LOTRO: Helm’s Deep Review – The Weak Point in the Wall

Peer closer, though, and you’ll see that the sprites are only marching a few paces at a time rather than racing toward you. Occasional bugs pop up, such as the way side quests won’t unlock or ballista missiles will clearly hit units visually but they won’t affect anything. At times I felt it would have been better implemented as a raid, but instead Turbine made the dicey decision to make your Big Battle specialization of Officer, Engineer, or Vanguard a class in itself, complete with their own talent trees that demand leveling separate from your main character. It all feels a little too cumbersome. This, alas, is the common theme with Lord of the Rings Online. It’s the Leonard Cohen of MMORPGs—the good ideas are there, the soul and intellect not far behind, but inevitably some other MMORPG will come along and perform it better. Still, it’s touches like this that keep me coming back to LOTRO, even when games like Guild Wars 2 or the revamped Final Fantasy XIV promise greater visuals and clearer gameplay. However crudely implemented, it smacks of the innovation so many players call for in contemporary MMORPGs, and its originality serves as yet another life jacket that keeps Turbine’s game from drowning under the tides of an increasingly flooded market.

That’s why it’s so bizarre that the awards for participating in Big Battles suck so badly. They’re limited to jewelry, and that’s a sin in a game that thrives on cosmetic pleasures such as dressing like Aragorn or living in hobbit holes. The Riders of Rohan expansion, as with so many other things, had it right: there, the awards focused not only on endgame gear but Rohirrim furniture and even kegs and firepits for the in-game housing. Helm’s Deep, however, wants us to grind for hours to amass gear that no one will ever see. That’s bad enough when we’re trying to impress our friends, but it’s even worse when the noobies running around Bree see little new to strive for. It’s possible Turbine will reveal new cosmetic choices in a widely rumored housing update, but if so, it’s a blow that we don’t see it here.

So what do we see? For one, there’s Meduseld, the great hall of Edoras itself, which looks like anything but movie Saruman’s “thatched barn where brigands drink in the reek and the brats roll on the floor with the dogs.” It’s stunning, frankly, down to the little details such as the runes carved on the floor to the tapestries depicting Rohirrim history lined along the walls. It may be the best thing I’ve seen in an MMORPG all year. To a lesser extent, this ecstatic detail continues outside, where some forest scenes attain almost photorealistic vivacity and DirectX 11 visuals allow the grasses of Rohan to swish around the legs of horses. Rohan is beautiful, and its cities and roads make even the redesigned Bree look like concept art.

Which is why I hate zooming in on the character faces. Even more so than World of Warcraft, Lord of the Rings Online’s character models are due for a facelift. Nothing about the game is so jarring as looking past the exquisitely detailed cosmetic armor set that came with the premium edition and beholding the polygon-poor textures of my elf’s face. Frodo could have hardly shuddered more when he saw Sauron peering at him after donning the ring. The disconnect between the character models and the realism of Rohan’s structures hurts Lord of the Rings Online more than any other feature right now, and I suspect that a good update could bring back enough players to rival Saruman’s White Hand army in size.

Indeed, one of the more unfortunate aspects of Helm’s Deep is that you can’t help but feel some of the pressure Turbine must be under. Gone, for instance, is Chance Thomas’ wonderful score for Riders of Rohan, in its place is a serviceable but disappointing assortment of music by in-house composer Stephen DiGregorio. I felt Thomas’ absence most strongly when I accidentally ventured into East Rohan during one of the new quests and my excitement and desire to run galloping about on my warhorse surged once I heard his choral arrangements and frenetic battle music. It’s a significant absence. After the epic feels of Riders of Rohan’s new mounted combat and Thomas’ music, venturing into the thick of things in East Rohan feels like a step down when it should be the climax.

You feel the strain elsewhere. Turbine may have done away with petty annoyances like travel rations, but it created more problems by bumping up the costs for almost all of LOTRO’s conveniences. The cost of using premium mithril coins for quick travel to quest objectives, for instance, has leapt up to 5 mithril coins. Turbine at last implemented some expansions for storage in player housing, but complicated it by charging obscene mithril coin costs for them. Considering that 100 mithril coins costs around 10 bucks, conveniences take a heavier toll than they ever have before.

Helm’s Deep manages to be a decent expansion in spite of such annoyances, but it’s the same brand of ephemeral fun that’s defined the MMORPG since its transition to free-to-play. No other game does such a good job of bringing Tolkien’s world to life (even if it populates it with Silly Putty faces), and it’s a credit to the team that the storyline manages to remain fascinating despite the humdrum nature of its subject matter. The problem is that, as before, it’s a design best suited to a single player game rather than an MMO, particularly since Helm’s Deep shipped with no instance clusters to provide secondary activities at endgame.

Helm’s Deep isn’t LOTRO’s finest expansion, but it must be commended for attempting to break out of the single player trap and push us towards fellowships of our own with its Big Battles. The problem with the big battles of Helm’s Deep is that it’s a story we all know, and it’s possible the concept could have been stronger if Turbine had included other battles from Middle Earth’s history for variety. All too quickly, the repetition grows tiring and the appeal wears thin, and that’s true of the questing content as well. Leveling from 85-95 scratched my itch for more Tolkien lore, but it focused too heavily on busy work. Much like Eowyn, it leaves us asking why we’re tasked with the busywork while the men get to go out and fight.

Pros:

  • Beautiful exteriors and interiors, particularly for the Great Hall of Edoras
  • Quests are generally well-written
  • Big Battles can be fun when played in large groups

Cons:

  • New music a severe step down from Chance Thomas’ score for Riders of Rohan
  • Characters feel overpowered
  • Big battles are not as fun solo, and full of bugs in general
  • No new raids or instances (apart from Big Battles)
  • Streamlined class trees sacrifice considerable build variety

Final Score: 64/100

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3 Comments on LOTRO: Helm’s Deep Review – The Weak Point in the Wall

rickshaw

On December 13, 2013 at 7:59 pm

Nice review :)

Leif Johnson

On December 14, 2013 at 7:53 am

Thanks!

Guy

On January 3, 2014 at 9:54 am

Yes very good review if only they had made alternative battles as you mentioned things could have been totally different.