Seasonal Affective MMO Playing, Part Deux

As I mentioned in my last post, I have also tried out the now aged and decrepit MMO Lord of The Rings Online (simply “LOTRO”, for short).

LOTRO is probably the most popular MMO today after World of Warcraft, which is to say that it probably has only three orders of magnitude fewer players, rather than five. One would think that this would make Turbine, like Avis, try harder, but that doesn’t really seem to be happening.

LOTRO is a game of strong contrasts. Unlike Blizzard, whose World of Warcraft is of such preternaturally high quality throughout that you have to suspect it was designed and implemented by hyperintelligent aliens from another dimension, LOTRO is a fundamentally human, which is to say flawed, endeavor. The high points are very high, and the low points are very low. Let’s cover the high points first.

LOTRO partisans will crow about their favorite game’s “graphics”, but this is standard misguided PC gamer wankery. What is distinctive about LOTRO is not its “graphics”, but its visual design. Whereas WoW goes wholly (and brilliantly) for a cartoonish, oversaturated look, LOTRO tries to achieve a lyrical, somewhat photorealistic appearance. To my shock, it mostly succeeds. For me the highest points of the game are exploring Middle-Earth. It is worth trying the game out if for no other reason than to experience a sort of Virtual Shire Simulator. The game has the license from the books, not Peter Jackson’s movies, but the resemblance between the movies and the game-world is strong.

Also strong, again to my surprise, is the writing in the game. I came into the game viewing the Lord of the Rings license as a potential liability: how do you write several thousand random heroes into a game and still make it seem plausible? Turbine pulls this off by keeping you tangientially appraised about the progress of the War of the Ring, and by occasionally - only every so often - giving you quests that either foreshadow or deal with the aftermath of some of the events in the books. The “non-plot” quests easily number in the thousands, and are sufficiently well-written that I actually found I wanted to complete quest chains even after I had “out-levelled” them.

The game’s leveling system tries hard to make you not care directly about XP by also providing rewards in the form of “traits”, which are vaguely analogous to WoW’s Talent trees. By completing certain quests (say, “Kill 150 goblins in and around Bree” or “Explore and discover all the farms in the Shire.”), you get a trait that you can choose to equip which provides some sort of bonus. There are way more traits than you have slots to equip, so you can spend quite a lot of time chasing the various completion bonuses down.

There is no “world player-vs-player” in the game; just arenas for something called “monster play” that I haven’t tried yet. Every single person I have met in the game has been uniformly nice. It’s like all the players are Canadian or something.

The game itself is fairly easy. The mechanics for attacking monsters are very WoW-like, and vary widely among the classes; playing a Hunter feels very different from playing a Warden or a Minstrel. Likewise, there’s a crafting system which is the most fun out of the three MMO’s that I’ve tried. To craft you choose a career which is a grouping of three different crafting skills. Generally speaking, skills either provide resources or consume them, and they’ve cleverly tried to balance things such that you’re likely to have to depend on another player to get everything you need for all of your skills.

The game has drawbacks, though, and it wears them on its sleeve. The UI is a disaster, a complex of buttons and mouse targets that shift and morph and never act the same way twice. The inventory is particularly galling, taking the worst parts of the WoW system and intensifying them. Here’s my favorite example. I promise it is just one of many: when you go to a vendor to sell items, your inventory is arrayed in a random useless order, with no labels. When you actually decide to sell stuff, it appears in a separate window, in a different random useless order. This window shows your to-be-sold items in two columns. To sell an item, you double click on it. Since that item disappears, and since your inventory is being displayed in two columns, every single item in the inventory below the item you clicked moves horizontally.

It is to weep.

Other problems with the game that keep me from unreservedly recommending it include the lack of a Mac client, the terrible auction house interface, and the game’s version of “fast travel” which involves a completely incomprehensible network of travel nodes which may or may not allow you to go from one place to another. You know how sometimes in real life you want to get a flight somewhere and you find out that the only way to do it is to make two stops at different airports in opposite directions? Welcome to the LOTRO fast travel system. At least they don’t lose your luggage. Although, since your luggage is in the aforementioned LOTRO inventory system, you probably won’t be able to find it anyway.

So all in all, I find LOTRO to be a mixed bag. The UI issues are enough to turn me off of it for the long term (and that’s on top of my standard “I don’t actually have time to level a character all the way, because I have a job” MMO angst). But I’d be lying if I said that being able to enjoy the view from the peak of Weathertop didn’t trip all of my Serious Geek circuits in a very deep and powerful way.