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r1ft Gaming Blog

A mirror of my gaming blog at r1ft.com. The jaded game designer turned corporate lackey. Feedback is always welcome.

Author: Daedren

Let's Go, Maggots! A Look at LOTRO's PVP System

Posted by Daedren Thursday April 3 2008 at 5:45AM
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hobbit1.jpgIn the alternate Turbine universe of Middle Earth, a few things have changed. No longer does a simple Hobbit need to fear an orc - or anything, actually, given the right archetype choice. In this alternate universe, instead of growing crops and enjoying an ale at the Dragon, a Hobbit can stand in the middle of the fight even with a mighty Balrog as their Elf and Dwarf friends cower in fear. Though the land has changed and simple Hobbits have transformed into fearless juggernauts, there still might be a few Uruk's and company in the land of the Ettenmoor's to give the once-lowly Hobbits a run for their money.

If I could pick one game of all time that so blatantly "slapped on" Player vs Player combat in an MMO, LOTRO would be hands-down the winner. It needs to be said, though, that Turbine didn't beat around the bush at all when they introduced the "Monster Play" option in their game: announced at the last minute, they've stated PVP will never be the focus of the game. Keep that in mind as we look at PVP in the realm of Drodos, Fegolas' and Randalfs.

monsterplay.jpgPVP is a bit different in LOTRO - you can effectively play "the bad guys" - that is, a minion of Sauron. There's no grey area in who or what you are - you're born for destruction and serving the Dark Lord. Once you hit level 10 on your normal LOTRO character (called Freeps, short for Free Peoples) -- you can go make a Creep (Creep as in bad guy) - choices as of writing are an Orc Reaver, Spider Weaver, Uruk Blackarrow or Warleader, or a Warg - with a 6th choice coming soon in the Defiler (healer/support type Orcses - more on him later). You start at maximum level (50) and progress by ranking up your character via infamy, which you get from killing Freeps.

The PVP Frontier, the Ettenmoors, has 5 keeps that can be controlled and protected by inept NPC guards. Book 12 introduced a feature allowing the side that controls the most keeps to enter a PVE/PvMP Dungeon "The Delving of Fror" which is used to get an inferior Freep armor set and some skill upgrades for the friendly Uruks and Orcs of Middle Earth. This has received mainly negative reviews, as it introduced another PVE element into what should have been a PVP-heavy zone. Also, it being named "DF" makes you wonder if any developer at Turbine has ever played another game other than Dark Age of Camelot. If it was a homage, it was a poor one at that. (DF was "Darkness Falls" in DAoC - a huge underground zone controlled via PVP... coincidence - perhaps.)

spider_weaver.jpgThe Creep side has a definite different feel to it which I think Turbine has done pretty well. There's a lot of shouting, grunting and general nastiness that you'd expect to find while playing one of Sauron's minions. However, there is a serious lack of character customization on the Creep side. This can be slightly mitigated later with new appearances you can buy (at higher ranks) ; the fact remains is that two characters with the same appearance Trait will look exactly the same. This might have been ok in 1998 or so, but 10 years later and heading into "3rd Generation MMO's" - it's a bit disconcerting playing a character / faction that you can't even choose a different face or skin color.

Mordikay says: "There are various quests for creeps - boring but needed - for any serious PvP'r as they will allow you to gain "maps" to quickly teleport around to hotspots on the map. This is the "fast travel" system for Creeps, as they can't ride wargs or such as Freeps can ride ponies and horses. The more quests done per region the better maps, meaning a nearly endless amount of grinding is needed at a excruciating slow pace. The real fun, of course, is to kill the enemy and gain infamy/renown. This is used to rank up with in a simple progression system - the more you get the higher ranks. Ranking up is very important to Creeps - even though you start at lvl 50 you have virtually no stats or skills - and to survive and do well you'll need more ranks. This is the "grind" of playing a Creep.

uruk_black.jpgThere is a stark contrast between playing a Freep and a Creep. You can tell right away that the Creep side is much less "polished" than the Freep side. As a full-time Creep you'll only have, at most, 6-8 skills to use, where as running around on a Freep you'll be lucky if you use less than 20. The PVE aspect of the Creep side is pretty straightforward: capture this keep, kill these things, collect X number of body parts from whoever. Earning money on a Creep is pretty much a grind-fest, but it's very needed to have cash if you want to succeed as a Creep. Cash gets you potions that allow you to break out of crowd-control abilities (which will be covered later) and is also needed to slot all of the abilities you get when ranking up your Creep. Basically, earning cash is mind numbingly dull, especially if you're a support class. The best thing to do is find friends, join a Warband or find something sharp to gouge into your eye.

Mordikay says: Design: To put it very simple, PvMP was a last minute addition to LOTRO and in my eyes never really thought through. Maybe Turbine wanted another label tag to their game(PVP) for financial reasons. What I bet they didn't count on was the Ettenmoors (PVP) would be a success. By success I don't mean that in the sense that it was well made, balanced or original; just by pure interest and population of people going there and want to play that part of the game. This has complicated things now as they can no longer use simple logic like: We give Freeps the damage and Creeps the HP to take it. The scale of people now interested now have a large enough voice to not be ignored anymore. In short: this part of the game has a lot of work in store if it wants to be successful in the realm of true PVP.

orcfight-full.jpgOn to the good stuff. First impressions of PVP in this game as a Creep are clear: there is a horrible issue with PVP balancing in this game. Fret not; things do get better. A fresh Rank 0 Creep is not supposed to be able to go one-on-one with a Freep and win. You'll find yourself cannon-fodder most of the time. Your damage output, no matter what class you play, will be crap. The game really comes alive once you start gaining ranks and adding on some of your PVP traits. You live longer, do more damage, and have better utility. You'll go from a 4K Life Reaver that hits with a wet noodle to a 6500+ Life Reaver that hits with a bundle of at least semi-rough uncooked pasta. I said things got better: I didn't say things got completely balanced.

Mordikay: Balance: Turbine has also stated on several occasions that LOTRO is a PVE game. No Creep will stand a slim on taking on any Freep class 1vs1 before atleast rank 3 and most likely not until after rank 5 if the Freep player has decent gear. This makes you canon fodder until you have spend X amount of time ranking up. A few things you will quickly notice if you decide to roll up a Creep: Loremasters Blantant abuse of insane amount of Crowd controll abilities (talking multiple 30+ second roots and mezzes, long stuns, etc - even an 8 person aoe root!), Burglars being practically unkillable and focus fire from a Hunter that does insane damage and has the ability to instantly teleport to safety if things go bad.
So, in Turbine's take of Middle Earth - not only are Hobbits 3 feet of Doom to any Orc they come across - but the bad guys - Orcs, Uruks, and crew - hit like little bitches. Quite an odd interpretation in my opinion. I had the impression that Orcs and Uruks were huge, mean, crush-Hobbit-heads sort of things. Instead, they've been given less damage than their Freep counterparts but compensated by having more Hit Points. I guess they weren't inspired by the Movie Trilogy - by Return of the King, Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas were pretty much "one-shotting" anything they even looked at.

Continuing down this trail of baffling logic, Turbine has announced they are including a Creep healer/support/debuffing class, the Defiler, in an upcoming update. The Creeps currently have one "Healer" type class in the Warleader - though, by Freep standards, is quite a poor healer, though can survive a good beating and has a few functional support abilities. The Warleader healer abilities are stuff like "On your feet!" and stuff that basically whips their comrades back into fighting. I think that's good, as it's somewhat realistic and you don't expect an Uruk to run around whistling dixie or studying the lost art of spiritual healing to help people out.

frog.jpgThe Defiler brings another support class to the table, which is good by traditional "even the playing field" standards but horrible when it comes to logic or lore in the game. Turbine has taken away the fun part of being the "bad guys" - that is, charging in and trying to slaughter stuff - and has implemented some weird sort of mechanic where they think that Orcs and Uruks and Spiders living longer and still doing piss-all for damage as yet another 3 foot tall cherub burglar-boy can survive for 60 seconds with 20 orcs hitting him and then just vanish into thin air - hit another button - and do it all again - is perfectly fine. (And if Frodo would have rolled a Turbine Burglar, he could have solo'd all the way to Mount Doom)

Turbine's take on PVP is pretty much this: all being equal, the good guys should win. Upper management clearly had a problem with the bad guys being able to win. This isn't as bad as it sounds. The harsh reality is that all things are usually not equal, and it's usually the person with the biggest zerg that wins. This can be offset, however, with superior fighting tactics on either side. Lucky for Creeps is that the tactical superiority usually lies on the Creep side. The debate is open on why exactly this is. It could be an effect of the Underdog Complex; or, maybe, most the people that enjoy and are good at PVP - or even the fact that only clueless idiots play Freeps in PVP. Most likely it's a combination of all three.

Originality: while at first glance, the PVP system seems a bit unique as you can hit level 10, click Monster Play and go play a bad guy that is maxed level. Other than that, we're looking at a PVP system that is basically a watered down version of DAoC's RVR Keep system in almost every way. At game launch, the PVP system was little-used as there were no 40+ Freeps running around. Little by little, though, Turbine is making at least a minimal effort to keep the loyal PVPers happy. The lead PVP developer (or Community Manager - not sure) named Orion has his work cut out from him as he seems to be the only person in Turbine with even a remote grasp of what PVP should be. His forum posts and ideas for PVP are often gone unheard or terribly misunderstood; for example, it took over a year to get infamy/renown split evenly across a raid; before, damage dealers were at a huge advantage and healer/support classes gained minimal amounts of each, a huge oversight that cost those that like support classes numerous hours of grinding and frustration trying to progress in PVP. The biggest problem with this new PVP content being added, though, is bugs.

Mordikay says: Turbine is doing an OK job at getting their bugs spotted - tetting them fixed is an entirely different story. It basically works like this: A new Book (content patch) comes out and bring 20+ bugs. They then spend three months up until the next Book is scheduled to come out and fix 15 of them. The new Book comes out and bring 20+ new bugs. Repeat. In the end, we're left with a buggy PVP system that is frustrating to play. These aren't small bugs, either: we're talking stuff like nerfing the only real instant attack for Wargs to take 2-3 seconds to "activate" - meaning hitting moving targets is virtually impossible. All in all, PVP is more of an afterthought from a support perspective from Turbine. What'd you expect? This is a PVE game.

troll.jpgTroll/Ranger play: You can spend Destiny Points (a kind of PVP currency) to enable a one-hour session playing a Troll (for the Creeps) or a Ranger (for the Freeps). I can honestly say that this is probably the only area in "PvMP" that actually favors the Creeps - that is, barring a couple Loremasters aren't around. While Rangers have a lot of hit points and the ability to basically kill someone in one shot every 5 minutes - Trolls have the ability to take a lot of damage, dish it out very well, and do some nice AOE stuff. They are invaluable for keep retaking as they can aggro 10 or so Guards and kill them or hold aggro on them very well. (Creeps have no effective taunt skill, yay). However, they are incredibly vulnerable to Freep Loremaster "Power Drain" ability. Clearly Gandalf should have used that ability against the Troll in Moria.

The PVP Ranking system offers a unique and new way to see who the biggest assholes on the server are. The "Star" system works by giving you points for killing an enemy and subtracting points when you die. You can have up to 5 stars - meaning you kill a lot, but rarely (or never) die. So, as you might have guessed by now, this means that if you won the PVP Archetype Lottery (aka rolled a Burglar or a Hunter) - Congratulations! You can now do whatever the hell you want and escape at will. Having Stars as a Freep is basically a rating system saying "How big of a coward am I?" - the more stars, the bigger the coward, usually. This, of course, has exceptions - if you see a Champion running around with 4+ Stars, you can safely assume either he had a bunch of his Freep friends let him kill them over an over (as Creeps), or he is really good at hit and run tactics. Generally, Creeps with Stars are rare (other than Wargs) and even max rank Creeps are lucky to have more than 1-2 Stars.

Motivation: the biggest asset that Creeps have, in general, is that Freep players don't really want to or need to PVP. The Freep PVP rewards are vastly inferior to level 50 dungeon / instance gear. This means that during off-peak hours, Keeps are usually held by the Creeps, as Creeps really have nothing else to do. When a Freep Raid or 3 comes in to play, they usually do a quick take of 3-5 Keeps and then head into the Delving Fror to do some more PVE content. As the Creeps take the Keeps back, this pisses the Freeps off, who then exit DF and zerg around the map capturing Keeps again. This is the only motivation to really capture Keeps - to enable PVE content. Inside the DF itself, where the two factions can fight - is usually horribly imbalanced in the Freeps favor as Creep players, outside of Warbands, usually don't spend too much time there.

So what does all of this mean? What's an average night of PVP like? Depending on the server, from a Creep perspective, it's pretty much group up or get ganked. "Grom's Camping" - that is, a good number of Freeps waiting just outside the safety of the Creep's homebase - is rampant on a lot of servers. This means take a few steps out the door and you're toast. If they have a Loremaster, which they usually do, you're looking at about 15-30 seconds of standing and doing nothing while Frododoc and his merry band of Burglars mince you to death with absolute impunity. If there are a good number of Creeps, you'll zerg around from keep to keep and take them back; that is, until a force of about half your raid decides to either defend or make your life miserable. Don't fret, though - with good leadership and some good, ranked Creeps, Creeps can hold their own. Unfortunately, with even numbers, superior tactics sometimes won't be enough to balance the fights that are obviously favored in the Freep direction.


swarm.jpg

Zerg tactics (that is - a mass swarm of people) are most effective, and if properly led, devastating. As in other MMO's, often he with the best (or biggest) zerg usually wins. With the inferiority scale tipped in the Creeps way, it's an Underdog lovers dream.

Mordikay says: I like to play underdog PVP in MMO's - and I can say that if you do play a Creep you will be outnumbered, outgunned and feel worthless for at least the first few days. However, you will be able to have fun and even be victorious. The team play and organization (and usually the maturity level) is higher on the Creep side, or least it seems so. The despair of battle against the Freeps creates a unique experience that can do well forging good social relationships.

In conclusion, while PVP in LOTRO can bring a good deal of fun and healthy distraction from a mainly PVE based game, it still lacks the sort of design and overall "Fun Factor" that many PVPers seek. The risk vs. reward is pretty much non-existent and any sort of end-game or long term goals as a Creep pretty much consist of zerging around a map capturing keeps. At the end of the day LOTRO is still primarily a PVE game and that must not be forgotten. Unless major changes are made, perhaps in the upcoming Moria expansion, Ettenmoors will become a barren, empty place as most PVP-lovers will have ventured off into Age of Conan or Warhammer Online. While this might not spell direct doom for LOTRO, it'll take a good chunk of the playerbase who has found a home in the land of the Ettenmoors.

Edit: Looks like Turbine has read my post! Take this survey to tell them what you think of the PvMP system in LOTRO.

This article originally appeared at the r1ft gaming blog (http://www.r1ft.com) and is mirrored here with the permission of the author(s).