Turbine lets us continue our voyage through Middle-Earth, arriving to the part of Rohan we had not visited yet.
It’s the region of the Mark where we can find the capital city of Edoras and, even more important, Helm’s Deep, the site of the first great battle in The Lord of the Rings novel. It’s no coincidence that this expansion is named after it.
The Story Continues
Just to start this LOTRO Helms Deep Review, Turbine shows us what they excel at: taking places and events from The Lord of the Rings and build every part of its game on them: instances, parallel stories, chain missions and much more. The main story will start again where we left it: Wormtongue convinced King Théoden to cast our character and his/her companions out of Edoras… but the scheme of that wretched traitor is about to be unveiled.
Once again we are summoned in the great Golden Hall of Meduseld, just in time to witness the famous event where Gandalf the White (along with Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli) unmasks Grima Wormtongue and heals King Théoden from his vile poisoning. The King recovers his strength and acknowledges the desperate state of his kingdom, so he decides to guide the troops to Helm’s Deep, leaving Lady Éowyn to take care of the evacuation, not only of Edoras but of the towns and villages of the entire Mark… and of course it will be our task to help her in her duty.
Riding our faithful steed, we will cross vast plains, rolling hills and streams; we will come across free-range horses, farms, villages and other wooden buildings: this is the recurring scenery of this expansion… a scenery dotted by hostile orcs and dunlendings (and we will have to kill throngs of them to complete the related deeds).
The quests are very well streamlined and take advantage of instanced zones like the Mead Halls and the proximity feature that allows certain NPCs to appear only when and where needed: this gives a sense of liveliness to the environment, where it seems that our actions really shape the world that surrounds us. During our adventures, we can also get quests from shining items scattered through the landscape, from specific quest-object dropped by mobs we will, or simply auto-bestowed quests when we are in a certain location. The devs have worked hard during the years to get this degree of streamlining, so we can assert that getting to the new level cap at 95 (10 additional levels) will not be a problem for anyone: you just have to go with the flow and enjoy the story unfolding all around you.
So Many Trees
No, we are not talking about Fangorn forest or the Ents (even if they will be there, of course). The trees we are referring to are the new skill trees, introduced with this expansion: a revamp for the skills of every class was long due, and this has been done replacing the former class traits with brand new skill trees, much like those you can find in several other MMORPGs. Actually, there were too many combat powers for each class (save the Warden, with his gambits), and you used to have most of your quickbars full of skills that remained unused, for the most part.
Now every class has been revised from top to toe, so that each one of them has three paths that partially reflect the existing ones. Every character will be required to follow one of them, but there are two tabs to start with (and a third one can be acquired with Mithril Coins, a sort of intermediate currency you can buy with Turbine Points), so you are able to switch from one to another with but a click. Since some skills are available only for a certain path, the way a character approaches combat can dramatically change.
As a result, we have a leaner combat system, with less skills to use (one bar, one bar and half at most); on the other hand, it turns out to be a bit restrictive in other parts. You cannot mix bonuses of different paths (something that could have provided interesting combinations), just buy skills from your two secondary paths for twice the cost of the primary. This way, when your character reaches the level cap, you will have maximized the primary path and spent some points for a few skills of the other ones, and there will be really no alternative to this choice, somewhat forced, in practice if not in theory.
On the bright side, the revamped class system introduced many new deeds, and that means many “free” Turbine Points for those who had multiple characters at high levels.
This is not the only tree we will have to deal with, though: all those who played the previous expansion “Riders of Rohan” will remember the mounted combat tree for our warhorse. And in “Helm’s Deep” we will need to skill up another tree for the new game mode: the Epic Battles.
To Helm’s Deep
So our quests have taken us to the arrival point of this expansion, Helm’s Deep. All instances of the new game mode (and, in fact, the current end game content) take place here.
But Helm’s Deep can be considered also a starting point, since you can access the Epic Battles from level 10. Of course you will not be as effective as a character at level cap, since you’ll be artificially brought to level 95 with a suitable equipment, but without traits, skills and other bonuses to help you. But this “early access” lets us play the new contents while we are still leveling up our character, and we can begin to collect points for the Epic Battle tree… and we will need a lot of them.
In this game mode, we will be able to take on three different roles (Vanguard, Engineer and Officer), and only acquiring skill in these branches we will become more useful on the battleground, able to perform our specific duty, not to be a weak factotum any longer.
Epic Battles resembles Skirmishes (the game mode of quick battles/adventures introduced with the Mirkwood expansion) in many ways, but they are different in the sense that this time we will be just part of a wider scenario: we will be able to affect the outcome, but only up to a certain point.
As outlined above, we will have three different options (which are NOT mutually exclusive): fight on the front line and help the soldiers of Rohan take down as many waves of enemies as possible; give orders to the commanders scattered on the field: each one of them commands a small company of men, and will relay our orders to attack/defend/heal and more, actually making them more effective in the fight; the last option is to build and man siege engines on the fortifications (like ballistae, catapults, sliding rocks): this is the only option that lets us target the orcs that are beyond normal reach, waiting to join the fray.
Those faraway orcs, along with the continuous din of weapons and shouts all around, are the elements that make us feel like we are in a battle; seen from a distance, those throngs of enemies are quite a sight, even if you can interact with them only through the siege engines, but the devs at Turbine kept their words and gave us a feeling of enemies filling up the screen.
During the battle, there will be also specific events we will have to face, both to gain points and to avoid a negative influence on the general outcome.
The problem of Epic Battles, though, is their repetitiveness: usually we will find ourselves fighting mechanically just waiting for the next event to happen, and we will have to do this time and time again if we want to accrue the necessary points to fill our skill tree and be more effective. All five Epic Battles of Helm’s Deep can be accessed in solo/duo mode, while three of them can be played respectively in small fellowship (3), fellowship (6) and raid (12) mode. This is constantly turning LotRO to the solo play, since the only reason to play in a group is to get the medals related to the group modes.
Currently, the Epic Battles also suffer from the presence of bugs: for example, the enemies might remain stock-still in the middle of the battle, with no apparent target, even while you are attacking them.
All things considered, it’s difficult to find something ground-breaking in this expansion, except for the class revamp. The rest just follows a pre-determined path, with nothing standing out.
Of course it’s fascinating to be on the walls of Helm’s Deep, listening to Legolas and Gimli quarrel about the number of orcs they are killing, but if I have to put up with it ten or even twenty times to earn all the medals of that particular Epic battle, it might get boring.
LOTRO is still one of the best MMO out of an important franchise, but if Turbine wants to keep or even gain players, they need to try and introduce new, interesting features or improve the existing ones, Right now it seems they are just anchoring their players to a greater grinding.
- Reduced number of combat powers for every class
- Well-articulated story, with many references to the books
- New contents accessible from level 10
- Epic Battles would not be that bad, if they weren’t so mechanical.
- Solo play predominant
- Too many “trees”
- More and more grinding