The Road to Mordor: The mounted combat verdict

The Road to Mordor The mounted combat verdict
It's been months since Riders of Rohan greatly expanded Lord of the Rings Online in several ways, and I have yet to touch on its most central feature. I've been putting off having "the talk" about mounted combat due to wanting to spend enough time with it. Every week I thought about putting down my opinion, and then I'd be like, "No, I should give it some more time. More time."

Mounted combat is a tricky system to judge, I'm finding. It's so incredibly central to the newest expansion, and it's clear that Turbine has big plans to expand upon this system for the future. It certainly was a gutsy risk to introduce a new mode of fighting into the game at this juncture (because we all know how much people like change), and I've seen people all over the spectrum on it. Some love it, some loathe it, some resent it, and some gamely accept it.

I think I've clocked enough time on horseback at this point to deliver my own verdict on mounted combat. Well, a partial verdict at least. It's never a good thing to settle on a final opinion on something that's constantly growing and changing, right?

The Road to Mordor The mounted combat verdict
Saddle up, pard'ner!

With the addition of war-steeds, LotRO now has a second important milestone where the growth of your character's potential takes a big leap forward (the first being, of course, legendary items). LotRO's always been a very mount-friendly game, despite featuring only horses, ponies, and goats as viable transportation for us good folk. It really made sense, both thematically with the expansion and relationally with the playerbase, to cater to an improved mount system.

I was pretty psyched to get my war-steed. I've often lamented how many of the mounts in the game skew more toward wearing doilies on their back than serious armor, so I was in the right frame of mind to welcome a tough equine who takes no prisoners. The new horses are definitely in a category of their own: much more bulky, more "solid," more animated, and more detailed.

Happily, Turbine made it a priority to put in place a cosmetic system for war-steeds. Considering how far people would go to obtain previous mounts just to match their outfits, I know this was probably a euphoria shot to the spine for some. It's a pretty straightforward, wardrobe-like interface that allows you to tinker with a lot of different dress points on the horse as well as select a matching dye.

The game really wants you to buy a lot of these cosmetics from the store, I've found. So far I've earned only a handful of cosmetic options from quests along with the legendary edition cosmetics. I was severely disappointed that Turbine gave players war-steed cosmetic variants only of store-purchased mounts (as far as I know), as I was really hoping that all of the cool mounts I'd worked hard to obtain in-game would also be useful for cosmetic options. Guess not.

The Road to Mordor The mounted combat verdict
The ins and outs of customizing

Looks aside, there's a lot of meat to customizing your war-steed. The best part, for me, is the mount trait tree. It's simply everything that many of the game's interfaces are not: clear, concise, and quite easy to use. It's not that difficult to figure out how to customize your horse to adapt to your preferred style of gameplay, and the game is pretty generous in giving you points regularly to do so. I took a look at the mount tree and immediately glared at the legendary item interface for all of its sins. Why couldn't you be more like your brother, huh?

Since we're speaking of legendary items, here's where I soured a bit on war-steeds. Let me ask this: Does anyone care that Turbine added a legendary bridle? (Also -- a bridle can be legendary? Can my office chair be legendary too?) Does it really add that much, other than yet another useless doodad that we've got to level up and then never care about again? It's more superfluous than my appendix.

It's also a little confusing (and not terribly well-explained) that you can switch between types of war-steeds. As long as you have all your points refunded, you can use a drop menu to go between the light, medium, and heavy mount, which then affects the layout of your trait trees. Adding to the confusion, bridles come in light, medium, and heavy versions, but they don't necessarily have to be paired with the same mount type (although it helps with synergy if they are). Then you have mounted combat stances (red, yellow, blue), which are affected by and affect the trait trees, which are again affected by the type of mount. It's just a smidge too over-thought, in my opinion, but that's something that plagues the game as a whole.

I'm not saying all of this is too complicated to figure out -- again, I really do like the trait trees -- but that I'm often looking at this from the perspective of first-timers who might be driven away by three or four overlapping layers of complexity. Mounted combat is a solid car design where the project manager let the engineer tinker with it a little too long and then didn't take off the unnecessary bits. The bridle and even the horse types could be lost (with all of the customization going to the trait trees) and it would probably be just fine.

The Road to Mordor The mounted combat verdict
Plains warfare

One of the reasons I've taken so long to talk about mounted combat is that it took me a while to warm up to it. You've just got to be prepared for the shift in gears at such a high level because it's quite jarring after spending 75 levels fighting one way and then suddenly being asked to fight and move another. At first, I really didn't like it. I hated how clumsy the horse moved, especially in comparison to my normal mount, and I couldn't get the hang of attacking. Then, for a while, I avoided it, especially in the Norcrofts, and instead I just took down everything on foot.

But eventually I got over my initial dislike to give it a longer and more honest try. Somewhere along the way, it clicked a bit, and I could suddenly see why this was an attractive option to traditional combat.

Mounted combat is less about a thousand different skills and more about movement, positioning, and burst attacks. Heck, my attack bar has five skills that get used: two melee and three ranged. That's a streamlined simplicity I can get behind, and they're really the only attack skills I need.

The way I figure it, there are just two ways that you can go about mounted combat. There's the needlessly hands-on way of steering your always-moving mount and lining up your own attacks, and there's the "auto-pilot" Spur On skill that takes the navigation away from you and allows you to just focus on picking out attacks. I definitely like the second, even though Spur On comes with a pretty heavy power drain (for... what reason, really?).

Once I get into the groove, mounted combat becomes a very relaxing and still engaging activity. Because there's so much movement to it, chances are you come across another enemy mob by the time you've killed the first, so fights just flow into each other. There's a small rotation to the attacks (I like to get off a couple long-range attacks and then hit my melee button at the last second so that the mob is hit three times on a single pass), but nothing too complicated. And having that remote looting means that there's no reason to stop.

In fact, I've gotten a little addicted to hunting down warbands. They keep popping up on the map, and since everyone heads toward them, you're bound to be fighting along fellow players. The rewards from those are decent: XP all around and little gift boxes that hold marks, medallions, and other items (like housing decorations). I really like the idea of earning quick skirmish marks outside of skirmishes, yes I do.

All is not perfect with mounted combat, however. Sometimes the game outright penalizes me for fighting on foot with lower XP earned, and that rankles me. Let me have the choice, OK? But perhaps the biggest problem I have is with the movement itself.

Don't get me wrong; being on the move can be really exciting to watch, especially when you and the enemy are traveling parallel and trading blows. But because you're always, always turning, so is the camera. And I have become kind of car sick from all of that, to be honest. Maybe I've just hit the age when spinning around has gone from "whee, this is fun!" to "whee, that's the sound of me puking!" In any case, I find that I have to pull the camera way back to enjoy fighting like this at all, and even then I'm often a bit frustrated at how the camera keeps losing the mob I'm attacking because I've overshot it. I'd love an option that would allow the camera to always track what you're fighting, not just where you're going (if there is such an option that I've overlooked, feel free to point that out!).

Miles to go before I sleep

While I still prefer my traditional mount for city navigating and standard questing, I've come around to accepting mounted combat as not a fad but an integral part of the game that fits as well as can be expected. The world seems both bigger and smaller when I'm on my war-steed's back, and I have hope that the future for this system will continue to enrich the game that I love and care for.

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.