Thursday, November 24, 2022

Before The Shadow: Big Skies, Small Horizons

Before The Shadow is turning out to be a very good purchase. I've only managed three sessions so far but they've been lengthy- a couple of hours and more each time. It's mostly been proper, focused gameplay, too. I've been sticking to the main questline, only picking up side-quests as and when I find them. Which is often. There are a lot of quests.

Even so, after as many hours, I'm still less than halfway through level 7, suggesting I could be at this for quite some time. With a reported "expansion cap" somewhere around the low thirties, I can see this becoming my second-longest run in Lord of the Rings Online to date.

I first picked up the game sometime back in the late noughties, when I made it to around Level 40. (The cap was 50 at the time.) If I'm remembering correctly, it took me about three months to get there but it might not have been quite as long as that. Maybe it just felt like it.

I do know that by the end things had gotten very grindy indeed and when some stranger royally pissed me off one Sunday morning, making some entitled roleplaying demands I wasn't interested in meeting,  I grabbed the opportunity to flounce out, taking Mrs Bhagpuss with me. She's never played again. I have, many times.

I'm in there, somewhere. Hobbits are, like, really short, y'know?

I'm even still playing on that same server, mostly because I'm too mean, stubborn and lazy to move. Frankly, it hasn't improved much in the last decade. Last night I had to switch World chat off because I couldn't take the ceaseless bickering over whether housing is or isn't a core part of the game and whether Standing Stone are or are not justified in making housing items the lead attraction in their Black Friday offer.

Without the players, however, Before the Shadow becomes a charming divertissement indeed. The new zones are as huge as these screenshots suggest. I got distracted by the sheer scale of the landscape while out questing last night and found myself climbing to the tops of several crags just to get a better view.

While I was exploring, I ran into some orcs, brigands and footpads, for none of which had I been given quests to hunt or kill. Naturally, this being an mmorpg and I a seasoned mmorpg player, I killed them anyway and I was very glad I did. Several dropped armor and weapons that weren't just far better than anything I had but also much better than anything any questgiver had seen fit to hand out as a reward. 

Yep, these planks all seem fine to me.

This seems like an interesting quirk. The structured gameplay in the new starting zone is clearly defined, with a central narrative and regular breadcrumb quests leading the player to each new quest hub. It would seem sensible, therefore, to stick to the schedule, go where you're sent and do as you're asked, an approach that's become almost compulsory in most modern mmorpgs. 

Despite that, and even though Before The Shadow is entirely composed of newly-written content, it seems the old ways persist. When LotRO launched, back in 2007, World of Warcraft had already begun resetting the parameters for the genre with its quest-based levelling mechanics but the pre-existing practices of older games like EverQuest or Dark Age of Camelot, where grinding mobs for both xp and gear had long been the baseline, still exerted a powerful influence on game design.

All this second-person reported speech takes a bit of getting used to. It has a serious distancing effect on the narrative, too.
You might have thought the supposedly good currency of questing would have driven out the bad of random mob-killing by now but evidently not, at least in LotRO. Good for Standing Stone! I love levelling up by wandering about, killing anything that can't kill me, then stealing their stuff and using it for myself. It's a simple but eternally satisfying gameplay loop.

Of course, the nature of the quests I'm being offered might have something to do with my enthusiasm for off-piste slaughter, too. I know the early stages of the game have a reputation for cosiness, particularly when Hobbits are involved, but some of the things I'm being asked to get involved with really stretch the definition of "adventuring" well past breaking point.

I forgot the one about finding
some guy's lost boot..

There was the butcher who wanted me to go round the village, collecting next week's meat orders, tacked to his customers' front doors. Or how about the mother who sent me out to look for her five children, none of whom she had the least clue where they might be, just to tell them their tea was ready?

Things like that make the time when I was tasked with retrieving a single, lost arrow, supposedly stolen by a mysterious beast, only to be asked to wash it when I brought it back because it had monster spit on it, seem almost reasonable. Even something as straightforward as swimming across the river to look behind a waterfall, just in case something might be hiding behind it, as one paranoid Hobbit had me do, felt like reckless risk-taking by local standards.

So determinedly trivial are many of the quests that simply being sent to check out some hill where orcs might be hiding (They aren't.) or to retrieve a book from some bandits seems like high adventure. The civillians are bad enough but the local authorities are even worse. 

The bridge inspector, who didn't feel up to working one day and sent me to check the planks for her, had a better claim on my time than the so-called Mayor, a Hobbit so lazy he couldn't even be bothered to tack his weekly meat order on the door but still expected me, a total stranger, only in town to warn him of the impending orcish threat, to go out and kill animals for him just so he could feed his blasted dog!

And yet, somehow, none of it sends my blood pressure soaring. Rather, it all feels surprisngly relaxing. It's old school mmorpg gameplay with all the sharp edges sanded away to leave nothing more than a gentle nub; the adventuring equivalent of a cosy armchair and a pair of slippers. 

If things carry on like this for another twenty-five levels, I won't be complaining - although that might just be because I'll be fast asleep.

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