Over the past three months, I’ve been exclusively playing on the Anor progression server in Lord of the Rings Online. During that time, I’ve taken my Hobbit Minstrel from 1 to 50, gone through most of Volume 1 of the epic quest, and finished up 10 of the 11 zones that made up the Shadows of Angmar content.
As we start to get ready for the doors of Moria to open once more, I had a few thoughts — lessons, really — that I wanted to share from this special journey back through the early areas of one of my all-time favorite MMORPGs.
1. LOTRO’s storytelling has gotten better over the years…
Going back to the beginning can be a dicey prospect for MMOs. The nostalgia may be strong, but the quality is not always there. After all, Eregion represents the 2007-08 era of the game, and aside from minor cosmetic touches and the occasional quest rework, it has aged accordingly.
One of the most significant signs of this aging that I noticed is in the storytelling in these 11 zones. They are… adequate, to be fair. A few tales (especially ones with Hobbits) were amusing or memorable. But there is so much filler and so many rote quests that were designed back when The Burning Crusade was the hot new thing in some other MMO. I found a large contrast between the stories I had been experiencing in Updates 22 and 23 and the lands of the Shire and Trollshaws. Scripting wasn’t used as much, nor was there as great an effort to introduce quest variety and environmental storytelling as there eventually would be in the game.
In short, hundreds and hundreds of quests later, and only about six or seven really stand out in my head as being worth telling. Even the first volume of the epic only had a couple of high points. Alas, the quantity-to-quality ratio feels very askew here.
2. …but its old world is still an enchanting place to explore
That said, I wasn’t bored nor feeling deprived during these past few months. Re-exploring the old world alongside many other adventurers created a great mix of nostalgia and company, and that kept me pumped. I found myself amazed over and over at how expansive and engaging the actual world of Middle-earth is, even when you limit it to Eriador.
There are the lush lands of the Shire and Ered Luin, the autumnal beauty of the Trollshaws, the remote wilderness of Forochel, the surprisingly huge realm of Bree-lands, and so on. I kept finding new nooks and crannies to visit that I had never seen before and kept getting off the beaten track to see what else was out there.
3. There is way too much travel involved
When the LOTRO community first went through Eriador, it had two years to get through these lands at a much slower pace than what we have today. The developers kept reusing areas and locations in its epic story, and backtracking was par for the course. That might have been fine back then, but today it’s incredibly noticeable in how frequent long-distance travel is required for both regular and epic questing.
Let me put it this way: I invested in five milestones and both cooldown reductions (taking it down to a five-minute reset), and even I felt annoyed at how many times the game kept asking me “Now go HERE and then back THERE and then HERE again.” Only the advance knowledge that we’d be asked a million times to return to Rivendell, Evendim, and Angmar kept me from hours spent wasted on horseback. There are far too many quests that have you waste a milestone cooldown or go on a long horse ride only to reach an NPC, get a short dialogue, and then be sent all the way back from whence you came. If SSG was ever to revise its questing flow in Eriador — which I sincerely doubt it ever would — trimming the travel fat would be my number one request.
4. It makes me grateful for quality-of-life improvements
While it might be tempting to bag on LOTRO for its older and creakier elements, I actually came away from these months of adventuring feeling rather grateful of how many improvements have been put into the game since launch. Maybe one of these days I’ll do an article contrasting the launch version to what we have now, but quality-of-life tweaks such as automatic looting, the Old Forest map, more travel options, housing, faster combat (ugh this game’s fights used to be so slow, you have no idea) and so on make for a better journey overall.
5. The community hasn’t grown bored with this experiment yet
When the progression servers were first announced, there was some strong vocal pushback from players who predicted an early demise to the shards and a mass exodus from established realms. Neither of these have panned out, to my knowledge; the progression servers are still going pretty strong with established communities, as are the regular servers.
What I do see, however, is a continued passion for progressing together. It’s cool that a lot of our discussion in chat has to deal with the content that we’re mutually experiencing, and groups are forming (and even using the instance finder!) to run dungeons all the time, even though loot is not that great (or existent) at these levels.
One of my kinmates is pushing hard to get one of every class up to level 50 by the time Moria unlocks, and if that’s not insane dedication, I don’t know what is. If SSG would develop better communication discipline, it might be able to take this dedication and fuel it even more. As it is, the community will do what it always does best in LOTRO: keep walking down that road.