MMOS Worth Playing: Lord of the Rings Online

The Underdogs

mmosworthplayingThis is the third week of my MMOs Worth Playing series, and at some point I am probably going to stop doing this introduction.  My focus on the games I pick is to try and choose some of the awesome titles out there that may or may not be getting as much love as I think they deserve.  No one needs to do a post on the reasons why you should be playing World of Warcraft, because there are tons of sites currently covering WoW.  However there are a bunch of games that slip under the radar for one reason or another, and my goal is to pick some of those and talk about the things that interest me about the game.  So far I have covered The Secret World and Rift, and this week I am digging up a title that I have not spent nearly as much time as I would have liked playing.  I feel like I missed the boat with this title, and at this point there is just too much content for me to ever hope to catch up.  I am talking about Lord of the Rings Online, which honestly is a quiet juggernaut of available content and things to do.

The Hook

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Shortly after posting my last write-up, someone asked me what the hook for Lord of the Rings Online was…  and honestly if that title does not inspire magical tingly feelings down your spine then more than likely this is not a game for you.  The hook of this game is and will always be that you get to wander around in the Middle Earth Setting from the Tolkien novels.  That is perhaps the first distinction I should make.  While this game draws some on the visual styling of the movies… it is very much a product of the literary source.  As a result you are going to see more of the world than you ever saw in the movies.  For example the movies cut out the entire Tom Bombadil/Barrow Downs section of the books…  and here you get to experience them in all their glory.  The Barrow Downs area was seriously one of my favorite parts of the early game, and exploring the tombs felt just like reading about the Barrow Wights for the first time.  Rolling up on Weather Top, or Rivendell is just amazing… because here is this thing that you already know so much about… that you are seeing fleshed out and made far more real.

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The biggest take away from the setting that I can give you is that it is huge, and feels more like a real world than most MMOs do.  There are all sorts of little things that draw you into the world.  When you ride past this or that stand of trees… it might scare a flock of birds to take to the air..  making it feel like this living breathing world that you get to explore.  Travel is one of the frustrations most people have with this game, in that the it requires you to memorize a series of routes that remind me quite a bit of the way travel in Dark Age of Camelot felt.  That said this also makes the world feel like something that actual people are living in… because people are messy and chaotic and pretty much buck order.  Think of your own surroundings… is it actually laid out in a manner that is consistent from town to town?  The amount of distance that you have to cross ends up slowing your gameplay down, and putting you in a mode where you are really enjoying the setting as much as you are the game.  There are so many little nuggets of detail scattered through the land that you can only see if you are not passing over them at irrational speeds.

Completionists Dream

LOTROdeedsIn many ways this game was doomed at launch by being thrown in a bucket of “WoW Clones” because honestly… the interface does feel extremely similar to the World of Warcraft standard.  However the game has always felt like a bit of a throwback to an earlier time, and a much less arcade gameplay experience.  The game has one of the more intricate and rewarding crafting systems, and I found wandering the countryside looking for nodes to harvest a pretty enjoyable use of an afternoon.  Where the game gets really intricate however is the “Deed” system, which I realize is a proper use of the word…  but for some reason I always think of housing.  Essentially every action that you can take in the game more than likely has some sort of a deed associated with it.  These deeds however are largely invisible to the user until they go to a specific area or do a specific thing.  From there it starts a completion bar explaining what you need to do to complete the deed which then appears in your log.

What makes this system interesting is that they are for all sorts of tasks.  They might involve you exploring an area and finding specific landmarks on the map and clicking on each of them, or they might involve you doing specific combat attacks a number of times.  Some of them involve you taking down a fixed number of mobs of a specific type.  Equally varied are the rewards.  This game is huge on handing out titles for damned near everything, which makes it really interesting as you roam the country side.  There are far fewer “Hand of Adal” type titles, and more intimate and custom ones.  I for example tend to rock the “Enemy of the Dead” title gained from slaying members of “The Dead” type… namely undead, wights and the sort which are one of the ancestral enemies of “man”.  The important bit from deeds is the ones that unlock your Class Traits.

This game is full of systems within systems, and the Traits are a talent point type system that falls into three categories:  Class, Racial and Virtues.  Class traits tend to increase the effectiveness of your class abilities.  Virtues are pure stat increases, and the type of stats increased vary based on the virtue you are choosing.  Finally the Racial traits are this odd mix of abilities and stat boosts that are designed to take the place of “racial bonuses” in most other games.  The end result makes them feel far more fleshed out, and gives every race in the game a specific flavor other than their visual characteristics.  The gotcha here is that in order to progress you really need to be paying attention to your deeds, because these traits end up giving you a huge boost to your effectiveness.  In theory you could probably level through the game without doing any… but it would be highly unlikely that you could actually complete any of the end game or likely even dungeon content without some focusing through these abilities.

 The Pricing Model

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Turbine with Lord of the Rings was one of the very first successful and even viable free to play pricing models.  It is a mixture of stick and carrot that no other game seems to have completely replicated.  Completely free to play characters are extremely limited in what they can do.  They are limited in their chat functionality, and the amount of money they can earn… and most importantly for me the number of bag slots they have access to.  All of the rich systems in the game are essentially on an adhoc basis forcing you to purchase wardrobe access, auction slots, and individual trait slots.  One of the interesting things about this system is that you transition from free to play status to “premium” the moment you purchase anything from the turbine store.  This unlocks a bunch of things including increasing your bag slots to five, and this essentially stays unlocked for the life of your account.  This means that once you have actually bought any of the unlocks it greatly upgrades your account making it pretty damned playable.  Granted when I have played this game actively I usually subscribe, but over the last few weeks I have been poking my head in to take screenshots and found the game play pretty viable in freemium mode.

The downside however is that I consider the Turbine store to be one of the more expensive to actually purchase anything on.  Horses are essentially $20 regardless of how you chop it by the time you factor in the mount and the actual riding skill.  Compare this to Rift where you can pick up a basic mount for only a few dollars worth of in store currency.  This was one of the first, but unfortunately it has not really taken into account the fact that other models are out there and are more equitable to the player.  They do however run a lot of store sales, and unlike most games you can actually earn turbine points by completing content in game.  Granted you are awarded them five to ten at a time.. and you need 2000 or so to unlock most of the things people would be interested in like new classes.  It does however give players the option to grind out content to earn cash shop currency to purchase things like trait unlocks and extra inventory and vault storage.  I file this system in the realm of not optimal but not nearly as “anti player” as the SWTOR free to play model.

The Community

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The game is extremely rich and interesting… but in truth you are not going to be playing Lord of the Rings Online for the game itself.  You are going to be playing this game for the amazing story that allows you to play a character in the background of this world as you mirror the events of the Fellowship.  It is like playing Star Wars but playing Wedge Antilles instead of Luke Skywalker.  You are doing super important things, but you aren’t ever going to get the kind of broad credit and fame that the stars of the show are getting.  This ends up making the quests feel all the more rich because you know a bit of back story already, and they are filling in details of the setting and giving you insider information on the world.  Even more importantly than this however… is that you will be playing Lord of the Rings online for the community.  Now I am a huge fan of communities that are active and vibrant and I tend to be drawn towards role-playing environments… even though I am not myself much of a role-player.  I currently play on the Landroval server and I have to say it is pretty amazing.

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This game has spent so much time on providing settings for the players to interact and mingle, and has quite possibly one of the coolest sub systems I have seen in any system.  There are instruments in game that can actually be played by the characters, or you can read in midi sequences from text files that then get interpreted with the in game instruments.  This allows the players to do really interesting things… like hold concerts and places like the Prancing Pony Inn in Bree are a hotbed of folks showing off.  I rolled in last night and saw the band from the first image above performing in a corner of the Inn.  Outside there is a full concert stage, and normally there is another group set up there playing songs for the passers by.  There is never a moment in any of the hubs where there is not some role-playing going on, and people have always been super open to answering questions from new comers.  In terms of friendliness I would put Landroval up there with Antonia Bayle in EQ2 and Entity in Wildstar, and that is saying a lot.  I have also heard that the Windfola server was pretty amazing… but unfortunately I believe it was a casualty of the server merges.  It seems like about half of the people I knew from Windfola are now on Landroval… and another batch ended up moving to Arkenstone.  I have a feeling that honestly whatever server you end up on, is going to be a great place to land.  The game is well worth a download and giving it some time to explore.  The biggest word of advice I will give you however is to take it slow.  This game is a much more gradual game than players are used to these days, and if given the proper amount of time to allow yourself to wander and inhabit the world… I have a feeling you will greatly enjoy your experience.

 

MMOs Worth Playing: Rift

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Why This Series

Happy Friday and welcome to the second part of my “MMOs Worth Playing” series where at the end of the week I try and talk about an MMO that I think is very much worth playing.  I thought this morning I would go into some of my thought processes as to why I am doing this.  Lately there has been a lot of angst floating around about various games and the state of them, and while I can very much get riled up just like the next person there is a thought that goes through my head.  Life is far too short to spend your leisure time playing something that makes you unhappy.  There was a time when if you wanted to play an MMO you were pretty much shackled to one of a handful of games in order to get your fix.  However now there are tons of really fun games out there, so it quite honestly would serve most people well to pop around and play several of them to see if any are a better fit.  The other part of this is the fact that we really have no major new AAA MMOs looming on the horizon.  It feels like the era of big releases is over, and instead we have a bunch of existing MMOs that are continuing to make awesome content.  Popping back into an existing MMO to see how it has progressed is a great experience, because there is almost always a huge mountain of content waiting for you to explore.

For the Ascended

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Rift holds a special place in my heart because it was the the game that first truly pulled me away from World of Warcraft.  There were a lot of games that were heralded as the “WoW Killer” and for a time for me at least, it absolutely was.  If there is a feature you have always wanted in an MMO, chances are Rift has it.  But it was more than just cloning features of other games, it also finally figured out how to do public events in a manner that felt both epic and beneficial in the form of Rifts and Invasions that spawn from them.  For a bit about the game setting I am going to draw directly from an early tidbit from the lore team.

Of all the worlds in the universe, only Telara was constructed entirely of sourcestone at an unprecedented nexus of the elemental planes. Elemental energies that come into contact with sourcestone become tangible, and Telara, so heavily influenced by every element, boasts incredible diversity and wealth. Telara’s resources are capable of providing its people endless prosperity, if only they could share the wealth and keep the world safe from those who would plunder it. Though Telara always knew its share of strife, the Blood Storm and the rifts brought entire new plateaus of horror, leading to the edge of oblivion.

Telara is a world that is constantly sieged by forces outside of itself.  Over the years this has taken the form of the elemental dragons, and even gone so far as to seeing parts of these planes of existence merging into Telara itself as the various denizens of these alternate realities set up footholds like that of Hammerknell.  The storytelling gets a little esoteric at times, but essentially you are thrust into this conflict on the brink of destruction.  Most games set up an artificial narrative of good versus evil, and this has pretty much become the standard trope for MMOs.  Rift however does something slightly different and gives you a conflict that feels very real and tangible to us… considering we too are constantly seeing the clash of Technology and Religion.  The Defiant faction relies on very steampunk feeling technology to tame the wilds of Telara.  The Guardian faction instead relies on the Vigil, a pantheon of gods that have long forsaken Telara but are now choosing to make their power known.  You the player takes the role of an ascended, which essentially is vessel for the souls of past warriors that ultimately end up giving you your abilities.  The opening scenes of the game take place on the eve of a final showdown with Regulos the Death Aspect, and you are sent back through time with the mission of trying to stop these events from unfolding.

Soul Keeper

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The most central game play mechanic is that of the souls that you have access to.  There were originally four callings in the game, and recently they added a fifth.  These callings provide the basic feel for what would ultimately be your “class” in another game.  Until the release of the Primalist these all had a clear division based on the armor type…  Warrior was Heavy, Cleric was Chain, Rogue was Leather, and Mage was Cloth.  The Primalist blends the lines a bit and uses Warrior like two handed weapons, but is a leather based calling.  Inside of each of these callings is a number of souls, for the original Callings they each have 11 total souls… with 10 of them available for free and 1 each coming from the two expansions to the game.  The Primalist class launched with 6 souls with more supposedly coming over the coming months.  Souls are essentially what “WoW like” games would refer to as a Talent tree.  The enjoyment of this game for me at least has always been that I get to mix and match any combination of these souls to craft a very personal feeling class out of it.  Traditionally in Talent tree based games, there is a lot of “illusion of choice”, meaning that while you have lots of options there are really only a handful that are ever viable at a given time.  While there are definitely flavor of the month builds in Rift, it seems like if you are dedicated enough to any given play style you can figure out a way to develop a character that has that feel.

The game has all sorts of trope that simply don’t exist in other games.  Want to play a Mage Tank…  Sure you can do that.  Want to play a Warrior Healer… sure you can do that too.  Want to play a brutal Smite Cleric…  yup that is a thing too.  The game gives you a template that allows you to carve out your own class.  Any given “class” is a combination of three Soul trees, and when you slot a given soul it gives you certain abilities by default.  You unlock additional abilities through spending points in that tree.  You could quickly see how this might become tedious, especially given all of the options you have at your finger tips.  It is absolutely possible to create a character with little to no synergy, and that does not play terribly well.  To solve this the game gives you a series of templates that essentially direct you down a path that should be good for this or that… and as you hover over these pre-built templates they tell you the skill level of the class and what sorts of roles they can fill.  Additionally the game has an extremely active player community, and unlike most games… there forums are actually a great place to find help and information.  There are class guide forums that are an awesome place to start for looking at different specs and builds.  I am not sure what the maximum is… but I have 8 different “roles” or specs that I can swap back and forth between freely allowing me to get super granular and create specific builds for very specific conditions.

Feature Rich

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Calling this game feature rich is a bit of an understatement.  Essentially if you can think of a feature that exists in any game… there is likely a version of this fine tuned and available inside of Rift.  For the things that don’t exist the game has a fairly robust mod system… though honestly not quite as complete as say World of Warcraft or Wildstar.  To keep players from “breaking” the game, you cannot override default features of the original game client.  This means that a lot of things don’t integrate fully, but if you really want to use it… the mods are available.  The game has quite possibly the best cosmetic gear system called “Wardrobes”.  This allows the players to save up to fourty different outfits and change between them freely.  Additionally the game uses an appearance collection system, freeing you from having to keep old gear just for the purpose of appearances.  Additionally the dye system allows you to collect certain dyes and then apply them at will to any of your wardrobes, allowing you to change things up whenever the mood suits you without an additional cash sink.  Similarly the game has an amazingly rich housing system in the form of pocket dimenions, allowing the players to customize area of the world.  For example our guild house is the Stone Flask Tavern at Granite Falls in Stonefield, and Rae did some crazy stuff even making a hidden path up the waterfall with a little temple area up there.  Essentially if you can dream it up, there are the tools inside of Rift to be able to create it, and the sorts of dimensions that are available are extremely wide and varied.  The only negative is that there is no way to put resources in your dimension like you can in other games… so you can’t bank, auction, or craft there…  which I realize is an effort to keep the capitol cities feeling vibrant.

 

The game also has one of the more robust mentoring systems allowing you to drop your level at will while wandering the world.  This allows you to vary the difficulty level of a lot of the encounters, but more importantly allows you to hang out freely with your lower level friends without simply steamrolling the content for them.  This mentoring system is also the core of one of the coolest features the game has called Instant Adventures.  I talked a bit about this concept yesterday in my blog post, but essentially you can pop into game… join the Instant Adventure queue and you will be fed a series of objectives for you and a group of players to complete.  What is awesome about this is it is a revisiting of a lot of quest objectives from a given area, but each sequence of objectives generally reaches a crescendo in the form of some sort of mini boss.  While doing this you are racking up planar currency and loot bags that usually contain nice relevant level gear.  When one sequence finishes you are teleported to a new area and the process begins again.   If an area becomes active with a planar invasion, then the instant adventure suddenly shifts purpose to defeating that.  It has been one of my favorite leveling means to go through early content, because you are constantly doing something… and at any point you can hop off the train and go do something a little less frantic.  It does a great job of breaking up the monotony of following quest chains, and like dungeons just gives you another way to mix things up a bit.

Monetization

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This is always the specter looming over a free to play game, is how exactly is it itemized and is it honestly playable for free… or do you really need to subscribe to enjoy it.  This is always a difficult question for me to answer since I never actually play these games in free to play mode.  From what I understand… if you play this game for free you get access to all 65 levels worth of content, the original four callings, and ten souls per calling.  Instead of penalizing the players… Rift took the path of rewarding them for becoming “patrons” because once a game goes free to play.. that is after all what it becomes… a patronage system.  As a Patron you get all sorts of perks, and don’t have to worry about any limitations to the number of dungeons you can run a day or anything of the sort.  You also get a number of extremely generous boosts to experience, gold gain, as well as daily and weekly rewards that guarantee you at least one cash shop lockbox for free.  The only thing that keeps it from being a perfect free to play implementation however is that you gain no monthly stipend of shop currency like you do in other games.  With no way of gaining the shop currency in game, it ends up actually making the prices on items feel more reasonable since the game is not having to dilute the price to make up for the fact that players can grind out the currency in game.

Like most cash shops, there are tons of chase items that offer rare and limited time things that you can only acquire through lockboxes.  Having these items that you want appear only in lockboxes can be an extremely frustrating proposition, especially if RNGesus is not on your side.  To combat this not they offer these super limited time sales that allow you to buy the various mounts outright, and if you regularly watch the Friday twitch stream they often times give away these goodies as well there.  So while there are a lot of trappings of the normal insidiousness of a cash shop…  I feel like for the most part it is fair, and in truth you can largely ignore it completely.  Honestly I would say this is one of the few games that you can literally play without spending a dime and be completely happy doing so.  I’ve been subscribed off and on since the release of Rift in 2011…  but there are also times where I have played this game for free here and there before picking back up my patronage.  I can say I noticed zero difference in the game other than the fact that I was obviously missing my experience boost buffs.  The game felt the same, and played the same…  and that is just about as high of praise as I can give for a free to play experience.  If you’ve never played Rift, you owe it to yourself to give it a try… especially since it can be played completely for free.  It is either going to click with you or not, but in any case there is a lot to experience… and I have to say I really enjoy the early leveling experience especially.  Storm Legion and Nightmare Tides…  is admittedly a bit of a slog, but I keep thinking I must be missing some path that I should be taking there.  In any case…  I said a bunch of stuff about Rift, and I still definitely burn a candle for this game.  Join me next Friday as I talk about another game.