LOTRO: The Maps of Middle-earth
I logged into the third preview of Update 23 on Bullroarer test server this evening and perused the various changes that Standing Stone Games have made. For a lot of the “serious” LOTRO players, the focus of this latest build are the statistical changes to all the various classes. As I am not so au fait with this aspect of the game, I shall leave the matter until it is finalised then discuss it with my kinship who are more learned in these matters. My primary motivation for using the preview server is to get an advance look at any new region and to explore the environment. Standing Stone Games continue to do a sound job of realising the Third Age of Middle-earth and I enjoy the attention to detail they provide along with their adherence to the lore. One of the aspects of LOTRO that I’ve always enjoyed are the regional maps. In this latest preview build, all maps for the new region of Ered Mithrin are now available and the temporary placeholders for Erebor and The Steel Keep have been removed.
One of the things that attracted me to The Lord of the Rings when I first read it in the early eighties was the fact that the books came with maps. The hardback editions that I read via my local library had sumptuous fold out maps that clearly detailed the various regions. They help convey the sense of history of Middle-earth and depth of culture and lore that existed. The maps also gave a sense of scale to the Fellowship’s journey as well as context. They were integral to maintaining the illusion that Middle-earth was a living and ancient world. Hence the maps that feature in LOTRO serve a similar purpose beyond their immediate practical functionality. They don’t just provide a means of navigating from point A to point B but further embellish the games sense of immersion by showing a world populated by people in a broad variety of geographical locations. They also often reflect interesting details of lore, or minor comments from the source text.
Over the years, due to changes in the game and the streamlining of earlier zones, some maps have been replaced resulting in two distinct art styles. The contrast can be quite jarring at times. For example, the Bree-land map is one of the oldest in the game and is somewhat cluttered. However, if you then cross into the Barrow-downs the map was redesigned and sports a clearer style and breaks the zone up into two. As new content is added to the game, the newer map style naturally prevails. From an aesthetic point of view, I prefer the this to old. The maps are more functional and convey their respective information efficiently. Overall, I think they are an improvement, although I do still think they have some flaws. As to whether SSG intends to standardise all maps and thus replace those that have the older design remains to be scene.
Although the more contemporary LOTRO maps exude an appropriate art style and are easier to read, some still have a flaw with regard to conveying navigational data. Some of the maps do not always clearly show what route a player should take to enter a specific region. The other day, I decided on a whim to do some of the quests in Entwood. From memory I vaguely knew I could access the region from either Broadacres or Stonedean in West Rohan. Sadly, the maps lacked sufficient detail to give me a clear course to follow. Thus, I had to spend some time riding around the various hills that separate zones, until I found the right route. I believe access to Wildermore is similarly esoteric. Another problem are instance maps. They only become fully visible as you explore. If you leave and subsequently return to an instance, the process has to be repeated. Surely the logical thing would be to make it permanently available once the player had initially unlocked it.
The maps in LOTRO are also poor at conveying data for regions that are set on multiple levels. Top down representations do not adequately express three-dimensional data, which can lead to confusion and frustration, especially in instances such as the Grand Stair in Moria. In the past when running this instance, I would have to rely on third party diagrams, outside of the game itself. Another map within LOTRO that is notoriously unintuitive when it comes to travelling around is the Misty Mountains. It displays what appear to be clear linear routes between key locations but fails to convey the topographical features that will impede you. Again, it is steep slopes or crevasses that bar your way. Now there may well be players who will take the view that these maps are not supposed to make things that easy for you and that their deliberate vagaries are designed to force the player to explore. That may well be true, but I find premeditated inconvenience to be poor game design choice. A map that doesn’t impart the necessary data you need to successfully navigate the area it represents, has fundamentally failed in its purpose as far as I’m concerned.
The key to success in getting the most out of the various regional maps in LOTRO is to familiarise yourself with both the pictorial representation of each zone and cross reference that with practical first-hand experience. Basically, learn your way around the physical foibles of an area and use that knowledge in conjunction with the map. The only downside of this strategy is that LOTRO is a big game so that’s a lot of information to commit to memory. Overall, I’m mainly familiar with the zone I’m currently questing through or those that I have a special affinity to. I haven’t really spent any time in South Mirkwood or parts of Rohan since those regions were released. Therefore, I often cannot immediately recall their subtleties or quirks. May be this is something else that can be added to the list of “bug” fixes and “quality of life improvements that SSG need to address. Clearer, more intuitive maps are only going to become more essential as the game continues to expand.