Updated Tue, Jul 17, 2012 by gunky
The mounted combat system coming in the Lord of the Rings Online's fall expansion, Riders of Rohan, is a pretty big deal. It is a huge new game mechanic being welded on to the 5-year-old frame of this still-fantastic game, and it is going to change the way players experience everything in Rohan.
Benjamin J. de la Durantaye got invited to explore an alpha build of Rohan with Aaron Campbell, Senior Producer for LotRO, who was eager to show off all the cool stuff coming this September. Being the generous type, Ben managed to finagle me into the session as well, and we both got pre-made characters - Ben's was a Champion, mine was a Hunter. The obvious focus of this session, of course, was the mounted combat, so Aaron spent some time explaining the mechanics of this new system to us.
The new war steeds are not your standard horse. For starters, they have much more morale - the amount of damage they can take before the rider is dismounted. My character's mount actually had more morale than my character did. They also have stats for Strength and Agility, the same as a character, and these stats control things like acceleration and turning rate.
War steeds are as fully-customizable as the character who rides them. They have different cosmetic armors they can wear with a drag-and-drop appearance menu, with slots for hide color, barding, head armor and other stuff.
"If you previously purchased the Steed of Night, for example, or the class steeds, " Aaron told us, "we'll have a bunch of different gear sets so you'll be able to build your own Steed of Night
There are also unique Legendary Items they can equip (there is a slot on the mount's character record for a Legendary Bridle, but those are still in development and we didn't get to see those in detail yet) and trait sets that can be tweaked and swapped as desired.
"And these are traits, so you're gonna be earning them by doing quests in Rohan, earning reputation with the people out there," Aaron explained. These traits are used to unlock combat skills, enhance various aspects of other skills or increase stats, pretty much exactly the same as traits and virtues for player characters. They are arranged into "trees" with dependencies - for example, in order to put points into a trait in the 4th row, you must first put a point into the trait on the 3rd row. At the bottom of each section, there are "capstone" traits.
A war steed can be configured one of three ways. "Light" configuration emphasizes speed and mobility, "Heavy" emphasizes strength and defense, and "Medium" is a balance between the two. To go with the different "weights," there are three related disciplines that further enhance these configurations, and trait trees that specialize in those tactics. "Red Dawn" is the DPS discipline, "Riddermark" is the utility and battlefield-control discipline, and "Rohirrim" is all about defense and survivability.
Players are not limited to just one configuration, either. On the Traits tab, there are seven Configuration buttons, allowing the player to store multiple trait setups and change them on the fly for different situations.
"You have configurations for your trait sets," Aaron said. "So you can really customize your role to who you're playing with, what you're doing that day, if you're playing in a fellowship, if you're playing solo. You can say, 'hey, I need my light setup, so I'll switch to that and do some damage,' or 'I need to be more survivable in this fight so I'm gonna pull up my heavy configuration,' and then you can switch your discipline to match that as well."
By tweaking the trait trees and configurations, it is theoretically possible for characters to fill entirely different combat roles while mounted than they do on foot. Aaron mentioned a discussion he had with Allan "Orion" Maki, one of the senior designers regarding this flexibility.
"I was talking with him about this system. He was saying, 'the way we've built it, even as a light-armor class, like a Rune-keeper or a Lore-master, if you go deep into survivability on a heavy mount and use Rohirrim, you could theoretically tank.' You could actually hold that role for a little while. You may not be as efficient or good at it as a Guardian or a Warden or something, but you could certainly do it."
There's also a new mechanic called "Fury," which the mount builds during combat. Light, high-speed horses build Fury faster than the slower Heavy horses.
"Fury is really a way for us to express that speed is good, that moving in combat is good," Aaron explained. "As you build up Fury, it adds a passive bonus to your damage and your healing, and you can also cash it off for really big attacks."
The mounts we got in this play session came pre-configured and we didn't get much of a chance to mess around with the settings, but it is fairly easy to see the potential for some really weird mount builds.
Mounting up on your war steed creates a new toolbar with mounted combat skills. This bar replaces your usual toolbar, and contains new skills that can only be used while mounted. Some of these skills are universal and common to all mounts - a charge ability, a quick-stop ability, a bite attack, etc. - and some are class-specific. My level 75 Hunter character got the following abilities:
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Keep in mind that this is still in alpha phase - these abilities may change drastically between now and September.
Players who purchased the Legendary Edition pre-order and who have completed the quest deeds that came with that package will receive another skill: Favor of the Mearas, which can be used once per day to heal the war steed.
Once we got the information all squared away, it was time to put it into action.
Charging into combat on horseback is a very different kind of fight. On foot, movement is rather binary - you're running or you're not. War steeds, on the other hand, accelerate through four "gears: walk, trot, canter and run. Press W or hold down both mouse buttons to begin moving, and the war steed will begin walking in a straight line. Release the button and the horse will continue moving at that rate. Holding the button down is like stepping on the gas pedal - the longer you hold it, the faster the horse moves. And it keeps moving until you apply the brakes, either hitting the Quick Stop skill or holding down S until it stops moving forward.
With this constant movement, you might think it would be difficult to coordinate your attacks, particularly melee attacks which must be timed to land precisely during a charge. Not so. Combat skills can be queued up and will fire off when the player is in range to use them.
There's also the matter of momentum - at higher speeds, it takes longer to turn. At a slow canter, the war steed is about as maneuverable as any other horse, but increasing the speed reduces the alacrity of direction-changes. It almost feels like drifting when trying to execute a 180-degree turn at top speed - the horse moves sideways a bit before his trajectory shifts.
This kind of movement takes a bit of getting used to. But it also makes combat exhilarating. Charging head-on at a warg-mounted goblin, peppering it with arrows and then running it through with a sword, then blasting past and whipping around for another pass... there is, quite simply, nothing like it. This is especially true in groups. We had a three-man group coursing around the plains of Rohan, riding down small bands of warg-mounted riders, and it felt like a proper cavalry charge.
The "feel" of the thing is very important. The entire system could be technically perfect in every other way, but if, in the end, it didn't "feel" like how mounted combat should "feel," it would be a failure. This "feels" like mounted combat. A mounted Hunter plays like a Mongolian horse archer, speeding past his target at a short range and firing off quick shots to weaken it before charging in to finish it off with trampling hooves and thrusting spear or sword. Ben's Champion character played a little differently, more like heavy cavalry with lots of melee attacks and relying more heavily on the charge. As a group, we criss-crossed the battlefield in a rather chaotic fashion, running down our enemies and trampling them under hoof. It felt pretty much exactly as it should have, like a scene from a war movie.
This brought us to the subject of warbands. The orcs have their own cavalry units, and they are nearly as dangerous as the Rohirrim. We encountered one warband, a group of warg-mounted riders led by an "alpha" uruk-hai. The "alpha" had roughly the same relative toughness as a rare elite - think of the flake-droppers in Moria and Lothlorien before the release of Mirkwood - and the adds were normals. Engaging the warband automatically initiated a quest to kill the leader - this is another new mechanic called "remote questing."
"Basically, as you enter into an area or get close to a specific monster," Aaron explained, "we can grant a quest to you while you're on the go, while you're moving. You can pick that quest up pretty much immediately. And then, while you're killing monsters in mounted combat, you'll be able to remove [complete] them remotely. The chances that you're gonna find that one goblin you ran down 300 yards ago are pretty slim, so we just say, 'OK, here's a little box that pops up, when you finish combat click this,' and you can have the full thing out in your inventory without having to go back and find every little crevice in the landscape."
In mounted combat, the strongest attacks seem to involve the charge, so our group tactic involved a lot of blasting through the warband, whipping around and taking another charge. Some of the enemy riders were doggedly persistent and had to be chased down, and the uruk-hai had an annoying tendency to cling to the rocky, impassable hillside. Groups will need to form all-new strategies for these fights, and staunch soloers will certainly enjoy the new challenge that these encounters represent.
When we did finally run down the uruk-hai and all his cronies, the quest completed. In this alpha build, I had to dismount near the body to auto-complete the quest, but this is possibly subject to change before it gets into beta testing.
There were other interesting mechanics at work during mounted combat, as well. For instance, when fighting another mounted opponent, you can unhorse (or unwarg, as the case may be) the enemy and then either run it down on horseback or fight it in the traditional way.
The first time I saw a goblin riding on my back after I knocked him off his warg, I thought it was a bug or a glitch. But it's not. You knock a goblin off his warg, he might just jump up on your horse and start stabbing you in the neck. The early-alpha animation looked sort of unfinished, but the mechanic filled me with a kind of dirty, savage glee.
Another great mechanic: if you encounter a group fighting a warband and decide to lend a hand without joining the group, everyone gets experience for it.
"We've put in something new called 'open tabbing,'" Aaron said. "If you come and attack a warband and somebody else is already engaged with it, you can still get full credit for fighting and defeating that group, and that will complete that quest. You're not going to be penalizing the folks that have engaged it - you don't have to worry about what they're doing."
When the fighting is over and it's time to head back to civilization, the war steed will function as a normal, non-combat mount, but with the ability to display its unique armor sets. The old-style mounts will continue to be in the game and players can continue to collect them, but the hotrodded war steed is likely to become the new standard mode of transportation at the higher levels.
Once we had our appetites thoroughly whetted, Aaron showed us around some of the other new areas we'll be seeing this fall. There are still fairly large portions of the world that are unfinished - keep in mind, this expansion is reputed to be twice the size of Mines of Moria - but we did get to have a look at Fangorn's edge, some of the rolling hillsides and willow marshes of Rohan, and an early-stages Rohirrim village. Do keep in mind that this is still alpha stage, and everything is subject to radical change.
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Unfortunately, we only had one hour to take this all in. Even in this early-alpha build, the new systems grabbed our attention and begged for more play-time, but Aaron had stuff to do and we had to give our characters back. Really, we only got to experience a small (but quite significant) part of Riders of Rohan, but we're going to have to wait for September to begin to appease our rekindled appetites.