Before taking a long blogging hiatus I was in quite an exciting spot. Riders of Rohan had just been released and Storm Legion was about to hit stores. Both games formed a large part of my MMO diet at the time and I was equally excited for both releases. Now that the dust has settled I feel confident enough putting my thoughts on each expansion on electronic paper. Before I proceed its important to note that I have not reached max level in either game so I am not going to comment much on end game (which is a facet of MMO games which I am not particularly enamored with). These thoughts and opinions reflect what I enjoy in an MMO ie. Story, exploration and the leveling process.
Riders of Rohan (LotRO)
There was a lot riding on this expansion for Turbine. They were promoting it as their biggest expansion yet offering a big chunk of land to explore set in one of the most beloved areas of Middle Earth for Tolkien fans. Rohan acts as background to some battles of massive scale and this expansion was tasked with setting the tone for greater things to come within the game. Part of Turbine’s plan for this was to introduce mounted combat. Its easy to underestimate the big gamble this shift in focus signified for the studio. An MMO dies or thrives by its combat mechanics. The introduction of a system which changes around 50% of all combat taking place in your game world at top levels could spell disaster for a game which, due to its limited but loyal fan base, cannot afford to make mistakes which alienate the current player base.
Luckily mounted combat just works wonderfully as a new game system. It makes combat fresh again and the feeling of power you get when hurling down a hill upon your steed has to be experienced to be appreciated. I found it very easy to just spend an hour or two going around the landscape jousting with Warg Riders. It makes the Rohan experience that much more authentic.
However the biggest achievement for Turbine has got to be in the way they perfected the art of traditional questing and world building. There is nothing truly ground breaking here, however the system has been refined so well that I found myself completing all quests in an area, not just because I needed the xp, but rather because I wanted to feel like I am contributing in this war torn land. There are a variety of reasons why questing in RoR is so enjoyable:
1) All quests are tied to an interesting story, sometimes with multiple endings and/or outcomes. At the end of the day I was still killing x amount of mobs or performing fetch quests but usually there was such a compelling tale wrapped around the menial tasks being requested of me that the whole quest felt urgent and purposeful. More than that in most cases I wanted to know how my actions would affect the NPC’s around me. The writers actually managed to make me care.
2) Pointless traversing was kept to a minimum. I still had to run back and forth a few times however this was not overdone. Furthermore, the fact that I could just engage in a few mounted skirmishes on the way to and from a quest made things more interesting. I would purposely ride off the beaten path at times to see what I would come across. This ability to pique my interest in this way is the hallmark of good world building.
3) Quests are delivered in new and interesting ways. Most quests are given by NPCs with rings on their heads, however some quests just popped up after I killed a particular mob. Others through quest items I collected from fallen enemies. All is coordinated in such a way that always pushes you forward to new areas of the map. Furthermore I never felt overwhelmed by the amount of quests I was sent to complete. I still lament the fact that I can only track five quests at a time though.
4) The epic story line is just epic. It introduces interesting and believable characters which made me feel like part of a company. The fact that it plays in parallel to what the other characters in the book are doing made me feel like I was actually participating in the Lord of the Rings. To be fair this has always been true in later expansions however Turbine seem to have perfected this with RoR.
When GW2 was unleashes on the masses many felt that it was the end of the traditional questing system. Frankly the unorthodox quests in GW2 are one of the major reasons why I lost interest in that game. The traditional questing in RoR demonstrates that there is still a very important place for traditional quests in MMO’s.
Storm Legion (Rift)
Before embarking into my Storm Legion adventure I was having a blast in Telara, mostly because the world was a joy to explore. I managed to reach level cap right before the expansion hit and so could join with everyone else on my way to level 60. Trion were promising two huge continents for this expansion, each one the size of the old world. A huge undertaking without a doubt. Given their pedigree I was confident that they were able to pull it off. Sadly a few hours into the new content it was clear that something was amiss. Its true – there is certainly a lot of land to explore. However the world does not feel alive. In fact in many areas it feels like the content was hastily put together using the exact same tools that were made available to the players for creating their dimensions (more on that in a while). Many objects in the world seem to repeat like they were cut and pasted around with minor variations in orientation and size. It’s quite common to come across environmental details which do not align properly with the ground and appear as they are hovering in mid air.
This cutting of corners is also apparent in the quest content. The vast majority of quests are picked in the field. Take carnage quests for instance. You kill a certain mob and then you are required to kill x amount of that creature type to finish the quest. The problem is not in the essence of the idea but rather the sloppy implementation. Almost all mobs initiate a carnage quest making starting one feel like busy work rather than a fun discovery. There is no story associated with such quests so there is no real incentive other than the rewards at the end. These rewards are always the same – a small amount of xp and tokens which can be used to purchase high level equipment. It’s all very clinical and by the numbers. There are a number of traditional story quests too but these are few and far apart. To make matters worse most of them are uninspiring and forgettable. All this blandness serves to make the leveling grind feel incredibly boring to me.
One new system introduced with Storm Legion is the aforementioned dimensions system – highly customisable player owned instances which serve as player housing. Although these spaces fail to have much impact on the over world due to the fact that they are separate from the rest of Telara they are a very nice addition and provide an extra dimension of gameplay. It’s by far the best contribution the expansion makes towards helping long time Rift players looking for new experiences. Sadly the experience is so far removed from staple MMO gameplay that it has limited appeal for most although the implementation is spot on.
Elsewhere the game adds a new soul to each calling. In an of itself this is a good thing and the new souls are interesting indeed however I feel that the soul system as it stands needs some serious streamlining before it is expanded further. I spent quite some time trying to come up with a good soul combination for my mage but found myself seriously hampered by the interface. There is no way to quickly make minor changes to the tree, there is no easy way to compare the damage output of two similar builds and you have to reconfigure the hot bars each and every time you create a new build from scratch. It would have been great if these kinks were ironed out before the soul system was expanded. On top of all this I still feel that many choices are superfluous while some skills are absolutely must haves – a situation which creates the illusion of choice while at the same time severely limiting those who think out of the box.
The clear winner to me is RoR – it’s definitely the expansion I’m having most fun with. The content of RoR is lovingly crafted with amazing attention to detail. On the other hand Trion have added way too much way too quickly creating an experience which feels rushed and diluted. In fact I can assert that with addition of Storm Legion Rift’s leveling game lost some of its allure for me. I do not wish to sound too hard on Trion but honestly the exquisiteness of RoR’s content only serves to highlight how far off the mark the world of Tyria has fallen with regards to quality. Rift needs to start refining what is already there rather than carry on adding to what is arguably a whole lot of content. The fact that Rift seems to be bleeding players at every turn does not bode well for a developer who chose to retain the pay to play model amid an ever changing MMO landscape. The server I play on seems to be virtually empty most of the time. I am still hoping Trion can recover from this misstep. Time will tell. In the meantime I hold nothing but excitement for the future of LotRO.