By Kieron Gillen on August 2nd, 2010 at 6:25 pm.
Kieron: Hello Phill Cameron of the land of the north. How are you today?
Phill: I’m fine, although I’m still recovering from chicken-apoplexy.
Kieron: The chicken is the angriest of the fowl. I too have been thinking about Chick… wait a sec. Have you been playing Lord of the Rings Online‘s Free-to-play Beta?
Phill: I have! Or, as I like to refer to it: Watership Down-but-with-chickens.
Kieron: I think we should probably go around the back end to talk about that. You ever played the original version?
Phill: No, I’m a LOTRO virgin. But you have, I gather?
Kieron: Yeah, I played it when it came out enough for that first-impression sort of review. So we’re kind of an interesting compare-and-contrast case, I think because this is LOTR getting a second bite at the public. Not that it was a failure by any means, but in terms of following its stable-mate D&D Online into a microtransactions model, it’s hinting at a fascinating future. D&D was its own thing – the heavily instanced nature perhaps leaned it closer to Guild Wars, so it gets rejected as a “real” MMO by some. Which is something that can’t happen to LOTR. It’s as MMOy as any MMO that has ever been built, yes?
Phill: Well yes and no. Although I didn’t find it so much with the hobbit stuff; when I was playing a dwarf there was lots of odd instanced stuff. I think they called it ‘dynamic instancing’, where you’d have two people in the same area, in different instances. So they can see one another, but the world they see is different. But in essence, yes, it’s much much more MMOy. It’s the MMOst.
Kieron: I don’t remember that back in the day – though I played primarily humans.
Phill: It was mostly in its own instance. Like I’d be attacking a goblin mine, and halfway through the goblins would become militant and start attacking in hordes; for everyone else in the mine, they weren’t attacking.
Kieron: Rightio. But I don’t want to give the impression it’s Guild Wars here.
Phill: Yeah, it’s definitely not.
Kieron: It’s notable in that it was one of the first next-generation after World-of-Warcraft MMOs. When it came out, I thought of it as a decent 8/10ish sort of thing – efficient, quietly atmospheric in using stuff like instances in the big events to reach for Lord of the Rings grandeur but – generally speaking – far to conservative for my liking. Oddly, I think the passage of time has rendered it more original looking, if you see what I mean.
Phill: That’s one thing that seems to be gone now; there’s a lot of really strange, really unique stuff going on that I really wasn’t expecting, and I’m quite glad they’re there. I mean sure, it’s got somewhat run of the mill stuff in terms of format and the way the combat works, but there are these flairs and flourishes that are somewhat unexpected, and really rewarding.
Kieron: Yes – and we’ll get to them in a bit. It’s the stuff like its page furniture and accessibility stuff being very WoW which tripped people – or at least me – up… well, that’s all standard now, so you see past it to what else it’s up to. Anyway – as someone who’s played every MMO in the world, if only briefly, what did you make of it?
Phill: Hah. I think I’m holding it up to a bit of an unfair, purely speculative yardstick here, but if we’re going to treat this like a new release, it does feel somewhat dated in how it operates. The whole ‘go here kill that collect reward’ mechanic is really quite dull now.
Kieron: Heh. Yes, that is a bit unfair. Unfair, but natural.
Phill: But at the same time, there’s lots of stuff that I wasn’t really expecting and really works, but also makes the boring stuff even more obvious. Things like meeting Gandalf or Strider within the first five minutes, and doing something cool and story-driven. And then you come out and get told you’ve got to deliver some post for Postmaster Potsworth.
Kieron:You kept on saying how much you were doing something, aware of how Guild Wars 2 is going to do it. Or at least, try to do it.
Phill: Yeah that’s the thing. When you’ve got Guild Wars 2 talking about how they’re going to create these dynamic, but scripted, events that will make it feel like you’re actually having some sort of impact on the world, having no impact at all for the most part here is a little disheartening.
Kieron: At least with the post-delivery shire missions there’s a few spins on it rather than just a straight carry quest. Very basic stealth stuff. Actually a carried item. The sheer ludicrous silliness of the Shire. It just kept on reminding me of the opening section of every Zelda game ever.
Phill: God yeah… the Shire is mental. Completely batshit insane. I guess they realise that anyone crazy enough to play a Hobbit is going to want crazy.
Kieron: I never wanted to leave the Shire. I just want to stay there and collect beet. And get on that smooth pipeweed high.
Phill: Blow yourself some pipe-boats.
Kieron: And then of course, there’s our long-eared friends…
Phill: What on earth were they doing moseying around the Shire anyway? You’ve got random level 30 and 40 guys just riding around offering free stuff to little people. I haven’t had a go at creating an Elf, but I’d like to think they dial the melodrama to melodramatic, and just make you save the world a few times in the tutorial.
Kieron: Or sit around composing free-verse
Phill: Or both at the same time.
Kieron: The bastards. And… LET’S TALK ABOUT THE RABBITS
Phill: That’s one thing I’ve been quite impressed with; each race has a really unique feel to their starting area. The Dwarves is all about mining and being the biggest, strongest short guy in the mountain.
Phill: You mean the chickens.
Kieron: Oh yeah.
Kieron: LET’S TALK ABOUT THE CHICKENS!
Phill: Clearly they’ve scrambled your brain. That was an egg joke.
Kieron: I think it’s because we started describing the section of the game as Watership down.
Phill: Yeah, that’s definitely it. Not the fact that we had to play mastermind with chickens and eggs. Or hide from surly roosters.
Phill: I mean, seriously, what the fuck was that farm all about?
Kieron: It just seemed to be a section of the game solely created for Quinns to write about. There wasn’t even any iron, so making it perfect for him.
Phill: It wasn’t just putting eggs in the right nest, or stealing eggs without getting caught by the rooster, it was the fact that one quest line turned you into an ACTUAL CHICKEN. We talked, as a chicken, to OTHER CHICKENS. And then we went on life-affirming quests! To save CHICKENS.
Kieron: Basically, all the missions were about just legging it across the countryside as a tiny chicken to try and get help to save the really little folk of middle earth I wanted to see if I could get all the way to Mordor. You could ring a chicken’s neck!
Phill: Haha. Cast the golden egg into the fires of Mount Doom? Did you notice that as we did more quests as a chicken, we became better chickens? Like we got more skills, as a chicken. Chicken-specific skills.
Kieron: The paranoia skill which didn’t appear to do anything but assured your chicken that “something was wrong” was my fave
Phill: I activated that, and I’m sure I felt something change. I’m certain of it.
Kieron: Googling reveals that it gives you greater awareness of bad guys.
Phill: OR DOES IT?
Kieron: I think your paranoia ability is still in play. It’s terrible to think that even in this threadbare state, it made me want to play a fully developed speaking animal MMO. Like the Endless Forest, but with speaking animals and less sinisterness.
Phill: I think we should talk about the micro-transactions. I think we should mainly talk about my pumpkin hat.
Kieron: Yeah – let’s talk about the key thing, which is actually how the paying for stuff works. Go!
Phill: Ok, um.. you’ve got an ingame store you can bring up at any time, with lots of stuff ranging from new content to cosmetic bits of clothing, and you just buy them and they get deposited in your inventory. Or, in the case of new content, that’s unlocked. I developed a dangerous addiction to buying new pieces of headgear. Although it serves much more practical stuff, like when I wanted to play with you, I needed to buy another character slot. So I just clicked ont he button and suddenly I had another one. It’s all very user friendly.
Kieron: How much per hat?
Phill: I think it was about 300 points per hat. So not exactly cheap.
Kieron: Yeah – how much does everything abstractly cost then? Assuming that the Turbine points cost the same as the D&D Online turbine points.
Phill: Well if that is the case, then it’ll be about £15-17 for about 2000 points. Fewer points will be more expensive, relatively. And 2000 is about the cost of anything major, really. New content, new classes, etc etc.
Kieron: New classes weren’t that bad – it was 750 for the Warden character I was playing. Which was on a 10% off sale, so cheaper than that. The Warden being one of the two characters in the expansion pack – so I suspect you get him if you buy the whole expansion pack in one go.
Phill: Oh right. That’s better. Although it’s worth noting that they don’t exactly cripple you at all. You’re only unlocking stuff for greater freedom. There’s a tonne of game here for free.
Kieron: Yes. You pay for extra convienience and extra stuff. It’s a massive last-generation mature-tech stable MMO. And it’s basically slapped on the table for you to play. Yay, etc!
Phill: Do you want to talk about the Warden a bit? He (or she in your case) seemed pretty interesting.
Kieron: Yeah – the Warden was an interesting one. It’s a complicated class to play in that they only have a few basic attacks, but you chain them and prepare a gambit attack. So if you do a couple of basic stabby-stabby you unlock one gambit to fire off – and if you do a defendy then a stabby-stabby you get another. At the start of a combat, you’re thinking what attack you want to make in two attacks times. So if I’m going to be in the middle of a mob, I may get my best defense gambit running, and then prepare an area-effect fear gambit or something.
Phill: Did you notice that when you’re picking classes they all have a difficulty rating? I thought that was a nice touch, even if it did all but lock all easy characters for me. I’m not having my MMO-manhood insulted by playing an easy class.
Kieron: So to be properly manly in the game… you played the minstrel character. So macho, Phill.
Phill: I think the fact that I out-DPSed you with my tasty licks and power chords is testimony to my copious amounts of testosterone.
Kieron: Who died every single instance we went on?
Phill: Both of us.
Kieron: Who died first.
Phill: The person who was healing you.
Kieron: You’re as bad as Walker as a healer, you.
Kieron: Sorry That was harsh.
Phill: That was mean.
Kieron: Er… we probably should wrap up.
Phill: Yeah, we probably should. Although I think the water should get a mention. It’s completely unnecessarily pretty.
Kieron: It’s always interesting to see higher-tech stuff put into a game which is generally working on lower-tech.
Phill: It’s also somewhat evocative of the rest of the game; standard MMO fare with odd moments of cleverness and brilliance.
Kieron: And it’s certainly very Lord of the Rings, at least half of the time. I think it’ll end up doing quite well – and, indirectly, with this available as a free-to-play model it does two things. Firstly, raise the bar at what you should expect from a free to play MMO. Secondly, raise the bar at what you should expect from a subscription MMO.
Phill: Certainly; anything new that comes out and expects you to pay has to be at least this good. Otherwise there’s no point. It’s a big fat glove slapping the face of all the other MMO developers. Let’s see what you’ve got, etc.
Kieron: Totally. And as a free-to-play game… well, it certainly makes me wanting to step back into a game of hobbit-esque adventure occasionally easier. Looking forward to the full release, I think.
Phill: Yup. Is this the bit where we tease a full feature on release?
Kieron: Let’s not make promises we’ll almost certainly forget to fulfil.
Phill: Isn’t that the RPS way?