Level 85 - 90 | Level 90 - 95
In Road to Helm's Deep Part 1, I reached the halfway point through the leveling process of Helm's Deep, the latest expansion for the Lord of the Rings Online, but I had seen only about one third of Western Rohan. Focusing primarily on epic books and regional quests had taken me through the regions of Eastfold in the southeast and Kingstead in the middle, but I had the regions of Broadacres, Stonedeans, Westfold and Helm's Deep still to explore.
The stories, as always, are engaging and absorbing. The people of Western Rohan are scared - White Hand forces are engaged in open conflict with them, sacking and burning towns and villages and driving the Rohirrim in desperate flight. All roads lead, eventually, to Helm's Deep, and those that resist this march typically end up lying dead on a hillside somewhere. This is not a war about land claims or petty politics - the orcs and uruk-hai seek nothing less than the total annihilation of the people of Rohan.
A lot of the Rohirrim don't yet understand this fact. Many of them seem to think it's merely a matter of being driven from their lands so the invaders can take over, and they stubbornly and angrily resist the will of their Thanes when told they have to flee. Others secretly serve Saruman, and undermine the orders of their leaders with acts of sabotage or murder.
The Epic Book story continues the player's association with the Dunlending woman Nona, sister of Wadu first encountered in Lhanuch in Enedwaith, Corudan the elf from Lothlorien, and Horn the Rohirric minstrel from Stangard. Horn and Nona's weird, uncomfortable forbidden romance continues on as you shepherd the Rohirrim towards Helm's Deep and consult a soothsayer in the northern region of Stonedeans, who foretells Horn's death at a great battle. Those intimately familiar with the lore know that she is referring to the future battle at Pelennor Fields, as mentioned in the book, but since the battle at Helm's Deep is much closer at hand, the small fellowship is obviously shaken by this prophecy, and the battle ahead seems even more grim.
I personally found two sets of regional quests to be particularly interesting - Underharrow and Stoke. Underharrow, a small settlement midway along between Edoras and Dunharrow, is lead by a distraught mother who has no idea how she is going to house and protect all the refugees being dumped on her by the orders of King Theoden, particularly when all the men have been pressed into military duty and are all camped elsewhere. To add to her difficulties, her child insists that the dead stalk the fields just outside of town; in reality, these are just a tribe of orcs from the White Mountains, who wear skull masks and lurk in the trees.
Stoke is beset by different kinds of problems. Towns nearby have been sacked by orcs, and it is obvious that a traitor employed by Saruman is responsible for many of the ills befalling the region. Reeve Frithild is also a single mom, but her position makes her a target for Saruman's henchman. When she is murdered by poisoning, her children stand to inherit her position, but the agents of the White Hand have a different line of succession in mind. Solving the murder and staging a bloody, violent coup ends up being very satisfying.
I did encounter the bug in Stoke, where it becomes impossible to turn in the Brigands in the Wild quest - a known issue addressed in the launcher - because of multiple, conflicting copies of the same NPC appearing on screen at the same time. It's actually rather unnerving seeing her remaining in her seat at the table in the mead hall after having attended her funeral. The bug doesn't really detract from the feel of the story overall, in my experience, and it's something that will be fixed eventually. For now, it can be worked around.
About midway through the march to endgame, I decided to give the Big Battles another shot. This time, I approached them with a group of kinsmen who lead me through the challenges of Helm's Dike.
Once I learned how the sub-quests work in Helm's Dike (thanks to the help of my awesome kinsmen), figuring them out in the other Big Battles was a lot easier. Some of the sub-quests don't seem like they are really possible to complete in the solo instance - not yet, anyway - but the mechanics and locations are easier to figure out once you've seen a successful medal-earning completion.
Flush with success, I tried all the other Big Battles in order, running them all solo. I missed the mark on a bunch of the sub-quests on this run, since they're still new and some of them have failure conditions that are perhaps a bit too subtle, but I racked up some medals and Promotion points and unlocked all the battles. I ran a few with friends and kinsmen after unlocking them all and earned some sweet jewelery for my efforts.
The way the Big Battles work may be counter-intuitive to some players. As a Hunter, my first instinct in these Big Battles was to shoot enemies. Really, though, until the character gets enough medals and points to rack up some Promotions in the Vanguard line, fighting the enemy is more or less a waste of time. There are always other things to do - build or repair barricades, play around with siege weapons, repair damaged banners, issue orders to commanders. For the most part, I ended up only attacking enemies during the sub-quests, and leaving the bulk of the regular fighting to the NPC soldiers.
Once I built up enough points to buy some Vanguard promotions, though, I was able to make slightly more of a difference when fighting on the front lines. You don't start gaining kill-streak bonuses until you have bought several points deep into the Vanguard line, but when you do get them, they make themselves count.
My main focus, though, was the Engineer line. Manning the siege weapons and traps is my favorite part of these battles - hucking a wad of burning pitch at the enemy catapult and watching it smash to pieces, taking out a handful of orcs with it, is very rewarding. The Engineer line, with its faster building, also allows me to keep Rohirric banners repaired after they get attacked by sappers, which counts towards higher merit scores for the daily quests.
Level 85 - 90 | Level 90 - 95
The epic story concludes with the Battle at Helm's Deep, which should go without saying. The phasing of these story instances is interesting - clicking on the objects in the courtyard allows the character to pop back and forth through time as recklessly as the Doctor in his TARDIS.
This does bring up a possible point of contention among lore purists. Time in LotRO does not travel in a strictly linear way. It is determined primarily by two factors: position on the map and progress in the Epic Books. Position is the primary factor - for example, it is always February 15th on the hill in Lothlorien where the Fellowship rests. The Epic Books move along a more flowing timeline - depending on where you are in the books, one might encounter Gandalf either at the Prancing Pony in Bree-town, hanging around in Rivendell or undoing Wormtongue's influence on King Theoden. Or, if the books are being tackled in a non-linear fashion, he may be in all three places at once because it is a different date in each of the three areas. It's all a big bowl of wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff.
But a level 10 character, who cannot possibly be involved in the Helm's Deep epic book events yet, can take part in the Big Battles at Helm's Deep, which occur quite some time later in story-time. It's the Erebor instance cluster all over again - time is not linear, and apparently the character can be in two time streams at once.
This is offset somewhat by the level-bumping for the Big Battles. Every character that enters a Big Battle is bumped up to level 95, so in theory, the character taking part in the battle at Helm's Deep is a future version of that character. Who is, for whatever reason, wearing scaled-up versions of low-level armor. The Doctor could likely explain it better using more science-y words, but that's my theory.
The best part of the time travel, though, was seeing the aftermath of the great battle first-hand: the ruined Deeping Wall, the heaps of orc, uruk and Dunlending bodies littering the fields, the smashed and smoking ruins of enemy catapults, the grim, angry forest that now lurks just beyond Helm's Dike. Gives you a hell of a sense of accomplishment, and puts the scale of the battle into gruesome perspective.
Having already completed all the Big Battles, I was able to mostly just click through the dialogue. The epics require completing each battle in order, and include a few extra instances here and there. There is a particularly brilliant one featuring Gimli in the crystal caves, where the player confronts an old frenemy - I won't spoil it by naming names or anything, but it is a very satisfying confrontation.
Zipping through the story without having to actually fight the big battles got me to the end of the epics quite quickly, which ultimately rewarded Gunkydoc with a shiny new Flawed Symbol of Celebrimbor, used to make the new level 95 2nd Age Legendary Items. I managed to loot an Emerald Shard from some random Eorlingas skarn node, so I asked around and got a guilded woodworker to whip me up an awesome new crossbow. It's the first 2nd Age mainhand weapon I've owned since the Rise of Isengard days, and it makes the already-punchy Bowmaster line even more lethal.
The goal now is to scavenge another Emerald Shard by hitting every node I see, so I can replace my level 75 spear that I've been using forever. Normally, I have decent luck with this task and often have extras kicking around, but evidently the new shard is kind of rare. I found two of them on the first day and ended up selling them for 75 gold apiece, a decision I later regretted when the price shot up to 150 gold each. For now, I'll take my chances and keep trying ore nodes rather than giving in and paying ridiculous inflated Auction House prices.
Unfortunately, it's not just the players gouging one another in the Auction House this time around. Turbine has cranked up the monetization dial for Helm's Deep, and a lot of things have gotten very expensive. The quick-travel to quest completion objectives used to cost just one Mithril Coin, but the cost for Helm's Deep quests is five. The same goes for unlocking travel destinations - everywhere else costs 1 Mithril Coin to travel to a new, undiscovered location, but in Helm's Deep it costs 5. These are Helm's Deep costs only - the cost of these shortcuts elsewhere remains the same.
Character unlocks are also very expensive. Buying a third tab in the new Talent Trees window costs 100 Mithril Coins - and that's per tab, per character. 100 coins runs 850 Turbine Points, which is about $9.70 (going by the current prices in the LotRO store, where 700 points - 500 base plus 200 bonus - costs $7.99, or a little over 1.14 cents per point). It seems a bit greedy to offer only two tabs when there are three specialization trees, and then to gouge players who want to unlock the third tab by charging them 9 and a half bucks per tab, and then not making that unlock account-wide. Unlocking a third tab for two characters costs more than a month's subscription.
The new player housing chests are also upgraded via Mithril Coins, at a cost of 100 coins per fifteen slots for deluxe houses with the 60-slot chest, or 25 gold per 15 slots for standard houses with the puny 30-slot chest. It's nice that housing is finally getting some developer love, but seriously, that's really rather a lot. 15 slots is not worth 9 and a half bucks. If you need additional storage, you can unlock shared storage or regular vault space for far less, and you can use in-game gold for some of the upgrades. Or, if you really need more of the kind of shared storage that only a housing chest can provide, you can start a new F2P account, roll a fresh toon, level him to 15, mail him a couple gold and buy another standard house with another chest with 30 slots. It beats paying 10 times the value of the house for 15 slots.
It also seems a bit dodgy that these upgrades and shortcuts are unlocked only via Mithril Coins and not Turbine Points like they used to be. It seems like an unnecessary extra step - buy the points, then buy the coins, then buy the unlock - and it only seems to serve as a mask to hide the actual cost of the item. 100 coins sounds like less than 850 points, and both sound cheaper than 9 dollars.
Nobody is saying that players should get everything handed to them for nothing. But these prices are simply too high. This is already a paid expansion, and people are buying it, and then having to buy more pieces of it. I don't mind buying unlocks, even as a subscriber and expansion-buyer, but $9 for 15 additional housing slots is patently absurd. And per-character tab unlocks at 9 bucks a shot feels almost punitive, as though we are being fined for wanting the full range of trait line options for our stable of characters. And I wouldn't feel so cheated by the cost if it was account-wide.
Another fairly significant gripe is the inconsistent changes to the crafting system. It seems as though these were intended to simplify certain aspects of crafting, trimming down the number of resources that need to be placed on landscape. Instead, the changes have left at some of the lower tiers of some crafts in a confused shambles. This doesn't much affect the elder game players, but the players still struggling through Moria and earlier areas will definitely feel the changes.
This inconsistency is particularly true of Supreme tier, for levels 50 - 60. Supreme tier formerly relied on 4 different kinds of base metals - Khazad-copper, Khazad-tin, Khazad-iron and Khazad-gold - and one alloy - Khazad-bronze, made of copper and tin ingots. It now still uses three of those base metals, but they are all smelted from the same resource - the new Khazad-skarn, which is apparently refined into base metals by means of obscure Dwarven alchemical magic - and Khazad-tin has been converted to a vendor item.
Adding to the confusion, some old crafting materials have been arbitrarily converted into this new system, while others have not, and have been grandfathered in. Stored chunks of tin ore - regular or Khazad - have been converted to a new generic sort of ore that can be smelted into metal of another type, and the crafted ingots of tin have been converted into the vendor item. On the other end, Supreme Forester includes a recipe for Glazed Magnificent Leather that requires Aged Extraordinary Leathers, but does not include a recipe to make this component, which is a holdover from the old system and has not been up-converted to the new system. Players who had Aged Extraordinary Leathers in their inventory or vault still have these outdated items, and that stock is all they will ever have. This whole system feels sloppy and unfinished, and could use another QC pass to polish it up.
As pleased as I am with how the Hunter came through the class changes, not everyone is as pleased with their main classes. Guardians in particular are feeling somewhat cheated with this expansion, in part because of the changes made to how the new threat and aggro system works, but also because tanks play a significantly reduced role in the new Big Battles system. While there are loads of enemies to fight, the mobs in Big Battles most often have their own agendas with scripted target priorities, and only respond to forced taunts. And elites are often immune even to those, and cannot be diverted from their goals. In essence, the Guardian in a Big Battle is just another catapult-cranker.
Overall, I've found much more to like about Helm's Deep than I've found things to complain about. It's not without its faults, surely, but no new game or expansion ever does go live without a few tricksome bugs sneaking through. I can only hope that the high cost of Helm's Deep shortcuts and upgrades is not a sign of things to come. The more narrowly-focused builds of the new class system may make some players feel somewhat restricted or shoehorned into an ill-fitting role, but for others it's a revitalizing breath of fresh air. The removal of diminishing returns and raising of caps on things like Block and Parry have a dramatic effect on character potency. And while there are still bugs and tics here and there, it's obvious that a lot of work and thought has gone into this new content.
Helm's Deep is big and bold, as it needs to be. The Big Battles seem to meet or exceed most players' expectations - as much complaining as I have seen over the past week, it's all been about bugs, glitches, classes that feel unfamiliar, the high cost of everything, the rarity of materials and that sort of thing - mostly relatively minor complaints that every gamer complains about in every game, especially after a new expansion comes out. Very few players complain about Big Battles not being awesome enough. Personally, I'm enjoying the hell out of 'em.