Wednesday 8 June 2011

You have to be fast on your feet and adaptive or else a strategy is useless.

My Warden’s adventures through Tolkienland have been prematurely halted, like an angry dog chasing a cat through the back yard, only to be yanked to a yelping standstill by its collar chained to a post next to its kennel. My Warden has been busy chasing members of the Grey Company around the countryside of Middle Earth with the frenzied haste of a hyperactive Border Collie trying to round up sheep on a bouncy castle. Flinging herself with tongue-lolling grinning enthusiasm from one corner of Middle Earth to the other, and then back again, as she seeks out the rangers who have sworn to protect the heirs of Isildur. It turns out that one of those rangers, Golodir, has got himself into some trouble (spending too much time drinking in the company of the dwarves of Moria, no doubt) and Corunir wants some help to rescue him from somewhere in the depths of Nûrz Ghâshu. Unfortunately, upon arriving at the entrance, I found the Nûrz Ghâshu theme park to be closed with chains wrapped around the gates, the painted words ‘Coming Soon’ dribbling down a sign which dangled at a lop-sided angle from where it had been hastily hung. After all my running around, antics and adventures, trials and tribulations, I had finally been halted by an ‘out of order’ notice. Had I not been warned in the comments by foolsage, and again by splendidly informative sites such as A Casual Stroll to Mordor, I would have been Clark Griswold standing dazed and confused in the deserted parking lot of Wally World. As it was, I just shrugged my shoulders and decided to work on something else in the meantime, while awaiting Turbine’s fix for the issue with Nûrz Ghâshu World; apparently you’d get stuck on one of the rides and be unable to get off, and even now they are still helping heroes of Middle Earth off the whirligig, who then stagger around green-faced and groaning, before bending over with their hands on their knees, and hurling their leftover food buffs into waiting plastic buckets. There’s no real schedule for when Turbine will fix the skirmish, which is utterly outrageous, I mean it’s not as though they’ve been ever so slightly busy over the past few weeks or anything.

Congratulations to Turbine and Codemasters on a pretty painless transfer and resumption of service, which seemed to take less time than had been advertised – a miracle in the MMO space, outside of that hallowed alternative dimension which houses Trion’s Rift. I’m not sure whether Turbine’s gathering of all its pretties and preciousess was an amicable arrangement, but nothing untoward occurred, and my concern that Codemasters might rename every character to Traitorous Pooface and change the characters’ heads into pairs of crusty orc buttocks before they left the Codemasters servers, was thankfully unfounded. I also had slightly more realistic concerns that increased latency would occur and thence cause havoc with the careful timing of the Warden’s gambit-building attacks, but so far –on the anecdotal evidence of playing for a few evenings– everything appears to be pretty much as it was when under Codemaster’s rule.

And so, with progress halted on Volume 3 I switched the solo spotlight over to deeds and skirmishes. Having enjoyed the refreshment of the new (to me) skirmishes unlocked as part of Volume 2, I decided to take a look at the two relatively new (to everyone) skirmishes released as part of LotRO’s Update 3. I was pleasantly surprised at the level of challenge they provided, and although I didn’t suffer a loss in either, I came within a hundred hit points of defeat while fending off a particularly numerous company of angry Gauradan in Icy Crevasse, and I nearly failed the final boss fight in Attack at Dawn. Perhaps the feeling of being challenged will diminish as I run these skirmishes again, but I couldn’t help but feel that this was the sort of challenge that I enjoy in an MMO; the trouble is that I find it hard to identify what makes this sort of challenge enjoyable over the challenges presented by, for example, raid dungeons.

Perhaps it’s the simplicity of the challenge: it’s not terribly difficult to work out what needs to be done, and there isn’t a great deal to remember, but correctly executing the strategy required to defeat the fight still takes a certain level of concentration and competence, which makes the fight more involving than the usual ‘two drunk people standing opposite each other and taking turns to slap each other in the face until one of them passes out’ found in most soloable MMO content; these fights were tense, fraught with endangerment, and somewhat manic. Importantly, although the general strategy was known, execution of the fight required that strategy to be modified on the fly as the fight progressed in response to events.

The fights also feel less gimmicky than many of the staged fights in MMOs, and therefore perhaps it was the fact that it felt less of a game that I, as the player, was thus able to relate to the situation in the context of the characters. Certainly the final fight of Attack at Dawn, where you must stop goblin messengers trying to escape with the location of Esteldín, while also dealing with the boss, felt more compelling and less like the usual LotRO-skinned Sonic the Hedgehog boss fights that I’ve experienced in many of the dungeons. Hmmm, Sonic was always chasing after gold rings, had a name beginning with ‘s’, and spiky armour. Lift-up Sauron’s robe and I bet he’s wearing bright red sneakers with white stripes under there.

There’s also the fact that when solo I can change my tactics in an instant, something which is generally removed from group game-play by design. I think this, ultimately, is where raiding breaks down for me. It’s not that I don’t enjoy playing with others –the most enjoyable times I’ve had in MMOs have been as part of a group– but the challenge of raiding leaves no room for individual expression within a group, it seems to boil down to fixing everyone’s role to the Nth degree, and then having people perform those roles as perfectly as possible. In part this is down to the way players always want to optimise encounters. And yes, in part it’s down to the fact that we’re not a flock of birds and don’t have a genetic predisposition to rapidly change course as a group without smacking into one another. Mainly, however, it’s down to the fact that in most MMOs you defeat a boss before the fight: if your strategy is sound, then you have defeated the boss, as long as you follow that strategy. There is generally no “That’s not working, let’s try this” during a fight, it’s a case of “That didn’t work, let’s try this” after a fight, and for me there is a world of difference in the experience between those two forms of strategy. The former is for planners and managers, the second is for those who prefer to fly by the seat of their pants. Neither is wrong, raiding in its current standard form is absolutely fine, but it doesn’t interest me as a form of entertainment.

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