West Rohan is a pretty swell place. Or it was before the orcs got there,
anyway. As the landscape behind the Lord of the Rings Online's latest
expansion, Helm's Deep, it provides a setting that is majestic, gritty and
epic but also familiar.
Of course, the big story of Helm's Deep isn't the hills and trees and
mead halls and such - it's the epic battles. The expansion is named after
the area in the Westfold region, where the ancient Gondorian fotress
called the Hornburg provides a last-ditch sanctuary for a great host of
refugees. The epic battle there, between 2,000 or so Rohirrim defenders
and a host of more than 10,000 White Hand attackers, is one of the most
memorable in the series, and Turbine has put a lot of work into making
them feel as epic in the game as they do in the books.
Helm's Deep features heaps of fantasy violence. Literally heaps of it -
particularly after the Battle of the Hornburg. It has a ESRB rating of "T
Gameplay - 95 / 100
Helm's Deep makes a few changes to gameplay this time around.
First off is the new talent tree system, replacing the old class traits.
This can have a rather profound effect on how a character is played. Old
hybrid trait builds are no longer really viable, since buying traits
outside of the specialization tree costs two times as much. Some players
will find this a tough pill to swallow, particularly if they have been
running hybrid for a very long time. Others may find that it makes their
characters more focused and effective - though this might be a bit of an
illusion based on the raising of certain stat caps and removal of
There are also changes to the threat system, which can have a profound
effect on group content. The new system is supposed to be simpler, but may
not take into account how much threat an uncapped and incautious Hunter
generates with his newly-supercharged attacks. Threat leeching skills -
Whirling Retaliation for Guardians, for example - have had the threat
leeching effect removed, but threat generation on tank-spec classes has
been increased overall. The new system may take some getting used to for
long-time players with set skill rotations. On the other hand, since
players can now just swap specs on the fly, any time, for no cost,
hybridization is much less important, and characters can afford to take a
narrower approach to their tasks.
The Big Battles system (also called Epic Battles, but we'll stick with
Big Battles to avoid confusion with the other "epic" things already in
place) is something new altogether. The bastard offspring of skirmishes
and session play, Big Battles put the character in the role of a defender
at five key locations during the battle at Helm's Deep. This is not your
average "kill all the trash mobs, then fight a boss" style of instanced
space - most of the trash mobs are handled by the NPC soldiers, and there
aren't really any named bosses. Instead, the player is tasked with manning
siege and anti-siege weapons - building, loading, aiming and firing
catapults, for example, or loading and using rock traps to kill orcs
trying to climb up the walls - ordering soldiers around by issuing
commands to NPC captains, and completing random side objectives which
actually do involve some proper fighting.
Characters specializing in support roles will have a pretty easy time
adapting to this new type of content, but front-line fighters, tanks and
DPSers, will probably need to adjust their play style significantly.
Except for the side-quests, attacking the invaders is kind of pointless.
They usually charge straight towards their objectives and get handled by
the Rohirrim soldiers - they don't respond to threat generation, but some
can be pulled for a short time by using forced-attack taunts. In between
side quests, the player should more likely be focusing on making sure
everyone's combat orders are current, ensuring that battle standards and
equipment are in good repair, and keeping soldiers healed up if possible.
Graphics - 87 / 100
Let's be honest here - LotRO is six years old now. The graphics are good
for what they are, and continue the tradition of lore-based excellence in
design for which Turbine has become well-known - but they're not
particularly cutting-edge or ground-breaking. The designers have
done a great job of working within the limitations of this older engine to
produce some serious eye candy.
West Rohan is a very pretty region, and it is quite clear that a great
deal of effort has gone into making everything look as good as or better
than how it was described in the books. Meduseld, the mead hall in Edoras
where King Theoden holds court, looks pretty amazing. I am particularly
impressed by the visuals in Fenmarch, which sits on the boggy edge of the
river separating the Westemnet from the Eastemnet - the willows drooping
into still, silent, swan-filled pools.
The designers have also done a great job of designing and decorating the
Hornburg and its outbuildings. The ancient Gondorian architecture stands
out strongly against the landscape, and the Rohirric additions of stables
and lean-tos and market stalls inside the fortress walls make it look like
a dashed-together military encampment.
Standing on top of the Deeping Wall and seeing the dense, screaming
carpet of murderous orcs sheeting the valley below is an epic feeling.
There are thousands of individuals on screen at once, and it truly feels
like those far-away pixels are angrily clamoring for blood and for the
extinction of mankind. The scale of the battle is somewhat reduced by the
thin distance fog - it's a rainy, miserable night, and there are a lot of
big fires kicking up a lot of acrid, hazy smoke, but you can see the
entire White Hand army quite clearly, all the way to the back. This is not
necessarily a bad thing, though, because that's a hell of a sight.
Sound - 77 / 100
Unfortunately, Chance Thomas had to sit it out this time around, and the
musical tone for West Rohan is very different from that of East Rohan.
Helm's Deep's composer, Stephen Digregorio, has crafted a score for
Western Rohan using a fairly obvious digital palette, as opposed to the
more lavish and epic-sounding orchestral works of Thomas. While the themes
of the soundtrack are sweeping and dramatic, they suffer from low-budget
That being said, it's still an above-average score. A number of players
have given voice to some very colourfully-worded objections to the music,
but LotRO players have been spoiled for many years by an ace composer. The
new guy clearly has some chops - his music is emotive and evocative, and
adequately sets the mood and tone of the region - but he had some mighty
big shoes to fill, and evidently a much tighter budget.
Multiplayer - 95 / 100
The Big Battles at Helm's Deep are the group content of this expansion,
but the selection is a bit limited. The set includes one 3-person, one
6-person and one 12-person battle, each one hand-built for that specific
group size. The group content is not just auto-scaled from the solo
instances like in a skirmish or normal scaling instance - each one has to
be custom made, with a different set of mobs and NPCs and interactable
It seems likely that future updates will include group-tailored versions
of these battles - I certainly hope so, anyway, because they are WAY more
fun in a group. The solo experience is decent - hectic and challenging,
but still pretty fun - but the group experience is just better. Helm's
Dike as a solo/duo instance has some frustrating objectives that are
difficult to accomplish, but in the 6-man version, as long as everyone
knows more or less what they are doing, anything seems possible.
A really skilled team can handle some of the side quests even if they are
short-handed. During one 6-person run, we had two people fail to enter the
instance entirely, and a third drop out halfway. We had a Hunter, Minstrel
and Rune-keeper remaining, and managed to achieve at least bronze medals
in the three side quests despite being under-manned.
The solo versions of the Big Battles can be run as a duo, with no change
in the relative power of the mobs or in the difficulty of the quests. Duos
tend to be a lot easier than trying to solo the things, but all of them
can be soloed just fine.
It's also nice that players can start running Big Battles at level 10.
Level 10 characters won't be getting to West Rohan anytime soon, but they
can make day trips to the Hornburg.
Value - 65 / 100
This is another area where Helm's Deep falls a bit short of previous
expansions. When the game initially went free-to-play, Turbine made a
decision to make all the epic book quests totally free, even when they
took place in regions that weren't unlocked via quest packs or purchased
expansions. A player with only the base f2p game could run all of the
Shadows of Angmar, Mines of Moria, Siege of Mirkwood, Rise of Isengard and
Riders of Rohan epic books without spending a dime - theoretically, at
This is not the case with Helm's Deep. This time around, Turbine decided
to tie the epic books to the purchased expansion. In part, this was
because the epic book quests are married to the new Big Battles system.
Tying the epics to the paid expansion allowed the developers to "go all
out" in the design of the epics, and to add some perceived value to the
expansion for those who buy it. Nobody feels like the F2P guys are getting
only slightly less - they get an increased level cap and that's about it.
Everything else requires purchase.
Turbine also seemed to go a bit heavy on monetizing Helm's Deep,
increasing the cost of quick-travel five-fold for Helm's Deep quests. They
also offer only two talent tree specialization slots, while the classes
have three specialization lines. Players can unlock more specialization
slots at a cost of 100 Mithril Coins - roughly $9.70 - per slot, per
character. For players with only one main character, this is probably fine
and dandy, but players with a stable of alts will need to be more
selective or wealthy.
The biggest value hit comes from the new housing chests. Players have
been asking for updates to player housing for a while now, and it's great
that it's finally happening. But the cost of upgrading the chests is a bit
ridiculous. A deluxe house starts with a 60-slot chest, and an additional
15 slots costs 100 Mithril Coins - again, roughly 9 and a half bucks.
Standard houses can be upgraded with in-game currency, at a cost of 25
gold for the first 15-slot upgrade. That's slightly less than the cost of
one new house per inventory slot.
Lasting Appeal - 95 / 100
The Big Battles and the revamped talent tree systems are just what this
six-year-old game needed to stay fresh. LotRO has become a mature game,
and its player base has matured with it. In some cases, older games
tossing out radical changes can be like Grampa trying to be hip by dyeing
his hair green and saying he listens to dubstep. At best, it's a cosmetic
"fix" that isn't fooling anyone. In LotRO's case, though, it's like Grampa
learning to use Instagram, and trading in his VCR (with the clock still
blinking 12:00) for a set-top BluRay - getting with the times and staying
More importantly, though - the Big Battles are plain ol' fun. Especially
with a group. That's exactly the kind of innovation that will keep LotRO
marching all the way to the Pelennor Fields and on to Barad Dur.
Pros and Cons
- Epic battles are epic
- Convenient spec-swapping is convenient
- Beautiful West Rohan is beautiful
- Musical score is a step backwards from last year's expansion
- Aggressive monetization robs this expansion of overall value
- Would have preferred more multi-player Big Battles
If you're a fan of the Lord of the Rings - books, movies or game - you're
going to want Helm's Deep. In terms of the story, it's one of the major
stepping stones on the path to Mordor, an iconic place and time where
heroes make a grim stand against overwhelming odds and prevail, but at a
great cost. In terms of a game expansion, the costs are also high, but
LotRO still stands strong and proud, and continues to deliver to its
dedicated player base.
Let this be the hour when we draw swords together. Fell deeds awake. Now
for wrath, now for ruin, and the red dawn. Forth, Eorlingas!
Overall 90/100 - Great
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