In my recent adventures through Middle Earth (mostly as messenger-aide to various members of the Gray Company), I found myself in areas I hadn’t visited in a long, long time, facing an odd mixture of completely oblivious creatures (the original occupants) and overtly hostile monsters (new creatures added for Book 3, mostly in instances).
I’m grateful to Turbine for giving us a reason to return to some of the original areas (beyond the occasional need to grind a deed long neglected), and I sincerely hope for more of this type of content. If it were my choice alone, I would have them providing us numerous reasons to “live” in some of the original zones – they are beautiful and compelling and would be worth our time if only there were something we could do there. But then we’re talking “virtual world” instead of the wonderful story-driven game we all love.
For the Volume 1 quests I opted not to take the map rewards, hoofing it from one location to the next (or using Swift Travel where I could). This provided me with a nice tour of the old areas, and also brought an odd “habit” of Turbine’s to my attention – their incessant need to label nearly all creatures in the game with “unique” names. For NPCs, this generally results in a host of “named” people with whom I can interact, for story or for commerce, and whom I promptly forget. You’re not <insert name here>, you’re Ost-Galadh-Provisioner-Guy. Beyond that, it’s just not important to me and no connection is really made (the obvious exceptions here are the well-known players of the lore).
The dwarves of Moria were probably the worst when it came to this anonymity-through-overload. There are apparently only so many combinations of Dwarven syllables possible before one has to resort to truly minor variations. But you can hardly blame Turbine for this, as Tolkien was known for using similar names to denote lineage – i.e. Aragorn, son of Arathorn, son of Arador. The tendency for similar names works well on small numbers (Fili, Kili, Oin, Gloin, Dwalin, Balin, Bifur, Bofur, Dori, Nori, Ori) but when you try to scale this to a virtual world, problems arise. Credit goes to Turbine for actually making the effort to name so many of the dwarfs in Moria, but towards the middle they all melted together into a bearded blur, his name ending in ‘-ori’, and endowed with the magical power to be in a dozen places at once all throughout Khazad-dum. The only distinction was what he was asking me to kill.
With monsters, this results in something perhaps a little less obvious. Each zone is populated with a variety of types of monsters, with several variations within a specific area (screenshots above and right). For example, in The Shire, we find Wolves, Snarling Wolves, Wolf Hunters, Bold Wolves (etc. etc.), while in Bree-lands we have Dusk-Wolves of the Snarling, Bold, Scavenger, Feral, Howling, Maddened, Growling, Young, and Monstrous variants (and perhaps more!). Within a single zone, it’s a little less noticeable (at least, it was to me), but when you’re visiting nearly every zone in Eriador within a few hours, and choose to ride through on your own, you get a glimpse of the bigger picture. Taken as a whole, there are well over 30 “types” of wolves found in Middle-Earth.
What exactly is this meant to accomplish?
Provide a sense of variety? Differentiate monsters? Snarling Dusk-wolves are a bit challenging, but Monstrous are dangerous…? I suppose I can see the logic behind this design decision, but I have to wonder: How much effort does Turbine put into determining and cataloging all of these, and for what return? Does battling an Orc Marauder seem somehow more fulfilling or challenging than an Orc Despoiler? Each particular monster uses a different set of abilities, and hence a slightly different strategy, but Turbine already does a great job at visually distinguishing the variants of most monsters (Orcs in this example); skinny-tall Orcs use ranged attacks, hunched-shaman Orcs are the “healers”, bulky-tall Orcs use disarms and stuns, and normal Orcs are…well…normal. For those creatures that cannot be distinguished so easily, the UI provides what we need to know – Hit Points, Power, and “rank” (normal, Signature, Elite, etc.).
Does using numerous naming variations serve any purpose beyond the illusion of variety? Perhaps they do help some players determine, at a glance, the relevance of a monster (“I’m hunting Blackvenom Spiders for their venom-sacs…”) or the relative strength, but can anyone really keep up with the distinctions? And does anyone really care? Would any of us mind if we were just fighting an “Orc”? If it were up to me to design this, here’s an idea of how I would do it:
The interface still provides all of the necessary information: color-coded “conning” system (the floating icon), active target (the ring at their feet), and because the Hit Point/Power Bar doesn’t need to change, it’s a quick glance to tell a normal from a Signature from an Elite (beyond the obvious visual differences that are so common). For those of us who crave more detail, the Tooltip box can provide the rest (only slightly modified because I don’t particularly care what variant of Warg I’m fighting, but we shouldn’t discard all of Turbine’s hard work).
I became so irked by the “naming issue” that I decided to do a little experiment. And surprisingly, the result improved the game quite significantly. I turned off floating names.
What I quickly realized was how much of a handicap floating names creates when playing, and how lazy it had made me. When they are on, the game immediately becomes a simple game of “dodge-or-divebomb the colored text”. I was either charting my movement to stay out of aggro range, or head directly towards, the text. Not the monster, but the words so conveniently hovering over its head. I paid minimal (if any) attention to my surroundings, and I was barely looking at the monster I was attacking.
Turning them off has its downside; NPCs do become more anonymous (not particularly drastic in my mind) and it does become much harder to quickly identify other players who should receive “special attention” (i.e. kinmates and roleplayers). The vitals display could still suffice, or Turbine could resolve the issue with another small item on many of our wishlists – kinship tabards and badges (or another similar visual identifier).
Either way, the benefits outweigh any loss of functionality. LotRO became almost an entirely new game; my immersion, and hence enjoyment, shot skyward. I began to pay close attention to my surroundings, and became a far more active participant. Starting this experiment in Mirkwood proved a special treat -Fanged Ruin-Hunters at night really tend to appear out of nowhere!