Launching an MMO expansion pack in the same month as Blizzard may seem like madness, but Lord of the Rings Online has a huge user base, well-defined and even innovative MMO mechanics, and the world’s best known fantasy world. There are vast swathes of people living in the Shire and loving it.
Mines of Moria picks up at the end of Volume One of LotRO. We’ve just said goodbye to the Fellowship in Rivendell, and that hastily assembled group of Humans, Elves, Dwarves and Hobbits was setting out on their fateful journey to Mordor. For the last few months, players have been sweeping up those unfinished deeds, crafting skill tiers and quests in a bid to be truly ready for the next leg of the adventure. That time has come.
This expansion has a lot to live up to: trying to remain true to the core game that’s worked so well so far, expanding the universe and with it the level cap from 50 to 60, and endeavoring not to unbalance it all in the process. But don’t even think that you’ll see the inside of Moria until level 50. That’s a long road to journey on, especially if you want to savor the sights and sounds of Middle-Earth along the way – and trust us, you’ll want to. For those Middle-Earth old timers who’ve been 50 for some months now, earning XP once more is thrilling, especially as this expansion also includes a vast new external region that leads up to the walls of Moria.
This region, called Eregion, has plenty of quests and foes to keep you occupied before you venture into the dark caverns. As you kick off Volume Two of the epic storyline proper, the final leg of your journey into Moria itself, you’ll encounter the Watcher in the Water, the foul tentacled beast in the lake near the Hollin’s Gate entrance to Moria. It’s this fateful encounter that introduces you to the new ‘Legendary Items’ system. Thanks to the implementation of Legendary Items, Frodo’s got ‘Sting’, Gandalf has ‘Glamdring’, and we’ve got ‘Stabatha’ the legendary dagger.
These are exactly what they sound like: unique and potentially powerful items, starting out fairly ordinary, but which gain experience and level up just as you do. It seems complicated at first, but looking at the Legendary Items panel we were soon able to customize our dagger into a weapon we were proud of. Each item is class-specific and can be upgraded to specific roles; a dagger that does vicious damage to orcs, for instance. You can carry up to six on your character at any one time.
With so many combinations available, you might decide that your new item isn’t what you had hoped for. No problem: you can get them ‘deconstructed’ into their component parts via a Relic Master NPC, or trade them at the Auction House. Even if you’ve spent some time leveling an old item you no longer want, deconstructing it will result in ‘Heritage ‘Runes’: a way to transfer some of its experience to a more favored item.
The really good news is the Legendary Items are not exclusive to Moria, and can be found throughout the game. Nor are they exclusive to hardcore players: they can be found in most PvE areas, and of course you can always search for exactly the item you’re looking for at the Auction House. Once you finally get into Moria you’re in for a treat: Turbine has worked hard on the capabilities of their engine to render interior spaces and this work has visibly paid off. LotRO has always been a pretty game; the numerous exterior landscapes have always looked as Tolkien described, and the large interior halls, mines and long dark corridors of Moria follow that precedent. And there’s plenty to keep you occupied as you work your way through the myriad rooms and regions, with around 600 new quests and another 300 new deeds and accomplishments, plus some great new raid options.
The 12 player raid to battle the ‘Watcher in the Water’ is likely to become a favorite over the coming months, but it’s the single-player storyline quests in the dark places of Moria that will keep you gripped. Turbine have come up with inventive ways for you to experience key parts of The Lord of the Rings that you wouldn’t normally be involved with, such as a time travelling story arc where you experience the original uncovering of the Balrog through the eyes of one of Dwalin’s minions. There are so many wonderful moments to be experienced on your own personal journey through the game – and each respectful to the source material – it’s hard to even scratch the surface in our own hallowed pages.
While two new classes have been introduced with the Moria expansion, it’s too early to predict exactly how they fit with the rest in terms of similarities, or what they might bring to fellowship grouping or larger, longer raiding teams. The facts are these: the Warden, a medium tanking class with standard ranged attacks via javelins and stronger melee abilities when you’re fighting toe-to-toe, seems like a fun and balanced soloing class. This class has a new attack system called ‘Gambit’, which allows you to use a main hand weapon, shield, and taunt in set combinations to deliver either impressive damaging blows or defense and opportunities to heal.
The Rune-keeper will likely be a slow burner for leveling by those already experienced in managing group ‘aggro’ while soloing. He’s very lightly armored and armed with runic abilities to either attack or heal. As you deal damage or heal yourself and allies you’ll temporarily specialise in that path using an ‘attunement meter’. As you chain attacks or heals it allows you to access more powerful skills in that line. Heal, and you’ll get better heals. Fight, and you’ll get better at fighting. Certainly the Rune-keeper has the potential to be a powerful ally for those into raiding, as the extremes along either path will be quite telling in a monster mash-up. The Warden seems like a good compromise between the ‘Guardian’ and the ‘Hunter’, but time will tell which ends up being a popular choice.
When you’re not vanquishing evil in the deep places of the world, you can choose to spend some time making the most of the new enhancements to the crafting system. We’ve always found this to be a worthwhile and satisfying pastime right from day one; those of you new to Middle-Earth will soon be making useful items, and all basic ingredients are now available from any crafting vendor, which helps the process run smoothly.
Once you reach Expert level in your chosen profession, you can join a ‘Crafting Guild’, which will give you access to exclusive recipes. Your progress in this guild is measured according to your reputation within it, so keeping them happy will improve your standing, thereby unlocking access to new recipes that greatly enhance your abilities. A ‘Supreme’ tier of mastery is waiting to be achieved; the items produced being appropriate for those above level 50. If you’ve improved your reputation with your Crafting Guild far enough, you’ll even be able to produce special Class items, Legendary Weapons, and items that can boost the speed of leveling that new Legendary Item.
Another interesting change is the representation of the ‘Traits’ system. Traits are special character abilities, such as increased might, agility, or even a propensity to be protected from wounds or disease, etc. These traits are slotted to your character by visiting one of the many Bard NPCs in the game, but you can only have a certain number at any one time. Standard traits, called virtues, are common across all characters, but other traits are based on your class, race and so-called ‘legendary’ traits for completing certain deeds of derring-do. The traits themselves are not new to LotRO, but the new multi-tabbed window to represent them is certainly a welcome addition.
Turbine have done an amazing job in expanding their game while being mindful about not unbalancing the core Angmar experience or leaving vast swathes of Middle-Earth deserted as people migrate to the new areas – a problem many MMOs have suffered from. In Lord of the Rings there’s always a good reason to head back to the original areas, not least to complete deeds, build up traits, access key crafting halls and go trading at the Auction House. There’s always something to do, and it isn’t all about fighting evil.
Moria is not without its faults: the first week of release saw an unwelcome and unusual abundance of bugs. Server stability has been a little bit questionable, with dumps to Windows, characters getting stuck in doors and finger-tapping waits while the game attempts to clean up your connection when you reconnect. These are not uncommon issues for MMOs to experience during the post-release blues of a major update, and given the game’s previous level of bulletproof reliability prior to Moria, we expect Turbine to stamp on these flaws promptly. But it still leaves us wondering darkly if this expansion was rushed to release to coincide with Wrath of the Lich King.
And as a final grumble, for all the well written and entertaining quests here, there’s still the traditional MMO grind fare of kill X number of things and recover X number of body parts. That said, we’ve enjoyed our time in Turbine’s Middle-Earth for months now and have no intention of leaving the Fellowship to journey on without us. See you in Mordor.
Dec 4, 2008