The Road to Mordor: Hands-on with Riders of Rohan's mounted combat

The Road to Mordor Hands on with Riders of Rohan
I remember the very first thought I had when Turbine announced Lord of the Rings Online: Riders of Rohan: If the mounted combat isn't very, very good, this expansion's going to be a big dud. I don't think we've ever had an expansion that leaned so heavily on a core system for not only the bulk of its gameplay but also its style.

Crude my thought may have been, it felt like the truth. I don't know any other successful MMO that utilized mounted combat as anything but a sideshow curiosity. The LotRO team was putting too much emphasis on mounted combat for it to fizzle.

I think I can breathe easier now that I've had a chance to spend an hour fiddling with mounted combat while talking to Senior Producer Aaron Campbell. What I saw was an alpha build of the expansion (the beta is scheduled to start soon, perhaps as soon as next week), but once I got used to careening over the plains at 88 miles per hour, it felt just right.

It felt like LotRO.

The Road to Mordor Hands on with Riders of Rohan
Pimp my mount

Before we got to anything as uncouth as bloody jousting, Campbell had me open up the new mounted combat screen on the UI. The first of the three tabs is stats, which tells you just that. Of primary interest to me, however, was that big pink box in the center.

What oh what is that? I queried.

Just a new legendary item slot, came the response.

That's right: With Riders of Rohan, we'll be getting a third type of legendary item that's specific to our mounts. But there was no time to talk more about that, unfortunately, as we had a lot more ground to cover.

The Road to Mordor Hands on with Riders of Rohan
The second panel is probably the most interesting one to me: appearance. War-steeds aren't quite like normal mounts in many ways, especially in how they look. You get only one war-steed but can then mix-and-match visual elements to make it look awesome. The steed has a base hide, which can often mimic mounts that we know already. On top of that, there's the saddle, gear, head, body, legs, and tail to consider. In short, if you love LotRO's wardrobe system, prepare to take your fashion sense to your ride.

You'll accumulate appearance options through a variety of means. Some will be given to you at the start, some will come from quests, some come from deeds, and some arrive through other means. They will not, however, be loot drops.

The Road to Mordor Hands on with Riders of Rohan
Finally, we came to the engine of your Middle-earth transportation: the traits. This is where you'll customize your war-steed as a character of its own. As you level up your mount, you'll receive points that can be invested into several trait lines. Traits start from the top and go down toward the strong capstone abilities at the end.

While most of these traits are similar across all classes, a few are affected by your character. Capstone skills and primary skills are the most likely to be tweaked toward your specific class, although Campbell points out that usually they fill the same basic function.

It's here that you'll also decide what kind of mount you want your war-steed to be. Light mounts are devastating DPS machines that have a high rate of parry, but you'll be more easily knocked out of the saddle. Heavy mounts trade DPS for survivability, while medium mounts fall in the middle.

If all this isn't enough to absorb, there are combat disciplines to master. Combat disciplines allow you to toggle between three roles between fights. Red Dawn increases your DPS, Riddermark offers you more in the way of utility skills and battlefield control, and Rohirrim is great for defensive and healing maneuvers.

The Road to Mordor Hands on with Riders of Rohan's mounted combat
Fighting fast and furiously

So enough about how your war-steed is trained -- I wanted to see it in action! Campbell let me have at it in the vast, vast plains of Rohan, riding around at what felt like Mach 3. Seriously, these mounts are fast. You actually upshift and downshift your mount between five different speeds: dead stop, walk, trot, canter, and gallop. Right now, the team is experimenting with different ways to convey your speed and "gear," such as a red meter that fills and a meters-per-second notice on your HUD.

Many of my concerns about mounted combat were focused on the action itself. Will it look real or feel fake? Can you see anything at all going this fast by a target moving at you at the same speed?

First of all, when you mount up, you get a new hotbar that's separate from your standard one. This is filled with mount-specific abilities, including your attacks, a skill that brings you to a rapid stop, and more. What turned out to be the most useful ability is Spur On. Spur On is a 10-second toggle that will wait for you to punch in an attack or two after it, and then your mount will automatically pursue your target and trigger those attacks when in range. This way mounted combat becomes far less about twitch and more about planning your next charge. It actually works pretty well, I found.

When you attack, you'll use the same weapons you normally do, although the skills behind them will be specific to mounted combat. One of the changes the devs made in development is in how your mount won't be kicking or biting the enemy, so the onus is on you to provide the damage. This change was made mostly because horse attacks didn't pan out to be as fun in testing as hoped, plus it was ridiculously difficult to make the animation work while in motion.

If you're lucky, then during a charge, you'll knock your opponent off his saddle and have a much easier time of him from then on. If you're unlucky (or a poor horseman), you'll be knocked off yourself. This is bad. Very bad. Without your mount, you'll take more damage. Therefore, you have three options: stand and fight, try to run away (on foot!), or attempt to remount. A few of the traits assist you with emergency remounting, fortunately.

The Road to Mordor Hands on with Riders of Rohan's mounted combat
New tricks in the saddle

One of the new features coming to the game is auto-looting, although this will only work while you're mounted in Rohan. Campbell explained that the team didn't want players to have to keep trotting back to hunt down sparklies; the devs wanted to keep the action flowing. I asked if there's a way for players to ride in formation. He said that it's an idea, but nothing's in the game for this as of yet.

Another neat feature is open tapping, which gives all players credit when attacking the same target, whether they're grouped or not. Grouping does give you better rewards, however.

Single targets are common in Rohan, but of greater concern are roving warbands. Warbands are packs of wargs or orcs that require a full group to take down. Unlike most mobs in the game, they go all over the map, which means you may find one when you least expect it.

As Riders of Rohan enters beta, the devs are hard at work to make mounted combat look and feel right. At this point, they've been working on it for over nine months and have made several changes to the system. They're still trying to figure out the best way to give players situational awareness in the field (especially in regard to where their fellowship is) and have made the combat less arcadey and more strategic.

You'll need to make peace with the fact that mounted combat basically is Riders of Rohan. A great portion of quests in the region are tied to the new system, and it's definitely something that the game will lean on going forward.

The Road to Mordor Hands on with Riders of Rohan's mounted combat
So how does it feel?

I want to step away from the mountain of information that I was given to share with you my impression of mounted combat (with the caveat that it is still in alpha and I got only an hour with it). First of all, it definitely takes a little getting used to. Learning to drive stick after years of automatic transmission in this game will take some practice. Campbell told me that the devs expect most players to always be at full speed (since you hit the hardest), although slower speeds are better for turning.

Once I got into the groove of clicking the W key four times to hit max speed, I began to enjoy the sensation of flying over the fields. It really is wicked fast, and this sensation of quick travel is not to be overlooked. It feels like freedom, in a way.

The combat, too, will require some more time to properly evaluate and assimilate. Charging is cool, and the auto-direct feature does work well, but I was feeling a little harried trying to keep track of my target as I kept riding past it after a strike. It's hard to see the actual blow sometimes, and some of the skills make the screen a little blurry in a way that I find distracting.

Overall, however, it's pretty neat. These customizable mounts look so much more interesting than anything we have in the game so far, and mobile combat feels refreshingly different. I can see warband hunting becoming a low-stress gameplay option for groups and kinships come this fall.

The Road to Mordor Hands on with Riders of Rohan's mounted combat
Odds and ends

During the tour, I found out a few other details that I wanted to share with you. In no particular order:
  • When you take damage on a war-steed, both you and the mount are hurt.
  • Your war-steed has far more morale than your standard mount; mine had 5,000.
  • War-goats are a possibility, although Campbell definitely made it clear that getting the horses right is the team's #1 priority.
  • Due to test feedback, the team's had to space mobs out a lot more in the region because players didn't have enough room to fight without triggering several other mobs.
  • I saw the grass move due to my passage, so I can attest that the DX11 tricks are nifty.
  • Theoden King has proclaimed that no one in the land can fight the orcs, hence why the orcs are running wild everywhere.
  • The team is "very confident" about getting the expansion done for September 5th.
  • Campbell said that he expects the town of Snowbourn (in the south-eastern area of Rohan) to be the new player hub of the expansion.
To keep the players busy and happy at the endgame, the devs are hard at work on something code-named "Joe-ville" (not its real name). This is a burned-out settlement that you'll help to rebuild over time by performing quests and raising faction. As the town is rebuilt, you'll receive riches as thanks.

All too soon, our hour was up and I had to leave. Campbell said that there are plenty of dev diaries coming down the pike with specifics about these systems and that Turbine will be talking a lot more come Gamescom. I want to thank Turbine for this tour and wish the developers the best as they mount up for the fall.

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This article was originally published on Massively.