Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Across the Anduin

Seems like I never get tired of praising LotRO's scenic map design... mostly because there's little else to praise about it but also because landscaping, like music, is one of those elements too often forgotten, ignored or budgetarily strangled in the cradle. Some games got it and some games don't. Whichever Jedi Knight game I played back in the days of yore certainly had it, as did Half-Life. The Doom games did not. The Infinity Engine games didn't. Neither did the Neverwinter Nights games, or, to be honest, Dragon Age, but the Elder Scrolls games have been brilliant about it.

I'm talking here about the aesthetic portion of level design, twisting the terrain so as to provide the player not only nooks and crannies to explore but also foreshadow upcoming adventures or nostalgically retrace one's footsteps visually. Here's how LotRO handled a couple of its more recent zones.

As you draw closer to the evil red glow emanating from Mordor to the east, it becomes clear you'll soon be sent over the Anduin, to the land of Ithilien. That's where Frodo and Sam meet Faramir, for you heathens who didn't memorize Tolkien's maps.

As you adventure your way northwards along the lightly forested eastern banks of the Anduin, you're treated to views of the burning Pelennor fields across the water, with Minas Tirith in the background. Northwards, conquered Osgiliath looms ever closer with every new vantage point. Oooooh, the suspense is killing me. Or maybe it's that mumak that stepped on me. In any case, once you kill a few tens of tens of rats in Osgiliath, re-cross the Anduin westwards and make your way into Minas Tirith, you're given ample opportunity to survey Osgiliath once again, not only from the white city's tallest circles but also from the edge of the fields of battle, taking in both cities at once.
Perspective. As I keep saying, a good virtual world makes you feel small, not big. Most of the game's content undermines that all-important feeling of scale, but the people designing LotRO's maps have regained their grasp of it. In most games (TSW for instance) this idea is unfortunately scrapped in favor of ever-shadier pixel shading or other graphics-card manufacturer overcompensation. In most it's severely undermined by teleportation which trivializes a game world's size and landmarks, and also by quest markers which render spatial awareness extraneous. LotRO's at least as guilty as most of those sins and yet... someone on that design team can at least appreciate a nice view.

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