Friday 13 November 2009

I never let schooling interfere with my education.

The first thing you notice when you enter the School at Tham Mirdain – a three-man instance in Lord of the Rings Online for characters around the level fifty two mark – is that on initial observation the place seems to consist entirely of just one room which you can see all the way across from your vantage point just inside the entrance. The single rectangular room consists of a simple peristyle with groups of mobs in both the courtyard and the surrounding corridor; at the far end of the room a pair of staircases running perpendicular to the entrance provide access to a small landing above the main room.

The second thing you notice is that there are groups of mobs patrolling around the outer corridor. It seemed somewhat curious to me that they should need to patrol around the edge of an area that you can see all the way across with relative ease: perhaps they were all in a rush that morning and forgot to put their contact lenses in before kissing Uruk-hai junior or Mrs Dunlending goodbye and heading off for another day at Ron and Sons. Ltd, or maybe they were the Middle Earth equivalent of those people at work who seem to spend their entire day simply walking around with a clipboard or important looking ring binder. I decided it was probably the latter, and that this being Lord of the Rings, ring binders were probably the in-thing with up and coming professionals in the employ of Ron; Old Sour Ron, that’s what they call the boss, and of course he’s big on ring-binders is ol’ Ron, loves binding himself a ring, yes he does.

Interspersed with all the ring-binder-carrying manager-types are several groups of mobs who, in the traditional manner of MMOs, stand around not doing much. These are the sort of people who hang around the water cooler at work and talk noisily about what was on TV last night, discussing who’s going to win the latest edition of I’m A Hobbit in A Great Barrow, Get Me Out of Here, or whether Silmarillion will get the Christmas number one with their elven rock ballad The Lay of Leithian. I suppose this explains all the manager types patrolling around the room: obviously they’re trying to chivvy these work-shy slackers along, evidently without much success.

The groups around the edge of the room are fairly easy to deal with if you’re around the correct level since they consist of a mixture of signature and standard mobs. The Uruk Leaders have a heal, so if you have anyone in the group who can interrupt have them watch out for that, and the Uruk Archers can be a bit of a pain because it’s difficult to convince them that they really should be fighting over here, out of the way of the other patrols; watch out for line-of-sight pulling them to a safe spot too, because they seem to have a tendency to run through the courtyard and pull other mobs along with them.

The courtyard itself consists of groups of mobs all milling around, some seated, some standing. This seems to be the canteen of the place, and the groups of mobs here are the same as you find in the surrounding corridor, but they’re slightly easier because they’re all full of ratatouille and suet pudding covered in that think snot-like custard that only work and school canteens seem to be able to create. At the head table of the canteen, or the base of the staircase mentioned earlier if you like, is the first boss of the instance. He’s a typical middle manager with lots of hangers-on, and is typically defensive of his turf when a group of people from a different department turn up; expect him to get aggressive the moment you get close enough for him to notice that you don’t have a TPS report or an appropriately colour-coded ring binder.

There’s a basic but fun trick mechanic to the first boss, I’m not going to spoil it here though, there are plenty of websites available already that are set up specifically to take all the adventure out of gaming and make it nothing more than an exercise in step-by-step line dancing. Those who know the encounter, however, will understand when I say that with two melee and one ranged character, there was quite a bit of Benny Hill-ing around the canteen and the outside corridor as we tried to deal with the situation.

The second boss waits for you on the landing at the top of the stairs. He has two underlings with him, and although you may think he is a manager, when you defeat him the door behind opens to reveal the ultimate in pointy-haired boss types, at which point you realise that the boss you just defeated was in fact merely a secretary whose overinflated sense of rank was probably derived from the fact that they kept the key to the photocopier and stationary cupboard.

The third boss has his own office; clearly he’s an important fellow. This becomes ever the more apparent when you see that his office is packed to the rafters with underlings all sat around on benches facing him and hanging off of his every word. Again the boss has a few surprises up his sleeve, and I’m not going to spoil them here (as much as one can spoil content that was out slightly earlier than the start of the industrial revolution), but it was an interesting enough fight, and a close shave. So close, in fact, that I died and had to run back quickly to help finish things off before the other two succumbed to the tedious power-briefing that the boss was delivering. So take that closeness and stuff it in your triple-bladed individually sprung metro-sexual face peelers, Gillette!

Overall I like the design of the instance. It probably lacks a little in the repeatability department (which is next to the publishing department on the third floor), but makes up for it in ease of access and its change of pace from the norm. The dynamic of a party of three characters is interesting, and although a tank/healer/DPS combination such as we had is probably still optimal, the boss mechanics make it so that it isn’t easy, and at the same time make other combinations of classes entirely viable with a little careful planning and tactical play. In addition, each player really has to be alert and adaptable to any given situation, there’s less room for mistakes than there is with a six person group, and the judicious use of abilities with long cool-downs along with those abilities that get tucked away on the ‘not going to use that very often’ button bar is vital to the success of the group. There are plenty of nice drops to be had from each of the three bosses, with the customary piece of armour that nobody can use being supplemented with a whole raft of runes to boost the experience of legendary weapons – always useful for any member of a group, and in my opinion a splendid way to implement dungeon rewards. Instead of items of gear that, by The Law of Loot Luck will either be useful for several party members and thus someone will miss out, or useful for nobody and therefore everybody is somewhat deflated, it makes sense to have rewards that upgrade those items. Where World of Warcraft has tokens that allow you to buy specific armour items, and LotRO has runes to boost the XP of a legendary weapon, there could be a middle path where you have an item that drops which will boost any one stat on any one piece of armour or weapon by a set amount. If you have enough of these items drop such that every member of the party can get at least one, then you’ve got a greater sense of reward for your players when they come away from your dungeon. Not only that, but if you make any base piece of equipment, from level one onwards, able to be boosted by these dungeons rewards all the way up to the level cap, players can choose their armour and weapons based on appearance and customise the stats to their liking as they level up, thus creating investments of both emotion and experience in said items.

At the conclusion of the adventure I came away feeling satisfied with our run through the instance: it didn’t take long, had some interesting fights, and some pretty reasonable rewards even for us, laden with the mudflating rewards of Moria as we are. I’m enthused about this content that Turbine have produced, and I’m looking forward to trying The Library – the other three man instance in the area – at some point in the near future, although if there isn’t an instance-wide spell of silence in effect, I’ll be most disappointed.

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