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."
All New Stuff
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."
Not Just For Endgamers
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.
The Epic Battles system uses a different type of threat and aggro calculation than the regular game. The changes made here go hand-in-hand with the changes to threat in other aspects of the game that will go live with Helm's Deep, but the threat system in the Epic Battles is more specific and focused.
"We wrote a brand new target priority system and weighted evaluation," Joe says. "When guys spawn, they look around at who's around them, and they have certain things they want to do. Sappers really want to attack your siege, berserkers really want to attack anyone who's already in combat, enemy commanders really want to square off with your commanders."
This new process uses a point value system for each potential target in the battle, with points adjusted by distance, combat state, target priority and other factors. For the most part, players will be able to run around at their leisure, operating siege equipment and issuing commands, without having to worry about accidentally pulling a bunch of aggro for tossing out a heal. Tank-spec characters will still generate loads of threat and will be able to pull aggro like they are supposed to, but rear-guard support classes will be able to do their jobs without getting pummeled by mobs every two seconds.
"You'll see sappers that come and run right by all the Rohirrim who are stabbing them to go for your catapult," Joe says. "And the player can use the reverse of that, too. The commander has a target profile for his squad. You can tell the squad, 'All things being considered equal, stab a goblin first. If you see a goblin, stab him. No really, I don't care if there are four uruks wailing on you, kill the goblin.' "
Okay, not really. In actuality, the player would use one of the new multi-usage menus in his role as an Officer to issue attack priority commands, and would select goblins. But the NPC soldiers would behave as though the player had said all that, and would break combat with their current opponents to chase down and kill goblins when they appeared.
Of course, eventually the orcs manage to blast their way through the Deeping Wall by the use of black powder. This event cannot be avoided nor postponed. It is a fixed point in time (as a certain Doctor might say...), and if the player is standing in the wrong spot when it happens, he is consumed by the blast.
The point of the epic battles is not preventing these events from happening, but rather making meaningful contributions as the events progress. Random daily quests will be bestowed upon entering the battles, similar to the sub-quests that pop up when entering skirmishes, and completing these quests earns rewards. But it's not a simple matter of filling a counter until the objective is complete. Quests are completed by degrees of success, with a new system called Merit, which is tracked by meters in the quest tracker panel. The more the player manages to meet the requirement of the task, the higher the degree of success and the more Merit earned. Some quests start with full merit meters, which are depleted over time by allowing quest objectives to fail.
In this example, the Securing the Culvert quest has two main objectives - sealing the culvert opening with rocks and protecting the workers from being defeated. The player has dumped most of the rocks into the culvert and protected 3 out of the 5 workers needed, but has allowed 3 workers to die. The player is on track for a Gold or Silver medal, rather than the Platinum, by allowing those 3 workers to fall. The quest above that one, The Deeping Wall, is in worse shape - the player has allowed 6 Banners to burn, and the Merit bar is barely half full. That's looking like a Bronze medal at best. These medals will go towards his Promotions.
Promotions and Rewards
Promotions is the "talent tree" of the Epic Battle system. Medals from the quests translate into Promotion points, which are used to make the character better at different aspects of the Epic Battles. Bronze medals are worth 1 point, Silver is worth 2, Gold is 3 and Platinum is 4. Getting the max number of points (currently 216) requires getting Platinum medals for every quest. If you earn a Bronze medal on your first run through a quest, and then later earn a Gold, the point value of the Gold replaces the value of the Bronze, earning you 3 points for that quest instead of 1. The Promotions system only uses the highest value for determining points, so you only have to achieve Platinum once to earn the maximum points for each quest.
Unlike the new class trait tree system, the Promotion system allows for complete hybridization. New tiers of Promotion traits are unlocked across the board as you spend your points, and the cost is the same regardless of which role they are spent on. If a player wants to be the most engineer-y engineer that ever engineered, he can spend all his points on that tree, but if he also wants to grab the top two Vanguard traits once he maxes out Engineer, he can do so without having to first unlock everything on top of it within that tree. Higher-tier traits cost more than lower-tier traits, but the costs are even between the different trees, and hybrid builds are encouraged.
The Engineer Promotion line focuses mostly on what the player can do to and with the catapults and other interactables. Catapults can be repaired, aimed, loaded and cranked faster, and placeable traps can be unlocked. The Officer line focuses on the NPCs, improving healing output from healing orders, reducing cooldowns, increasing damage mitigation from defense orders, and unlocking buffing banners similar to Captain standards that can be placed around the battlefield, improving NPC combat abilities. The Vanguard line improves the kill streak "cash-out" skills, making them hit harder and debuffing opponents, capping out with a ridonculous 20-meter 30-target 13-second stun that reduces all targets' max health by 30%.
The left side of the Promotions window is the Expertise panel. These skills are unlocked by spending points in the trees in the right-hand panel. The deeper you go into a given line, the more Expertise traits are unlocked in that line. Expertise traits are more, better unlocks and buffs that really accentuate their given line - new ammo types for Engineers, more order types for Officers, different kill-streak cash-outs and kill proc effects for Vanguards.
After you've maxed out your promotions points, there's still a reason to run the quests and earn the medals. At the bottom of the Battle History panel, which tracks your Epic Battle achievements and shows the top medals you have earned for each quest, there are four meters showing how many of that type of medal you have won. When these fill up, the medals can be swapped for powerful jewelry. Bronze medals can be exchanged for yellow gear, silver for purple, gold for teal and platinum for teal set pieces. The platinum pieces have a chance to come out gold instead of teal, but the gold-name items count towards the set bonuses.
If you don't want to bother with crappy bronze-medal jewelry but can never seem to earn silver or gold, there's a solution for that, too. When the meter fills up, the player has the option of up-trading bronze to silver and silver to gold. Unlike the promotion points, which don't stack, the medals you earn from each quest do add up. This means you can crank out mediocre performances time after time, rack up tons of bronze medals, and still get the good gear. The exception to this rule is Platinum medals - these cannot be up-cycled from Gold medals, and must be earned.
The Epic Battles system launches with the Helm's Deep expansion on November 18. Let us know what you think about it in our comments!