The Road to Mordor: Has LotRO grown too big for its own good?

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Jumping into an MMO that's been out for several years -- let's call it "more than five" -- lends itself to several blessings and curses. While the game has more content, stability, and a playerbase that isn't drunk on launch drama, it can be overwhelming and even lonely to the latecomer who is just trying to figure out the basic ropes while everyone else is milling around at the Level Cap Country Club. Often I see people asking whether it's "too late" to join an MMO, wondering if they're getting into a game that everyone else is getting out of, not to mention considering how long it might take to do meaningful content with those who have been around longer.

Lord of the Rings Online is now most assuredly in that zone. It's been out for seven years, adding along the way numerous updates and systems, a free-to-play conversion, two classes, 50 more levels, a class overhaul, and five expansions. A game that used to occupy a relatively small swath of Middle-earth is now an empire that stretches from the icy bays of the far north to the shoreline of southern Gondor. It's absolutely huge when you step back to consider it, which is what both a new player and a reroller must do.

My question this week is this: Is LotRO getting to be too big and too long for a player to start from scratch these days? Is it suffering from a case of too much of a good thing?

Remember Amdir!

I'm happy to report that I've been playing LotRO regularly once more and enjoying a renaissance with the game (I've been playing off and on since 2007, so my interest waxes and wanes to avoid long-term burnout). While Gondor is a blast and my Captain is slashing her way through the corsair opposition with ease, there's a part of me that keeps gnawing at one of my LotRO bucket list items: the desire to play a Hobbit to level cap. Since my favorite classes are the Captain and Lore-master, you can see why this might be a problem.

But every once in a while I gamely stab at a Hobbit character since I love the race and the look. What usually happens is by the time that I'm failing to protect Amdir once again in the tutorial, I am almost crushed by the weight of knowledge of how far this character would need to go to get to where my Gondor-happy Cappy is. And with every update, that distance gets even further.

The 100 levels are actually the least of my concern, since levels come as part of the journey. What I'm thinking about is the sheer number of quests, the 95 (!) virtue ranks that I'll need to obtain, the grim realization that I'll have to trudge through Moria once again, earn many racial and class traits, dive into the skirmish system once again, complete those horrid epic battles over, level up a war-steed, and level up a thousand or so legendary items. That's not even getting into reputation grinds and the epic storyline. I don't even do volume 1 any more, and the epic still is a monstrous beast.

So the realization is crushing, but sometimes that is offset by remembering that every journey is composed of parts, and you can get through it all by going step by step. And LotRO is primarily a PvE game that follows stories, so it's not as though these quests are chores (although they can be at times) so much as experiences. Plus, there's a certain deep satisfaction gained from molding a character's growth over a long haul.

However, when you're armed with the full knowledge of what a new character entails, what's to be done about it?

The player's longest journey

LotRO is a great game to play with a partner or a small group, although levels need to be kept in a similar range to really get the most out of it. For any new player or returning player who is starting over, probably my biggest piece of advice would be to find someone to journey with or else seek out a leveling kinship. It's the pits when you join a kin as a level 9 while everyone else is rocking three-digit numbers.

There are certain actions a player can take to cut down on excessive time sinks, starting with the aforementioned omission of volume 1. You don't need it any longer, unless you like the story so much, since it'll take you short of forever to finish. Jump in on volume 2 in your late 40's and you'll be happier for it.

Creating a list in advance of what you need to accomplish, deed-wise, in each zone is important to keep virtues rolling in and backtracking at a minimum. VIP has an inherent advantage with rest XP, although if I were a free player, my primary concern would be getting all of the virtue and class trait unlocks, along with a full inventory and the riding skill. An extra waypoint purchased from the store is a great way to expand travel options, although Wardens and Hunters have a leg up in that department.

Probably the best advice that I can give to getting the most out of your adventuring time is to be as purposeful as possible. If you can be working on two or more traits at a time while you quest, do it. I always have one class trait and one virtue on my screen tracker to remind me what I should be doing while I go about. Reserve slayer deeds for the end of your time with a zone because chances are that you'll have made progress in those by doing everything else.

And no matter what your class, have a build on hand that kills as fast and efficiently as possible. Group builds are great for groups, but you'll be spending a lot of time solo, and you don't need to be spending 20 seconds killing a mob when 10 or five will do. With the recent multiple specs, you can afford to devote at least one to a murder spree build.

Finally, this shouldn't be a job, so have fun while you're playing! If questing is getting too routine, mix it up with instances, skirmishes, roleplaying, epic battles, or even a spot of PvMP.

Turbine's longest journey

The studio is no doubt keenly aware of how big the game's become and how that might present an obstacle rather than be appealing to some players. We've seen Turbine experiment with a few different approaches to taking a seemingly insurmountable journey and making it more palatable for players.

XP boosts (both permanent and temporary) are a simple if inelegant solution. As I said before, levels aren't the biggest part of the journey; it's everything else that you need to be doing along the way. Turbine's tossed the Gift of Valar into the store on occasion, which allows players to bypass the first 50 levels entirely and enter Moria from the start. Again, not my preferred solution, but it's out there and I can't ignore it.

I feel that the effort to rework some of the low- and mid-level zones to make the quest flow better and the areas easier to traverse is a worthy project indeed. The new Evendim is so much better than the old, and having gone through the old Moria and the revamped Moria, I can strongly endorse the latter as being much better for one's sanity.

Another great idea that I'd love to see Turbine expand upon is the temporary level boosting of the epic battles and the instance system as a whole. It's so great that you can now scale instances to size and difficulty, not to mention the ease of assembling players to run one. We're already in an era when veteran players can stun newbies with tales of how we used to have to trek to dungeons on foot and deal with the annoyances of getting enough people together to finish certain chapters of the epic story.

Maybe it's time for Turbine to consider progression servers, allowing the community to start anew together in a world that begins small but grows along with the players? I'd totally roll on one of those if that ever happened.

Turbine's greatest asset is the LotRO community itself, and the studio should really be thinking more about how to connect players and facilitate their desires to help each other out. Some sort of official patron or mentor program would be incredible to see and probably self-sustaining too.

If you've been thinking about trying LotRO out, I strongly encourage you to do so. Yes, it's a long journey, but it's an incredible one, full of passionate people who haven't lost the thrill of going through it all over again.

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.