The Road to Mordor: A soldier to call my very own

LotRO
So how are you liking Update 6 so far? No, I can't hear you right now -- you're probably going to have to leave a comment or something. Maybe I should do the talking for a while.

With its new zone, massive PvP upgrades, class rebalancings, Landscape Soldier ability, updated barter wallet, and the Instance Finder 2.0, there's so much to chew on with Lord of the Rings Online's latest patch that it's going to take most of us some time to figure out what's what. I've heard a lot of praise for the new epic storyline, in particular the dream sequence, and it's definitely good that players who had tapped out Rise of Isengard's content now have more world goodness to explore.

I am not in The Great River, not yet; I dug my level 65 Captain out of retirement and am plugging my way back up through RoI quite happily. However, I was incredibly curious about two of the most debated features of the patch -- the barter wallet and the ability to bring skirmish soldiers out into the world -- and I spent some time evaluating each. While I question the way Turbine's handling the cost of these features, I definitely came away impressed with what the wallet and soldiers do for the game.

Barter Wallet
Barter Wallet, now with actual barter items!

LotRO is an MMO that goes against the general grain of the genre in two interesting ways: Player inventory (i.e., your bags) are fixed in size, and money generally is worthless after a certain point in the game. Instead, players have to look to a wide variety of areas to store their junk, such as their vault and housing storage, and barter tokens and the like become true currency that can be traded for anything worth getting.

It's to both of these areas that the Barter Wallet ministers. With the new upgrade, player storage is freed up from the dozens and dozens of tokens clogging up precious real estate, granting us the ability to carry around with us any and all currency that we'll ever need in a single screen. All for one high, high price.

In my own experiences, in talking with friends, and in monitoring the global chat channel, I've found that most people love the new wallet when purchased. The game has sorely needed this for a long time now as almost every region has its own special currency, and the end result feels like spring cleaning. Seeing all of those scattered tokens swept up into one easy-to-read screen is awesome, and knowing that from now on, any tokens that I get won't clutter my inventory but will go right to the wallet is wonderful.

It's really what the wallet should have been when it first came out, and there's part of the rub. Some have accused Turbine of deliberately holding back the wallet's full functionality on first release in order to get players warmed up to the notion of what the wallet could do, and then charge for that full functionality later on down the road. If we give the studio the benefit of the doubt, then it simply got the basic version out first and had to follow that up with a lot of time coding in all of the changes to accommodate the scads of currencies out there.

Either way, in my opinion Turbine should have released the full wallet for free, or at a bare minimum, given it to paying VIPs. I guess it ended up being a balance between generating a lot of goodwill with the community and generating a lot of money, and there's a business to be run here.

The other issue that people have had with it is the price. Simply put, the Barter Wallet isn't exactly cheap, costing around $10 in Turbine Points for functionality that some feel the game should've had in the first place. After all, it wasn't the players who were constantly creating loads of new barter tokens every time a festival or faction came out. It's a high enough price point to cause pain in the real wallet, more so because many believe this is a necessary feature, not a nicety.

In fairness, there are two upswings to the purchase. The first is that VIPs will generate enough free TP in two months to get the wallet without having to shell out real money (or less than two months if some serious deed achieving goes on). The second is that, thank goodness, the Barter Wallet is unlocked account-wide, not just per character or server. It might be pricey, but once bought, it'll never have to be purchased again.

Landscape soldiers
Landscape soldiers: Not quite the companions you were hoping for!

Out of all of the features that came with Update 6, none had me so excited as the concept of taking my skirmish soldier out into the game world. Not only am I a huge fan of pet classes, but I absolutely adore MMOs that grant companions to players who are more solo-minded. So when the feature was announced, it wasn't far-fetched for players to conjure images of Star Wars: The Old Republic's companions and Guild Wars' heroes. This happened especially -- and I want to stress this -- as Turbine wasn't exactly forthcoming on the details.

It's here that I'm most disappointed with the studio. I'm not even going to gripe about the cost so much (the TP for an hour token is reasonably low, and at least there's a clear way to earn them in-game) or quibble with the fact that the system isn't set up to let you have one of these out all the time. I get that having a constant soldier at your side would devalue the current pet classes and require massive rebalancing of the questing content, lest it be made trivial.

I've even warmed up to the way it's implemented. Once I got past my preconceptions of thinking that the soldier would always be there, I started to like how I could pull one out as backup support during challenging spots or boring grinds. An hour for a token doesn't sound like much until you realize how you can divvy that time up into many, many small segments of assistance. I got a token this week, brought my soldier up to spec (she was quite rusty), and gave it a whirl. While you can't control what your soldier does any more than in a skirmish, when properly applied, he or she can be a great boon to fights.

I guess my main disappointment is how little Turbine talked about this system in advance, especially in light of how heavily the studio was promoting it as a key part of Update 6 and how much the devs must've known players were assuming and speculating all over the place without concrete information. In fact, when the actual information arrived, it came in the form of test server patch notes that had to be digested by the community. It really wasn't until just a few days before Update 6 went live that a dev diary came out to discuss the system.

That diary, by the way, not only failed to deliver all of the information that it should've but came across sounding passive-aggressive in response to player complaints. Seriously, read it -- it's so defensive in tone as if to say, "We know you guys are upset, but stop whining. It's not our fault you assumed things."

Except that it is sort of Turbine's fault here. After the unfortunate statted armor controversy, Sapience promised that the studio would work a lot more on communication. This, however, is not it. Throwing out a broad concept such as "you'll be able to take your soldiers out into the world" then refusing to give any additional details until just days before the patch lands is a recipe for a rankled community. Just because Turbine didn't give out info doesn't mean it's blameless for the speculation that occurred. There's no way that anyone wouldn't see this coming.

In speaking with Turbine the other week, I felt let down by the devs' admission that this feature was meant, by virtue of its cost, to be only sporadically used. As such, why was it promoted so heavily? Why weren't players informed of the cost and time limit well ahead of the patch? Why did the dev diary fail to talk about the pricing of the tokens, the five-hour cap, or the fact that tokens can be out-leveled (and thus made worthless)?

Communication can be a double-edged sword. If a studio puts too much out there that it isn't prepared to back up, then it can come back and hurt the company in the future. But too little is just as bad, in my opinion, and in this case it got us off on a wrong foot with what should've been a great patch experience.

I'm excited about continuing to use my soldier, even though it's going to force me to skirmish more than I normally would just to keep her up to par, and I'm glad to see LotRO expanding in these ways. I just hope that there will be fewer of these communication omissions in the future and far more forthcoming dialogue from the studio that doesn't happen three days prior to a patch's release.

When not enjoying second breakfast and a pint of ale, Justin "Syp" Olivetti jaws about hobbits in his Lord of the Rings Online column, The Road to Mordor. You can contact him via email at justin@massively.com or through his gaming blog, Bio Break.
This article was originally published on Massively.