The Road to Mordor: Is LotRO's questing system over the hill?

LotRO
There's a good chance you're not reading this column right now but instead are fully immersed in the weekend beta for Guild Wars 2: Guild Harder. That's OK. I won't hold it against you -- I may even be playing it as well. Oh, those ArenaNet folks. They make such lofty promises, don't they? They're going to rewrite MMOs as we know them and show us once and for all that we've been playing with Tinker Toys when we could have fully functional jetpacks and whatnot.

I don't harbor any ill will against Guild Wars 2; in fact, I'm quite looking forward to it. But as everyone's focused on the game's excising of traditional questing as popularized by World of Warcraft, I thought it would be worth examining just how dated Lord of the Rings Online's questing system has become, if at all.

In an era of dynamic events, public quests, full voice-over, and other techniques designed to get us away from the text box questing model, will LotRO hold its ground against these fads or is it truly becoming a relic of the past? Let's dig in!

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A grand tradition

Questing is a tradition that dates back not just to the very beginning of roleplaying games but to the source of LotRO itself: the books. Tolkien certainly wasn't the first author to send his characters out on an epic quest, but he did help to further cement the union of fantasy and questing. Whether it be Bilbo's quest to steal treasure from Smaug or Frodo's quest to return the One Ring to Mount Doom (stay for our scenic view), questing is so inextricably part of Lord of the Rings that it would be downright weird not to have it.

When LotRO came out in 2007, the questing model as made popular by WoW was already the standard in MMOs. You saw a lady oblivious to a large glowing symbol above her head, you went over and said, "What's up?", and she would then give you an errand quest to perform. There was a big popup box full of text to explain the justification behind your mass-killing-spree, but that's where the game-side story began and ended. It was simple, it was functional, and it allowed for novels' worth of text to be broken down to bite-sized chunks for the ADD generation.

That's not to say that LotRO didn't try to take it forward a smidge. The epic storyline -- the core of the game -- was a much more advanced questline with plenty of scripted events and involved stories that didn't end when you turned in your 16 foozles. The volumes of LotRO's epic storyline could be made into a movie in its own right, and I assure you that I'd watch it.

In comparison to the quests of World of Warcraft (and many other contemporaries), LotRO's quest text is much more involved and dialogue-heavy, almost as if you flipped a book open and settled on a particular page to read for a while. Long names, foreign-sounding places, archaic words, and a different style of speech all serve to pull you into the world's setting, but it isn't as initially easy to swallow as WoW's or RIFT's baby food spoonfuls. Even so, I almost never skip the quest text in LotRO, despite doing so in many other MMOs. It feels rich and solid for what it is.

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Baby steps forward

Although its toolset doesn't allow for a complete overhaul of the questing system, Turbine has been pushing hard to figure out ways to expand it. In recent years, we've seen a heavier use of phasing, scripted events, cinematic camera movements, voice-overs, player emotes, and even choices in quests.

Phasing in particular is an incredible tool to help sell the illusion that our story is progressing and that our actions have made some impact in the world around us. I've found that it's done in such a way as to not be blatantly obvious but rather to flow naturally between quest pickups and turn-ins. Rise of Isengard felt more like a journey that flowed from beginning to end because of that, and it gets a huge thumbs-up from me.

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Dare to compare

But I haven't answered this week's question, which is whether LotRO's questing system is over the hill. It's a hard question to answer for many reasons. The fan in me wants to say, "Never!" as a reflex, and the player in me who still, despite playing many other MMOs, very much enjoys the full platter of LotRO's PvE offerings will champion its merits. It's not a system that needs to be thrown out because it's been overused or some have grown tired of it; it just needs to grow and develop, like any other video game mechanic.

However, the critic and weary traveler in me does look at, say, Star Wars: The Old Republic's incredible voice-overs and moral choices and wish that LotRO could be half that involving at times. Sometimes I just don't see these NPCs as people because they're hidden behind an unnatural wall of text or because they talk in such a way as to be unrelatable. I genuinely liked RIFT's dynamic events and how they changed the topography of the world, and I have great hopes that Guild Wars 2 will take this to the next level. I'd love to see questing that becomes so intuitive so that the game doesn't have to spell it out for you but instead nudges you in the direction and leaves you to find adventure for yourself.

The truth is that LotRO is stuck with the questing system that it has, for better and for worse. Is it aging? Probably, but it's still quite serviceable and enjoyable. Turbine's not oblivious to what's going on in the rest of the genre, and if newer concepts in questing are becoming hits with the crowd, that would put pressure on LotRO to adapt as well. I have a feeling that Riders of Rohan's moving, large-scale warband encounters are meant to echo what other games are doing with dynamic content, so why not more voice-over, more choices, and possibly even public quests?

The one suggestion I'd have for LotRO's current setup is almost too huge to make, but here I go anyway. I would absolutely love it if the quest text had hyperlinks for important people, places, or events that would send us to a journal or even a database for more information. Middle-earth is so incredibly huge and complex that it's impossible to keep track of these details from quest text that we'll forget in an hour, and if there were a way for us to cross-reference the key points of these quests, it could help with keeping it all straight.

As I said, that would be a massive undertaking, and I wouldn't expect it to ever happen. I'm just saying that I'd love it if it did.

I'd also like to see a lot more in the way of branching quests and more events that happen while out in the world. I do like how the screen occasionally pops up a bit of narrative pertaining to the quest, and having unexpected events happen along the way are quite welcome.

So what do you think? Are you satisfied with LotRO's questing system, or do you think it's too dated and in need of a major overhaul? What would you do with it?

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.