Saturday, March 19, 2022

Back To The Shire?

Do I really want to play Lord of the Rings Online? It's a question I've asked myself many times without ever coming up with a definitive answer. Now I find myself asking it yet again.

Next month the game celebrates its fifteenth anniversary. There will be celebrations. Fireworks are involved. Lots of fireworks. Significant though the anniversary is - it ends with a five after all - it's little more than a footnote to the big announcement in the latest Producer's Letter, a sweeping revamp to the notorious payment model.

Ever since LotRO went free to play that model has been the subject of some fairly sustained, often intense criticism. Standing Stone Games have tweaked and fiddled with it numerous times but finally they seem to have decided to just do what every other mmorpg does - stop charging directly for old content.

With the next update, due sometime in April, "all quests, areas, instances, and expansions released between the original launch of LOTRO back in 2007 and up to – and including! - the release of Helm’s Deep will be available for free to everyone." That's SSG's boldface, not mine. They think it's a big deal and they're right.

It was always a peculiar way to do F2P, charging almost by the quest for leveling content over a decade old. Most mmorpgs do what they can to rush new and returning players through the legacy levels so as to get them into the current endgame bubble as quickly and painlessly as possible. They offer accelerated leveling and sell level boosts - or even hand them out for free. LotRO made you pay for the pain.

Even with the upcoming changes, it's not as though there's an express elevator to the endgame. The level cap in LotRO is currently 140 (I know! I couldn't believe it either.) but the newly-free zones and quests only take a free player to 95. It's still a hell of an improvement over the current free deal, all the same. Right now a purely free player gets Bree-land, Ered Luin, Lone-lands and the Shire, which might get you into the mid-30s if the level ranges on the Wiki are correct.

Of course, during the pandemic SSG did very generously give a lot of the remaining quest packs away for free but you had to make the effort of logging in to claim them and the offer did eventually go away. I got mine but I never did anything with them.

My problem with LotRO has never been the payment model, anyway. It's always been a combination of lackluster interest and some poor experiences. I have very mixed feelings about The Lord of the Rings  itself, for a start.

Despite having read it two and two half times (Finished it twice, got half way through and gave up twice more.) I'm still not sure if I even like it let alone whether it's any good or not. As for the movies, I saw all of them on release at the cinema, including the Ralph Bakshi animated version but although I own the Peter Jackson trilogy on DVD, I've never watched it. Once was enough.

Like Jimi Hendrix, whose influence sent ripples through the culture that set my teeth on edge for decades, it's really not the quality or worth of the original that matters. It's the endless, bludgeoning, boorish copyists, hammering away talentlessly at their half-assed attempts to recreate something they never understood in the first place.

LotRO, to give it credit, is no half-baked imitation. If you were going to set about building a replica of Middle Earth you could do a lot worse and I'm sure many have. It's not so much a question of whether it's been done well as whether it was a good idea to do it all.

Bad time to buy.
I guess it was. It's a solid-enough mmorpg set in a well-realised world. Even without the Tolkein trappings it would be worth a try. I think, though, that only a strong affection for the source material would keep someone playing for long.

Without that added attraction the game does tend to turn into a trudge. Leveling is slow by modern standards and travel even slower. The graphics somehow manage to show off the landscapes to their best effect, while leaving the characters behind. As for the UI and the systems it supports, the less said the better.

And then there are the quests. The new payment model opens up every quest in the sub-95 level range, something I'm sure most current and potential players will welcome. Unfortunately, I'm on record as claiming I had a better time with the game when I played as a free player and most NPCs wouldn't speak to me.

It's true, too. In my original run through LotRO I payed my subscription and quested my way into the forties, when the cap was just fifty. It was fun at first but after a while it turned into a slog and I say that as someone who loves levelling in mmorpgs. 

The thing is, I don't especially like leveling by doing quests. I like quests if they're amusing or entertaining or exciting and I like getting rewards for doing them. What I don't much like is having to do dozens, scores, hundreds of quests purely to get the xp needed to level.

For that I'd rather do tasks or just kill stuff. It may seem like a mere semantic distinction but the thing about tasks is you only have to read a single, brief instruction before you get on with doing them. There's no fatuous backstory. Tasks don't need several hundred words of dull, uninspired dialog and a half-marathon of jogging between different NPCs before you collect your fee.

The prospect of being able to run errands for countless guards, rangers, wardens and farmers for the dubious benefit of learning their tedious life stories as imagined by a bored cubicle worker on slow Tuesday doesn't set my senses tingling. I wouldn't patch the game up for that. Nevertheless, I am patching, as I write this and god knows, it's taking long enough. Coming up on two hours now. Whatever else is new at Standing Stone it doesn't seem to include the infamously awful patcher.

What's inspiring me to give LotRO yet another try is the rest of the stuff SSG has chosen to add to the free pile, namely most of the previously paywalled classes and races and especially the zones formerly locked behind expansions you had to buy. Whether or not I have it in me to do the leveling to see any of them is another matter but at least I could roll up some new characters. I was only thinking the other day I'd like to get back to my old habit of rolling new characters in old games. This seems as good an opportunity as any.

The cherry on the hobbitty cake and the real reason I'm taking the trouble to bring the client up to date, however, is the news that the Shire is getting an extension. Like a lot of people, I always enjoy a run around the Shire in LotRO. I'm not quite sure why. I don't even like Hobbits. It just seems so... restful, somehow.

The April update adds an area called Yondershire to the game. It's unclear whether it's a complete new zone or just a new area attached to an existing one but either way it sounds worth visiting. Described as "a sparsely populated region of moor, thicket, and fen that has long been home to Hobbit recluses and troublemakers", we're promised "more delightful Hobbit adventures". Why not? 

There's no firm date for Update #33 but with luck my client should have just about finished patching when it arrives. I might even have enough time to get in there and do some prep work so the sight of all those tiny icons and overstuffed bags doesn't drive me to log straight out again when the time comes. Or maybe I'll just start over on a new server.

We'll see. I'm not really expecting much. Mostly when I go back to LotRO I last a handful of sessions at best. Whether the relaxing of the reins is going to make much difference I rather doubt. But you have to try, don't you?

Apparently I do, anyway.


  1. Come to Landroval if you can. Everyone is there.

    1. I was wondering if they've changed the rules about where you can play. I've always played on the EU-RP server, because an old EQ/EQII friend of ours was there when we started but I've always been under the impression that although the game isn't hard-locked, once you'd picked a region that account had to stick to it. I have a second LotRO account with a US server for that reason, although I never play it.

      When I logged in to take a few screenshots for this post, though, there was a drop-down list of all the servers for every region and you could just select any of them. I don't remember that being there before. I tested it with a US server on my regular account and it was happy for me to make characters there.

      Anyway, long answer to a short comment, but I guess now I can make characters on multiple servers, Landroval included, which is what I'll probably do, assumign I actually get around to doing it at all!

  2. All LOTRO servers are hosted in the US and players can create alts on any of them regardless of their own personal geographical location. Problems only occur when it comes to character transfers. There are historical differences between US and EU accounts due to Turbine and Codemasters running separate services in the past. Hence you cannot transfer an EU character to a US server and vice versa due to these esoteric database related issues.

    Laurelin, the EU English language RP server, is a good community and lots of non RP players roll alts there. However Landroval, its US equivalent, has a bigger population and hence a wealth of player created events. However, the time difference can skew the social aspect if you’re based in the UK.

    Levelling in LOTRO is quite a different beast nowadays. Yes, you can follow the story and do a lot of fetch quests but now there are Missions in many locations around Middle-earth. These scale and are available at level 20. Levelling to 30 is pretty easy these days and then you can pick and choose which zones you visit. Changes to the levelling curve in the original base game and then Mines of Moria means that you always seem to end up outgrowing an area, with content still to do. Oh and since the last expansion, the level cap is now 140.

    I suspect that there'll be an influx of new and returning players to LOTRO because of these changes in April and I find that seeing a healthy population in starter zones is always a good psychological boost when starting a new MMO or returning to one. I hope you do decide to give it another go because I’m sure it would provide you with a wealth of blogging material. It is always interesting to read someone’s new experience of something that you personally are quite au fait with.

    1. I actually had "140" as the cap in the original draft because I'd seen someone mention it recently. Then I thought I'd better fact-check it. I looked at several different sources, including the wiki, and all of them said the cap was 130 so I changed it. Just goes to show how hard it is to get accurate, up-to-date information for live service games. I will now change it back! Thanks for pointing it out.

      I imagine my confusion over which servers you can play on from where goes back to the Codemasters era. They were definitely the company in charge when I made the account. The other account I have, which I don't use, is one I made a few years later and that's directly with Turbine. I guess there's no difference any more but the drop-down option on the login screen is something I don't remember noticing before so maybe it's new since the last time I played.

      I don't know if I'll find time to play all that much but I will at least see the new hobbit area and assuming it's of a level with the rest of the Shire I'll probably make a new character for that. I would like to get past the original game, too, at some point but I don't think I want to do it on my highest character, the Dwarven Guardian, even though he's in the forties. I suspect there are several more enjoyable classes to solo.


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