The Road to Helm's Deep: Levels 85 - 90
Level 85 - 90 | Level 90 - 95
After a very brief delay, caused by some technical issues causing server outages, Turbine launched the Lord of the Rings Online's latest expansion, Helm's Deep, on Wednesday. Like all major launches, this one was not without hiccups or controversy, but so far it has seemed more polished and finished than some previous expansions and updates. Which is impressive, because Helm's Deep is huge.
Turns out, Western Rohan is pretty gosh-darn massive. We all thought Eastern Rohan, with its wide-open rolling plains and such, was quite immense last year - and it was - but Western Rohan is even bigger than that. And unlike Eastern Rohan, which is basically broad and "flat" and open except around the edges, a lot of Western Rohan is hidden away in mountainous tucks and forested folds, secreted away down in swampy river valleys or perched high up on forbidding cliffs. Of course, Entwade - the first settlement encountered in West Rohan - is out in the open, and you can see all the way to Edoras from there.
Step One in getting settled into this new expansion was basically re-wiring my character with the new trait tree system. Gunkydoc the Hobbit Hunter has been around since pre-Mines of Moria days, and has spent most of that time with a hybrid build balancing damage output and speed. With the former trait system, he was set up with three red Bowmaster and four blue Huntsman traits, and he did quite well with that setup for a number of years.
The new talent tree system doesn't really allow for that kind of hybridization anymore. Not in any one build, anyway. Each build is more narrowly-focused, because buying traits in the other two non-specialization tree is outrageously expensive. You can mix a few cross-spec traits into a very focused build - in fact, it makes sense to grab at least a couple of the top-level traits from the non-spec lines to improve damage, speed or survivability - but a true hybrid build ends up muddy and horribly under-powered. That's the downside.
On the upside, though, is the fact that each of the new trees is way more effective at what it does. The red Bowmaster line hits ridiculously hard. This is my new "main" build, taking advantage of the brutal new skill, Upshot, which hits about 3 times harder than Heartseeker with a shorter cooldown and no induction. Upshot hits like Heartseeker used to, way back in the Mines of Moria days before the game-wide nerf to Legendary Items and more specific class changes that cut Hunter damage roughly in half. In one orc-camp raid, I hit at least four 5-digit damage numbers against on-level mobs, without using damage buffs, scrolls, potions or Burn Hot.
The blue Huntsman line is equally potent. The ability to move while using induction skills gives Huntsman-spec Hunters the ability to strafe like never before. Combined with Precision stance and the new Volley skill, which allows the Hunter to use Focus-burning skills with no loss of Focus, the Huntsman line is fast and furious. Some Hunters were arguing that Huntsman DPS was better than Bowmaster DPS, but individual results may vary. I wasn't hitting 12,000-damage shots in Huntsman, but I was landing a lot of smaller hits faster and on the run.
The real star here, though, is the yellow Trapper of Foes line. In the past, this has been a kind of wishy-washy, low-damage, ill-favored line typically used only by the odd Ettenmoors hunter for PvMP. It made traps slightly more potent and added some survivability to the squishy Hunter, but wasn't used much for PvE because Lore-masters and Burglars generally handle crowd control much better, and Hunters are more needed for the pew-pew. Well folks, the Trapper of Foes talent tree might turn that kind of thinking around. Screenshot as proof:
I ended up buying 100 Mithril Coins for the third Specialization tab, because I wanted to be able to swap between all three specs as the situation might demand. 100 Mithril Coins is not cheap, but nothing in the new expansion is, and this particular expense seemed the most worthwhile.
Speaking of things not being cheap, this is the first expansion since the transition to F2P where the Epic Story has not been a free feature. This time around, the Epic Books are tied to the purchase of the expansion, in part because the new books make use of the new Big Battles feature, which is also tied to the expansion. In a Quest Notes Dev Diary, Jeff "MadeOfLions" Libby explains that, because the Helm's Deep epics are so closely tied to the giant battle that is the core of the expansion, and because they wanted players who have purchased the expansion to feel like they are actually getting something for their money (and not just the same standard stuff the F2P guys get, plus regional quests), they decided to bundle the epics with the expansion this time around.
The Big Battle system, naturally, was going to be my Step 2 in the new expansion. This new system is called either Big Battles or Epic Battles, but I'm using Big Battles for these articles because the word "Epic" is used for so many other things in the game that its meaning is somewhat diminished. Big is always Big.
Following the directions in the in-game mail, Gunkydoc - now fully specialized as a Bowmaster - took a trip back to Bree-Town to talk to Erkenbrand's Messenger by the boar fountain. This quest, which is repeatable for some reason, is a "tutorial" for the Big Battles system. Really, though, it's a short play about Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas wishing everyone good luck, plus you get to build and fire some siege weaponry. In terms of actually preparing the player for a Big Battle, it falls far short of the mark.
For one thing, it does not explain much of anything about the new Big Battles panel - the map, the Promotions system or the medal-tracking system. Those are left up to the players to puzzle out. Nor does the tutorial instruct the player how to start a Big Battle. I looked everywhere on the Big Battles window and couldn't find a button (it's there, but I didn't see it until much later), and had to ask for help like a noob, only to be told that it uses the Instance Finder panel the same as everything else.
I felt even more noobish inside the Helm's Dike Big Battle instance. Never has the chaos and confusion of war been so effectively conveyed - but this is not a good thing, exactly. It's one thing to be surrounded by chaos and confusion, but entirely another to be given no clear directions on how to complete the random objectives you are given. Essentially, a new quest will pop up as banner text across the middle of the screen, and that's the end of the communication. I failed two of the three sub-quests on my first Big Battle because I had no idea whatsoever what I was supposed to do to complete them. The third one - defending a statue from being destroyed - was somewhat more obvious, and I somehow managed to get a silver medal for that one.
After going through that, and feeling like a raw noob all over again despite having played the game for over five years, I feel it safe to make a recommendation here: for your first Big Battle experience, run Helm's Dike as the six-person instance. Or the solo instance as a duo, with someone who knows what needs to be done. Because otherwise, you'll likely end up floundering and failing and feeling like a dumb-ass. Run with a group to learn the battle and the new system, and then branch out on your own when you are more comfortable with it.
It's handy that that first battle is designed for a six-man group. The rest of them are not. All of them can be done solo, but Helm's Dike is the only six-person Big Battle.
Level 85 - 90 | Level 90 - 95
After that frustrating defeat, I decided to shift my focus over to the regional content and play through the Helm's Deep story instead. I know that things will come back around to the Big Battles before I reach the end of it, so I might as well do the stuff I know and am familiar with first.
By 10 PM EST, players on Arkenstone had already reached level 95. I was still working my way through Edoras at level 85 or 86 at the time, trying to see as much of the new area as I could fit into the day.
Turbine had already isolated a major bug by around this time, as well, which affected the new player housing chest system. The old 30-slot storage chests are gone now, replaced by a single expandable chest capable of storing much larger amounts of items. The new chests are organized the same as the player's vault or shared storage, with 10 re-nameable tabs and different methods of item sorting and searching. An issue that caused unique items to disappear when placed in these chests was addressed with a hotfix patch released on Friday morning. The items lost out of these chests as a result of this issue will be restored at some point in the future, according to the patch notes.
So, while all of this was going on, I was working my way through Epic Volume 4, Book 11, which is the precursor to all Western Rohan regional quests. The regional quests do not unlock until the player has finished Book 11; it is not necessary to have completed the previous epic books to start this one, but it is obviously recommended to do so.
Book 11 tasks the player with unraveling the webs of deceit and intrigue that Grima Wormtongue has woven in and around Edoras. The player sees King Theoden restored to his former hale self by a concerned Gandalf, observes as Wormtongue is cast out of Meduseld, and sees the king and his men off on their own separate journey with Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli. Once they're gone, the player has to help Eowyn, his niece, clean things up around Rohan, and convince her stubborn people to abandon their homes and head for safety. Once Edoras is taken care of, the player is tasked with doing the same thing in all the other outlying towns and villages.
The cool thing about the Helm's Deep epics is that the little instanced plays - at least the ones in Book 11 - are all voice-acted. Elsewhere, story instances are still silent stage dramas, with characters emoting around the place speaking in speech balloons, but in the Book 11 instances, Theoden, Wormtongue, Gandalf, Eowyn and the others all give voice to the words in their speech balloons. For those of us who got spoiled by games like SWTOR or GW2, where everything is voice-acted, this is a refreshing change.
I hit level 90 following this story, somewhere in the Eastfold region. After emptying out Edoras, I had visited the ancient city of Aldburg, former capital city of Rohan and currently trying not to crumble back into the forests around it, and Fenmarch, perched on the edge of a swan-filled marsh.
While questing over the span of these few days, I kept my eye on the player chatter on GLFF. Early on in day 1, the tone of the conversations was not particularly pleasant. Players were worried about skills gone missing from their toolbars - evidently, a handful of players had built their entire characters around marginal skills that have been removed from the game, or around very specific combinations that are no longer available because certain skills are now tied in with certain trait specializations.
I know that I, for one, will miss the Hunter's Agile Rejoinder, a parry-response melee skill with a small but sometimes very useful morale return. That small heal has saved Gunkydoc's bacon on more than one occasion. However, as a Hunter, I don't usually want my enemies closing into melee range to begin with, because all my strong attacks are ranged. I don't love the fact that Agile Rejoinder is gone, but since my Bowmaster line is so much more potent now, I haven't had the chance to really miss it yet. Everything else got turned up to 11.
That seems to be the turn of things with the rest of the player base as well. Either one of two things has happened since Wednesday: either the noisy complainers have truly taken a stand against the class changes and left the game for good, or they have adapted to the new system, recognized that it is, in many ways, superior to the old one, and embraced it.
I think it's a lot more of the latter. I know of a few Champions, for example, who were very concerned about the changes on day 1 because certain skill combinations were no longer available to them. But some of those same Champions, after tweaking around with the system for a bit, have now begun to wonder whether their characters might now be somewhat over-powered. Over the course of a few days, the general tone in player chatter seems to have shifted that way - players embracing the changes rather than complaining.
Personally, I'm enjoying the changes - at least the ones made to the Hunter. We'll see how that carries over from 91 - 95 over the next few days. I've only seen about 1/3rd of Western Rohan for these first 5 levels, and there's much more to go. Stay tuned!