Monthly Archives: April 2010

True heroism consists in being superior to the ills of life, in whatever shape they may challenge us to combat.

I quite like the combat in Age of Conan. Oh, don’t worry, Moaning Melmoth is still alive and kicking MMO game-play mechanics squarely in the hairy gooseberries, but I’m finding that combat in AoC is an interesting mix of the traditional with the experimental. Of the three MMOs that I’m currently playing on a regular basis AoC’s combat feels like a hybrid of the other two, they being Lord of the Rings Online’s traditional slower combat and Dungeons and Dragons Online’s hectic free-form positional fighting. It’s a strange juxtaposition this slow yet hectic combat, but I do think the contrast of the two styles works well in AoC in the main.

I think the hectic feeling comes from two things, which both DDO and AoC share: no auto attack swings, and a dependence on character positioning to maximise outgoing damage while decreasing incoming damage – when considering combat from a melee point of view, at least. The fact that there are no auto attacks gives a sense of urgency to the player’s actions, this is less pronounced in DDO where one can just keep their finger held down on the attack button, but in Age of Conan if the player isn’t pressing buttons then their character isn’t attacking, and so wandering off to read your RSS feed while your character auto-defeats a mob, possibly with something pinning down the numeric key of your biggest attack or self-heal such that it triggers every time it comes off of its cool-down, is not an option. I think this is what I like about AoC’s system: it’s designed to keep the player invested in the fight; you rarely find your mind wandering on to other subjects. I think it’s a testament to this that among the media-promoted adolescent male gamer population that plays these sort of games, I’ve yet to see anyone running around with a topless female character. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I’m sure there are jiggles of topless females (Oh really? Well you define the collective noun for topless females then) running around in certain areas of the game, treeless open expanses of Serengeti-like grassland, where they bask in the sun and hunt around in packs for unsuspecting prey to devour, while men with cameras venture out on safari and try to capture pictures of them. On Earth we call this place Ibiza. But, at the lower levels at least, I haven’t seen a single one, and I think that this is down to the fact that they are so involved with the combat system that they simply don’t have time to sit, chin in cupped hand, while they press the number 2 button every fifteen to twenty seconds, and wonder whether there’d be more to that side-boob if they unequipped their character’s chest piece.

The second system that keeps a player invested in the combat is the combo system, which is, in a way, a bit like an inverted gambit system as used by the Warden class in LotRO, with AoC’s version being somewhat easier to cope with, which may be a good or a bad thing, depending on your point of view and capacity for memorisation. Where a player of a Warden has to remember a string of sub-moves that will produce a resulting gambit move, Age of Conan provides a number of final moves that the player activates by pressing a button on their hotbar, at which point a UI element pops up informing the player of the sequence of sub-moves that must be performed to achieve the desired final move that they activated in the first place. I like this system, and although I think there is fun and satisfaction to be had from remembering all the various moves in LotRO’s system for the Warden, there’s nothing in AoC’s system that prevents a player from memorising the moves required and thus executing them quicker than someone who has to study the display – a big advantage in a game where combat is a lot less static than more traditional MMOs such as WoW and LotRO – but at the same time the memorisationally challenged such as myself (just ask Zoso: it’s a miracle if I remember to finish a sentence half the time) are not prevented from joining in with the complexities of combat straight from the off, albeit at a slight disadvantage to those with a richer capacity for recall.

The final function that helps to keep each combat exciting and fresh is the dependence on positioning to maximise your damage while minimising that of the enemy, a system which is shared to some extent, as I mentioned earlier, with DDO. It makes for quite a comical experience when you first play such a game, though, especially if you’ve been used to the more traditional ‘stand toe-to-toe and hit each other in turns over the head until one of you collapses’ fight, which sounds as though it would be equally at home at a college fraternity initiation rite, and thus may well explain the popularity of traditional MMOs among that section of the student population. There’s a point when the full comedy (or tragedy, depending on your point of view) of the situation for someone new to this style of combat hits home: generally there’s a point where you’ve got the fingers of your left hand on the movement keys to keep you facing in such a way as to maximise the area of effect of your glancing blows; your right hand is frantically mashing left, right and side buttons while holding on to the mouse for dear life as it flies around the mat like a cat that’s just sat on a hill of fire ants; your nose is pressed across the attack buttons on the keyboard that your left hand can’t quite reach while you desperately tongue the key that you’ve bound to health potions; and it’s usually at the point where you shout profane curses to your deity of choice for not giving you eyelids with enough musculature to be able to depress the F keys that are sitting tantalisingly beneath your eyes that you realise you might not have quite got to grips with this new combat system yet.

The great feature of this more fluid and dynamic flow of combat is that it adds another level of tactical decision making to the fight: as well as picking the right ability based on health bars, number and power level of combatants, and such, you also need to consider how to best position yourself to deal maximum damage while at the same time taking as little as possible, which in turn feeds back into the decision making process as to which ability you might want to use. Sure, fundamentally it’s still MMO combat, so Sun Tzu need hardly plan his undead comeback tour, but it definitely keeps the player more focussed on the task at hand, rather than flicking over to YouTube to watch a video of someone else performing the same fight but in their underwear. No, it isn’t the player’s character in their underwear.

AoC differs from DDO slightly in the fact that, where DDO just needs you to keep the left mouse button held down for your character to begin flailing away, AoC uses the 1, 2 and 3 keys to perform a basic ‘white damage’ swing to the left, centre or right of the target respectively, and while I admire the additional idea of trying to get characters to target a specific location on an enemy it does lead to slightly jarring combat animations where you mash one key in between performing a special move until the enemy switches their shield to that area, at which point you spam away at a different location, it ends up making your character look like a slightly over-exuberant dance or exercise instructor “And lunge. And lunge. And lunge. And lunge. And lunge. And parry. And thrust. And hack their arm off at the shoulder. And relax.” The animations don’t flow entirely naturally when you’re executing them so quickly in succession either, such as when you’re just going for white damage spam (note to search engines – not a bukkake reference) to finish off an enemy, and so it can lead to a little bit of a disconnect at that point, but it’s more comedic in nature than anything.

Where AoC differs greatly from DDO and is more akin to LotRO is in the slowness of combat. When I say slowness I’m talking not about the speed with which you perform actions in combat, but the average amount of time combat takes. I think here AoC marches more in step with the traditional toe-to-toe-head-beating frat party MMOs, where you have time during combat to think about things, to make mistakes and correct for them and to generally get a sense of the thing before it is all over. In DDO you can one-shot and be one-shot, or if not then very close to such, on quite a regular basis. So where AoC keeps the player on their toes by having them make lots of decisions quickly throughout the duration of a long combat, DDO makes players think quickly because otherwise they will either be dead, or the mob they are trying to attack will have been killed so hard that they travelled back in space and time and became their own father.

I think AoC’s combat is a step in the right direction, but they perhaps went a little overboard on the ideas front without perhaps considering the limitations of the human beings who will be trying to perform seventy five different actions at once, whilst at the same time coordinating their efforts with five other players who are all trying to do the same. MMOs are well known for their extensive keyboard layouts for all the various functions of the game, and I’m sure it’s partly to blame for why we haven’t seen many successful MMOs on the console yet:

“Everyone, this is Geoff. Geoff’s job is going to be to fit aaaaaallllll the functionality of our MMO’s UI keybinds onto a controller with six buttons and no alphanumeric input whatsoever.”

<Raucous laughter>

<Geoff sneaks off while nobody is looking, never to return>

and I worry that by extending this theme of “if you design it, they will bind it” to fast-paced combat we’re heading towards a place where N52s will become a requirement for entry into some areas of the MMO genre. The funny thing is, similarities aside, LotRO’s version of the combo combat system is actually perfectly suited to a gamepad, as unwize rightly pointed out a while back in response to my previous thoughts on the gambit system.

In the meantime, however, it’s back to my combaterobics.

“And one. And two. And lift. And stretch. And dismember. And teabag. And rest.”

Thought for the day

One of the requirements for the new Scout video game merit pin is to:

7. Play a video game that will help you practice your math, spelling, or another skill that helps you in your schoolwork.

So next time you see a spelling mistake in the general chat channel of your favourite MMO, be sure to correct it. It’s not being pedantic, it’s helping a Scout get an award.

(As for maths, it just needs the statistics questions framed in the right way:
“If Aeonus has a 17.4% chance of dropping Latro’s Shifting Sword, and an average of three people in your group of five roll on it, how many runs of The Black Morass are needed before people twig IT’S NOT A SODDING HUNTER WEAPON?”)

The prophet who wishes to write a new apocalypse will have to invent entirely new beasts.

In a police statement made to reporters this morning, the Chief Constable for the Greater Blogging Area announced that some time in the early hours of yesterday evening Warhammer Online’s pre-release hype escaped from the maximum security obscurity where it was being held and is once again at large in the greater MMOtropolitan area.

The hype is considered moderately dangerous and the police have warned that bloggers and gamers should not attempt to approach it or believe a word of it. Unconfirmed reports indicate that three bloggers have already disappeared into what witnesses described as “a sucking gaping hole in the universe” after reporting the contents of the manifesto to their readers.

“Our main concern is not with the hype itself” said Chief Constable John Sternbrow, “but that it might fall into the hands of individuals who could use it to destroy the hopes and dreams of millions of innocent civilians”. When questioned on whether he thought that Paul Barnett might make an attempt to read the ArenaNet manifesto in a heavily populated civilian centre such as London, and what the casualty rate might be from the resultant fallout, the Chief Constable declined to comment.

Reporting live for Oh MMO Emo News, I’m Melmoth Melmothson.

She’s so hot, BOOM!

Playing Borderlands as Lilith the Siren I’ve got a skill, Phoenix, that causes fire damage to nearby enemies after I get a kill. It’s quite splendid for tearing through groups of opponents, both submachine gun and self blazing away. Borderlands also features barrels that explode with particularly violent force when shot, most inadvisable to stand in the vicinity of.

The two combine in a slightly annoying fashion when you creep around, find an excellent vantage point, pull out a sniper rifle, zoom in on the head of an unsuspecting bandit, and pow! One shot, one kill. One kill, one flaming aura. One flaming aura, and the explosive barrel you were crouching next to but hadn’t really noticed explodes. Rather takes the gloss off the victory dance, really.

Moderation is a virtue only in those who are thought to have an alternative.

I’m currently buried somewhere at the bottom of an alt orgy in Lord of the Rings Online; being sandwiched between a Lore-master’s staff and a Warden’s spear is not the most comfortable experience I have to confess. Then there’s the Captain, my main character, yelling away from her position on top of us all, possibly because that’s what Captains do a lot, possibly because she’s enjoying herself, or possibly because the Lore-master’s pet bear decided to get in on the action and she’s experiencing the discomforts of having a bare behind with a bear behind. It’s hard to tell from where I’m currently buried, and I’m honestly too busy trying to avoid being smothered to care.

The Lore-master is a fun diversion, but it’s very clear even at these low levels that it’s a very cerebral class, one that requires a lot of micromanagement and precision to play well when solo, and that the biggest rewards will come from playing as part of a group, where you can dictate the flow of battle without having to worry quite so much about orcs deciding that you look like a giant elven fajita, and where your cloth armour offers probably fractionally less protection to your meaty innards than a plain flour tortilla. Soloing is mostly frustrating at these lower levels due to the limited number of attacks that you have, there being primarily one fireball-like ranged attack and one ability to thock them gently with your staff just prior to them tearing your face off, like a little old lady trying to train a starved rabid pit bull by bopping it on the nose with a rolled-up newspaper. That’s not to say the Lore-master doesn’t have a lot of abilities, but when solo, damage is king, and damage is not really what the Lore-master is about. Join a group, however, and you become a God walking among NPC insects.

It’s the Warden that has captured my soloing spirit at the moment, what with the Captain requiring a slow and steady grouting, it’s down to the Warden to kindle the fire of adventure outside of our static Monday night group, and so far it’s doing a wonderful job of it. For starters the class is as innuendo laden as one could hope for, with all its spearing and thrusting and piercing and fisting, and the fact that I wield a huge purple spear… suffice it to say that most of my fights thus far have been awarded an 18 certificate by the BBFC. I’ve decided that I love shield-fighting classes, there’s nothing better than a warrior taking a sodding-great sheet of metal and slamming it into some orc’s face while at the same time having it provide a massive amount of defence, which is an added bonus because as they teach in schools nowadays: if you’re going to run around thrusting your purple spear into the bodies of other individuals, always make sure you’re carrying some protection with you. Honestly, the Warden class is just a walking lesson in sex safety, and I think Turbine should be commended on making something so enjoyable whilst at the same time educational. The Warden isn’t bad solo, but doesn’t really come into their own until the mid-to-late forties, as I understand it, but I think I’m enjoying the class more than the Lore-master because I am, at heart, a pervert. Mind you, I think I prefer melee combat to being a clothie caster too, there’s something satisfying about being all up in the face of your enemy with your purple spear, rather than running away like a loon and fighting a rear-guard action, because, as we all know, failing to guard your rear as a clothie caster generally means that it’s going to get some unwanted action.

It’s an interesting alternative area of adventuring, this altitus of mine: I’m adventuring not in the content of the game but in the classes. It’s about creating a character – helped tremendously by cosmetic outfit options and trait/deed customisation – and seeing how they grow and develop, and LotRO’s classes are all well-rounded and interesting to play, even though some are more specialised than others. I was speaking with Van Hemlock at the weekend, he has a Burglar alt that he dabbles with on occasion, and the way he described the class makes me want to play one of those too.

There are just so many wonderful classes in LotRO that they become content in their own right, and having so many interesting choices combined with levelling content that is polished, effortless and confident in its ability to deliver a smooth playing experience, makes one want to travel there and back again, again and again and again.

All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.

If you’re going to have character customisation during the character creation stage of your game, even if it is just of the basic eye colour and hair style hat-tip variety, here’s a simple lesson, a character creation foundation, if you will:

  1. Place them under a neutral, unchanging light source.
  2. Make the character stand still.
  3. Make. The. Character. Stand. Still.

For what reason do character creation screens have those little ‘rotate character’ arrows in the corner of the screen? Why, so that you can play a game of ‘try to see your character’s face’ while the character performs the head-spinning demon possession scenes from The Omen.

I’m trying to view a tattoo on my character’s abdomen and you’re making their body contort in such a way that they appear to be trying to lick their own genitalia from the wrong direction.

Have you seen the average /played time for a player of an MMO? It runs into weeks, if not years, of continuous play. In that time, in this hypothetical week or more of solid continuous game-play, do you not think that I will get the opportunity, nay several hundred opportunities, to witness your animator’s genius in being able to make my character tongue its own rectum? This being the case, it being a fair certainty that I will get to see this more times than I could ever possibly care to during my time in your game, could you not hold back on the ‘paranoid schizophrenic prairie dog on methamphetamines being attacked by bees’ animation for the two minutes that it will take me to get through character creation? Really, is it too much to ask?

Or perhaps your character models are so hideous and malformed that they shun away from the direct gaze of others? Virtual Quasimodos who are doomed never to be loved by the Esmeraldas who look upon them with pity and fear from the other side of the screen?

I’m absolutely sure that I’m in a minority here, but when I see my character flailing about all over the screen, and I have to spend my entire time with the right mouse button held down as I chase my character’s head around the screen like a dog chasing around fruitlessly on the edge of a game of tetherball, I think “These people can’t possibly care about the player experience. Here I am, not even in the game yet, and the most basic of functions is broken. Who in their right mind designs a system such that when a person is trying to create a character and see what the various options look like, the character turns away so that the player can’t see them, forcing the player to either wait some arbitrary period of time for the character to turn back, or making them spin the character around in order to get a look, at which point the character turns and looks back the other sodding way?!”

Actually I don’t think that. I used to. Now I just shout the ‘F’ word very loudly and take my medication.

Today’s post is brought to you by Fallen Earth’s Thunderbird-Puppet-Undergoing-Electroshock-Therapy Character Creator.

And the letter ‘F’.

Why should love stop at the border?

I’ve just wrapped up a first play-through of Borderlands, and enjoyed it so much I’ve jumped straight into a second. It’s a splendidly quick dive-in loot-spewing RPG/shooter of MOAR DAKKA, and thanks to the spiffy new Steam UI that’s in beta at the moment I can see I’ve played it for about 30 hours so far. I’m not sure if I’ll play through the whole thing again, but even if not I feel like I’ve got my fifteen quid’s worth.

It’s heavily reminiscent of Hellgate: London, the loot-spewing RPG/shooter/MMOG of MOAR DAKKA, especially in the rarity-coloured guns with random bonuses that provide much incentive in both for blasting through hordes of foes. Hellgate went rather badly wrong, though, turning out to be a somewhat prophetic title as it opened up a gate to financial hell and dragged Flagship Studios through (not quite as prophetic as Bankruptcygate: San Francisco might have been, but still).

It’s a shame, as I rather enjoyed playing through the story of Hellgate, and it had a great setting in post-demon invasion London with humanity hunkered down in fortified tube stations; Borderlands isn’t bad, and has some strong NPCs, but its world of Pandora feels slightly generically Mad Max-ish with roaming bandits and hostile wildlife. Could just be a bias for London on my part, though. Going by fairly dim Hellgate memories now, I seem to recall its combat being more RPG-influenced than pure shooter, possibly with to-hit rolls going on in the background; Borderlands is more FPS, headshots and all, but modifies damage based on the level difference between you and the target making the two systems feel pretty similar in the end. If Hellgate had been pitched as more of a straightforward single-player oriented game I think it could’ve done respectably, but it had a confused single player offline/free online/subscription model. Seems fairly obvious in hindsight, but if a game works both as a single player offline game and persistent online game either the former is distinctly lacking or the latter is tacked-on, and in the case of Hellgate there never did seem much point to the persistence. Add on a tsunami of hype, and premature and buggy release, and it was too much to recover from.

Borderlands, in contrast to the heavyweight hype of Hellgate, was pegged by one analyst as being “sent out to die” against Dragon Age and Modern Warfare 2, but was well received and had strong sales, along with three DLC packs so far. It doesn’t over-reach itself, it gives you a big pile o’ guns, loads of stuff to shoot with them, and lets you do so with a few friends if you want. Looking at Borderlands and Hellgate rams home that “complexity” or “depth” don’t inherently equal “good”, especially when ambition outstrips available time or resources. Hellgate had six character classes with sprawling skill trees that had to be heavily overhauled at least once, Borderlands has four playable characters with more straightforward skill trees, each character just having one active ability, that seem to be pretty well balanced. You got the feeling that chunks of Hellgate had been rushed in justified by “we’ll patch it to work properly later”, and though the 360 and PS3 do allow patching, you can’t get away so much there which must focus things a bit more when developing for consoles.

Out of the ashes of Flagship came Runic Games and Torchlight, the success of which seems to demonstrate the benefits of keeping focused on core gameplay rather than shooting for the moon (and hitting London, insert Werner von Braun gag here). It’ll be interesting to see if the team can build on that with an MMO version, certainly seems like a more sensible approach than trying to do it right off the bat, and in the meantime there’s always more Borderlands. DAKKADAKKADAKKADAKKA!

The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places.

The static Monday night group spent its time in the Fil Gashan instance of LotRO last night.

It was our second run through, this time with a full fellowship, and we had returned to take revenge on the end boss, one Mr Sir Lord General Talug MBE, who had eluded our best attempts to convince him to lie down and stop moving through the persuasive art of weapons and words. Words of power y’know, because we’re not allowed to call it magic.

A lot of fun was had over-pulling groups of orcs and trying to win through against seemingly impossible odds; I think it was probably a draw on group wipes, sometimes we got them, sometimes they got us, either way it was usually a close fought match, although mobs don’t have repair bills at the end of the night, so perhaps they go through to the next round of the Aggro Cup on technical merit.

There’re very few things that I’ve experienced in the game thus far that illicit childlike glee of the level we experienced when pulling the entire kitchen area of orcs all in one go and seeing if we could AoE them down before they overwhelmed the group. Actually the primary challenge was picking out the hobbit tank from the Katamari Damacy ball of greenskins. In fact, the King of All Cosmos would have crapped himself to see the size of that ball, and we’re talking about a being who is accustomed to seeing katamari which include mountains. And stars.

Then we had a few attempts at defeating the boss. We tried our own strategy. Failed. We tried the strategies on the LotRO wiki. Failed. We tried praying to Gods of various religions. Failed. We feigned utter disinterest in defeating the boss at all in the hope that he would spontaneously combust just to spite us. Failed. We climbed up into the rafters and flung ourselves down on him all at once. Failed. We walked nonchalantly past while whistling and then pounced when we thought he wouldn’t be expecting it. Failed. We set up a complex Heath Robinson device constructed from curious components dug out of boxes marked Acme and Explosive and Danger. Failed. We delivered a petition, signed by half a million people on the Internet, politely requesting that he just up and die already. Failed.

It was at this point, with hands resting on bent knees, panting at a floor that was slowly collecting a pool of sweat dripping from our collective brows, that we decided that enough was enough and left, defeated and a little despondent.

The frustrating part is not knowing whether it is our failing or the game’s: some forums seem to indicate that the instance is broken, others that it has been fixed, others still that it was broken, then fixed, and is now broken again; or fixed, they don’t seem entirely sure about it themselves. There doesn’t seem to be anywhere that you can get solid information as to the status of it. We’ve failed other dungeons of this level – the mere mention of Dark Delvings will make some members of our group arch their backs and hiss wildly before clawing their way up a nearby curtain – and so we can’t be entirely confident that the primary reason for our difficulties is that we’re just a bit crap. We’re fairly certain that’s not the case in this instance because in one fight, which lasted what seemed like half an hour, we tried every combination of ‘cute’ mechanic available to us in order to get the boss’s invulnerability shield to drop in order that we could do some damage, or if we couldn’t do the damage ourselves, to apply a damage debuff to him which was alleged to be achievable through said same mechanics. The fight became quite surreal at one point, where before we’d had trouble even surviving into this troublesome second phase of combat, we had now been in the second phase for so long that some of us were taking time-outs to go and read the wiki, or make a list of possible combinations of doing X, Y and Z to see which ones we’d missed out on, a bit like a tag team in American wrestling, only with no chairs and folding tables being slammed into people. Hoom, maybe we should have tried the chairs. Damn.

And, as fickle Fate often chooses to write the epilogue for such adventures, it was, of course, right at the end of that lengthy fight, when the Minstrel was out of power, the Captain was lying dead on the floor, and the whole party teetered on the brink of a wipe, that we activated the mechanic we’d been attempting for an age of man, and the boss quickly moved into the third phase, a relatively simple tank’n’spank routine. At which point he tanked and spanked our exhausted group.

And we have no real idea how we triggered it.

The moral of the story is possibly this: if you’re going to have instances which involve mechanics that require the group to coordinate and dance a merry jig around a boss, you cannot afford to have a history that tells a tale of broken mechanics and impossible-to-beat dungeons, because then players will not know whether it’s the game that is defeating them or a software bug; often with these sorts of mechanics it’s very difficult to tell one from the other, because many boss encounters in dungeons enforce mechanics that break the standard rules (that players learn in the levelling PvE game) in order to make a boss appear more powerful, to make the encounter more memorable, or to create a new and unique challenge for the players to overcome. It’s a fine line to tread, to make things difficult enough that players are challenged by it, but not so difficult that they feel the encounter must be broken; an issue which is magnified a hundred fold if your dungeons are well known for being broken, as evidenced by the shelves of forum threads one can reference in the library of the Internet.

Chaos is a name for any order that produces confusion in our minds.

My love affair with Lord of the Rings Online continues and I find myself wandering the lands of that game more than any other at the moment, which is to say all of the time, barring Friday night excursions into Dungeons and Dragons Online with the static group there, and the occasional mid-week dip into same with m’colleague. Having got my Captain caught up with the Monday night static group, I’ve reduced my play time so as not to burn out on the class, generally devoting hour long bursts every now and again to perform grouting duties. It’s a bit like tiling, levelling a character in LotRO. When you start tiling you’ve got a blank wall in front of you, acres of space to fill and it looks daunting beyond all hope of completion. You’ve planned how you’re going to tackle the thing though, so you pop the first tile up and step back and look at it, and emboldened by the fact that the wall hasn’t fall down or the tile spontaneously burst into flame, you put another tile up and then another. This feverous activity continues apace and after a few hours of slaving away you step back, hands caked in tiling adhesive and hair white with ceramic dust, and realise that you’ve only managed to put three more tiles up. This is the ‘level twenty’ moment in most traditional MMOs, where you’ve got past the initial enthusiasm for the thing and realise that after a fair amount of effort, you haven’t got very far in the grand scheme of things. You battle on, however, and after a few minor hiccoughs – like realising you’ve left yourself a gap at one side that needs a tile cut to two thirds of fifty one and three quarters, which you try to do in your head and go mad, and you take down and re-cut a bunch of other tiles instead; the tiling equivalent of the character respec – you finally manage to get all the tiles on the wall. You’ve done it, you’ve reached the end. You step back and look at your wall, or character, and realise that all you’ve really done is the easy bit, now you’ve got the tedious grind of filling in the gaps. Grouting is one of those tedious jobs that really gives no satisfaction while you’re doing it, but until it’s done you cannot consider the job to be complete. It’s the same with a character in LotRO: once you’ve got to the level cap there are all the deeds and traits to finish, the legendary item legacies to grind out, the book content to finish, and until you do so the character doesn’t feel complete, and doesn’t perform as well as it should.

So you do what any sane person would do when faced with grouting: you go and do something else less boring instead and hope that the problem will go away on its own. Of course it doesn’t, and every time you go to the toilet the tiles are there staring at you and mocking you for your lack of dedication and the fact that you left the toilet seat up one time. ONE TIME. And you never hear the end of it, do you? It’s the same with your MMO character, well obviously not when you go to the toilet, unless you happen to take your laptop into the bathroom with you so you can carry on playing, in which case you really need to evaluate your addiction to MMOs, and ponder whether that built-in webcam is actually switched off like you think it is. Every time you come back to that character you can see the holes where you haven’t filled it in, and it points them out to you as you play

“Oh well, yes, I suppose I can swing my sword at that orc, of course I can, but not so well as if I had that trait all maxed-out that boosts my melee critical damage. But I’ll try to do what I can, even though I’m weak and my heart is not really in it.

And they swing that sword like a wet fish in a sock, and if it makes contact at all it only serves to heal the enemy’s morale a bit, and your character looks at you with that pathetic shoulder-shrugging look that dogs give when you’ve told them to chase away rabbits and they end up killing your entire vegetable patch whilst giving the rabbits a bit of light exercise and a bigger appetite.

So in the meantime, while I carry on grouting my Captain (which will probably sound like a euphemism to anyone who hasn’t read this post – be warned), I’ve picked up the Warden that I left in the early thirties and also rolled a Lore-master to give the class a try after some encouragement, and also because I like the idea of crowd control in MMOs and feel that it can work well as part of the makeup of a group, but then again, as a general rule, I don’t play a tank.

So, seeing as I don’t play tanks, let me tell you all about my time with the Warden, one of LotRO’s tank classes. I’ve waxed lyrical about the Warden before, about how fabulous the gambit system is in giving a greater level of flexibility, strategy and feeling of involvement than you get with many staple MMO classes. What I’ve found out, however, is that this is also not a system that lends itself to being put down and picked up again at a later date. I think it’s safe to say that most of us have that initial period of shell shock when returning to a high level character after a lengthy period playing another class, or indeed game. We look at all the buttons and wonder how we ever played the character with any level of competence when there are just so many skills to understand and remember to use, not to mention all the ways they interact with one another and with the abilities of other classes. We poke around tentatively for a bit, perhaps wander off quietly to some secluded area with mobs that are of no particular challenge to us, spend some time pressing buttons and observing the result but generally get up and running pretty quickly, with the more nuanced stuff coming back to us as we go. It’s like picking up a hire car that’s a make and model you’ve never driven before: you know how to drive cars, but this one is slightly different, the switches are all there but they’re in the wrong positions and it all feels unnervingly unfamiliar for a short while; you perhaps flip on the lights when you meant to find the indicators, but you’re quickly on your way and things start to feel familiar and natural by the time you’ve juddered your way to the end of the road on the clutch.

Coming back to the Warden after any time away from it is like picking up a hire car and finding out that it’s James Bond’s Aston Martin. There are so many gambits that the Warden has, that do such a seeming infinite variety of things when you’re no longer used to the class, that the whole thing comes close to overwhelming to the point of discouragement. You remember that there’s one that boosts your defences, and one that gives you a self heal, well two actually, because there’s one that does a small HoT and a different one that does a larger HoT and they both stack because they’re from different gambit lines. You look them up in your skill list and try to remember which is which; get yourself into combat; try to activate your defences, and watch in shock as a windscreen wiper starts sweeping back and forth across your shield. You’re unnerved by this, of course, but determine that it’s no use running away from combat because otherwise you’ll never learn, so you launch into the gambit again and a parachute ejects limply from your backpack. Things are getting a little hairy now, and you’re starting to regret jumping into a fight with even-level mobs rather than something a touch easier, but you know that if you can get the heals going you’ll easily win through, so you try the more simple of the two heal gambits you have and… succeed! Flushed with this success you launch into the second, more complex, heal-over-time gambit and promptly eject yourself out of your own armour.

The result of this experience is such that I can only recommend most earnestly that you should never try to re-learn the Warden class when in a fellowship, because when that flame-thrower shoots out of your bum at your team mates standing behind you, they are not going to be happy I can tell you.

I got there in the end, managed to get the gambits straight in my mind, primarily by just picking one or two really simple ones and getting myself through a combat with only those, before progressing on to the more complex ones, pretty much in the way the game introduced them to me in the first place, many moons ago. The class is still as fun as I remember, but it’s just going to be a solo class for me: I really can’t do the tanking thing. The Warden is a special kind of tank, however, one that has numerous self-heals and defence boosters that means that they can perform feats solo that might give other classes trouble; this self-sufficiency makes them ideal as a solo class, as long as you’re not planning on getting anywhere fast, because to compensate for their survivability they are somewhat lacklustre in the damage department compared to many other classes. Most battles are about out-surviving the enemy, and this is something the Warden does very well indeed.

As for the Lore-master, well, I’ve only just started playing them, and therefore can’t really judge the class having only reached the heady heights of level fifteen thus far. That is high enough a level, however, for me to have been granted one of the primary crowd control abilities, a thirty second single target stun which essentially takes the targeted mob out of the combat equation until you so desire it to return to the fray, and I have to say, based on that ability alone, I know I’m going to enjoy the class tremendously.