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The Road to Mordor: A look back at Volume 1


This past week I finally finished Volume 1 of the epic storyline for the very first time in my LotRO career. Yeah, I know, welcome to 2008, right? My inner survey department says that 60% of this column's readers finished Volume 1 a long time ago (and perhaps many times since), and are currently sitting there with a bemused expression as if to say, "Oh, isn't that quaint as a duck's burp?" The other 40% probably gave up on the epic storyline somewhere around North Downs -- AKA The Zone That Saps Your Will To Live.

While it may be old news, Volume 1 is still quite relevant in the LotRO landscape for many reasons. One, it's what I've spent the past month of my life playing through, and I always assume that everyone is experiencing the same thing I am due to being a raging egomaniac. Two, ever since it recently received a makeover that allows any and everyone to solo all the way through it, there's been a newfound appreciation for the quest line, even from veterans who gave up on it long ago. And three, with all of the new people coming into the game this year, it'll be the very first thing they experience.

So as I sit on my high (grey) horse and look back over all fifteen books that comprise this massive Volume, I'm struck by a number of thoughts: some good, some bad, some itchy. Let's reminisce, shall we?

Looking back at the story

One of the things I've always loved about LotRO is that its tutorial starts you off in the epic storyline right away, giving you a vital thread to stay connected with the larger scope of things from then on out. Depending on your race, Volume 1's prologue varies somewhat, but all paths lead to Bree, the Prancing Pony, and a studly dude named Aragorn.

It's readily apparent that the epic storyline is (ideally) a cut above the rest of the game's quests, relying heavily on instancing and scripting to spin its tale. It also helps to bring you into contact with the main story of Lord of the Rings and its signature characters. Within the first three books, you're hanging out with Aragorn, Gandalf, and Tom Bombadil while you encounter Nazgûl, search the Barrow-downs, and make a desperate stand on Weathertop. Good stuff, even if it skews a bit toward blatant fanservice (not that all fanservice is bad, mind you).

In my view, Volume 1 is comprised of two distinct parts: The prologue through Book V, and then Books VI through XV. Each of the books of the first part are more or less independent, telling a story in a particular zone while you level through it. But then an intricately connected tale begins in the sixth book that kicks the storyline in to high gear, careening the player from quest to quest, location to location, revelation to revelation before it finally comes to a head in a struggle for the fate of Eriador.

And I'll be honest here: a good chunk of this latter section escaped me, because it all started to run together after a while. I'm sorry, but there's simply a metric ton of names, places, and FedEx tasks that are dumped on you, and I can't be blamed for boiling it down to a simplistic "I'm chasing the guy with the thing," "I'm proving myself to the guy who can get me to the thing," or "That dude is clearly so evil but the good guys aren't killing him for some reason."

Fortunately for me, the story snapped back into clarity around Book XII and kept me hooked until I finished it out. The core of the story is something to which I can relate: The love between a father and daughter. Mix in a healthy dose of corruption, an undead dragon, one of the rings of power (not THE ring, mind you, but one of the other ones), and the most hated figure in the game -- Sara Oakheart -- and you have yourself an interactive popcorn flick for a lazy Saturday afternoon.

Looking back at the annoyances

Even this, one of the crown jewels of LotRO, is not immune to several annoyances that marred an otherwise terrific gameplay experience. One of the biggest of these was that too much of the story takes place at higher levels (40+). It just isn't spread out that well among the level 1-40 experience. I can only do the Red Maid storyline so many times before throttling Radagast with his pet snake, after all.

Of course, the most-cited annoyance is the sheer amount of travel that Turbine threw in for padding. Yes, padding. I know they wanted to make these quests seem epic and not a breezy 50-minute episode of Who's The Balrog? but the travel gets excessively absurd after a point. Even with swift travel routes and strategic map locations, you'll find yourself criss-crossing Middle-earth so many times that it'll start to feel like you're commuting to work, not going on a grand journey. The final three books of Volume 1 are the worst offenders, as the quest designers often make you cross the entire length of a zone just for a two-sentence response from a character before heading back.

I also got a tad tired at the storytelling mechanism where control of your character was yanked away so that a bad guy could swoop in right at the moment of your victory and take whatever you were fighting for away. I can't count the number of times I finished a quest, but felt like I "lost" anyway. That felt like a cheat, and I'm not a fan of that mechanism in any game I play.

Finally, although I appreciate the changes that make this storyline soloable (more on that later), a few stages of these quests are incredibly difficult and tedious on your own. I found myself despairing at a couple points that I simply couldn't finish it, but was too stubborn to give up. In the end, I'm glad I didn't, but I can't imagine if a squishy class (I play a captain) was to attempt some of these quests.

Looking back at the enjoyment

Overall, however, I loved these quests and look forward to heading into more of Volume 2. It's actually pretty cool to see Turbine's storytelling techniques improve as you progress through the books, and the use of session play (where you step into the shoes of a character in a flashback) is brilliantly engrossing once you get to it. There were a handful of moments where the story actually got to me in a way, such as when the dad sees his daughter take off, or when certain traitorous figures are revealed.

My time and effort were well-rewarded, too. I achieved several levels just by doing the epic storyline alone -- the XP is fantastic -- and my character constantly received high quality upgrades from quest rewards. Heck, it beat grinding out virtues at these levels, that's for sure.

Other than a couple sticky spots, Turbine did a great job empowering the solo adventurer to experience and complete these quests. Sometimes I got a nice inspiration buff that made me feel powerful (but not invincible), but that wasn't used as much as I'd feared. While I have nothing against grouping, I'm glad that I didn't have to comb the LFF channels to find people just to progress the story in which I was engrossed.

Ultimately what I appreciated was that it weaned me off the notion that the Fellowship's journey was the only story going on in Middle-earth at the time. After a certain point, this epic storyline becomes all about you and your great deeds as you single-handedly save the region from power-mad servants of Sauron. It wasn't a photocopy of Frodo's quest, nor was it a frivolous mission, but in truth, it was your own legend in the making.

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