Tuesday, January 30, 2007

LotRO, a.k.a "Low Troe"

I had an opportunity to try out the Lord of the Rings Online (LotRO) beta this past weekend during the stress test event, and am here to give you my down-and-dirty first impressions, coming from a WoW veteran’s perspective. That last sentence is important, since that’s what I was thinking as I played it. In my mind I was comparing what I saw to what I knew. I never did EQ, and my experience with EQ2 was about 20 minutes of the ‘Play the Fae’ demo (after 20 minutes, I think I blacked out from ‘Gay Overload’). I’m really not sure if there’s an NDA in effect for the LotRO beta or whatever, I just always hit “I Accept” whenever one of those walls of text pop up on my screen.

This is a long post. Brace yourself. Go get a glass of soda. Maybe some Cheetos. This could be viewed as an important post for some of you guys, so I don’t want to withhold anything. Many pictures can be clicked for full-sized versions, and most of my links are the same. With all that all out of the way, let’s get this bad boy rolling…

First and foremost, Lord of the Rings Online is NOT World of Warcraft. Maybe that's a Good Thing. Maybe it's What You're Looking For. For me, personally, these last few days spent with LotRO felt like I had just broke up with my girlfriend, and was still in full blown “you're-not-her-mode” with my new steady. The problem is that I was still living with WoW, and just having a weekend fling with the (barely legal, gasp!) new girl on the block. She had a pretty face, and some fancy bump map lighting things, but the way she walked and swung a sword made me wonder...

There are a few things WoW does (and doesn't do) that all of us along for the ride take for granted. WoW doesn't try to have real time reflections in each puddle you pass on the ground. WoW doesn't try to have terribly realistic looking models. WoW has a graphical style that it sticks to, and it pulls it off pretty well. Some people felt like the Wind Walker version of Zelda was a copout, since the graphics were 'simple'... but within the scope of those simple graphics was a common theme, and a certain beauty that the overall world adhered to. WoW tries, and succeeds, to look like you’re playing Warcraft III with the camera zoomed way in.

LotRO has very nice looking areas. Indoor areas have light streaming in through the windows, and outdoor areas are full of fluff and frill as far as your (video card’s) eye can see. If you have a powerful machine, this game looks great. If your machine is not so powerful, it looks a little bit like ass. Mid-range machines will do okay with a few options turned down, but you get that annoying ‘the grass stops exactly 12 feet from me, then as I walk forward, it grows’ effect happening. Click the thumbnails for full blown versions. These are Low, Medium, and Very High ambient frill settings.

The highest one really gives a nice meadow look, but the illusion is hopelessly shattered as you walk around in the low one, with flowers appearing at your feet and fading out again.

An indoor area. Note the textures on the floor, and my character. Overall, though, even the low-fi version is passable.

Another example, this one much more pronounced. Running the game on my laptop with every option turned down in an effort to improve framerate. It didn’t help. Then again, my laptop is built for Word and email, not MMOs. NPCs don’t even have eyes at ultra low… they just have flesh colored blobs attached to necks. Seriously, though… if you’re running the game that low, you either just don’t care, or prefer that ‘old school feel’.

On the other hand, you could have a fancy looking million dollar sports car, but without responsive controls it’d just look good collecting dust out in your driveway. WoW has a very solid, responsive (and extensible!) UI. My UI has been cut, hacked, butchered, and replaced to be about 90% different from the default one that comes when you buy the game. That said, even without all my Addons, the WoW UI just feels tight. You click a button and you get an appropriate response from the game. Your character does a little flip spin thing, the weapon glows, the enemy is Gouged, and you know that you’ve ‘pulled off a move’. All the while, the button has a cooldown animation happening, and you know right when you can do that move again.

LotRO’s UI is not so finely tuned. They have the basic buttons all down there, and they give you plenty of bars to work with (1 through =, along with Ctrl, Alt, and Shift modifiers) but they look a little muddled… some of the icons are trying to convey too much information, and just look confusing. The buttons themselves feel too small, and surrounded by too much ‘wasted space’. The default WoW interface does this too, with it’s big fruity griffon textures. I’ve grown accustomed to Bongos, and turning all that crap off for a while now. There are some icons in WoW that I still don’t even know what the icon is supposed to be representing (Warrior’s Recklessness? Is it like an orange meteor? A hot piece of coal?), but it’s a big bright clean shape, and very ‘clickable’. Clicking a button (or hitting its hotkey) in LotRO just feels like it lacks the immediate impact that it has in WoW. Your avatar does something, but sometimes it’s not so easily distinguishable from the auto-attack. I noticed this mostly on my burglar. The warrior Champion I rolled had a few pretty impressive attacks.

The cooldown indicator on the button does a little sweeping clock motion, but then it does some other kind of cloud puff thing, then blinks, then re-lights up… it’s hard to describe. I’m not sure exactly when the skill is ready again. Combat feels a little bit clunky… it just doesn’t feel as ‘crisp’. I’m sure it has to do with just getting used to the timing of combat. I’ve played a lot of other MMO demos, and LotRO has easily the 2nd best system, WoW being the best. I don’t want to go off on a tangent, but within the first ten minutes of playing WoW I kind of had the concept down. Stunlocking and stance dancing come later, but the basic ‘flow’ of combat was easy to pick up. Maybe I just need to unlearn WoW before I can appreciate another game. Overall, the more time I spent with it, the better it felt. At first it was just a change.

Also keep in mind that I reached all of level 6 on my rogue class, and earned about 5 skills. Maybe the ability animations get more impressive and ‘pop out’ more as you gain levels. I don’t want to judge this aspect too harshly, because I did only focus on really playing one class. I rolled a warrior and chopped a few things, and saw a few mages running around setting pigs on fire or whatever, so I’m sure each class gets perks as you go along, and each class has more distinct moves. On the subject of melee combat, one thing I will give marks to LotRO for is debuffs. I only saw a few in my course of playing, but they stood out. I had a Thunderclap style move that ‘slowed their attack speed’ and it had a cool little animation when it landed, kind of like Retaliation in WoW, but on the enemy. I laid it on them, the swords were spinning, then slowed, and finally came to a stop. Their attack speed was getting slowed. It made sense. Another one I saw was a similar effect being laid on me by a spider, and I let out a little yelp when I realized my character’s attack hand was actually covered in webs. They stretched and pulled as I continued to fight. Very Cool. Much cooler than a debuff icon that simply states ‘Attack speed is slowed by 20%’ or whatever.

One place LotRO absolutely SHINES is in character creation. Well, facial creation at any rate. WoW really “sucks the big one” in this department, as my mom would say. WoW lets you pick an entire face from about eight choices, then do things like add an earring for variation. LotRO’s face generator got me all hot and bothered, and further enhanced my ‘I play a pretty girl online’ inner craving Imagine my surprise (and delight!) when after I had fleshed out my new Isobelle, I was able to choose where she hailed from, which totally changed things. Being from the lands surrounding Bree gave me lighter skin tone choices, and opened the option for green or brown eyes; while those living in Dale Lands near the Lonely Mountain had darker skin tone choices and blue to brownish eyes available.

Some of the animations get a little weird... my eye drifting...
There are a few races available: Elves, Hobbits, Human and Dwarves. Strangely, you can pick male or female for any race except Dwarf, which offer only males. After selecting a race, you can choose from the various classes. The choices range from Guardian (Tank), Champion (Fury Warrior / Berserker), Captain (Buffs, Pets), Hunter (Nuker), Minstrel (Healer), Lore Master (Crowd Control, pets), to Burglar (Rogue / Debuffer).

Hunters are straight up ranged nukers, no questions asked, with Lore Masters and Captains handling the pets (I saw a crow or two). There are a few different variations on the warrior class, and the rogue class has an interesting twist in that it isn’t the melee DPS class, as much as a traditional debuffing class. It also uses a sort of combo system, but is party based. I (as the burglar) can begin to set up moves that allow other classes to build off such ‘openings’ (called conjunctions in the game). Sadly, as everyone I came across flatly refused to party with me, I never got a chance to try these moves out.

The basic feel of the UI, besides what I’ve mentioned, is good. The front end ‘dashboard’ could use a little polish, but there’s a lot to discover once you start opening windows up. You can write a little bio of your toon, check your family tree (?), and see any feats you’ve achieved and titles you’ve earned. I managed the feat of making it to level 5 without dying once, earning me the title of ‘Isobelle the Wary’. This can be displayed as I walk around town, I could opt for ‘Isobelle of Rohan’, or just plain Isobelle. The quest window and quest tracker are strightforward, and NPC questgivers show up as a golden ring on the minimap. A ring also appears above their heads, replacing WoW’s question and exclamation marks.

The Lore Book is a new addition, giving overall bonus objectives to complete for each zone, as well as for your race and class. I discovered (and examined) a Dunedain Cairn, with added an entry to ‘Research the History of the Dunedain’. There are six other alters or obelisks to find around the world, and once I’ve examined them all, I gain a +1 Idealism bonus (additional fate, increased will and resistance to fear). Cool. There’s even a gauge showing how ‘done’ I am with a certain zone. By level 6, I was about one third of the way done with all the quests the Bree area had to offer. Completing them all grants me another bonus stat, etcetera. Kind of like a rep grind, I guess, but just presented in a different manner.

Guilds are known as Kinships, and can be formed by creating a charter in town. I would imagine they operate in a pretty similar fashion to any other guild system, but I didn’t get a chance to get in one during the weekend.

There’s also a crafting window, but I couldn’t find a trainer to acquire a skill.

This move is most certainly NOT "Preparation", OK?
I like it because it's different, but the premise is pretty whatever. Maybe I’ve just had an overdose of Frodo to last me for a while. Slow down, and smooth out your panties… they’re getting bunched. Yes, I've read the full, unabridged versions of all of the books, own the super deluxe-o extend-o versions of the DVDs, and lived with a roommate that owned (and preached the virtues of) The Silmarillion. I can appreciate all the lore Tolkien has weaved to create a living, breathing universe. However, in the first five minutes of the game on my burglar, I had already come across a Sackville-Baggins, and Black Riders searching for the 'two hobbits'. Rolling a dwarf had me spawning next to Gandalf, and talking to Gimli to receive my first quest. Is this kind of stuff going to be casually dropped into the background of every quest for the next 2 years? I remember the Star Wars Galaxies demo starting out with me as a Level Nothing Nobody helping Han Solo get to the Millennium Falcon. It felt trite. On the flipside, all the choices at the character creation screen are ‘the good guys’, so there’s no need to create this sense of an endless artificial ‘war’. Parties are called ‘Fellowships’ and there are various mentions of ‘Allegiences’, which I can only imagine means a raid.

I have no idea what that means for PvP. Sorry to be so brief on this topic, but I just didn’t encounter any. I saw a duel in town between two level 2 characters, but that was the extent of my exposure to PvP. The official PvP forums are crawling with people saying LotRO should be strictly PvE to follow the lore (play a good guy, fighting evil), but I imagine those same people will break down and die on the inside when they see five hundred elves named 'Legolollerskates' running around naked, sending each other tells asking for cyb0rz.

The website claims you can ‘Play as a Monster!’, but the option wasn’t available to me. The ramifications of ‘playing as a monster(!)’ are intriguing (what class are you? do you earn new skills as you level?), but it’s all speculation at this point. I did notice the mysterious crafting window mentioned earlier explicity stated ‘Monster Classes cannot train a crafting profession’. Hm.

NOT "Evasion", OK?
At any rate… the weekend was a brief glimpse into this game, and I left it excited about the game. By partaking in the stress test, I think I may have landed a spot in the full beta. They had this promotion going on where if you played at least two hours during each day of the stress test, you could earn a full beta key. If that’s the case, then I may be able to pick up again on this in a few days or something. I hope so, because I am curious to see a little bit deeper content. Feel free to ask any questions you have, but I’ve pretty much laid out everything I could think of here, and without a full key I won’t really be able to jump back in and check anything.

There are a few more pictures I didn't include, but if you're hungry for more screenshots, jump right in the folder at http://notaddicted.com/images/isobelle/LotROstress and check 'em out! Keep in mind I took a few on my laptop with all textures at bare minimum, so if something looks horribly bad, it was probably one of those ones.

So… who’s doing a serious write up on Vanguard for me? Runned…?

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