LotRO's Rise of Isengard: Will It Be Enough?

LotRO's forthcoming Rise of Isengard expansion is generating some buzz, but it's not the only one. Will RoI be able to stay competetive against the likes of Star Wars: The Old Republic, Guild Wars 2 and all the other looming titans, or will it need a game-changer?

Rise of Isengard: Will It Be Enough?

Rise of Isengard, the forthcoming expansion for the Lord of the Rings Online, is generating some buzz. Players will be able to gain ten additional levels, there's a new full 24-man raid against a dragon, we'll get to see important new locations and, according to the dev diaries starting to roll out, all classes are going to get some significant reworking. Of course, LotRO is not the only game generating buzz for the coming months. Star Wars: The Old Republic looms on the horizon like a juggernaut poised to start a downhill roll, Guild Wars 2 is shaping up to be a giant, and perennial mainstay World of Warcraft is slapping a big, shiny new patch on their titan. Will Rise of Isengard be able to stay competetive, or will they need a game-changer?

WHAT'S CONFIRMED

Here's what we know we're getting, based on all the PR bits that keep mentioning the same few things, and the handful of dev diaries and forum posts we've seen so far:

Draigoch Draigoch - he's kind of a "big deal" around here.
  • One 24-man raid for endgame players. Okay, awesome, there's only one other 24-man PvE raid in the game and it's against... a... well, a different dragon. An undead one. The new one will be alive and sitting on a giant mound of gold the way dragons are supposed to.

  • Ten more levels, with no more caps on stats or combat ratings. And with those ten new levels comes new skills, right? Well, mostly not new, but improved versions of existing skills, and potentially insane stats to back them up. And also with those ten new levels, a new crafting tier. But basically, this is pretty much the same as what's already there, just bigger.

  • Easier and/or better math and combat mechanics. Consolidated combat values and a reworking on how some classes determine their combat effectiveness based on what they actually do. This is the kind of stuff that endgame players pay close attention to, and having fewer things to fret over makes life a little easier.

  • Three new regions to explore. The screenshots have looked epic and awesome and beg to be explored in minute detail. This almost certainly means new reputation factions, as has historically been the case. And with new regions comes new books in the epic line, but no word yet on how many there will actually be at launch. Moria shipped with 6 full books, but Mirkwood had only one at launch.

  • A new stat: Finesse. It's totally NOT Radiance. But when RoI launches, nobody will have any, and it will be needed for raiding. It's not specifically a raid-gating stat, in that you will not be required to grind for "X Shoulders of the Y" with +Z Finesse just to meet a survival requirement, but endgame raiders and PvMPers are going to want to stack it up high and get the gear that has it.

  • New endgame gear, and tweaked midgame gear. Yellow trash loot will seem slightly less trashy, and still be passed over for superior purple, teal and orange. According to the Itemization dev diary, there's a new raid set that even can be earned by soloing, and crafted gear that will be comparable in quality to raid armor. And the return of instance loot!

  • Monster Play for F2P - but (somewhat ironically) free players will not be able to play as the Free Peoples. They can roll a new Creep, but cannot take their regular Freep toons to the Moors. So the Moors will possibly be flooded with greenie Reavers (the only free monster class), but without the balance of a flood of greenie Freeps. The map will be mostly red for a while.
Sources:

Everything sounds great so far... but it's essentially more of the same. Don't get me wrong, "the same" is still great, and it will be nice to have more of it. It just doesn't seem all that "new" so much as it seems an improvement or continuation of existing gameplay.

WHAT'S NOT YET CONFIRMED (BUT POSSIBLY COMING)

A few things haven't yet been discussed in dev diaries or the press, but are almost certain to make their way into the final product when it launches:

  1. Non-combat cosmetic pets. They mentioned it once last year, and I haven't heard anything about it recently in any official capacity, but I haven't given up hope. Not entirely.
  2. New cosmetics. Seriously, there almost has to be, right? The new raid armor sets at least will look different than the current sets. We hope.

Again, nothing really "new," just expanded. Even the cosmetic pets idea is not a new thing - Lore-masters have had them for years.

WHAT'S MISSING

Way back last year, when they announced the Rise of Isengard expansion, the devs said straight-up that there would be new PvMP zones. Plural, "zones." That, unfortunately, has been dropped for the September release, and will not be shipping with the expansion when it goes live. That's not to say it will never happen... just not yet. Some players are rather upset about this.

PvMP This sort of cameraderie will remain restricted to one zone.

One thing that has been missing from the PR is any mention of new instances or skirmishes. A lot of fuss has been made about the 24-man dragon raid, and that's sure to draw a few crowds, and many of the existing classic instances and skirmishes will be revamped and rescaled... but there will be no new smaller-group content at launch. Sapience Has Confirmed that a new instance cluster will ship with Update 5, sometime after Rise of Isengard but before the end of the year.

And so far, all the stuff detailed in the dev diaries and official literature has been geared for endgame players, and there is almost nothing for low- and mid-levels. Opening the Ettenmoors to F2P players is all well and good, but that's an aspect of the game that doesn't appeal to everyone... and it's been the only thing being offered to players under level 65. Those of us who have been playing the game for a long time and have reached endgame will certainly appreciate all the juicy new RoI content, but the guys grinding through the lower levels will just have that much further to go before they can experience the new stuff, with nothing new in between.

And this expansion seems to lack the "game-changer." Mines of Moria introduced the Legendary Item - a bold new feature that allowed players to customize their weapons as they developed their play-style, making all other weapons obsolete. Why would a level 60 Champion use some crafted 2-handed axe when he could use a legendary Champion's Greataxe of the Third Age, which did more damage, had legacies that improved the skills he used often, and could be customized with different combinations of relics and titles?

Moria also gave us two new character classes: the Warden and the Rune-keeper. Having only seven classes became a sucker's game - nine was the new seven. These two new classes were immensely popular right out of the gate, and continue to be so now, even as Premium-only classes. They were hybrids of certain aspects of other classes (which are also hybrids of archetypical classes from fantasy RPGs in general, crossed with Tolkien lore). Wardens and Rune-keepers broke that "holy trinity" tank-DPS-healer mold, or at least gave it a very stern frown, by being able to fill multiple roles simultaneously.

Mirkwood introduced a game-changer with the Skirmish system, providing players with a brilliant alternative to landscape-grinding quests and static instanced spaces. These are spaces that you can enter from anywhere, with any sized group, at any level. The skirmish reward system supplanted the archaic "go to Dungeon X for Gear Y" system to such an extent that the existing instance system was remodeled to make it more like the new, improved system. Skirmish marks devalued transferable (and therefore exploitable) currency (gold) by giving us an alternate, non-transferable currency to earn gear and other rewards.

The move to Free-to-Play, while not an expansion, was a huge coup for LotRO. Turbine's "freemium" model sets the industry standard for how MMOs can generate profit outside of the monthly subscription. F2P pulled in more new players than either of the previous expansions, and kept them playing by allowing them to experience the entire game for free. And it made money by selling these free players small, manageable chunks of game at the pace they wanted.

As of yet, Rise of Isengard has no big game-changers - no new and innovative tech that changes how the game is played. No new classes. Just more, bigger and better of what is already there, and some new regions where that same stuff continues on.

WILL IT WORK?

Obviously, we won't know how successful Isengard is going to be until it happens, and just because something hasn't been mentioned yet doesn't mean it's not coming. Or that it needs to come at all.

At this stage of the game, maybe the goal is more about keeping the existing players happy by giving them more of what they want with tech that works the way it's supposed to. It's not necessarily a matter of attracting new players - though this will likely occur naturally - but of keeping the existing players from defecting to the other titles coming out. LotRO has a large player base already - give those players more of the time-tested stuff they like and they'll be more inclined to stick around and keep playing (and paying), and recommending the game to their friends. Isengard will not likely bring the explosion of new players that the F2P shift did - that goes without saying - but the game should realistically continue to grow by continuing on with the tested material that makes the game as good as it is.

And the "smaller" changes that are coming really add up - removed stat caps, plus increased caps on consolidated combat ratings, plus new gear without old restrictions, plus ten more levels of tweaking and min-maxing and gear-spreadsheeting is going to make for some really intense new builds. Some players may not even recognize their current characters a few months from now. Many players are already well over the current stat cap of 650 on their primary stats, storing in their vaults items that push the numbers beyond what is currently usable. Uncapped Hunters with 1000+ Agility, uncapped Guardians with 1000+ Vitality - both made capable of doing ridiculous things by the sheer weight of giant stat numbers.

Or maybe Rise of Isengard is a stage where a future drama will be set - another game-changer yet to be announced, that requires a functioning, stable foundation on which to build. More new instanced content is coming - not right away, but before the year is out. Legendary Armor? Mounted combat? Expanded PvMP? Well, make sure those 1000-Vitality Guardians and 1000-Agility Hunters are working the way they're supposed to first, over a longer time frame. Then try to figure out ways to not break them with new tech. Add the groundbreaking new tech when the existing tech proves stable enough to handle it.

Personally, I'm keeping my fingers crossed for cosmetic pets to make the cut. I can wait for the rest.


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