Monday 19 April 2010

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.

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