LOTRO: Helm’s Deep Review – The Weak Point in the Wall
Atwald the minstrel, jerk that he is, showed his face about three hours into my playthrough of Helm’s Deep. Not for him the mundane tasks of picking eight flowers for medicine or slicing hides off of six deer—oh, no. “Is this really and truly how you chose to spend your time?” he asks, mocking my participation in another fetch quest. “I could never abide such wretched dullness.” For him, only the sight of heads popping off of orcs like so many champagne corks justifies a song from his harp. Atwald’s a choad, but I’m inclined to agree with him.
So much of Lord of the Rings Online: Helm’s Deep requires doing the dirty work of evacuating Rohan, and after I’d encountered the fourth stubborn thane I understood why Peter Jackson had injected a noncanonical warg attack into this mess and spent 20 minutes building up to Aragorn swaggering through the gates of the Hornburg. Tolkien’s books had no such frippery, and so Turbine insists we have little of it here. Still, there’s fun here on the path the Mordor, and Turbine handles the lore with the same obvious affection it always has. Pity, then, that the whole still suffers from the same fatiguing sense of middleness known all too well from the books and movies.
Lord of the Rings Online: Helm’s Deep
Platform: PC (Reviewed)
Developer: Turbine, Inc.
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive
Release Date: Nov. 18, 2013
Western Rohan isn’t the only thing in upheaval. Infamous for their predilection for refunding the points in their labyrinthine trait systems, Turbine scrapped the entire leveling setup for talent trees reminiscent of those found in other MMOs. It’s largely a nice touch. I suspect many players follow my practice of dropping into LOTRO only on occasion, and the switch ensured that the transition back was less painful than it’d been in the past. It’s a system that’s clearly designed to appeal to an increasingly fickle and wandering MMO playerbase, but it unfortunately has the effect of scrapping the hybrid builds possible under the previous design.
A pity, but I can’t say I saw a significant difference in my hunter’s gameplay after the switch. (I hear the news is far more dire for players of wardens and champions, although I had little experience with them myself during my playthrough.) Indeed, I found the ease with which I adapted to be a testament to how much thought Turbine put into making the transition relatively seamless. The loss of variety stings, but the shift may promise good things for LOTRO in the future. What, doesn’t, unfortunately, is the way the new builds seem out of sync with the monsters you encounter. LOTRO always had a difficulty curve that made it slightly more challenging than its cousins, but in Helm’s Deep, I felt all but invincible on account on the farcical force of the redesigned abilities.
I may have ragged on Atwald at the beginning, but by and large Helm’s Deep retains the quality of writing that’s always made Lord of the Rings Online such a treat for Tolkien fans. Aside from a sense that it’s over far too quickly for a 10-level journey, its failures ultimately spring from the necessities of the subject rather than from Turbine’s efforts. This is a tale of endless evacuations, with each new quest sending you off like an Ardan Paul Revere across the marches. You’ll water crops and pull weeds for concerned farmers at Edoras, you’ll dig around in junk to solve a property dispute between brothers, and you’ll carry news to mead halls so deep in the backwoods that they might still think Helm Hammerhand remains king. You’ll fight, too, but it always seems secondary. Even the soloable warbands that made the previous expansion’s mounted combat so enjoyable take a back seat here to group warbands that no one ever seems to attack.
It’s at its best when experienced through the new epic story that comes bundled with the purchase of the expansion, whether it’s in the sight of Gandalf’s famed exorcism of Theoden or in Turbine’s own unique content. It’s good stuff, but not without its flaws. The long chain of delivery quests culminates in a quest that borders on satire, where Aragorn bids you carry a barrel of weapons on foot across the whole valley between Helm’s Dike and Helm’s Deep, up the stairs, and toward the back of the Hornburg. I’ve seen some stinkers in my time, but this must be the dullest “FedEx” quest I’ve ever seen in an massively multiplayer online roleplaying game. “Wretched dullness,” indeed.
Good thing, then, that what comes after it one of the best group activities LOTRO’s had since they decided to ditch raids, even if it comes nowhere near to effectively replacing them. The Hornburg is the site of LOTRO’s new descriptively named “Big Battles,” and they pit one, three, six, or 12 players against what actually looks like the might of Saruman’s army despite the dated graphics engine. It’s more concerned with barking out orders to NPC commanders in one of three roles than actual fighting, although there’s plenty of that. Rather dull and slow when played solo, they grow more fun with the more people there are, and when everyone knows the tricks of ordering units about, building and firing catapults and ballistae, knocking down ladders and building barricades, and even partaking in the occasional side quest, it can build to a frenzy that makes it worth fighting for a platinum rating. Even better, Turbine made the wise decision to allow players fight them as early as level 10.