Friday 2 September 2011

Goonies never say die! They always bring a healer.

I’ll start by saying that I think the Inn of the Forsaken dungeon instance in Lords of the Rings Online is fantastic. I will be mentioning spoilers, so if you’re like me and take an age to get around to running dungeons (I ran it for the first time the other night), and you haven’t run through Inn of the Forsaken but intend to, then LOOK AWAY NOW!

I wonder how long it will be before they all realise that there’s no way to know when to look back…

There are numerous design details that I appreciate in Turbine’s scalable three-man dungeon instance, but I think chief among them is the fact that the experience feels like an authentic dungeon crawl. Inspiration has clearly been taken from the Indiana Jones films, and the references to The Goonies are about as subtle as Lotney “Sloth” Fratelli bellowing “Hey you guys!” from the top of a mast, all of which instils a sense of adventure about the place, rather than the slightly sterile and clinical nature of many dungeon instances I’ve encountered. But more than that, the experience is tight; on the KiaSA standardised Toned Buttock Scale of Tightness we’re looking at a J.Lo or Justin Timberlake, at the very least.

The tightness in the design works –like the dungeon itself– on several levels. First and foremost it makes for a more engaging experience, where every twist and turn involves something to do outside of the ritual wait for mana to regenerate, before pulling the next Standard Trash Pack A from Generic Trash Pack Containment Area B. It also translates into a claustrophobic feeling due to the relentless nature of events, with every seeming step involving a challenge to face, be it traps, puzzles, riddles, or the inevitable but not overused fight sequences. Most importantly, I think this compressed nature of the game design feeds into the narrow nature of the map design, making it swell, such that the tunnel walls seem to close in even further on the players.

Clearly the developers of Inn of the Forsaken have studied the work of the DDO dungeon designers, but they have also improved on the systems they found there. Inn of the Forsaken opts for blatant and lethal traps, rather than DDO’s (in the main) hidden but merely irritating ones. It’s only fair to have the players able to see the danger coming when it has the potential to kill their character, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing at all: the players’ sense of anticipation and dread is heightened by being able to see how far they have to travel down a confined corridor lined with enormous human-threshing machines, each player picturing in their mind the flaming eye of Sauron gazing down and asking ‘Do You Blend?’ The fact that these traps can be turned upon the enemy mobs through careful play is surprising, an encouraging example of honouring the idea of ‘fair play’ between developer and player. Riddles also feature in DDO dungeons, but Inn of the Forsaken takes the idea and again tries to improve upon it by including some eighty or so riddles to solve, where DDO generally only had the one per quest. Obviously there’s still a wiki which spoils it all, useful for those trying to be ‘optimal’ in their dungeon grinding, but for normal players there’s quite a good chance of getting one or two new riddles per run, even over the course of quite a few attempts. And the riddles aren’t bad either, perhaps verging ever so slightly towards the ‘what is this I don’t even’ end of the obscuration scale, but understandably so, given that they had to come up with eighty or more ways to cryptically describe a handful of the game’s emotes.

The class mechanic is one of those areas that will divide opinion, you’ll either love it or hate, primarily based on whether your party of three has the right combination of classes. The various game-play elements within the dungeon can be manipulated only by certain classes in the following fashion:

  • Lore-master, Minstrel, Rune-keeper — a “lore” class — uses incantation stones and strange runes
  • Captain, Hunter, Burglar — an “aware” class — triggers trap mechanisms
  • Guardian, Warden, Champion — a “brawn” class — smashes through broken walls

Not having a balanced party consisting of one member from each group makes the dungeon potentially more difficult (certainly if you have nobody who can disable the traps), and will not allow you to complete the dungeon’s ‘perfect run’ challenge mode, but otherwise does not interfere with the experience. I like the design, although I know many see it as ‘enforcing the trinity’, which is certainly a fair point to argue. The groups are based around reasonably believable demarcations, although I was surprised to find out that my Captain was a designated trap monkey, presumably standing with one hand on her hip, pointing accusingly at the trap and commanding it at the top of her voice to ‘stop that nonsense right now’. I mean it’s either that or Captains were the last to be picked in the dungeon run group formation in the playground at lunchtime, and so they were shoved into the group with the least members, the trappists. But even the monks didn’t want them, so they ended up with the Hunters and Burglars by default. I imagine the design was meant as a soft enforcement of the Holy Trinity, but it doesn’t really work, and simply results in frustrating any group that doesn’t have the right class balance. This is a path that is sad to see LotRO take, as it was once a game I admired for allowing madcap groups with, say, Hunters or Burglars tanking and Guardians doing DPS, but now seems to be going a bit grey and clerical, slowly filing classes away in well worn slots, each to its ‘proper’ role.

If it weren’t for the flavour of the groupings, I would suggest that a slightly more flexible mechanic would have been to allow each player to pick a role at the start of the instance, thus enabling completion by any group make-up, and indeed giving players who don’t have numerous alts the chance to try each of the different roles; in fact, in this case I’m really not sure that the benefit of immersion gained by restricting classes to believable roles outweighs the flexibility of letting players get on and try things out. And if the developers were to flinch sharply at the thought of giving the players such freedoms, well, perhaps they could content themselves with the logistical nightmare and bitter recriminations resulting from a pickup group trying to come to some sort of resolution over who will be doing precisely what.

Lastly there’s the big reveal. This is the major spoiler, so probably best to skip on in your RSS reader now if you don’t want to know. Really, I’m almost done here, and I can see that following this there’s a fascinating post in your reader concerning marmoset farming in Fitton. Off you go.

Darth Vader is Luke’s dad!

Sorry, wrong reveal. So by some SECRET means you are dumped down a splendid rapids ride and into… World of Warcraft’s Deadmines! Okay, fine, I imagine the WoW fans are raging that it’s nowhere near as impressive as the Deadmines, but nevertheless it is a large cavern, filled with water, in which a boat is improbably placed. It’s fun. It’s ta da! It just needed Cyndi Lauper’s The Goonies ‘R’ Good Enough to start when you hit the water and it would have been perfect. The final boss fight is here, and it’s one of those fights over which I’m conflicted. It’s a sort of Mario 64/Sonic Adventure mechanic, where an invulnerable dundering giant wallows his way after the tank for a while before performing a ‘special’ move which causes him to become stuck, at which point performing the correct action makes him vulnerable, opens a tiny window of opportunity to whittle away at his health, after which he becomes invulnerable again and Yakety Sax kicks out of the speakers once more. Arcade-like boss mechanics are fine, I suppose, but I’m just not sure if it works in the context of current MMO combat. In this case, the healer can easily stand out of range of the boss, and with even modest healing on the tank there’s no real danger of the boss killing them. Essentially the fight is reduced to a sort of combat orientated jamming, where the tank and boss dance around for a while, then the DPS runs in and takes a turn, before quickly swapping out again. Or you might look at it as a sort of very basic ‘Simon says you may now stab the boss’ game for the DPS, while the tank and healer merely run through the motions.

It’s not terrible, but it doesn’t really live up to the rest of the instance either, which possibly makes it more disappointing than it otherwise would be. It does seem to have the usual anti-melee design, however, since the boss hits anyone in melee range with irritating stuns on a frequent basis, usually right in the midst of the tiny window of opportunity to do any damage, where I imagine a ranged class could just stand well outside the Circle of Yakety Sax and not be troubled by it at all; I wouldn’t know, I still like to play melee characters, but you’d think I’d have learned my lesson by now.

Then again, if I were one for learning from lessons of punishment, I’m not entirely sure I’d be playing MMOs in the first place.

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