Saturday, August 31, 2013

LotRO: Helm's Deep - coming soon to a credit card near you

In 2010 Warner Bros. acquired Turbine. Overall, this was a very bad sign. The end result is the same, centralization, corporate conglomeration, another small step in the homogenization of the entertainment industry and our culture as a whole. Shockingly enough, though, the takeover was actually good for LotRO, and LotRO was my only investment in Turbine, despite the fact that it made LotRO into a poster-child for the FTP (legitimized cheating) business model which has greatly contributed to the disappearance of the MMO concept. 

Allow me to reiterate. LotRO benefited from the WB takeover. Not in any negligible nor a revolutionary way, but noticeably. Where to start? With the beginning, of course.

Shadows of Angmar & Evendim
The original LotRO release. A straight-up WoW copycat in terms of gameplay, including in all the nonsensical WoW carry-overs (like town guards) which not even WoW made use of anymore, LotRO nonetheless excelled in terms of atmosphere. The dreamy melancholy of Ered Luin, the lighthearted ease and small comforts of the Shire, the subtle wails on the wind in Angmar itself, all painted the sort of picture of Middle-Earth which brought a smile instead of curses to many lifelong LotR fans' lips.
Additions like the second half of the Angmar main storyline slid gradually down in quality toward the abyss of Moria.

Moria  & Lothlorien
LotRO's lowest point. Faced with widespread player abandonment, largely stemming from the repetitive grindfest WoW-ish gameplay, Turbine put out and expansion which moved the game even further toward WoW, especially in terms of forcing players to grind more and more mobs, desperatelly trying to keep them busy. This went for the aesthetics as well, filling the depths of Moria with nonsensical devils and overblown cartoonish versions of the game's existing monsters.

Mirkwood & Enedwaith
The spot where Turbine seemed to realize the error of their ways, to some small extent. It was not a step forward, but it stalled their backward slide. It was Moria with a bit more attention to detail. It began to capitalize again on LotRO's strong points in atmosphere, on the middle-earth feel and careful landscaping. Still, this is where many of LotRO's problems like the standardized faction-by-zone currency grind and the heavy use of cutscenes and "story" quests as timesinks became set in stone.The damage had largely been done.

Isengard & The Great River
The first expansion after the WB takeover. It was a strange mix, a sort of lull while the new management became acclimated to the mess they'd bought into. The greatest feature of Isengard was an attempt to placate players. It featured no decisive creative move in any direction. It was the most simplistic, the most soloable, the easiest content yet. Some long-overdue crafting and class skill mechanics were implented, but aside from that, Isengard was a snooze.
This was also where the company's pattern of future releases became blatantly obvious. Every "major" expansion has since Lothlorien and Enedwaith been followed by a minor zone which features an ungodly faction-reputation grindfest meant to keep powergamers busy. The rewards from that grindfest are of course immediately invalidated when the next expansion rolls around and raises the level-cap.
I'm only re-iterating this to illustrate the reasons why I call level-based multiplayer gameplay a "treadmill."

East Rohan & Wildermore
This is where things got interesting. The gameplay has not gotten better. The addition of mounted combat was a side-grade in quality at best. Mounted combat cannot work for the same reason PvP was always a joke in LotRO: the basic game engine, server response and combat mechanics, while excellent for standard stand-and-shoot PvE, are too static to offer the sort of fluidity and interaction on which PvP thrives. PvP and mounted combat are both clunky, laggy and offer nothing over a game like WAR or Rift or for that matter WoW itself.

Aside from that, the game has remained a single-player grindfest. It has also retained the schizophrenic split in attempts to appeal to various types of players, first seen with WoW. It's created largely for casual players but sticks in a couple of "raid" instances and some faction-rep gear-farming for the powergamers at its tail end. It's a PvE game by design but sticks in an inconsequential PvP option. It banks heavily on portraying middle-earth but litters it with nonsensical christmas and halloween events.
Amusingly, this facet of the business model directly flies in the face of the FTP side of things. As with all things MMOish, it was mindlessly copycatted from WoW in an attempt to copy its success. Yet WoW's success almost entirely stemmed from being the first, the first to break into the mass-market that is. It could be an all-purpose game where features were tossed in randomly because it was a social event, not a product. Hordes of retarded little brats joined in because all their little buddies were playing, without knowing anything about gameplay or that there were better options available. WoW rode the avalanche of its own popularity. It was the only game in town.
LotRO is not the only game in town, and the FTP option only serves to drive home that point. It has stayed afloat for so long because of LotR and it will bank now on the Hobbit movies for some popularity, but at some point the developers must realize the slew of half-baked additions to gameplay are only hurting them. Any player who comes in seeking PvP or co-op PvE or social options or crafting or basically anything other than the basic selling point of middle-earth will be sorely disappointed. They are not likely to make the switch from FTP to subscriber.

Unlike WoW, WoW-clones have to decide what they are. Are you co-op PvE or faction PvP or freestyle, guild-based PvP. Do you sell balance or variety? Do you sell complexity and heavy involvement or ease of access? These are contradictory features.

Yet amusingly, Rohan was good in many ways, in terms of aesthetics. There are still overblown, cartoonish monsters around, but fewer than in Moria or Isengard. Greater care was taken to create game zones which have an internal logic and consistency, unlike previous expansions. Small farms and homesteads dot the landscape, terrain varies pleasantly, with major features serving as visual landmarks. There is a much better sense of proportion, and the landscaping has returned to the careful, detailed quality of the starter zones in Shadows of Angmar.

Compare and contrast.
This is an image from Mirkwood. It looks random-generated. Evenly-spaced trees, obvious paths, obvious terrain gradations, no surprises. Dull.

Now here's an image from Wildermore's forest, the Balewood.

I am not showing an image of the Balewood from the outside because it would only look like an undifferentiated mass of snowy foliage. I have often said that a bad game world makes you feel like a big man, while a good game world is like a dip into the Total Perspective Vortex. A good game world makes you feel small by comparison.

You can get lost in the Balewood. You can get ambushed because the foliage hides the all-too-convenient floating names of monsters. You can head for a landmark only to realize a few minutes later that you've been walking at right angles to your target. You can think you're on the right path only to come up against a stone cliff. All this is important. It is a crucial feature and a very convenient metaphor of the sort of escapist fantasy which a persistent world should embody. It should be a world in which we can lose ourselves, at least for a little bit.

So I'm sort of torn. The next LotRO expansion is coming out. WB apparently plans to crank out expansions as quickly as it can. My guess would be that they're actively milking the game until the craze over the Hobbit movies dies down, so for at least a few more years. I doubt there's anything they can do to improve gameplay at this point. LotRO is doomed to be a pointless single-player grindfest. And yet, it's Middle-Earth, and unlike Turbine's leadership in the Moria / Mirkwood days of the project, the new management seems to have identified their own principal selling point.
I'm torn on whether to buy the next expansion or not. On one hand, the game is finally improving, even if only in superficial ways, and I've suffered through some of its worst bits already. I may as well keep paying. I didn't buy Moria or Mirkwood until years after they came out, but I've already been WB's bitch for the past couple of years. On the other hand, the industry is finally improving. Thanks to Kickstarter, we now have some potentially good games coming out, not just games that bloodthirsty investors who have never touched a magic sword think will sell to the kiddies. Camelot is still so far off though...

Ho hum. Let's not be hasty. I can always get my middle-earth fix by walking around through the Shire for a bit. I wonder how long it'll take for the expansion to go on sale. I could stand not to see Helm's Deep until next year.

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