Monday 21 September 2009

You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment.

Eregion is famous for being Middle Earth’s only Internet connected region and home to the inventor of Email.

Fine, look I’ll be honest, I’m struggling a bit here. You see, I played through some of the quests in Eregion over the weekend in an attempt to catch up to Van Hemlock and Company Ltd’s (Est. 1835) Monday night static group, to which I have been invited. The fools. Primarily I was pointed to Eregion because of the quest chain that allows you to make use of legendary weapons, but I stayed because the zone is just a joy to play in. And that is why I’m struggling, I need to say nice things about something in an MMO and… it hurts.

And this only shortly after I waxed lyrical about the Warden class. What is the world coming to? Tomorrow: a short article on why cats and dogs can be happy living together.

The first thing about Eregion is that there’s a vague similarity between its layout and that of World of Warcraft’s Stranglethorn Vale, although I should state that I’m not trying to read any deep meaning into the design. They both have a main trunk route running north to south through the centre of the map, although I should probably state that it’s more or less the centre, because this is the Internet and I can imagine the pedants are at this very moment whipping out their slide rules and pairs of compasses and plotting the actual central meridian on a detailed graph with lots of working out. Quests branch out to either side of the trunk route and take the player off into the wilds of the land, and if the player progresses through the quests in Eregion as they are presented to them, starting with those in the north at the ruined settlement of Gwingris, and then moving down through the various Echads – Echad Dunann, Echad Eregion, Echad Mirobel and Echad Echad Echad Echad F’tang F’tang Olé Biscuitbarrel – there’s a natural flow to the design, as you progress through the chain of quests at one quest hub the location of the objectives gradually moves down the map until they are starting to overlap with the objectives of the quests at the next hub.

It’s a tidal progression, if you will. The player washes down the zone, each time getting a little bit further before drawing back to the quest hub to hand in quests, sell and repair. Gradually their tidal progression is such that they’ve covered the upper part of the zone, so the tide comes in a little further and moves down the map, emanating from the next quest hub as it washes back and forth further down the land. As such the player runs the whole gamut of the landscape, and because they are travelling back and forth they have a greater chance of finding those little Easter Egg quests that are becoming a more common theme in MMOs. For example, it was on my second or third run through the north eastern area of Eregion that I found a small glowing object that gave me a quest to collect holly leaves. Once handed in I was rewarded with a Cup of Red Tea which gives a nice temporary boost to Vitality. It’s exciting to find these surprise quests, and it was something Warhammer Online did very well: they knew where to leave these little glowing items in out of the way places such that most players would still stumble across them on their general questing, rather than sticking the items close to the main path through the zone with a twenty foot tall flashing neon arrow pointing at them.

As well as Zen-like quest progression, Eregion itself is just a pleasant place to be. After the frozen wastes of Forochel and the devastated barren wasteland of Angmar, it’s a stark contrast when you turn up to a zone that has lush vistas of the sort that would cause Constable to sprain his painting wrist. And sprain it again when he eventually came to paint the place. The zone also reflects in itself the fall of the Elves that inhabited it, the north of the zone is lush forests, the middle wide-open plains that become more savannah-like and then downright barren as the player progresses to the south.

Travel also runs counter to the LotRO norm, with stable masters in all four of the major quest hubs, making travel between the various areas a simple matter of cost rather than painful and tedious negotiation. And yet, curiously, as well as the abundant points of call for the Middle Earth Taxi Service, the main roads between the various quest hubs are also direct and surprisingly un-littered with mobs, making for straightforward painless travel under your own steam. It’s almost as if they wanted the travel not to be a chore! Wander away from the well beaten track and you will find yourself yet again in the Land of Stationary Mobs in the Middle of Nowhere That Just Happen To Be In The Way Of Where You Need To Go. However, because this is a tidal zone the content is spread far and wide as it slowly washes you back-and-forth down the zone in a relaxed manner, and so the mobs are not packed so tightly together that you can’t negotiate a way around them without trauma. Compare this to the more river-like areas such as Forochel which start you off in a small ‘filter pool’ zone before injecting you along the rapids of a narrower path at some speed, where everything suddenly feels more compressed and claustrophobic and calamitous, and as such there seems to be little room to move without attracting the unwanted attentions of angry aggressors.

The quests in Eregion are also refreshing in that they are abundant and, in the main, soloable. There’s plenty of debate to be had as to whether copious solo content is a Good Thing or a Bad Thing, whether it marks an inevitable progression of MMOs into ‘playing alone with others’ or is a reflection of the realities of this thing called Real Life, and the restrictions of duty and opportunity that it presents when trying to commit to a virtual life in a virtual world. When all is said and done, however, it is nice to be able to sit down and adventure through the world of Middle Earth without having to stand around and suffer the trials and tribulations of forming a pick-up fellowship, the likes of which would make the Fellowship of the Ring blush with embarrassment for ever having thought that they had a hard time getting their group going. Not only are there plentiful quests and many soloable ones thereof, but many of the solo quests still present an engaging challenge for a player taking them on (when close to the appropriate level) since many of them require you to fight a signature mob, which although achievable by almost any player, can often be a close run thing requiring the strategic use of powerful abilities with lengthy cool-downs and potions. For those of us who aren’t running a twinked-out uber class, at least.

Last but most certainly not least is the quest line that takes you through the events leading to the reopening of the Hollin Gate, that infamous entrance to the mines of Moria. It’s a nice little instanced area that prepares the player for their forthcoming adventures in Moria, gives generous XP, some splendid quest rewards (including your first legendary weapon) and teaches you how various new aspects of the game work, all the while involving you in the story of the attempted retaking of Moria by the dwarves. Sending your character away with their legendary weapon to gain some experience with it before finally returning you to the instance to face an Ancient Foe[TM] is a nice touch, as is the use of the Session Play mechanic to send you into the past to witness the fall of Moria, something which is only made available to you if you complete all the side quests in the Hollin Gate instance, which are well worth the effort simply for the reward of that experience, let alone the fact that they give excellent XP and rewards in and of themselves.

All in all Eregion is a breath of fresh air; you can tell it was a zone added later in the development of the game. It’s encouraging to see that Turbine have learnt from the, albeit understandable, ‘mistakes’ made in the initial release of the game, and have produced some outstanding content which takes their game’s strengths and builds upon them. It also provides a much needed buffer and refuge between the ever increasing oppression of the first book of content and the continuing dive into the depths of depression as the players enter the unknowable darkness under the Misty Mountains. I hope Turbine take a similar stance when they come to release the recently announced Mirkwood content, and provide a soothing respite from the pain, toil, and privation that comes with the continuous battle against the forces of the Dark Lord of Mordor. It’s nice to have that light in the darkness, that small beacon of hope, a place where players can relax for a while and let the waves of happy content wash over them.

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