It is pretty much the first thing you notice when you head through the Black Gates to the land beyond. Mordor is waiting there, ready to chew you up and spit you back out. Until you start getting the new quest gear rewards and bump up your Light level with it, progress is agonizingly slow. And even after a zone or two, it’s far from a walk in the park. Mobs hit hard, have deep health pools, and often are packed together so that pulling just one is an impossibility. I’ve probably died more times these past few weeks than the last two years in LOTRO.
It’s almost like I’m playing a different game. Once or twice, I’ve rested my forehead against my desk and typed out in frustration, “It feels like this expansion wants to abuse me!” And I hear nothing but sympathy in response from those feeling the same.
Challenge? Bring it on!
Let’s take a step back and acknowledge the obvious. Mordor is supposed to be hard. It’s the very stronghold of the most dire evil that Middle-earth has ever known, and even with Sauron’s downfall, we all expected to encounter a harsh landscape and nightmares made flesh (or fire). If we walked in there and saw nothing but tumbleweeds and one goblin picking its nose, it would be both anti-climactic and a laughingstock.
Some players have embraced the difficulty increase with gusto. To them, LOTRO has been a cakewalk for years now out on the landscape, and that ease has made it both boring and insulting. A stiff challenge wakes people up, they say, and it provides a feeling of accomplishment when overcome.
I can’t entirely refute this. Apart from certain areas of Gondor designed for group play, my Lore-master all but breezed through the last few zones without a care in the world. Her lynx would shred the enemy camps into little pieces, and I would happily loot what was left. The Wastes was a bit more difficult, but certainly nothing I couldn’t handle.
But I’m having a hard time welcoming Mordor’s design in this respect. Increased difficulty was to be expected, but what I keep asking myself is, did the developers overdo it? Is landscape questing too hard, too frustrating, and too slow?
I fear that it is.
The tipping point
I do not envy devs and their monumental task of creating world content that is somewhat balanced for players of varying skill and gear levels. Make it too easy, and players get apathetic and drift away from your game. Make it too hard, and players pound their keyboards and ragequit.
I would assume that the general balancing principle for landscape questing is to assume that a bulk of your players — especially in Lord of the Rings Online — are decked out in standard quest reward gear. That’s the baseline. If some players have better gear due to rep grinding, crafting, or instance farming, then they’ll have it a bit easier as a reward, but everyone else should be experiencing the game more or less the same.
My character has mostly quest gear with a few rare random drops thrown in. I’m level 112, my Light level is at 70, and I’m working my way through Talath Úrui. And it is seriously kicking my butt. Normal, non-main-storyline quests to head into an enemy camp, kill however many things and loot however many whatsits, are proving to be absolutely brutal, especially solo. Time-to-kill on a single mob is far longer than I’ve ever experienced in the landscape to date, and too often I find myself swarmed and executed without a way out.
As an MMO player, I am no stranger to difficult games. Probably the most challenging I’ve played in recent years was The Secret World, an MMO that seemed to revel in beating you up and making you inch toward progress. Yet as long as I see a way forward, as long as there’s some way to accomplish my goal, I’ll grit my teeth and soldier on. It’s when a game stonewalls me with near-impossible content and takes on an unfair attitude that I find myself seething with anger and frustration.
You see, there’s this tipping point between fun and frustration that happens when an MMO becomes unbalanced in its world questing. I recently encountered this in RIFT: Starfall Prophecy, as a matter of fact. I love that MMO, but the devs vastly overtuned mobs and densely packed them in with this expansion as a response to player complaints of the game being too easy. Instead of careful, measured adjustments, a wild swing the other way happened and I was left with an unfun slog through otherwise interesting stories and areas.
I’m concerned that Mordor has tipped the other way here. I can get over the oppressive nature of the country (that kind of came with the territory, if you’ll excuse the pun). I find the lore and “off-road” storytelling pretty fascinating so far. But I’m starting to dread logging in at night to do these quests because I just don’t know if I’ll be able to do them. They’re not enjoyable and that’s a problem.
A light in the darkness
This isn’t to say that all questing has been the pits. Actually, because of this increased difficulty, there has been a noticeable spike in spontaneous formation of player groups around some of the trickier areas. Some of the best fun I’ve had in this expansion has been hanging out with groups of other players, turning the tide on the enemy and finishing quests with ease.
And again, I know what you’re thinking. “That’s the whole point of MMOs! Social bonding! Working together!” We can debate that later, but the problem here is twofold: This standard content should be soloable if desired, and finding a group in LOTRO is not always easy.
Need a group to help you in a very specific area? LFF, the group finder, and even shouting into regional chat has provided me nothing in this regard. The only way I have ever found a group in Mordor to date is to keep my eyes open for another player heading in and frantically tossing him or her a group invite to see if they might want company for self-preservation. That’s the only way. And that is so unreliable and low-tech that it makes me want to scream.
Maybe it gets better. Maybe when I hit level 115, have gear to match, and have essences up the wazoo, these mobs will become manageable. That’s my hope, at least. For now, the slow slog through ash and brutality continues. And for this, I paid $40.