The Lord of the Rings Online: Siege of Mirkwood

We haven’t covered LotRO much recently. There’s no dark reason for this, no sinister conspiracy – it’s just that this is an MMO that’s remarkably adept at keeping its head down and getting on with things. On the quiet, it’s accrued a massive and very happy audience. On the eve of its new expansion, it seems a good time to peer at what the game as a whole is like these days, and more importantly, why.

“LotRO is the world’s best PvE game” claims producer/spokesman Jeffrey Steefel. It’s an important distinction – while factional warfare tends to be a big theme of many MMOs, in LotRO everyone’s on fundamentally the same side. Sure, there’s monster play mode to dip in and out of, but the ongoing war is strictly against the big bads of Mordor and assorted Middle Earth beasties. Digital-only expansion Mirkwood builds on that. “There are at least 100 hours of gameplay here,” reckons Steefel. “While most of the content is designed for high-level players, there are several new improvements and content for new players as well, including an upgrade to LotRO’s combat system, which delivers more responsive attacks.”

So, has LotRO become, like EVE or Ultima Online, a tough nut for newcomers to crack? Well, not really. LotRO is made from very familiar MMO systems, and that’s a key reason why it’s been a quiet success: it doesn’t overcomplicate anything. Against this is that it’s possibly been a bit too sleepy. “We have been very focused on what we call the New Player Experience (NPE),” says Steefel. “We’ve gone back armed with feedback from our players and data from over two years of operation, to refine the experience to get players into the world and the story faster.” So, while Mirkwood won’t immediately have much to offer anyone who didn’t stay with LotRO beyond the free trial, the game as a whole is now rather more ‘straight to adventure.’

Perversely, adventure isn’t the most interesting element of LotRO, from where we’re standing. What’s more fascinating is how the game’s community has slowly turned it into a tranquil Tolkien paradise. The music system grew into a major aspect of the game after players pushed it as far as it’d go, while fishing, crafting and, that great wishdream of MMOs, player housing, means there are a whole bunch of ways to be a homely Hobbit if you’d rather avoid beast-stabbing. How much of a focus is this sort of thing for Turbine? “I don’t believe we will have an expansion dedicated to our Music System (Lute Hero?),” says Steefel, disappointingly.

Meantime, a headline feature of Mirkwood (a raised level cap is the biggest of biggies, inevitably) is the henchmen – AI soldiers players can purchase, train and equip for scenarios called ‘skirmishes.’ The skirmish concept is neat – essentially, you create an instance on the spot, which you and your chums can join from anywhere in the game. You can then run it over and over again, thanks to randomised objectives. The soldiers mean you’re able to tackle much tougher stuff than you would be on your own, or even if you were in a small group. It’s going to be a great way to level up.