The Road to Mordor: LotRO's big battles are a big bust

LotRO
Recently my journey through Helm's Deep came to a close as I finished all of the quests plus advanced the epic story as far as it could go. Overall, I loved the expansion: It had great pacing, beautiful scenery, memorable quests, and an obvious dedication to doing The Two Towers right. But there was one glaring fault that Lord of the Rings Online seemed to save for the last, which I discovered during my foray into the big battle system.

Other than visiting them in a couple of press tours, I had been avoiding big battles (even though you can jump in one starting at level 10) because I wanted to experience them organically as part of the storyline. I wasn't necessarily anticipating them, but I wasn't dreading them either. "Mild curiosity" is perhaps the emotion that I identified within my breast, and as it turned out, that was wildly overpreparing for the experience that followed.

Big battles are, I'm sorry to say, a big bust in LotRO. Sure, they have their positives and moments, but for a system that Turbine spent over a year to create and shoved aside instances and raids in favor of putting into the expansion, it should have been so much more. So what went wrong?

Problem #1: Big battles are slow and reactionary

My biggest beef with big battles after my having gone through all of them is just how long, boring, and uninteresting they are. Sure, this is subjective, but after polling some friends on the subject, I found that I wasn't alone in thinking so.

Each battle felt as if it took forever. That may be realistic in a sense, but when you're rooted to one location waiting for enemy waves to advance at their own pace instead of yours, minutes can seem like hours. In fact, the defensive nature of big battles reminded me of why I vastly prefer offensive skirmishes. Sure, one can be a little proactive in a big battle by setting up traps, constructing a ballista, or ordering around troops, but in the end it all came down to waiting and enduring, waiting and enduring. That's hardly the hallmark of gripping excitement.

I got so bored at times that I started running around the map, quickly discovering that there are "insta-death" walls that will kill you if you, say, try to run out to meet the enemy. Immersion!

Problem #2: Big battles are stingy with rewards

Does jewelry excite you? It doesn't excite me either. But for whatever reason, Turbine thought that limiting the gear rewards from big battles to earrings and bracelets would be a powerful incentive to go through multiple battles. This boggles my mind, especially when you consider that big battles took the place of an instance hub. Why aren't full sets of gear dropping or able to be earned from these fights?

I'm also not a fan of how the reward system works. You're trying your best to keep the meter as high as possible, but it mostly seems as though all you can do is disappoint it and let it down. Unlike skirmishes, big battles seem to deliver neither XP nor drops from kills, so I stopped caring about fighting. In fact, the only time I got even a little excited was at the end of side missions when the game would pay out some marks for me to upgrade my skirmish soldier.

Problem #3: Big battles make you feel small and ineffective

I'm not the type of player who needs to be constantly patted on the back and told what an awesome hero I am. But I also don't want to be engaging in a battle in which my presence feels completely superfluous. Whether I fought or not during the main actions didn't seem to change anything. I drop rocks over a wall and the game tells me I've killed some guys, but other than pushing up the meter, what did that do for the effort? Will we be attacked by fewer mobs in the long run? It didn't seem like it. If I pushed over a ladder, two more popped back up. It was as if a game system was intentionally designed to breed apathy and impotence in my soul.

Problem #4: Big battles are preordained

Being tied to the lore of the books hamstrung Turbine when it came to big battles. The studio couldn't create win/loss conditions because the Battle of Helm's Deep was specifically ordained by Tolkien in the books. Turbine's solution was to keep the battle on rails but to allow for minor variations in the form of side missions and overall accomplishment.

I feel for Turbine's situation, but what's presented here isn't enough to justify the creation of a separate battle system. Again, if I can't change an outcome, then why am I fighting? Oh yeah. Jewelry.

Problem #5: Big battles aren't a significant iteration on skirmishes

Everyone, including the devs, has defined big battles as "skirmishes on steroids" or somesuch comparison. It's not entirely fair, but it's not unfair either; there are similarities and differences, but ultimately both seek to put a player through a narrative-driven fight on a larger scale than what's normally encountered in PvE.

When I played them, I was constantly looking for reasons -- or a reason -- to need big battles on top of skirmishes to tell the story of Helm's Deep. Other than to create new systems for newness' sake and to give a larger sense of scale, I couldn't think of anything too revolutionary on display here. It just feels so very unnecessary for the resources and time that were spent creating it, especially for players like me who will go through them once for the epic story and then ignore them afterward due to a lackluster experience.

A total bust? I think not.

To be fair, I haven't engaged in epic battles with other players, and this is what many folks tell me is where the fun starts to emerge. It's something on my to do list, especially if a large group of my kin expresses interest in running one. I didn't dive that deep into the three roles and all of the clickies that go with them, but I can appreciate that Turbine wanted to give players something else to do besides just attack and attack.

Big battles may be boring to play, but they don't skimp on the visuals. The illusion of thousands upon thousands of Orcs and Dunlanders marching on Helm's Deep is really impressive, as is seeing formations break off to attack. I was screenshotting each locale like crazy and marveling at all of the work that was done to make it look so impressive. Glittering Cave is hands-down one of the most beautiful indoor locations in the game.

I also have to applaud Turbine for making big battles extremely accessible. Levels 10-95 can jump into one almost instantly, and these battles allow for friends of disparate levels to group together to do something beneficial to both.

And you know what? Big battles get the job done. It's a technical feat that shouldn't be possible with this aging engine, but there it is. It tells the story of Helm's Deep in a faithful way, going step-by-step through one of the most important battles in the trilogy. I may not have felt that I made any difference, but when I emerged onto the field afterward, I did feel as if I actually survived something important.

So what do you all think? Do you think big battles succeeded or failed at delivering compelling replayable content?

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.