’s world, but also exploring the ten years of active development on the game since it was released. You’re witnessing artifacts crafted by prior developers, edifices constructed by earlier producers.

Or maybe it’s more organic than that. I have very limited experience with MMOs apart from LOTRO, so I’m fascinated by the idea of a game that grows so much after it is released. Single-player games almost always have a single, cohesive vision that guides and shapes them prior to release. Afterwards they may get patches and updates, perhaps some expansions, but always in a relatively short span of time and with the same creative team, and they have a unified feel. MMOs grow, though: not just adding more content, but trying out new systems, changing old ones in response to feedback.

So you end up with things that feel like evolutionary detritus: those weird glands and genes that do not serve any useful function in our human bodies, but are living records that show our evolutionary past. Wandering through the game, you come across characters like class trainers and bards, who used to be crucial elements of the leveling process but have been rendered entirely useless. And there are also things like skirmishes, which clearly had a ton of thought and effort put into them, but were not fully embraced by the community: they still exist, and at certain parts of the game are more prominent, but as a whole seem more like a vestigial appendage than a useful limb.

We’ll see where mounted combat ends up in the grand scheme of things. At a minimum, I’ll have a faster horse, and that will be pretty cool.

I don’t know how long I’ll stick around in Rohan, but so far I’m enjoying it quite a bit. One small thing in particular caught my attention. In the first village you enter, you meet the thane (the local lord) and his family. Speaking with his daughter, she says something like, “I will be Thane after my dad dies, and if I die, my little brother will become Thane after me.” It continues the great, understated and matter-of-fact handling of gender in LOTRO, where women are shown to be just as capable and important as men.

In some respects, that specific example might be considered non-canonical. To the best of my knowledge, Tolkien never wrote about women in leadership roles among the Rohirrim, and I don’t believe any female names are included in the lineage of Rohirric kings. However, I also don’t think it specifically violates canon, either. After all, the game isn’t saying that a woman rules Rohan; they’re saying that a woman can oversee a part of it. There are examples in Earth history where women could hold local titles and power, even if the national sovereign was always male (as in France, with the noblesse uterine). More importantly, it’s very much in keeping with the overall tone of Tolkien: after all, we are now in the land of Eowyn, Shieldmaiden of Rohan. As she says, “The women of this country learned long ago, those without swords can still die upon them.” She didn’t come from out of nowhere; she was part of a proud culture that valued martial strength, and it’s very easy to imagine that women could prove their worth through strength of arms in this land.

This is also a great opportunity to bring up Haleth, one of my favorite characters in the legendarium. In the first age, she was the chieftain of the Haladin: technically an ancestor to the Numenoreans, she and her tribe remind me much more of the Rohirrim: their relationship to the elves is much like that of Rohan towards Gondor. All that to say, I’m delighted to see Turbine drawing on the inspiration in the source material while also creating a world that feels inclusive and welcoming.


Earlier in Dunland, I ran across an even more extreme example of something that on its surface seemed lore-unfriendly, but tapped into deeper elements of his writings. A Boar-clan settlement at the edge of a swamp is under assault by abominations: orcs and trolls who bear the White Hand. However, they act differently from other monsters you have encountered: they sound genuinely fearful and sad when you attack them. One of the tribal members tells you that Saruman has corrupted them from captured Dunlendings, twisting them into new monstrous forms to serve in his army.

At the capstone of this short quest, after fighting your way to the home of the abominations, you encounter that rarest of all things in Lord of the Rings Online: a choice. Do you listen to the woman who urges you to show mercy and spare her kinsmen who have been led astray? Or to the man who warns you of the dire threat these monsters will pose to him and his family? I was delighted to be able to choose the former course of action, and got almost teary at the goofy, nearly cartoonish animations of happy orcs and trolls cheering for their salvation.

The ultimate impact of this decision feels ambivalent. The tribe is still arguing about it in a later meeting when they decide whether to throw in their lot to oppose Saruman. And the fight that follows that is brutal, when the Boar-clan is almost entirely wiped out. You might be tempted to think, did I make a mistake? Should I have struck when I had the chance, and would it have saved those innocent lives?

The whole idea of “good orcs” seems absurd at first glance: in the Lord of the Rings novels, they’re practically the definition of disposable and purely evil fodder. However, if you read Tolkien’s letters, you’ll see that he grappled with the problem of them. Did orcs have souls? If so, could they be redeemed? He never really resolved those problems before he died, and I think that ambiguity is very fertile ground for exploration and re-interpretation in a medium such as this.


This quest was shortly followed by a trip to Isengard, which was also fascinating. That whole arc was unusually bleak: you aren’t triumphing over evil, but becoming aware of evil’s immense power and your relative hopelessness to overcome it. Just the sight of the immensity of Saruman’s armies is stunning, and once you see Isengard itself, it’s hard to be optimistic about your chances.

This is reflected very well in the gameplay: you aren’t fighting endless waves of enemies; instead, you are actually taken prisoner and forced to do menial and humiliating work in the dungeons below Orthanc. (And, side note, Turbine is REALLY GREAT at creating vertical spaces. I feel filled with awe when I look around those unfathomably deep areas, and am amazed when I can actually walk down into them.) You feel relieved once you exit: not filled with the pride of victory, but simple happiness at escaping this dire fate.

Isengard is one of the more dramatic examples of the incredible variety in environmental design and art. It’s shocking to see something so industrial plopped here in the middle of Middle-earth: smokestacks belching foul fumes into the air, giant gears slowly turning below the earth, ironworks pounding out immense quantities of weaponry, machines of war being constructed around the clock. The game does a great job at capturing and conveying Tolkien’s horror at industrialization, the destruction of nature, and the depersonalization of modern society.

While Isengard is one of the most drastic cases of original design, I’m almost more impressed by areas like Dunland, just because it’s amazing that they’ve been able to make a zone that could be described as “rolling hills” look unique and interesting and beautiful after nearly a dozen different zones. I love how, in an instant, you can tell the Lone-lands from the North Downs from the Trollshaws from Eregion from Enedwait from Dunland. Each of them is a grassy, temperate area with hills and occasional rivers, and it’s a remarkable achievement to make each one so distinct.

As I get further into the game, I’m also moving further ahead in time, to zones that were released more recently, and in some cases that also means seeing more advanced technology. While it’s fairly subtle, the landscape can seem more alive now. These are often little touches, like windmills that gently spin in the wind.

A more drastic example came in that first village in Rohan: in keeping with the increasingly dire sense of the plot, after finishing that quest chain, the village is attacked by Easterling raiders under the leadership of a Nazgul, and is destroyed. Coming back to it later, the walls and buildings still stand, but are constantly smoking as the fires within smolder. There used to be children running and playing in the streets, now they stand empty. The merchants who used to trade and repair goods are no longer accessible.

I think there have been a couple of cases before where areas update after a quest, but they’ve been fairly minor. In Angmar, some folks appear in a later area after you’ve beaten an earlier quest. The Rangers will appear or disappear from different villages depending on where you are in the Grey Company quest. And sometimes the interiors of instances (e.g., behind doors) will change. But this is the first time I can think of where actual structures in the landscape seemed to change in response to my actions. It was very impressive!

In a lot of RPGs, like Dragon Age: Inquisition or The Witcher 3, geometry updates are used to convey a sense of power and achievement: “I did this thing, and now I can see this testament to my glory!” It seems very appropriate that LOTRO, a game set in a world of decline, would invert this: good things are fading, happy times are passing, and more of the world is falling under shadow. It isn’t nihilistic, and there are plenty of opportunities for happiness, but that sense of fading-away is core to the setting, and, once again, it’s great to see Turbine embracing Tolkien’s spirit like this.


My playing has been irregular, but it’s also been a really long time since I wrote about LOTRO, so I’ve accumulated more screenshots than necessary. I have very poorly organized them into several folders:

Oh That Is Pretty Part 7: 222 photos, starting at the climax of the Angmar epic quest (which I wrote about in my previous LOTRO post but wasn’t included in that album), and continuing into Dunland, with tons of side-excursions and backtracking to earlier epic quests. No captions in this one because, let's be honest, neither of us has time for that.

Oh That Is Pretty Part 8: A pitiful 41 photos, featuring the latter part of the Dunland quests, including some items discussed in this post.

Oh That Is Pretty Part 9: Back up to 126 photos this time. This covers the climax to Rise of Isengard, a very belated climax (?) to Mines of Moria, and the very beginning of Riders of Rohan, including many of the topics discussed in this post. This one does have captions because, um, I guess it turns out that I did have time for that after all.

Festival of the White Lady: My second time at this party, very fun!

Weatherstock: The concert event of the year, also a great social repeat.

So, yeah! LOTRO continues to be an engaging and surprisingly rejuvenating experience. It’s kind of astonishing to think that, for as much as I’ve played it, there are still huge parts of the game that I haven’t even seen: not just what lies ahead, but all the stuff I’ve skipped or ignored along the way. The day will probably come when I finally start playing one of the alts I have sitting at Level 1, and I’m looking forward to seeing even more of this wonderful world that they’ve created.

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