Thursday 3 September 2009

Playin’ for keeps is still playin’, mon ami, so take a card…

And now we return you to the regularly scheduled program: The Continuing Adventures of Melmoth in MMOland.

My foray into the lands of Middle Earth hit a temporary setback recently when I decided to have a little tinker with the Warden class for a brief change of pace and to see what it was all about. Twenty-odd levels later and I really can’t see myself going back to my Champion any time soon. My frustrations at race/class restrictions in MMOs continued when I wasn’t able to play a dwarf Warden, and although I know that the Lore Lords of LotRO are, even as I type, activating their rings of power and mounting their steeds in order to ride me down, I can’t help but feel that this is quite a pointless restriction, even for a game such as LotRO that attempts to stick to the letter of the Lore where it can. Lore with a capital ‘l’, to show that the only correct way to enunciate it is to holler it in a Brian Blessed fashion whilst slamming one’s fist down on a nearby desk. As I bemoaned on Twitter, it’s all well and good standing by your convictions with regard to the Lore, as long as you don’t then ignore the Lore at the drop of a hat when it suits your game development needs. Which, let’s face it, is what just about every MMO developer does in the end anyway.

Lore is a tenuous beast at best. Take Captains for example, they can only come from the race of men (and women; thanks Stan), an entirely acceptable and understandable premise, because “that’s how it was in the books!”, as the Lore Lords would cry. Captains can also, however, magically heal their allies by shouting things. “Ah!” cry the Lore Lords, “they are not healing, they are boosting the morale of their fellowship through vocal encouragement. Also in the books!”, a sentence which is probably punctuated with some more high speed fist-desk interaction. To which my response is: if you honestly feel that someone yelling encouraging words at me when I am being stabbed in the face by the swords of five orcs is really, honestly going to boost my morale in any measurable way, I have a graph plotting the axes of Morale and Near-Fatal Stab Wounds that might enlighten you. I’m pretty sure that, in the Lore, Sauron was not trying to depress the lands of Middle Earth into submission. Yeah, pretty sure that Stabby Death was involved in a huge number of cases.

So of course, being that I was required to stick to the Lore, I had to pick an appropriate race for a spear-wielding tank class, so I chose that well known stalwart tackler of multitudinous bloodthirsty enemies: the Hobbit.


The Warden class is a thing of wonder, though. A light tank class, primarily to be found wielding a shield and one-handed weapon (traditionally the spear) and with the ability to launch javelins at their foes from range, the Warden is perhaps most easily described as an off-tank ranger. The class comes with a wide scope of abilities, from temporary stealth, to ambush attacks that stun foes and then allow you to follow up with a powerful strike against them, to run speed boosting travel abilities. The primary system of attacks though is based on what are called gambits, and it really is a system that is a joy to use.

The Warden has three primary attack options: Attack, Block and Taunt. They are more correctly known as Spear, Shield and Fist respectively, but I find that using those terms can lead to gambit conversations such as “You’ve got to fist him twice before you can get in behind and spear him” and it all gets very messy, especially when you find that Jones has taken you literally and you now need to prise him off of that orc because after its initial surprise it really seems to be rather enjoying things.

Each of the primary combat abilities that you gain is associated with one of the three attack options, logically weapon attacks are associated with ‘Spear’, shield attacks are associated with ‘Shield’ and taunt abilities are associated with the curiously chosen clenched ‘Fist’ (fight the power!). There is also a secondary set of skills – they even have their own tab in your character window – which you learn as you progress in level, and these are known as gambits. A typical gambit will perform a slightly more powerful manoeuvre, perhaps with an additional minor bonus, such as a buff or heal over time. Each gambit also has a number of icons associated with it, each of which being one of Spear, Shield or Fist; it is the way in which you trigger these abilities which is the fun part. As part of your basic skill set you have an ability that, on its own, performs a mediocre attack. This unassuming skill, however, is actually the Transformer of Warden skills: it is other skills in disguise. When you use your normal attacks, you also, in addition to the attack itself, queue up the associated gambit icon in a little UI element unique to the Warden. When you have queued up a set of gambit icons such that they match the pattern of an associated gambit – order is entirely important here – your Transformer attack changes its icon to match that of the gambit, and you may then use it to activate that gambit’s ability.

Part of the beauty of the system comes from the fact that you very quickly end-up with a vast number of abilities, and yet you only need one quickbar slot for the activating ability and, as it currently stands for me in the low level twenties, one slot for each of the attack, shield and taunt abilities, and yet I easily have twelve or more gambits available to me. Now this system does rely on the player being able to memorise the combinations of attacks that trigger each gambit, if I want to increase my shield block values because I’m taking a heavy beating, for example, then it’s an entirely different combo from the one that enables me to do an AoE taunt and damage over time. Again though, the system works around this issue well, because there’s a beautiful general synergy between the basic attacks and what gambits they trigger. For example, you know that performing two shield attacks in a row is going to open up a gambit which will perform some sort of greater ability which is shield-based, in that particular instance the gambit will apply a temporary buff which boosts your block values. It’s a system that is intuitive, simple to understand and yet difficult to master when under the pressure of intense combat. It’s superb.

As you gain levels with the Warden the initial two gambit slots eventually becomes three, and you move from the simple one-two gambits, onto gambits that require three icons in the correct order before you can activate them using the Transformer skill. You quickly find, however, that many of the two-icon combos then lead on to a more powerful three-icon combo, but again they perform attacks and abilities that follow the same theme as the two-icon combo, such that you know that if you perform the two-icon combo. that starts a heal over time ability, you can add another suitable icon to turn it into a more powerful heal, perhaps with an added secondary effect such as a minor damage over time. It really is an elegant system, a powerful system and a clever system. Is my admiration for this system coming through loud and clear? I hope so.

It’s also worth mentioning that, in the heat of a hectic combat, hitting all these skills in exactly the right order can be difficult, or you may find yourself half-way into a damage gambit when you decide that really you need to be throwing up another self heal gambit instead. Turbine has you covered in that situation too, because one of your non-attack abilities allows you to clear the gambit bar of all icons and begin the gambit chain afresh. It still takes time to build a gambit, because you have to execute each attack in the chain to queue up the appropriate icons, so there is plenty of tactical choice required in just when to start healing, when to start buffing, and when to build-up a nice heavy hitting damage attack, but when it all starts to go a bit pear-shaped, you have the option to reset and change tack without any frustration.

You’ll notice I used ‘combo’ several times above, and it was deliberate, because the way the combat feels is very much akin to the system in arcade fighting games such as Tekken, only slowed down to the more traditional MMO combat pace that exists in LotRO; and also without the need to go searching around the Internet for a million arcane FAQs, each professing to know exactly how to perform a Spinebreaker combo, and each one getting the button order slightly wrong.

The other benefit to the way this system was designed is that, unless I’m mistaken, Turbine kept the standard attack animations down to a minimum in order to allow the building of gambits to be quick and responsive. The last thing you want is to have to wait a long time between each attack when building up to a badly needed heal gambit, the delay is inherent in the gambit system itself (in the fact that you have to activate each of the individual attacks first) so there’s little need to restrain the activation of skills with a particularly stringent swing timer. Or so it seems to me at least, and it is some of the most engaging combat that I have had in a fantasy MMO in a long while.

So if you play LotRO, you haven’t given the Warden a shot, and you think a slightly more thoughtful melee combat experience would suit you, I would thoroughly recommend it.

Just remember that you can’t play a dwarf, even if you want to. It’s the LORE.

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