The road goes ever on and on… Medieval travel simulator: Only moderately fun. Slaying wave after wave of goblins, on the other hand…
I’ve written on a review of the Lord of the Rings Online game as a whole, but seriously it would be too long even by my standards. The game is 12 years old this spring and has a number of commercially sold expansions as well as a number of smaller, free expansions. The level cap was 50 when the game was new, now it is 120, and most of the game between those takes place in areas that did not even exist when the game was new. So you can read online reviews of the game and then of each of the expansions if you have the patience, I guess.
Due to this layered, growing nature of the game, the learning curve is not steep but very, very long. The expansions don’t only include new geographical areas and monsters of an adequate level to fight, but also new features. The Rohan expansion, for instance, has a lot of horse-related stuff, as you might expect. Some of that can be used in later expansions, but some only within Rohan. Well, I haven’t gotten to Rohan yet, and now I am not sure I ever will.
The game is quite pleasant to play, it has an atmosphere of inherent goodness and heroism that I haven’t felt since City of Heroes. It may seem strange to compare two games from so different genres, but they do share some of that longing for a more heroic world. The player base reflects this to some extent. I get the impression that many of the players are “marriage material” (not for me, obviously, and most of the female characters are played by males anyway) but in the sense of being playful yet serious, patient and unafraid of commitment. Well, you better not be afraid of commitment because this game will take many moons if not years to complete. Pretty sure Frodo got to Mordor faster than I will. If at all.
“The road goes ever on and on” is a famous Tolkien quote, and that is certainly also true for this game. I have jokingly called it a “Medieval travel simulator”. It gets somewhat better at level 20 when you can learn riding for free and buy a horse in-game for in-game silver. Before level 20, or if you are a free-player without subscription, you have to buy the riding skill for a small sum of real money. You can also buy substantially more expensive riding speed upgrades. I probably would, if not for the skirmishes.
At level 20, you can go to one of the skirmish camps that exist near major centers. Normally at that age you would be in or near Breeland, so I went to the camp just outside the South Gate of Bree town. There I talked to the Skirmish Captain and went through the two tutorial missions.
Skirmishes are repeatable, instanced missions. Instanced means there is only you and your fellowship (team) if any. Nobody else will compete with you or help you. Well, except for one helper, your Soldier.
Soldiers are basically what gamers call “pets”, artificially intelligent companions that assist you in battles. There are several classes of soldiers, but you can only have one at a time. If you are squishy, you can have a soldier that tanks for you, attracting the attention of the enemy and keeping them occupied (within reason) so you can do damage from a distance. If you are a more sturdy type, you can use an archer to help whittle them down faster. The archer is also able to pull some of the opponents off you if you are surrounded. There is also a “sage” (basically a mage, but officially those don’t exist in LOTR) who can deal elemental damage at a distance, fulfilling a similar role as the archer. If you are a pure damage dealer but not very sturdy, perhaps you should get a herbalist who can heal you while you fight. Since they can also heal themselves, they too can pull some of the enemies off you and keep them occupied till you are ready to take them down, just don’t wait too long.
There are already two “pet classes” in the game: The Lore-Master is a squishy user of elemental magic, which again is not called magic but lore because Tolkien only had a handful of wizards and they were not really humans at all, more like angels in disguise. Anyway, the LM can use an animal to assist him in battle. The Captain has a human companion. The companion also has an aura that can slightly heal you, or make you slightly sturdier, or slightly increased your damage. But he will also directly assist you in battle, although he is just a commoner, not as good a fighter as you are.
Well, the good news for my Captain is that you can have both a Solider and your original banner-bearer, so now I go into battle with a team of three, even when soloing! The Soldier (in my case an Archer) is actually fairly competent, to the point of not attacking a certain type of enemy that will have secondary effects when attacked. (Which is more than I could say for myself the first times.)
TOO MUCH FUN!
When I say “too much fun”, I mean it half jokingly, half seriously. Noticed how I called LOTRO a “medieval travel simulator”? That is not really a compliment, not in the long run. The road (or other terrain) tends to not go straight, so you have to steer all the time, either your character or your horse, so you can’t even banter with your online friends (if any) or just look around on the varied landscape as you travel.
In contrast, with Skirmishes you warp straight from wherever you are (not limited to the skirmish camp!) and you are at the start of the skirmish instance. From here on, it does not take long before you fight groups of enemies, either because they are attacking you or because you are attacking them. (There are basically two types of Skirmishes, either defending an area against invaders or take it back from invaders.) There are only brief pauses between the attacks, often not even that, while if you are attacking you can do so at your own pace (but there will often be counterattacks right afterwards.)
So if you prefer slaying goblins over travelling with your eyes on the road, Skirmishes are suddenly a lot more attractive than the usual quests.
If your character is not too well balanced and you could need a companion to round you out, Skirmishes are also a lot more attractive.
If you want to level up rapidly, Skirmishes are also more attractive.
If you want to rapidly get improved weapons and armor, you can buy those for “marks”, a currency of Skirmishes, and you get a generous helping of marks for each Skirmish. The best gear you can buy for marks exceeds the rewards you get for ordinary quests, at least at the level I am (early twenties).
In addition you can use marks to give yourself or your soldier bonuses that only work inside skirmishes: Attack bonuses, defense bonuses, and healing bonuses. These boosts won’t work in ordinary encounters outside of Skirmishes, so going back to normal quests will feel like being nerfed (made weaker).
Oh, and while the Skirmishes are indeed repeatable, the enemies vary between a number of types, especially the lieutenants (mini-bosses for each cluster of enemies). This and the length of each Skirmish makes it more varied than in Asian games like Kritika Online and Closers, where the missions are shorter and repeat exactly. Oh, and you get rewards for eliminating a certain number of those lieutenants, as well as for defeating X number of various monster types. Some of these “deeds” are rewarded with LOTRO Points, which you otherwise would have to buy for money. You can get these rewards by questing in the relevant zones outside of Skirmishes, but it takes longer and requires more traveling.
In short, Skirmishes are easier, more fun, and more rewarding than the rest of the game. Well, at least the rest of the game so far. Is that really a good idea when you have made an elaborate, huge game world filled with varied content?
I love repetitive games
So maybe this is just me. Maybe most players get bored after playing the same Skirmish five times, even with somewhat different opponents. I kind of hope so, because there is so much to see in this game, so much content you lose out on if you just level past it. But it is just terribly tempting to do another Skirmish instead of riding along the trade roads looking for metal outcroppings to mine for metalsmithing or branches to bring back for woodworking, or archaeological relics to craft scrolls of lore. I enjoy the crafting in this game, but not as much as the Skirmishes.
And that’s why I call this feature “too much fun”, because it is hard to pull myself away from it. Well, relatively hard. I am not a hardcore gamer, luckily. It is more like I play these skirmishes instead of the rest of the game, and instead of The Sims 3. It is not like I take days off from work to play, or play till dawn. (Well, in late May that might happen if I’m still around, because then there are like two hours of night, but you know what I mean.)
But in the game, I mean. One does not simply walk into Mordor. One gets distracted by Skirmishes.