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 for Teen."
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 diminishing returns.
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.
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.
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 instrumentation.
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.