Posted Sun, Nov 03, 2013 by gunky
Helm's Deep, the next expansion for the Lord of the Rings Online, is just weeks away from launch, and Turbine has wrapped up their series of "Deep Dive" guided tours showing off the new content. The last stop on the tour was the Hornburg, the site of one of the most legendary battles of the Lord of the Rings story: the Battle at Helm's Deep.
There have been some epic conflicts prior to this point in the story, but nothing of the scale of the Battle at Helm's Deep. Saruman's army of thirty thousand uruk-hai, orcs and brainwashed Dunlendings march on the Hornburg, where they face off against an entrenched force of around one thousand cornered Rohirrim. The Rohirrim take some heavy losses and the Hornburg sustains some severe battle damage, but they manage to hold out long enough for Gandalf to outflank the White Hand army with a thousand of Erkenbrand's soldiers returning from the Fords of Isen, and a marching forest of pissed-off huorns blocking the exit.
The development team at Turbine had a number of goals in mind when designing these battles for Helm's Deep. They wanted to stay true to the books, but that meant designing new tech that would allow them to depict a thirty-thousand-orc army in a believable, interactable way without melting down CPUs. They also wanted to represent realistic battles and authenticity, drawing inspiration from World War II documentaries and Saving Private Ryan.
"Helm's Deep presented a tremendous amount of challenges for us when we first started," says Joe Barry, Senior Designer and Content Lead for the epic battle system. "In order to do justice to what's in the books, in order to meet the expectations of what's presented in the movies, there's a lot we had to figure out design-wise, technical-wise, engine wise and artistically."
Epic Battles are a new kind of instanced space, related to but different from the types already seen in the game. There are no boss fights or loot chests - the job here is to fight Saruman's horde of uruk-hai, orcs and angry, brainwashed Dunlendings as they swarm the Hornburg. You haven't yet done anything like this in LotRO.
They didn't want the "decorative" battles like we saw in the Rise of Isengard epics, where animated bits of scenery looked sort of like they were fake-stabbing at one another, while maybe half a dozen actual interactable mobs could engage in combat at one time. Interaction with the fighting scenery objects in those story spaces wasn't possible, making the battles feel so much smaller. Those worked well enough for the storytelling in the epics, but to really feel like one was upon the wall at the Hornburg, facing off against an army of thousands and thousands of White Hand soldiers that would all be standing well within view, required a very different approach.
"When we get to the Wall, you'll see that, rendering-wise, we have thirty thousand orcs standing out there waiting to attack," Joe says. "They'll march in formations and hit the wall. We get up to fifty guys in combat at any one point that you can directly interact with. We have completely shattered any notions of scale that we might have had before, in a pretty unprecedented way for us."
Additionally, the team wanted to make the expansion content available to all players across the level spectrum. They were somewhat disappointed that the innovative mounted combat system from the Rise of Rohan expansion had to be locked behind hundreds of hours of gameplay and made available only to elder-game characters, so this time around they wanted everyone to be able to share in Helm's Deep's centerpiece.
This time around, the Epic Battles will be available to players starting at level 10, via a new multi-panel window accessible from the menu on the toolbar. Lower-level characters will be auto-leveled to 95, which boosts their stats and attributes to put them on more even footing with actual high-level characters, but they will earn experience appropriate for their actual level. Character gear will also be boosted for epic battles, but with an eye for the differential between the character's level and the gear's level. For instance, if a level 20 character is wearing level 15 gear, the character's stats will be boosted to 95, but the gear's stats only to 90 because of the 5-level difference.
This means that low-level characters and high-level characters can run the same content together. Kinships with a broad level range can run the epic battles together without inappropriately scaling the instance, and everybody gets the same rewards they would get for running it with a group of the same level.
All five of the new Epic Battle spaces - Helm's Dike, the Deeping Wall, the Deeping Coomb, the Glittering Caves and the Hornburg - will have solo options. These will also be playable as a duo, but balanced as if played solo and without an increase in difficulty. Three of those spaces also come with group options. The Glittering Caves battle will have a 3-player, Helm's Dike will have a 6-player, and the Deeping Wall will have a 12-player option. Each of the group-designed spaces is hand-built to accommodate these specific group sizes - they are not simply auto-scaled versions of the solo spaces with slightly juicier monsters to increase the difficulty, which is how Skirmishes work.
"Unlike skirmishes, where a lot of out stuff cleanly scales on a statistic basis, where we can make sigs become elites and that accounts for three players," Joe explains, "the mechanics of the big battles and the structure, how it works, doesn't play nicely with that. There's a lot more going on there, and we really wanted to craft something that was custom and targeted as a challenge for that specific group size."
Players entering an Epic Battle take on one of three roles: Engineer, Officer or Vanguard.
The Engineer role concerns itself with the great catapults and other anti-siege weapons situated around the battlefield. Manning the catapults is not just a matter of clicking on the thing and performing some default action; rather, the Engineer can, via the new multi-usage menus, crank it, load it, aim it, fire it and repair it when it takes damage from enemy catapults and sappers. And in a group battle, more than one player can use the same object at the same time, so one guy can load it and the other guy can repair it.
The Officer issues battle orders to the NPC Rohirrim taking part in the battles. Officers can call out priority targets - for example, if a catapult is in danger of being destroyed, the Officer can direct the soldiers to attack sappers first. Officers can also direct their minions to switch tactics, swapping out sword-and-board for two-handers, or switching from an aggressive to a defensive stance.
The Vanguard is a front-line fighter, kicking ass and taking names and earning kill streak pips. Kill streak pips work sort of the same way as a Hunter's Focus or a Champion's Fervor, in that they can be "spent" for a variety of different offensive effects. If the Vanguard should fall in battle, his kill streak pips are automatically spent on an inspiration buff for all of his allies.
This is not a kind of session-play where the player assumes control of a different character - it's your character doing the things. And you're not forced to shoehorn yourself into just the one role, either. You can change your role dynamically to adapt to the changing battlefield. It's likely that one character might assume all three roles at some point during a solo battle.
Looking down from the Deeping Wall, the player can see the assembled forces of the White Hand covering the floor of the valley like an angry, violent blanket. After a few moments, the player will see small groups peel away from the main body of the army and begin marching in formation against the wall, dragging catapults with them. These group units are composed of individual White Hand soldiers, and what you are seeing is a 1-per-1 representation of enemies that will soon begin attacking the Rohirrim forces on the wall. These formations can be fired upon and killed by the catapults mounted atop the wall. Or you can allow them to reach the base of the wall and drop a load of boulders on their heads. Or you can watch them hurl their grappling hooks and raise their siege ladders, which attach to the walls. The ladders and hooks can be unhooked and pushed away, but the orcs will keep on a-comin'. Enemy catapults will pelt the wall with flaming boulders, and the only way to take them out is by aiming your own catapults and hitting them, way out in the battlefield.