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Lord of the Rings Online – The Rise of Isengard

The Rise of Isengard is a full expansion for Lord of the Rings Online.  It’s not free content, you have to pay for it, and it brings new levels (10 to be precise).  That’s the same number of new levels that we got with Moria.  Along with the levels, ROI brings three new areas, hundreds of quests, some new skills but more importantly, a complete revamp of character attributes and itemisation.

In the weeks and months up to the release of Isengard, classes underwent several changes, mostly to tweak unused skills or providing missing functionality.  Isengard has built on that for most classes and in some cases, such as the Minstrel, has fundamentally changed their skill line-up.  The overall intent appears to be to make the classes more balanced, and provide all players with a role in groups.  I won’t cover the changes to all the classes here, there’s too much to go through, instead I’ll just describe my experience with Isengard and my overall enjoyment.  The article got a bit long – sorry about that.

Getting There

It’s traditional in LOTRO to move you between one area and the next using the Epic quest line.  You don’t have to do it that way usually (Moria was an exception) but it’s clearly the intended or preferred method.  Rise of Isengard is no different, you receive a letter, asking you to report to one of the Rangers in Enedwaith, eventually leading you into Dunland, which is the entry point to the Isengard expansion.  A nice little unique element is that the Epic provides two routes via two different quest lines.  Following one doesn’t exclude the other, since you can go back and retrace your steps, but it’s clearly designed to offer choice and prevent massive overcrowding.  Dunland itself is south of Enedwaith, and the quests take you either directly south, or south-west and into the new land.

ROI is not as big as Moria.  Let’s face it, Moria was just huge.  It achieved that size through a combination of vertical movement, forced routes (making you track back and forward in a location to generate more distance within the same volume) and lots of distinct locations with their own look and feel.  ROI doesn’t have that luxury, there are only 3 different major locations (described below), but the developers have tried hard to make them feel distinct.

Dunland

Dunland is a vast open area that you reach south of Enedwaith.  It is populated very much like Enedwaith.  There are a series of encampments with native men, who may be allies or enemies, spread throughout a mixture of terrains.  Dunland is probably larger than Enedwaith overall, but not by a huge amount.  The level of creatures and enemies increases from 65 to the high-70’s as you progress across the landscape.  In order to make the area feel larger than it is, Turbine have employed the ‘having to run around large pieces of scenery like mountains’ so you need to cover more ground to get from A to B than it would take as the eagle flies.  I understand the intent, but it can be frustrating to be standing right next to a quest ring or NPC only to find out you’re another 5 minutes away and have to circle back.  Once again, almost every camp has a stable master, and Galtrev in the centre acts as the major hub for this region.

Gap of Rohan

The Gap of Rohan looks very much like Dunland, but is significantly smaller.  There are two or three major quest hubs with smaller quest NPC’s scattered throughout.  The Gap is a really narrow strip of land, and is where you finally begin to engage full time with the Riders of Rohan.

Isengard (Nan Curunir)

Isengard is split into three locations.  The outskirts (Nan Curunir), the area just outside the tower, and the tower itself (accessed through various instances).  For me, this is the most interesting set of locations in the game, although the outer terrain is also the most frustrating.  There’s nothing worse in my view, than scenery you can see over, but can’t jump over or easily move through (in this cases, fallen trees that you can’t jump).  As a consequence, moving around here can be very frustrating, but it’s worth it.  It gives an excellent feeling of the bleak and terrible impact Saruman is having on the landscape and contrasts really well against the bright heather-strewn landscape of Dunland.

The Story

Rise of Isengard continues and apparently will conclude your journey with the Dunedain that started all those books and epic quests ago.  Like Enedwaith, this story basically describes how you help the Rangers travel through hostile land, win over the trust of the native tribes (or not, as the case may be) and how you learn of Saruman’s treachery.  There’s not much to say on it to be honest, it feels like a footnote in the epic quest so far, and not that epic, but it’s inoffensive and if you love the Rangers you’ll enjoy interacting with them again.  It does have some tongue-in-cheek moments I think, for example, you get to watch the Rangers collecting wood, running errands and gathering apples just like they’ve made you do for the last hundred epic quests.

Outside of the epic specifically, Dunland is a land besieged and under the thrall of Saruman even if the natives don’t realise it.  War is coming, none can avoid it, all must choose sides, and as usual you’re the catalyst in that process.

Reputation & Rewards

There are two reputations in Rise of Isengard.  Men of Dunland and Theodred’s Riders.  The early part of the expansion offers mostly Men of Dunland, with the later parts and the later epic providing Theodred’s.  You’ll hit Kindred with Men of Dunland by just doing the quests, but you’ll need to work harder with the second reputation, repeating daily quests and doing as many tasks as you can find.

As is common now, both reputations have vendors, but this time the currency is regular money!  No odd flowers, or strange branches or lumps of rock.  The prices of some of the reputation items (and there are a lot) are quite interesting, some of them over 2gp.  I like the new approach, the quests and mob drops give a good cash input, and you can earn cash anywhere else in the game you like and then come and buy reputation items.

The quest rewards are many and varied, and in part, drive the problem I have with itemisation (you’ll read that bit later).  Many quests give a choice between three items, it may be 1 piece of jewellery, 1 piece of light armour and 1 cloak, or 1 piece of heavy armour, 1 piece of medium armour and 1 piece of jewellery.  Because of the new itemisation, and the move away from 1 x light, 1 x medium, 1 x heavy or 3 pieces of jewellery, you have to pick your quest rewards carefully, plan ahead and hoard what you get in order to successfully use them as upgrades.

Questing

Questing in Rise of Isengard for the most part matches the experience in Enedwaith and Mirkwood.  Quest hubs provide introduction quests, and then move you around the landscape.  There’s a common theme in ROI, where a quest NPC will give you 3 quests, and then another 3 once those are complete.  Many of the quests are standard fair, collecting items, killing the enemy, but there are signs that the Turbine team are trying to find new questing experiences.  There’s a quest to return lost horses which was quite nice, and some of the instances have new mechanics (specifically where you lead teams of good guys against lots of bad guys).  I’ll say no more so I don’t spoil some of the better instances.

The vast majority of the quests are soloable at ‘even con’ (i.e. the same level as you), and the XP gains mean if you do all the quests you’ll level at the right speed.  It’s a bit frustrating, I liked the old style quests where they were soloable with a challenge, much easier as a duo or trio, and the last stage tended to require a group.  I know they’ve moved away from that format, but I really did prefer it.  One very annoying feature in recent expansions is the exact opposite position, where the first few quests are out in the open, and then end in a solo instance.  Some of those instances are uneven in difficulty and some classes might struggle, although after one or two goes you learn the best approach.    ROI adds a new style of instance which ‘is designed to be solo but can be completed as a duo’.  I’m really not sure what the intent was here, one of them configured like that doesn’t even involve any killing and it’s not consistent, some of the hardest are enforced solo, and others seem to randomly allow 2 people.

I would much prefer the Mirkwood approach where the final stage is actually a skirmish and so can be done with 1, 2, 3 or 6 people.  My feeling is that Turbine ran out of time, and there are signs of rushed content all over the expansion.

Overall, the quests are like much of the rest of ROI – not hugely challenging and based on the concept of running around a lot.

The Enemy

Like killing Orcs?  Like squishing Goblins?  Enjoy defeating Trolls with 75k morale?  You’ll love Isengard.  It’s Orcs, Half-Orcs, Goblins, Trolls and Wargs.  The staple diet of the Lord of the Rings enemy list.  Those bad guys are interspersed with the usual wolves, some new lizard-like creature, massive turtles, undead, birds and native men.  The enemy ranges from level 65 to 75 as you would expect, and I found them generally easier to kill than those in Moria.  Some of them have a few tricks (watch out for the nasty fire DOT) but in general, there are few surprises.

The Good Guys

The good guys break down into three groups.  Native people who you are working with to free from Saruman’s grasp, The Rangers you’ve been travelling with and the newly introduced Riders of Rohan.  There’s the odd elf and dwarf thrown in for flavour, but that’s about it.

The Epic

Covered briefly in the story section above.  The epic is okay, some of the quests are quite innovative, adding some functionality we’ve not seen before.  There’s a definite sense of the team trying out new styles of quests and new ways to engage the characters.  Overall though, it’s pretty boring in terms of actual content, once again we’re being point for the Rangers.  I think Turbine recognise this, and they have announced we’ll be leaving the Rangers behind and instead, collecting bandages and digging up treasure troves for the Riders of Rohan going forward.

Crafting

Isengard adds an entire new level to the crafting scheme, which I’m quite happy about.  They’ve also taken the excellent decision to reduce the different kinds of raw craft resources for each craft, and then introduce new recipes to build intermediate ingredients.  For example, rather than 3 or 4 types of metal (Khazad Iron, Khazad Tin, Khazad Gold, Khazad Copper) there is just one type – Skarn.  That ore can be turned into low quality, medium quality or high quality ingots, using increasing amounts of the raw materials to do so (there’s also a shortcut, which I’ll leave you to discover).  The end result is that resource collection is less complex and less frustrating (additionally improved by a huge increase in resource nodes), but recipes still have multiple layers and levels of complexity to work through.  I love the new system frankly, and think it has greatly improved the crafting.  I’d like to see them retrofit it for the previous levels but appreciate that would be a huge undertaking.

The new recipes are mostly interesting, although they suffer from my dislike of the new itemisation.

Along with the new craft level is a new craft guild reputation level and the associated tokens.  That has definitely extended the time taken to move through Isengard because it gives you something else to focus on (some say time sink, others say interesting addition).

Some people are upset that you have to travel to Isengard to be able to complete recipes (I won’t give away why) which makes their tradeskill alts useless.  Personally, I think if you’re going to learn how to craft in the style of The Westfold, it makes more sense that you have to travel there to learn it.  My craft alts are all of an appropriate level anyway, so personally I think it’s a good thing.

New Levels & Skills

Ten more levels – not much to say except it’s nice to see the XP bar moving again after so long out of Mirkwood.  Levelling is trivial, there’s almost no challenge in the game if you start the expansion at level 65, and it’s essentially a matter of just investing time to hit 75.  I never died on my Guardian in the entire 10 levels, most of that was solo, and sometimes I found myself just fighting AFK while I made a drink.

The new skills are a mix of nice and boring.  Some classes get just upgrades, albeit with some interesting twists (for example, Guardians get no new skills, but their upgrades are interesting), while some classes get new skills which are a bit weak (Wardens get the ability to ‘store’ a gambit, but it’s not particularly exciting in the solo / group game).  Isengard is lacking compared to previous expansions, Moria was far more progressive in terms of the new skills.  Moria also felt tougher at the outset as well.

Character Stats

I won’t write a whole bunch on this – suffice to say Turbine have rationalised the character stats, and reduced the number of them down to a better level.  It was getting crazy with 20 or 30 different statistics.  I like the changes, I’m happy with the lumping together of some numbers.

Turbine have also added Finesse – a way to bypass your enemies defences.  I’m not sure of the value of this for group / solo players, it still seems to be there primarily to make raid targets more challenging without a lot of gear upgrades (i.e. an enemy that has such high Block that you need 12,000 Finesse just to dent it).  We’ll see if it survives longer than Radiance.

Legendary Items

Ten new levels of legendary items, and another revamp of the stats on relics thanks to the changes to the character stats.  Nothing too exciting to cover, many people complained that for non-weapon LI’s there was no reason to upgrade away from their level 65 2nd age item.  For weapons, you have to upgrade eventually just to get the DPS increase.  Some of the artwork for the new items is quite nice, I prefer the one handed axes to the Mirkwood versions.

Itemisation

It will come as no surprise to my friends from in the game, that I think the itemisation changes in Rise of Isengard are a huge black spot on an other wise okay expansion.  Turbine have taken the decision to polarise gear choice.  Items now provide large bonuses to a small selection of character stats.  For example, you may get +89 Vitality and +54 Might on a breastplate, but almost nothing else, or a neck item will have +50 Will, +50 Vitality and +50 Fate.

Read the developer diaries for the apparent reasoning behind this, the claim is that it makes gear choices more flexible.  To me, it makes it significantly harder to manage your equipment choices.  In the past, you could consider an item of equipment and compare it to your existing item and decide if it was an upgrade, a sidegrade or a downgrade.  You could pretty much do that in isolation.  Sure, sometimes you might want to augment a stat that you had lost elsewhere but gear tended to improve all your stats to some extent.  Now when you see a chest piece with a huge armour increase, you can’t actually equip it without hugely impacting say your Power or Fate scores.  Overall, a single piece might be a downgrade, and it’s only an upgrade if you also move around 3 or 4 other pieces of gear to compensate, or re-trait, or change your relics.

Gear management has become a spreadsheet and calculator affair, rather than something you can just eyeball and get a good feeling about.

You can’t slowly, incremental upgrade your gear.  This is especially true switching from pre-Isengard gear to the new structure.  Next time it might be different, but this time the change is painfully difficult.  If you get a piece of gear as a quest reward, and equip it, you will end up being worse off in some regards, and you will need to compensate.  If you are offered the choice between some Power heavy gear or some Morale heavy gear, you need to have a plan in mind otherwise you might choose Power gear only to be need to switch it out later when even more gear brings Power you don’t need.  I refer to this as forcing Upgrade Cascades.  You need to hoard rewards and gear and crafted items in case you need to radically re-arrange your gear to prevent the loss of some vital stats just to get a gain elsewhere.

What appears as a huge upgrade initially ends up being a trivial upgrade because you need to replace other gear to compensate.

Anyway, if I don’t stop it’ll end up being the whole article.  My closing words, maybe I’m in the minority, maybe I think about this stuff too much, but I hate the new itemisation and the amount of work you will need to invest just to work out if a new piece of gear is an actual upgrade, and it has absolutely diminished my enjoyment of both RoI and LOTRO in general.

Is it any good?

So, here we are at last.  Is it any good?  I’ll damn it with faint praise, it’s okay.  It’s nowhere near as iconic as Moria, it’s not as well put together as Mirkwood, it’s not as exciting as Moria either.  It’s just okay, inoffensive, easy to progress through, offering very little challenge in-game.  The greatest challenge is working out how to upgrade your gear.  Some of the quests show a spark of originality, some succeed more than others, but many feel rushed and not quite finished.

Worst Bits?

Two things.  Firstly, it’s too easy, there’s just no challenge.  Secondly, there’s nothing to come back to later.  There are 3- and 6-man instances in Moria and Mirkwood that I have still never finished and want to go back and complete.  I’ve finished Isengard twice; everything except the raid.  Even casual players will chew it up and then move on to another game.

Best Bits?

You get to kill a lot of Orcs.

I wanted much, much more from Rise of Isengard.  Instead, I got an extension of Enedwaith; Forochel without the frost.

Lord of the Rings Online – a review – part four

Welcome to the fourth and last part of my short (yeh yeh) review of the Lord of the Rings Online (you can find parts one, two and three behind those links).  As Grete said while she proof read the third part for me, it’s not really a review, more of an introduction to the game.  Generally I agree, although I could argue it is a review, but not a critique.  Either way, it was a little longer than I expected when I decided to answer Ottaro’s original question.  Hope you found it useful.

4. Other Stuff

There’s the stuff that makes up a game (the content, the system, the graphics) but there’s also the non-stuff or maybe the quantum-stuff which is much harder to pin down which makes a game worthwhile and gives it longevity.  I’ll talk about those things here, I’ll give you a list of all the stuff I remembered I hadn’t spoken about, and I’ll finally (thank the Greek gods finally) wrap up.

4.1 Immersion

A game can’t be totally responsible for your eventual immersion.  People with hectic lives will find themselves being dragged out of the game, or distracted and not able to ‘lose themselves’ as easily as people in quiet households.  Some people find it easier to focus on a single thing and immerse themselves for many reasons than other people.  But a game must certainly take some responsibility for enabling that immersion.  If the game constantly drags you out of the action because of the control system, or if the information on screen is so anachronistic that it constantly reminds you you’re playing a game then it’s always going to be harder to feel fully involved. If the graphics on the other hand are impressive, representative and make you feel like the world could be real, then it’s going to be easier.

Add to this the other players and to a lesser extent the other non-player characters and how they behave.  If the players around you are constantly discussing their mortgage or car purchase in an easy to read channel, or the NPC’s act dumb all the time, then suspension of disbelief becomes harder and harder.

How then does LoTRO rate?  Well firstly you need to remember I’ve played exclusively on a roleplaying designated server, and that means people are pretty keen on keeping out-of-character chat to a complete minimum and limited to the /ooc channel only.  In that respect, it’s very good, people try hard to talk in-character in fellowships or in /say and there’s very little non-IC chat to remind you about the bills you should be paying.

Alongside the well behaved players, we have NPC’s in LoTRO that sometimes call to friends for help, sometimes run away to shoot at you from range and sometimes call you names during the fight, it’s not going to win AI awards but it certainly helps.

Finally, the beautifully rendered world sucks you in, and before you know it you’re staring into fires in Goblin Town feeling the warmth and wondering if that smell is roast pork or maybe, just maybe, somewhere, a Hobbit is being turned into dinner.
Continue reading Lord of the Rings Online – a review – part four

Lord of the Rings Online – a review – part three

Welcome to the third part of a short review of Lord of the Rings Online that I hope I can keep to four parts.  Parts one and two have come before this one (I like a traditional numbering scheme) and part four is on the way.

3. Technology

With any luck, this part will be short!  The content and system behind an on-line roleplaying game combine to make up much of the overall experience.  Certainly for many players those two things are enough to decide the fate of a game.  However, how the game is actually presented on the screen and how the different technology elements work can also make or break a game for quite a large section of the player base.  That’s what this part is going to talk about.

3.1 Interface

The interface is the window through which we look at the game and the system through which we control it.  Bad interface design has killed games in the past and will sadly kill games in the future.  I freely admit I struggled with the LoTRO interface at the outset.  I was very used to EverQuest after 7 years, and I wasn’t at all sure about changing.  Over time though I have gotten used to it and while there are features which annoy me there aren’t any show stoppers.  Discussing the interface in full detail would take hours and thousands of words, I’m not going to do that so I’ll just give you a general feel for it.

The interface is actually several elements,

  1. how do you control the game
  2. how does the game display information to you
  3. how does the game handle chat
  4. how can you configure those three things to suit you

3.1.1 Control

I’ll handle control first.  Basic movement in LoTRO is pretty standard, cursor keys or WASD for moving around, combinations of keys to look around rather than turn.  You can use left mouse button + mouse to turn and right mouse button + mouse to look.  Holding down both mouse buttons makes you move in the direction your character is facing.  You can mix and match all those combinations.  Anyone who’s played a FPS or a recent MMORPG will find using that control system easy, it’s pretty standard these days.  You can position the camera either floating behind the character (3rd person) or inside the character (so the game is 1st person).  I played EQ in 1st person but for some reason LoTRO works a lot better for me in 3rd person and I’m pretty used to it now.

Continue reading Lord of the Rings Online – a review – part three

Lord of the Rings Online – a review – part two

This is the second part of what started out as a small review of Lord of the Rings Online and has turned into an epic monster.  You can check out the first part back here, and parts three and four are coming up after this one.  This bit (part 2) deals with the system aspects of the game, i.e. how things work.

2. System

It doesn’t really matter how much awesome content there is in a game, if the system behind it sucks like an open chest wound.  People will only put up with so much pain to get to the content they enjoy.  Systems have come a long way since the early online roleplaying games which extolled the virtues of lots of hard work for small increments in power.  These days developers realise the casual gamer market is just as key to the success of a game, and people with families can’t commit to six straight hours in front of a keyboard every night.  Systems have developed that allow casual gamers to get the most from games but still offer opportunity for complex character development and fine tuning.
Continue reading Lord of the Rings Online – a review – part two

Lord of the Rings Online – a review – part one

splashscreenOttaro was asking how much I liked Lord of the Rings Online (you can read his comment here), and rather than write a 400 word comment I thought I’d write up a more general review. Only it got out of hand so I’m breaking it up into individual posts.  This is part one which has an introduction and covers the game content.  Part two looks at the system behind the game, part three covers the technology of the game such as the graphics engine, the user interface and so on, and part four provides my overall impressions, a look at the social elements in the game and how immersive I find it.  I reserve the right to completely change all that once I actually write the articles and find I’ve waffled endlessly about something else.

Background

So that you can get an idea of where I’m coming from with this review, here’s some information about me.

I played EverQuest for something like seven years.  I played as a new player who knew nothing, as a player in a big casual guild who sometimes got groups with guild members but often grouped with random people, as someone who ended up in a raid guild one expansion behind the curve, as a ‘hard core’ grouper doing the hardest group content (at one point), as a casual raid-force leader, and all levels in-between.  At one point I cared about the ratio of hit points to AC as a warrior, I cared about the amount of avoidance and shielding I had.  I spent time looking at upgrades and trying to work out how to gain tiny incremental benefits.  I had three maximum level characters (when 80 was the maximum level) and one of them had every useful AA (my warrior) before the last expansion came out.  Eventually I just got tired.

I love fantasy and sci-fi, and I deeply love the world that Tolkien built and the characters he wrote about.  I love the Lord of the Rings story, world, characters and mythos and I have done so since I was 11 or 12.  However, I’m no serious scholar of Tolkien and Middle Earth, so if I think things aren’t in the lore but they are, don’t have me shot.

Before I stopped playing EverQuest (EQ) I’d tried a few other MMORPG’s, EverQuest II (EQII), World of Warcraft (WoW), Star Wars Galaxies (SWG), Guild Wars (GW), Dungeons and Dragons Online (DDO) and Lord of the Rings Online (LoTRO).  I had the LoTRO account for over a year, playing on and off before I finally stopped EQ and LoTRO was not the cause.  I fell back into LoTRO when I wanted a social on-line game and found that EQ was just too much.

I am very much a casual LoTRO player.  I spend some time solo,  most time with my wife and every now and then a little time with a few friends.  Sometimes we group, sometimes we just chat while we all do our own thing.  Before the release of Moria I had a maximum level character (50), but it had taken over 12 months to get there.  I’ve tried all the classes to some level or another and all the races.  I have never raided, and have spent very little time in the elite dungeons (top end content at various levels).  I don’t look hard for item upgrades, when I get gear as rewards I make a snap decision based on which seems best using a bit of guesswork.  I’ve read something like three articles on the web to give me a very basic insight into choosing weapons.  I have very little idea how my character stats compare to other peoples, in fact, I have very little idea what my character stats are at all.

I play on a roleplaying designated European server (the European instance of LoTRO is run by Codemasters, I guess it’s licensed to them by Turbine, this means that we don’t always get all the features, like my.lotro.com for example).  The roleplaying server keeps the number of trolls in the out of character chat down to a minimum.  Although I don’t roleplay in any real sense I do act in-character as much as possible in the /say channel (i.e. the channel which emulates characters talking to those nearby) and if you want lots of roleplaying it’s there for the taking.
Continue reading Lord of the Rings Online – a review – part one

I spent the weekend in the Mines of Moria

Well, technically I spent the weekend in the surrounding parts of Eregion, but I certainly did step into Moria eventually.  The first full expansion of the Lord of the Rings Online has been released – The Mines of Moria.  I was pretty excited, I’ve always loved Tolkien’s dwarves and the body of lore they spawned in fantasy games like D&D, Warhammer, etc.  I tend to end up playing dwarves in many of the fantasy games I play, and the character I spend most time on in Lord of the Rings Online (LOTRO) is a dwarf (guardian).

There’s something about the Mines of Moria that fills me with wonder and excitement both in Tolkien’s writing and in the movies.  It’s no surprise therefore that I was looking forward to this expansion for the content alone.

Since the initial release there has been a massive amount of free content released for LOTRO including entire new areas, hundreds of new quests, thousands of new items, recipes, and lore.  So you can bet any expansion you have to pay for is going to have to contain vast amounts of content to keep people happy.  Moria’s content covers a cross-over area Eregion (in Eriador), which leads into Moria and finally into Lothlórien (both in Rhovanion).  Eregion is a single ‘map’ location with four or five main quest areas.  Moria is a bunch of different map locations, each of which looks pretty big and enjoyably complex, although I’ve so far only seen the first area.  I’ve not been to Lothlórien so can’t comment on how large it is.

Each of these areas clearly have a huge number of quests and the Epic quest line has been updated to include the fellowship activity in the new locations.  For casual players like myself at least, questing is the core of LOTRO, with most equipment, cash and experience coming from quest rewards, so whether an area is any good depends a lot on the quests, how they feel and how much they connect you to the Lord of the Rings lore.

As well as the new content, the expansion brings an increase to the level cap of 10 levels (maximum level is now 60), two new classes (Rune-Master and Warden), new skills, deeds and traits appropriate to the new levels and Legendary items.  A new rank of tradeskill proficiency has been added (supreme) and new tradeskill resources and recipes required for that, additionally tradeskill guilds have been introduced which provide another source of recipes and require the gathering of guild reputation.

So, there’s a fair amount of stuff, and since both myself and Grete were still feeling pretty under the weather on Saturday, we decided to stay in and ‘play a little LOTRO’, which translated to spending most of Saturday and Sunday trying out the new content.  Here, in no particular order, are my general thoughts.

Fixes

The best ‘fix’ in the patch for Moria is that quest items no longer take up inventory space, they go into a special ‘slot’ against the quest.  This is really good news, as I said earlier the core activity in LOTRO is questing, and that results in bags half full of half completed quest items.  You can have around 40 active quests and if they all require you to gather some things it can soon get hard to manage.  The new system frees up a lot of inventory space which is tightly managed in LOTRO and makes questing less painful.

Classes

I briefly played with a Rune-Master, levelling a character to 8.  I’m always impressed with the classes in LOTRO, given there are two main archetypes (caster and melee) I’m always amazed that each melee or caster class has something unique to differentiate it from the others.  No two melee play the same, and no two casters play the same.  Rune-Masters use combat or healing skills, and the use of those skills builds combat or healing counters which either improve or prevent other skills in the fight.  For example, in order to use some powerful combat ability you have to amass combat counters by using lesser combat abilities, but some healing abilities decrease combat counters and increase healing counters.  Some healing abilities can’t be used if you have any combat counters and vice versa for some combat skills.  The net result of this apparently complex but actually simple system is that during any single encounter the Rune-Master has to specialise in damage or healing and probably won’t be easily able to switch mid-fight.  This unique slant made for some interesting choices even at low levels, and I can imagine the scope at higher levels is even greater.

I haven’t played with a Warden, but the combat mechanic appears to allow you to build special attacks by combining earlier attacks.  Unlike previous classes which have defined routes to certain special abilities based on their skills, this appears to allow a more flexible approach to building a wider range of special abilities.  Grete seemed to enjoy it at low levels.

Eregion

This location is the introduction to the new expansion and is entered via the Trollshaws.  With the exception of some fellowship quests in an instance full of elite creatures, I’ve pretty much done every obvious quest, and it was really enjoyable.  The area is split into four main quest hubs, each progressing in difficulty and all having horse masters.  A progressive deed allows you to obtain swift travel between the hubs, with initial travel being slow and having to be opened by visiting the horse master at least once (standard LOTRO approach).

The area is pretty open, with a number of ruins, some mountains and dry water-bed features and is mostly green (grassland, trees).  In the south-eastern part of the area is a location which leads to another small map which contains the entrance to Moria and has the Black Pool.  I like the open nature of LOTRO areas, they don’t usually restrict your movement by anything other than increasingly difficult creatures to get past, and Eregion is no different.  The one exception is that it’s not possible to gain access to Moria until you complete the introductory quests in the Epic line (carried out in the little area mentioned above).

The general quests in Eregion cover the whole range of normal quest activity in LOTRO, and other than being made more difficult by the huge number of people present in the zone were fun to do.

The access quest line for Moria is fun and designed to be done solo (in fact, two stages have to be completed solo).  They take place in a special version of the Black Pool area with a whole range of quest NPC’s and mini-quest dungeons.  Once you get past a certain stage in this quest line you can no longer get into the special instance area, even if you’re in a fellowship with someone doing those quests.  This is a bit of an issue (especially when we didn’t realise it would happen) because you can’t help your friends out.  However, the access quest is soloable and not too difficult, it’s the other unrelated quests in that area that are tougher and have some decent rewards that might be more troublesome when 200 people aren’t doing it at once.

Once you fully complete the quest, you gain access to Moria through a more general Black Pool area which I’ve not fully explored yet to see if the instances still exist as well.

The access quest is very atmospheric and without giving away too many spoilers you get to see some tentacled and flaming creatures of legend.

The rest of Eregion is populated with the usual range of LOTRO creatures, wolves, wargs, beasts, humans of varying evilness and origin, a new lizard model, crows and trolls.  My Minstrel progressed from level 48 to near 51 by completing most of the Eregion quests.

There are several key locations in Eregion that tie in with the Fellowship in the book, and they evoke enjoyable memories and make you feel close to the lore.

Moria

I’ve spent very little time in Moria so far, but wanted to give my initial impressions.  Wow.  Epic, huge, grand, amazing.  The entrance hall is epic and the subsequent locations are brilliantly visualised.  You get a real sense of the enormous scale of the place and the music is simply breathtaking.  If the questing and adventuring lives up to the visuals it will be fantastic.  We got totally lost three or four times trying to get from the entrance to the second secured location, and enjoyed every wrong turn.

Travel within the mines is achieved either on foot, or by goat ride between major locations once discovered.

Legendary Items

The biggest equipment change in the new expansion is the introduction of Legendary items.  Essentially, they are items which can be customised through the addition of relics, improved in power through the earning of experience and further customised by spending that experience on increasing special skill-based features on the items (like skill cost reduction, increase duration, increase damage, etc.)  The reward for the Moria access quest is a Legendary item and the quest involves learning how to improve it which is a good introduction.  Items gain experience through normal kills and through some quests, as well as via experience boosting dropped items.  The experience does not detract from the regular character earned experience, but if you have more than one item currently levelling they do split item experienced earned.

I won’t cover these in too much detail, suffice to say that they bring a big amount of customisation that some people will love and others will gloss over mostly, and increase the complexity and scope of high level characters.  I don’t know if lower level Legendary items will be added, although I suspect not from the lore given when you get your first one.  You’ll either love them or just cope with them, but you won’t be able to avoid them.

Tradeskill Changes

I have mixed feelings about this, because an early bug meant that my Dwarf Guardian had some of his earned tradeskill points removed and I had to spend 3 hours making things to get them back.  A new rank of tradeskill has been added (Supreme), which adds a new level of recipes and a whole new bunch of resources.  The resources seemed plentiful in Eregion, although there appear to be two or three ranks of new resources (this is different to previous skill levels), with the higher rank resources showing up further inside Moria and beyond only.  I do tradeskill more from an obligation to be at the highest rank, and because it gives some nice toys, rather than because I truly enjoy it, so I’m not the best person to review this addition.

I do like the introduction of tradeskill guilds, of which you can only be a member of one.  Each guild provides new recipes (mostly more efficient versions of existing recipes, or slightly better versions of the results) which have long cooldown timers.  They also introduction a range of guild token item recipes which are used either in the aforementioned new recipes or in gaining reputation with the guild, which is in turn required to buy further recipes.  The interesting angle here for me is that it provides a reason to go back and collect low level resources to make guild tokens and gain reputation.  Other people will consider it simply a straight time sink.

Conclusions

I’m biased.  I’ve loved the Lord of the Rings since I read the books.  I loved the movies.  I love the lore, the concept, the very idea of being within Middle Earth taking on Goblins and Orcs.  The Mines of Moria held special importance for me because I enjoy roleplaying dwarves, and the ideas of lost kingdoms, heroics and forgotten wealth inspire me.  There was never any doubt I’d buy this expansion.  With all that said, it had a lot to live up to, and so far it’s managed it quite handily.  Eregion was fun and challenging and the Moria access quest was interesting.  My first view of Moria was suitably awe inspiring, and subsequent exploration suggests there’s more to come.  The bug with tradeskills pissed me off at first, and I’m just about over it.  But it can’t quell the enjoyment I get from bashing orcs over the head and shouting Baruk Khazâd! Khazâd ai-mênu! with the iconic images of Moria all around me and the sound of drums in the deep.