Updated Tue, Oct 16, 2012 by gunky
Several months ago, we gave the Lord of the Rings Online's newest expansion, Riders of Rohan, an award for Best Expansion of E3. This was back in June when the expansion was still in early development. New systems were crudely implemented and half-working. New art was still being crafted, and whole sections of Rohan were barren and unfinished. But what we saw at the time still managed to impress us.
Still, that was long ago in game development time. In the ensuing months, Turbine has been hard at work refining Riders of Rohan, even delaying its release by 40 days in order to get everything right. In other words, they've had time to improve upon what was already award-winning work.
Now that Riders of Rohan has gone live, it's time for everyone else to see why we felt it earned that award in the first place. Now Ride! Ride to ruin and the world's ending! Forth, Eorlingas!
Rohan is a rough-and-tumble region falling under the influence of two powerful super-villains, and, as such, tends to be a violent place. This expansion is no more violent than the rest of LotRO, really, but all MMOs tend to focus a lot on killing things. Also be aware that the Rohirrim like strong drink and congregate in mead halls, so the game depicts alcohol use. And Hobbits still love their pipeweed, so the advisory label cautions the player about depictions of tobacco use.
First off, Riders of Rohan increases the level cap by 10, bringing the new cap up to 85. This feels almost inconsequential - there are few new skills to be learned between 75 and 85 (and the ones you do train are mostly just improvements of existing skills), stat caps are no longer increased and no more morale or power is gained. The three big new things for this expansion are mounted combat, warbands and the Instanced Public Questing Areas in Hytbold.
Mounted combat is pretty sweet... when it works, anyway. The system is big and complex, and like all big, complex new systems it had a lot of weird, unanticipated bugs during beta testing. This is likely one of the chief causes of the 40-day launch delay - a lot of strange bugs appeared in beta and necessitated some heavy tweaking. It looks as though the delay was worth it; Turbine squashed the bugs and the system works well at launch.
Mounted combat is the centerpiece of Riders of Rohan.
Players will find that mounted combat works better in some regions than in others. Norcroft and Sutcroft, for example, are great for long, fast charges and broad, arcing turns because there is a lot of land and widely-spaced enemies. Fangorn, on the other hand, is not conducive to fighting from horseback. Horses need open space, and there is practically none of that in Fangorn. Mounted combat also doesn't work all that well in the Wold, where enemy mobs are more densely packed on the landscape and standing near water, and it doesn't work at all in enemy camps.
But when it does work, it works well. The war-steed allows players to handle very challenging enemies without a big group backing them up. My Hunter, for example, got himself geared up in the full purple armor set from the Ox Clan Merchant Camp, and at level 78 he was fully capable of taking down a 110,000-morale troll warband boss by himself. Had he attempted the fight on foot, he would have gotten trounced nearly instantly, but the charging horse and the mounted attacks evened that playing field.
There is a concern floating around that, if players don't care for the whole fighting-from-horseback thing, Riders of Rohan has little to offer. While mounted combat is the clear centerpiece of this expansion, this concern doesn't carry a lot of weight. It's a lot like Legendary Items were for Mines of Moria - complex and interesting, but you can realistically get by without it if you really want to. Every enemy can be fought on foot - though mounted mobs charging around on horseback are much harder to hit unless you are also riding. Mounted combat is a new way to experience the region, but the old-fashioned ways work just as well.
That being said, a lot of Rohan is clearly designed around this new centerpiece mechanic. Players who don't fall in love with the system may not find the rest of Rohan as engaging as those who enjoy fighting from horseback. There is still a lot of other stuff happening in this huge expansion, but some of it just won't be as shiny and awesome if you don't like mounted combat.
You could fight them on foot like a sucker, but it's way more fun on the back of your war-steed.
Warbands are one of the features clearly designed around mounted combat. While there are many of them that can be fought by a solo player on foot (especially early ones like Cinder, the salamander roaming around in the Wold), the standard method of fighting warbands will be from horseback. Typically, warbands consist of a strong "boss" with a clutch of weaker allies. For the most part, the allies are like the lettuce you get underneath your restaurant hamburger and fries - annoying and not really a part of the meal. They can pose a serious threat to solo players, but they don't need to be killed in order to defeat the warband - just take down the boss and you can ride away from the adds.
These fights showcase another gameplay-streaming mechanic: automatic quests. Once you get near a warband, or kill a mob with a ring over its head, or enter an area with quests associated with it, you'll get an automatic quest notification. By default, this seems to appear underneath the quest log, but it can be moved to somewhere less awkward, or the player has the option to automatically accept all automatic quests. When the quest objectives have been completed, you either click the auto-quest notification to close it out, or hand it in at a quest-giver NPC.
Hytbold represents Riders of Rohan's endgame content. Instead of a traditional instance cluster or raid, Hytbold uses phasing, random repeatable quests and small instanced spaces that allow characters to rebuild the ruined settlement.
Hytbold before the crew of Flip This Town shows up.
Players will be able to start the Hytbold quests as soon as they hit level 84, but in order to get the "feeling" of the place, it might be a good idea to wait until you have completed all of the daisy-chain regional quests, finishing up in Snowbourne. The Hytbold quests are all daily repeatables picked up in surrounding towns rather than in the burned out ruins of Hytbold itself. The dailies are randomly generated, and typically involve rebuilding or upgrading one of the many buildings in town. Each building completed unlocks a new endgame armor piece - so, for example, if you are a Hunter and you rebuild the Cottage of the Norcrofts, it unlocks the Jacket of the Hytbold Bowmaster, but if you want the Jacket of the Hytbold Huntsman instead, you need to complete The Smithy: Superior Forge.
There are also reputation requirements for these unlocks. Players will need to build their reputations with all of the Rohan factions to build the complete armor set. Players can only completed a limited number of these repeatables per day (the daily limit was 5 during beta testing), so it takes a while to completely rebuild the town, be named Thane and collect the full armor set.
On the negative side, this grind for gear is a rather dissatisfying substitute for new instances or skirmishes. It can seem like a time-sink of repetitive busy-work and may not feel particularly "epic" to some players. Rise of Isengard had a similar "wet firecracker" endgame issue at launch - the quests in Isengard didn't add up to 10 full levels, and the last half-level or so was gained by deeding, re-running old skirmishes or turning in trash loot for tasks.
Personally, I feel the plus-side rather outweighs the grind here. Because this content uses souped-up phasing and "Instanced Public Questing Areas," it means that our hero characters can finally make observable, meaningful changes to Middle-earth. Daily contributions have a measurable effect on the people and the landscape. The hero's actions have consequences beyond Dunedain rangers moving from one instanced room to the next. When you rebuild the mead hall, it stays rebuilt. The people you convince to move into your town stay there and render services.
Although graphics in a five year old game are bound to start showing their age, LotRO's have held up very well. But it's the art style that really makes them exceptional.
Riders of Rohan still looks like good ol' LotRO, only better. The visuals in Rohan are as breathtaking as they should be - majestic, rolling hills and wide-open plains in Rohan, claustrophobic forests scattered with sinister glades and glens in Fangorn. Fangorn in particular has some excellent graphics - the huorns are the Tim Burton version of the angry trees described in the books, and encountering them by accident can be... rather startling.
This guy gives "tree-hugger" a whole new meaning...
When I first read the books, I had a very clear image of the battle scene at Fangorn's edge, where Pippin and Merry escaped from the orcs, and where the orcs were slaughtered by Eomer's riders and their bodies burned. When I encountered this spot, I recognized it instantly. I wasn't doing the epic books, I was just exploring the area and happened across it, and knew exactly what it was.
The Argonath, with giant frickin' pine trees for scale.
The water's-edge view of the Argonath is equally awesome - the statues of Isildur and Anarion sternly and regally survey the Anduin as it courses its way between, their left hands raised in a gesture of defiance to the enemies of Gondor.
Turbine occasionally makes a few tweaks here and there by adding some fancy new DX lighting and shadow tricks or water movement or some other little gem, but the real magic comes from new area, NPC, monster and outfit designs. The Rohirrim outfit designs stay in-line with the visual themes introduced in the Rise of Isengard expansion, with lots of olive-greens, smooth lines and knotwork. Probably the most significant graphics update, though, is the war-steed.
War-steeds are fully-customizable, and have an outfit system similar to the ones used by characters. The war-steed system is a tad more Store-oriented, however: most outfits and non-standard hide and gear dye colors are purchased from the LotRO store. And instead of a wardrobe, all appearance options are "stored" on the Mount Appearance panel - there is no item taking up vault or wardrobe space. With all the unlockable cosmetic slots, players can dress their war-steeds up to match all of their characters' outfits.
For this expansion, Turbine brings back ace composer Chance Thomas to score Rohan. Thomas is the guy that did the music for the original Shadows of Angmar and the Mines of Moria expansion. This comes as good news for the players who were unimpressed with the droning bassoons and reed organs of the Dunlendings.
Thomas's music is just what you would expect from badass quasi-Anglo-Saxon horse-lords: bombastic viking shouts over orchestral pieces, with lots of percussion for fight music. The Rohirrim are a people with a glorious past, but a not-so-great present, and according to Thomas, "... I’ve got to convey an idea of faded glory, an idea of breadth, expanse, strength, and power."
How do you illustrate music? Well, Chance Thomas's score for Riders of Rohan sounds like this picture.
There are different themes in the different regions of Rohan, each fitting the unique climate of the map. Sutcroft has a gentler score - the war hasn't really reached there yet. In Norcroft, it's a different story. Things are not so rosy there, and the music conveys a sense of tension and anxiety. Getting closer to Fangorn, in Entwash Vale, the score is more mysterious and sinister.
Thomas is a big Lord of the Rings fan, and his love of the lore comes through loud and clear in the music.