A Real Siege Engine
Extra Content Expands Great MMO Greatly
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My name is Circee, and I'm a hobbit. Well, at least I am on guild night Sundays when the Keepers of the Red Book gang gets together to go questing in Middle Earth, something we've been doing since Lord of the Rings Online launched.
People who play LOTRO mostly do so I think because of the rich storyline within the MMO. Having the whole world created by Tolkien to draw upon helps a great deal. We've seen quite a few expansion packs come out for the game since launch. The biggest was probably the Mines of Moria which added a massive non-instanced underground world to explore. Some of the updates have even been free, which is doubly nice.
The latest update that you have to pay for is Siege of Mirkwood. And it really changes the gameplay in important and, I think, good ways.
But let me get the basics out of the way. The level cap was raised to 65. That's cool, though I've never been a level grinder so it didn't really matter too much to me. It's nice to be able to gain extra experience points again (I had only recently gotten to 60) but not too big a deal. Games like World of Warcraft have players up in the 80s now and some games let you go even higher, so the 65 cap is actually a bit modest.
The new pack also adds Mirkwood as a new area, hence the name. The developers have done a nice job with the look and feel of the new, haunted, land. As always, everything looks great and keeps with the style of the game. This takes us really close to the home of the enemy. In fact, you will be heading up to the gates of Dol Guldur, the fortress of the ringwraiths, if you dare for an epic battle on quite a grand scale. It won't be long before we're inside Mordor it seems.
Had that been all they did, Mirkwood would get a pretty good rating, though would not have been anything truly special. However, Turbine has gone well beyond the call of duty by adding Skirmish gameplay.
Skirmish play is setup as a series of instances where players can control the difficulty levels and number of players. It reminds me a lot of Dungeon & Dragons online actually in that respect, with the ability to dial in how hard you want a dungeon to be before you enter. More challenge equals better rewards of course, but you have to survive to make your claim. So you can't be greedy beyond your ability to fight.
There are basically two types of skirmish instances, though a lot of effort has been made to change up the type of gameplay even on similar ones. The first has you defending a point of land against waves of attackers. The second has you attacking an area held by the enemy, capturing flags at strategic waypoints and defending against counterattacks until it's safe to move forward again.
You can play the skirmishes as many times as you want each day, and launch them from anywhere, even inside your house or the local tavern. You are given extra coins for daily quests, which basically means you get a bonus if you complete a skirmish you haven't played yet that day. It encourages players to spread around their play time and not to get bored doing their favorite instance over and over again.
You mostly get skirmish coins as rewards, which can be used to buy those horribly hard to obtain items like the Sigil of War that many classes need to advance, or rare crafting supplies like Mithril flakes. You can also use the coins to buy up the skills of the coolest part of the expansion: your new soldier.
Every person who starts skirmishing is given a soldier. Those of you who play captains or lore masters probably know how this works. The soldier is basically your personal pet. They are more or less a blank slate that you can fill up with skills, training and roles. They're your constant companion inside skirmish instances, thought they don't journey into the outside world.
A skirmish soldier can be given a role that mimics any class in the game. If you do a lot of soloing like I do, you probably know areas where your character is weak. You can compensate for this by building a perfect companion to compliment your skills. For example, I'm a guardian, so I tank and agro a lot. But getting beat on while soloing isn't a lot of fun sometimes, and forces me to eat food and healing potions. So making my soldier a healer (called an herbalist but really a minstrel role) was the ideal solution. Now I agro the bad guys who get enraged and hit me, while my companion stands back and heals. Since the bad guys normally aren't being healed, the battle is a forgone conclusion most of the time.
I've seen a bunch of player/soldier combos that work well. Burglars can for instance, sneak in behind their guardian-like protector or their champion-like fighter to do some serious damage. Trial and error should find players the best match, though it's probably obvious for most longtime players.
Control of the soldiers is limited. You have one button to summon them, which costs nothing, but can't be done in combat. So if your soldier dies, you will need to get at least a few seconds of break before you can bring them back. A second button tells them to attack a certain target. This is really hard to use in combat, but thankfully the AI is okay at figuring out what to do. It's done some dumb stuff before, like striking a riddled opponent instead of the hoard we are trying to fight at the moment, but these slipups are actually pretty rare. And if you have a healer like me who can't attack, the second button is never used anyway.
On the enemy side, there are your standard goblins and the like, but there are also skirmish captains. These elite bad guys all have special abilities. Most of them can be countered by fighting them smartly. Some like the falconer for example require you to kill all of their birds before you can damage them. Knowing your enemy will save you a lot of deaths, so get to know them and how to counter each one.
Once you have your loot, spending skirmish coins on your solder's role will make them generally tougher and better at their job. Or you can buy a new role if you want to try something new.
In addition to their main role, you can also put points into their skills. For my herbalist, skills are things like healing one person in the group, healing the entire group, restoring the blue power bar of tired allies and buffing. You can only slot so many skills, so you need to choose the best ones. There are also super and ultimate skills, which are basically really expensive and powerful versions of other skills. My herbalist's slotted ultimate skill, Healing Words, lets her whisper a chant and heal every single ally in my group. Not too shabby! Believe me, when people see that happening, they do everything they can to keep her alive.
Training basically makes your character tougher in different ways. For my herbalist, I've given her light armor training, melee defensive skills, extra morale and power points. That way she can block blows (and take some as well) if someone happens to jump her in a big fight. I can't always get back to her right away, and the armor and defensive fighting buys needed time. I find that power is her most needed trait. All those healing spells take their toll. I also slotted a skill where she can regenerate power very quickly, and find that I dump most of my skirmish coins these days into building that up, and buying her more power in general.
The final slot on your soldier is called Personal. These traits can be bought up just like normal, but actually affect your own character. For me I slotted extra parry ability since I'm a shieldless guardian who needs to parry to return powerful blows. And I slotted extra incoming healing ability. That makes every single heal my solder sends my way more effective on me, without wasting one of her valuable training slots. When grouping, I get more healing energy from her that way, but hey, she's my herbalist.
You can also change the way your soldier looks. Spending coins on this might seem like a waste, but LOTRO is all about looks and outfits sometimes, so pimping out your solder seems like the right thing to do. Besides, how cool is it to see a hobbit like me with their very own elf maiden following along putting Band-Aids on every one of my cuts?
Finally, you can spend those coins on armor for yourself, or outfits or even some cool things for your house. So there really is something for everyone in terms of skirmish rewards.
Kudos to Turbine for really putting out a fun expansion pack that can be played and enjoyed by players of almost all levels. Just coming out with Mirkwood would have been nice, but only high level characters would even be able to touch a toe in there. This way, there is a robust game element that everyone can play and enjoy, and it really expands the game besides. This was one of the most surprising and delightful expansions of the year in MMOs.
John Breeden II is the Chief Editor of GiN. While a forward thinking man he admits to a fondness for older video games. You should have seen him at Videotopia. John can be contacted at : firstname.lastname@example.org.