Thursday 23 June 2011

Evendim Flow

Back in KiaSAcast 12 I talked about how Lord of the Rings Online was slowing down in the early level 30s as I moved from the Lone-lands into the Trollshaws. LotRO has a series of epic quests that broadly follow the book, weaving the story of your character around that of the Fellowship as it leads you through the game. The starter area/tutorial forms the Prologue, in Book I you meet up with a chap called Strider in the Prancing Pony in Bree and help him out before he sets off for Rivendell with a bunch of hobbits, then in Book II Gandalf sends you down to the Lone-lands to find Radagast the Brown, who got the short straw when the Istari were getting assigned their colours (“Doesn’t matter what colour we are? Easy for you to say, Gandalf the Grey, you got a cool-sounding name. All right, look, if it’s no big deal to be The Brown, you wanna trade huh?”)

There’s plenty to do in the Lone-lands, starting around the Forsaken Inn in the west, progressing past Weathertop to the Eglain camp in the ruins of Ost Guruth, then finally to undead-infested swamps and passes and the dungeon of Garth Agarwen with no shortage of quests along the way. The Chapter quests of Book II tie it all together, including introducing in-game faction reputation with the Eglain, and there’s scarcely a lull between starting the zone, getting to Ost Guruth, tracking down Radegast, deciding his nickname should actually be “Radegast the Squirrel Fancier” (“Oi, Raddy, giant tree trying to beat us to death with its branches over here, d’you want to give us a hand at all or are you just going to chat to the wildlife?”), and wrapping up Book II. By then I’d outlevelled the remaining quests in my log, easy to do with a bit of extra-curricular skirmishing and questing in other zones, so I was ready to move on, and crossed the bridge out of the Lone-lands into the Trollshaws.

Expecting another bumper crop of quests, reputation to build up, perhaps a nice reward item or two, I found a couple of unenthusiastic quest-givers. “Yeah, go and kill… I dunno, wolves or something. Or bears. Or boars. Whatever. Find some wildlife, kill ten of them.” After a couple of rounds of that, they packed me off to another camp with another paltry selection of quests. It was all rather lacklustre.

Fortunately reader/listener darkeye came to the rescue in the comments suggesting moving over to Evendim, a zone that’s just been revamped. With a bit more game-time available recently I took that advice, and what a difference! Plentiful quests, a nifty class-specific armour set to collect, a faction with some nice items available as you increase your reputation with them. That sounds a bit mercenary, like I’m only interested in acquiring virtual loot, and that’s not true at all; I’m also very keen on carefully categorising virtual loot and assigning it to the correct colour-coded section of shared storage or the character’s vault as appropriate, hence being especially grateful for the presence of a vault-keeper in Tinnudir, the main settlement in Evendim (that was a minor annoyance in the Lone-lands, no vault-keeper in Ost Guruth; a victim of regional branch closures, perhaps).

As well as the sheer number of quests (over 100 being added in the revamp, apparently), there’s a bit of variety; of course “kill X things”, “collect Y things” and “click on Z sparkly things” are the staples, but some quests take you into instanced versions of areas that work a little like mini-skirmishes. There are also a couple of twists on delivery mechanics such as a journal item that updates quest objectives as you go to break up the pattern of “talk to NPC at quest hub – kill things – talk to NPC at quest hub – kill things”. Another minor quality of life issue while questing, a general improvement I believe rather than specific to the Evendim revamp, is that sparkly quest objectives don’t despawn when you click on them, they’re just completed for your character. I was roaming around the hills looking for some pouches that, inevitably, were guarded by tribesmen, had just engaged a mob when another player ran in and started hitting him with a sword. Fair enough, I didn’t really need any help, but I’d tagged it so it wasn’t like he was killstealing or anything, except then the player ran over to the pouch, and his character crouched down, obviously picking it up. I was ready to let fly a volley of abuse (or at least tut and give him a very stern look), but when he stood up the pouch was still there, sparkling away. Rather than the whole affair degenerating into a race for objective items and pointed non-assistance and schadenfraude from the other party if that resulted in an over-pull, we toddled around alternately tagging mobs, I’d chuck the odd heal over (not that it was especially necessary, but it seemed polite) and parted with a friendly /wave at the end of it. Back in the Trollshaws, meanwhile, on a Friday night group expedition (when the comparative sparseness of the zone isn’t nearly so much of an issue for a marauding party of hobbits on voice chat), four of us were all on the same quest to clear brambles and stones out of the path. It might not sound heroic, but it’s the sort of unglamorous behind-the-scenes infrastructure work that’s vital to an epic tale; do you remember the bit in the book “… then Frodo’s cloak got all tangled up in a bramble bush, and he had to spend ages sorting it out without ripping it but there were still a few holes that would need to be patched up and he got a couple of really nasty pricks (matron) from the thorns…”? No? Precisely. The only problem was that the sparkly bramble bushes despawned upon clicking, and only counted for the person who clicked them, so instead of many hands making light work it took four times as long.

Another part of Evendim’s revamp was the quest rewards. In “traditional” LotRO, as with many other MMOGs, a quest-giver would typically offer one or more of cash, XP, reputation gain or an item to try and tempt you to wander off and slaughter some wildlife, and as with many other MMOGs the items were seldom much use. “A choice of a bracelet with sub-optimal stat bonuses for my class or a shield I can’t even equip? Monsieur, with these quest rewards you’re really spoiling us! Which is worth more when I flog it to the bloke standing next to you?” Most Evendim quests now give bronze or silver token rewards, which can be traded in with the Wardens for a variety of rather more desirable class-specific items. LotRO has perhaps gone a little over-the-top with tokens, as pointed out in a fine piece on A Casual Stroll to Mordor, but I think they work quite well in this context to make all quests worthwhile, rather than nudging you towards reading up on an external site just to make sure you haven’t missed out on the first in a chain of several quests that culminates in the only half-decent reward appropriate to your class in the zone. From a world-perspective it might not feel ideal, like you get a Wardens of AnnĂºminas Loyalty Card as you start the zone and each time you finish a quest the NPC stamps it a couple of times, with a free cup of coffee (and class-appropriate cloak) after 10 stamps, but I don’t think it’s terribly immersion-breaking.

With zone revamps such as the Lone-lands last year and now Evendim resulting in significant improvements, Turbine aren’t just tacking stuff on to the end of the game, a heartening sign for newer players. All in all, after the early level 30s felt like they were really dragging, I’ve sprung forward to being within spitting distance of level 41 in a week or so, almost ready to move on to another zone. Any suggestions for the best level 40+ area?

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