The Lord of the Rings Online is a relatively successful MMO based on the famous works of J.R.R. Tolkien. However, the game's focus was never to cater to hardcore raiders or experienced PvPers. Instead, Turbine tried to appease every group of MMO players at once. The Ettenmoors provides a decent PvP (called PvMP in LotRO) experience while a few 12- and 24-man instances give raiders something to do. Very strong crafting, housing, cosmetic, and reputation components all contribute to the casual crowd.
Fortunately, Turbine hasn't forgotten its roots, and LotRO benefits from a very strong storytelling aspect. What's clear from the onset is that Turbine is set on weaving a story to tie all of Middle-earth together.
It wouldn't be much of a "role-playing" game if players had to follow the Fellowship of the Ring line for line in the books. Instead, Turbine has crafted a parallel story to the books, fleshing out Middle-earth with new allies, enemies, locations, and lore. While actual choices available to players are non-existent few, they'll still get to see Frodo, Aragorn, and the rest of the characters gamers grew up with.
You won't be able to level up on epic quests alone, but they do help a lot – especially once you factor in how the epic books progress from area to area to tie in with your level most of the time. In other words, you'll want to complete book 1 in Bree Land when you're between levels 10-20 because that's where those quests are. Book 2 of volume I takes you into the Lonelands with level 20-30 content (those are just rough estimates).
Because you can experience so much of the epic quests as you complete the other content, you'd be foolish to pass it up. The epic quests:
- Don't really take that much extra time beyond normal quests,
- Generally provide adequate (and sometimes fantastic) gear for your level, and
- Tell a great story
The exception right now is when you hit book 8 or 9 of volume I. The rest of volume I up to the book 15 conclusion is all level 50 content, so you won't get a ton of experience for the final few books. However, volume II will see you the entire way up to the current level 65 cap, and you have to be level 65 to work your way through volume III.
Most of LotRO's epic books, however, can provide up to 25% of the experience you'll need as your journey through Middle-earth. Combined with the MMO's ample quests and the skirmish system, you'll never find yourself beating your head against a wall as you numbly grind levels.
Turbine could have just left the first epic books alone after the game's release and called it a day. There weren't any glaring problems with the quests, but "problem free" isn't the same as "excellent." No doubt about it, I had a blast the first time I played through them as Middle-earth was still fresh and there were countless new lands to explore. However, Turbine figured they'd improve upon an adequate story.
There have been a number of patches regarding the early level content, but most of them have made the early game more streamlined. Before, there was a lot of back and forth, a great deal of running around finding new locations. Often, players found themselves running miles out of the way just to talk to a minor character, and the levels at which they completed epic quests didn't always match up with the other content in the same area.
LotRO today is much easier for new players to learn the ropes because of Turbine's changes. Early instances were made shorter, and notable characters like Elrond and Aragorn became major characters in the game much earlier. When new players come to The Lord of the Rings Online, there's an expectation to see familiar faces.
The result is a more coherent vision of Middle-earth tied more closely to the books. Most of the changes concern the first few books, but the final books of volume I also received significant changes, most notably instant ports between the same two or three locations instead of running the same 15-minute journey over and over. Howeve, one changes trumps all the others.
No More Fellowship Quests
All right – this title's slightly misleading. There are still fellowship quests, but you don't have to complete them with groups. A while back, Turbine implemented the (by now) greatly appreciated "inspired" buff for epic fellowship quests (regular fellowship quests still require a group). Basically, those instances now provide a buff inversely proportional to the number of fellowship members.
Simply put, a solo player in one of these instances will receive a huge increase to morale, damage, and healing. At level 65, it's not uncommon to have 25,000 morale for your character (as opposed to 6,000 or 7,000 morale) and have auto attacks deal 500 damage or more on non-crits. The enemies are the same, but you can cut through them pretty easily.
While the inspired buff warns you that completing the fellowship instances on your own presents a "great challenge," the truth is that completing those instances in a group is more difficult than by yourself. You do miss out on the social aspect of MMOs when you play by yourself, but from a difficulty standpoint, soloing is easier than grouping.
Why is this change so great? The LotRO inspired buff for epic quests means you never have to rely on putting a group together. If 90% of players are level 60 and above (a made up statistic), trying to put a group together at level 30 is possible, but it's entirely too frustrating. If you can manage to get six players together to complete an instance at that level, great. If you can only get three or four together, the inspired buff will make each player slightly stronger. You can also complete the instances by yourself.
Turbine ought to be applauded for scaling instances that way so that players can complete quests multiple ways, and it's one of the best changes they've made to the game.
Volume I – Shadows of Angmar
Evil stirs in Eriador, but few remain to oppose it. The only thing you know when you start your character is that something is not right. What exactly you cannot say, so it falls to you to figure it out.
Each race has a different intro instance in which they're introduced to their characters, and any player looking to experience the entire Shadows of Angmar story will have to roll a new character for each race. Basically, introductions cover basic class mechanics, like how to attack, use skills, and loot enemies. Even if you don't level the characters up, the intro and prequel stories are worth rolling new toons and experiencing the very first hours of gameplay, and you'll piece together the backstory for each race.
When LotRO: Shadows of Angmar was released in 2007, only the first eight books of the epic story were available for players to experience. There's no getting around it – the first few books aren't well connected at all. It's almost as if they're completely different stories, held together only by the tiniest of threads.
Starting out in Breeland, you meet Strider, a ranger of the North, who is revealed to be Aragorn. He sends you on a quest to see what happened at Crickhollow after investigating what's left of the Blackwold brigands. For anyone who's read the books, Crickhollow was the temporary home of Frodo Baggins after he left Bag End. You'll eventually meet notable characters like Tom Bombadil and even Gandalf himself by the end of book one.
By the time you return to Aragorn, he's left with the hobbits in his care. You'll head towards Weathertop, only to find that there was a terrible battle waged there only a few nights before your arrival. The following few books introduce you to the Rangers in the North, headquartered in Esteldin, and Elrond in Rivendell. Book five concludes the Skorgrim story arc. You'd think that victory over the evil, undead dwarf would provide some relief, but you'd be wrong.
Books 6-8 take you into the dark realm of Angmar, which used to be the kingdom of the Witch-King many hundreds of years ago. Mordirith, an old king turned wight, has taken the throne for himself, and he desires to command all of Eriador. The ranger Lorniel leads you on a quest to free her father, Golodir, and is killed in turn. At your most desperate, you defeat Mordirith.
Upon the game's release, Mordirith was the end game boss, and the Carn Dum instance took hours. The dungeon's been scaled back to fit in line with the other epic quests, and players can only wistfully remember how much more difficult the old instances used to be.
Released one book at a time after the Shadows of Angmar went live, books 9 and beyond continue the epic story arc started in book 6, when you first traveled to Angmar. Book 6 is where the story starts to form a coherent tale, but players could be forgiven for thinking that book 8, the final book from the original Shadows of Angmar, is the finale of that story. Mordirith is seemingly vanquished, Lorniel is avenged, and Golodir now has time to mourn for his lost daughter.
It is not to be. Book 9 starts with a bang. That old hobbit crone, Sara Oakheart, shows up outside the dark tower of Barad Gularan in Angmar, except this time, she has a big surprise in store for you. Before your very eyes, she transforms into the dark sorceress Amarthiel. What unfolds over the next seven books is a captivating tale of family grief, dark secrets, and the desperate search for some MacGuffin-esque magical artifacts before Amarthiel acquires them.
You learn that contrary to popular belief (and hope), Mordirith is not truly dead. Those Nazgul and dark spirits like them seem to come back again and again, but this time you'll find a way to kill Mordirith once and for all.
This story is worth experiencing. Finishing all the books gets you some pretty cool rewards. At the time, the grey horse was the best mount in the game, capable of taking more hits before dismounting you. You also get some neat cosmetic items and a beautiful painting of Narmeleth to hang in your house. Not everyone's going to care about a painting, granted, but it's pretty cool nevertheless.
It's really hard to describe how well Turbine wrote these books without spoiling major plot points and character development, but LotRO volume I remains the high mark in storytelling for the game.
Volume II – Mines of Moria
After many weeks spent at the elf refuge of Rivendell, the Fellowship of the Ring is ready to depart on a secret quest to Mordor (is that really a spoiler, really?). This time, you'll be spending a lot of time directly following them down to the old elf ruins in Eregion and even venturing into Moria and beyond.
In fact, you'll have to complete at least the first book in volume II to gain entrance to Moria. A large dwarf expedition is venturing into the underground kingdom to reclaim it, and you're going to help them. Starting at level 45, you'll finally have access to legendary weapons and class items, which Turbine introduced with The Mines of Moria back in 2008.
Unfortunately, the story tries to do too many things at once, ignoring almost everything that worked about the second half of volume I. The best parts are undoubtedly the books in which you help the dwarves secure their ancient kingdom, but the story too quickly shifts the main antagonist from the goblin king Mazog to the dark sorcerors of Dol Guldur.
In fact, all of Mirkwood is told in book 9. While it's a lengthy one and will see you the whole way from levels 60-65, Moria is all but forgotten by the end of the tale. Turbine would have been better off releasing more (if smaller) epic quest updates, since the 15 books of volume I trump the mere 9 books of volume II in story depth and character development. In fact, there was little enough character development at all. Volume I developed Narmaleth, Laerdan, and other characters over the period of a year of releases, but volume II became bogged down in the technical details of taking Moria before switching gears for a worn out rescue operation.
The Siege of Mirkwood was a fun addition to The Lord of the Rings Online, but the epic book 9 of volume II was tacked onto the end just to get characters out into Mirkwood.
Volume III – Allies of the King
Elrond has seen fit to gather all the Dúnedain in Eriador to send to Aragorn, and book 1 has you revisiting many of the locations you've grown to know over the years. Gamers who've played since the game's release back in early 2007 will feel a strong sense of nostalgia as they talk to Candaith and other rangers at locations like Thorenhad, Bree, and Aughaire. Thankfully, the quests aren't just traveling and talking – each ranger bestows upon you a mini-quest to root orcs out of a cave or stop a bandit from preying on hobbits.
While the quests don't present anything spectacular, it'll bring a tear to your eye once you realize that this is the last time you'll be setting foot in Eriador, perhaps ever. You can still return whenever you want, of course, but it's doubtful any quest will ever force you back north.
Books 2 and 3 take you back through Eregion and into the new zone of Enedwaith. Returning to the Rangers in the North grounds the game once more in the Fellowship's quest, and you must reunite the Rangers with Aragorn, no matter the cost. However, a mystery begins to unfold in Enedwaith with a strange dwarf who knows of your secret quest to take the Paths of the Dead. That's where book 3 is right now, and I took it as a good sign to feel let down when book 3 didn't provide the closure I was anticipating.
Completing these epic quests earns you a venerable level 65 second age class item, saving you hours and hours of farming in skirmishes or other instances. You'll also pick up several scrolls of delving and even a gold piece of armour, one of the best in the game.
The Rise of Isengard
Fans of the game will be excited to learn that The Rise of Isengard expansion pack, set for release on September 27, adds three new zones to the game. Even though The Mines of Moria only introduced two whole zones (Lórien was only partially open at the time), the land mass should be comparable since Moria was enormous.
One of the most pressing issues with Mirkwood and Enedwaith is that while they fit in the world of Middle-earth as envisioned by Tolkien, they aren't landmark areas in the sense that Rivendell, Bree, and the Shire were. Little enough mention is made of them in The Lord of the Rings. While hardcore fans will want to explore every inch of Middle-earth, most gamers feel no connection to these "extra" zones.
In fact, LotRO has lacked that kind of highly anticipated update since all of Lórien was opened up and players were first able to set foot in the city of Caras Galadhon, which was way back in March 2009, nearly two and a half years ago. Mirkwood and Enedwaith have come out since then, but the game is absolutely aching for new zones.
The Rise of Isengard will deliver splendidly. The LotRO website reveals that players will quest through Dunland, the Gap of Rohan, and even into Isengard proper. These three zones are explored in the books and in the movies, giving players that much needed connection to Tolkien's works once again. With The Old Republic and several other large releases looming just over the horizon, LotRO needs this update to energize its fan base.
Volume III should continue with the expansion pack as the Rangers of the North fight their way toward Aragorn, their king.
- Images and references from The Lord of the Rings Online.
- Author’s experience.