LotRO's Update 10: A Play Session with the Devs
Last year's delayed release of Riders of Rohan, the latest expansion for the Lord of the Rings Online, complicated the release schedule of the Rohan instance cluster. Instead of being pushed out all at once, it was broken into two halves and released as two separate updates. We got the first half in Update 9: Against the Shadow last December, and Update 10 delivers the second half. But where Update 9 was largely a hefty "quality of life" patch with some small-group instances tacked on, Update 10 is much heavier on the big-scale group content. We got to experience these new instances - one 6-person instance and three 12-person raids - with Turbine staffers Leo Tan (Digital Communications Manager), Hannah Foell (LotRO Producer) and Aaron Campbell (Senior Producer).
The new Road to Erebor instances thematically coincide with the December release of Peter Jackson's The Hobbit, featuring locations that play major roles in that book. Update 10 continues along this path, using these locations as a backdrop in the War of the Ring setting. And they are all available starting at level 20, scaling all the way to 85, so new players fresh from their Hobbit cinema experiences won't be feeling left out.
Quality of Life & In Their Absence
Update 9 saw the scaling of the Dol Guldur instance cluster, so players could run the Mirkwood stuff at level 85, earning level 85 rewards. Update 10 continues this tradition, scaling the In Their Absence instance cluster to level 85 and adding level 85 loot to those instances as well. This includes both of the small-fellowship instances, both 6-mans, and all five wings of Ost Dunhoth.
One of the more noteworthy "quality of life" changes is the addition of the Mithril Coin, a streamlined "currency" that replaces Writs of Passage, Tomes of Revival and other, similar store-bought items. It behaves like a currency inasmuch as it is stored in the character's Barter Wallet and it is exchanged directly for services, but it's a currency that players have to buy from the LotRO Store using Turbine Points - sort of like amusement park tickets or ride tokens. The Mithril Coin is one currency to rule them all.
The change that is most likely to cause rioting in the streets is a change to the Warden class, switching the primary stat from Might to Agility. This will bring it in line with the other medium-armor classes (Burglar and Hunter) and should streamline things for the developers in charge of designing unrestricted medium armors. But it might mean a fair bit of grinding for Wardens who have built up a large chunk of Might via jewellery, relics, virtues and non-set armor pieces.
Bells of Dale
"Aid will not come to the Men of Gondor from the North, for in these last days of the Third Age, war has come to the foot of Erebor. Easterlings answering the call of the Dark Lord prepare to besiege Dale and the Lonely Mountain. The only comfort is that Mordor's host will also be bereft of these forces...."
Our first stop was the city of Dale, prior to the siege of the Lonely Mountain, where King Brand seeks to warn the people of the Easterling attack. While technical issues prevented us from charging through this instance all the way to the end, it did showcase some interesting new tech. Enemy "hotspots" - non-targeted area-based attacks, buffs and debuffs with persistent stationary effects - have undergone a bit of a makeover, making them more visible in areas with a lot of concentrated action. In this case, hotspots appeared as large square patches, colour-coded to show the effect. A white square meant player buffs and healing, red squares meant damage, green meant enemy buffs. They are different in each of the instances and this particular colour code is not necessarily representative of all of them, but they are all very clear and unmistakeable.
According to Hannah Foell and Leo Tan, who were jointly controlling the other character in our 2-man group, the Bells of Dale instance has a lot going on. We got up to the first boss, an Olog-hai named Skrizg, who summons groups of adds. Each group of adds he summons adds to the amount of damage he deals, so the goal is to take him down quickly - but not too quickly. The adds can get overwhelming very fast. The final boss, an Easterling sorcerer, summons in spirit animal companions including rats, which gnaw at the bell ropes. For a regular run, no more than 6 rats can be allowed to chew through the bell ropes; for challenge mode, none of them can.
Flight to the Lonely Mountain
"The Ring has passed beyond my vision into the pass of Cirith Ungol. Dale has fallen in the North, and the survivors of the siege are retreating to the Lonely mountain, with the Easterling forces not gar behind them...."
The first 12-player raid occurs at the start of the siege of Erebor, with King Brand attempting to clear a path through the forests for his people to escape to the Lonely Mountain. The raid group will encounter him struggling to hold a clearing, but will not arrive in time to save him. The goal here is to hold the clearing for ten minutes, battling wave after wave of Easterling attackers.
The waves of Easterlings are randomized, and a fresh wave comes every minute - or as soon as the previous wave is defeated. The faster the raid kills the waves, the more enemies come with each successive wave. The challenge is to find a balance between fast killing and manageability - if the group kills too fast, it gets hammered with more enemies, but if it pulls its punches too much, it will be overwhelmed. Finding the balance can be very tricky - I tried running this at level 20 with a level 85 Guardian, and found that at around the 25% mark, I would get swarmed by what looked like around 30-plus mobs at once. None of them was doing much damage and I was blocking and parrying like mad, but it was still a death by a thousand cuts. Challenge mode in this raid requires killing 100 enemies in 10 minutes. There's even a progress bar that stays on-screen to show you how much time remains and how many enemies have been killed.
Fires of Smaug
"The dwarves of Erebor wish to send forth ravens with news of the Battle of Dale and to request aid, but the Easterlings have constructed a device of great evil to smoke the dwarves out of the Lonely Mountain...."
The next raid is set halfway through the siege of Erebor, on the slopes of the Lonely Mountain. The Easterlings are trying to kill the ravens that the Dwarves use to send messages, and have built a chemical furnace in the shape of a great dragon in an attempt to smoke the Dwarves out of their tunnels. The furnace has a number of long pipes leading to valves pumping noxious smoke into the underground tunnels, and a huge Fire Grim in the middle providing the fumes. The goal is to douse the fire and prevent the smoke from reaching harmful levels inside the mountain.
This raid has a lot of moving pieces. Each of the valves has a group of tough Easterlings guarding it, and these valves need to be closed off. They all start out wide open, with a reading of 5, and when one valve that value is knocked down by 1. In order to beat challenge mode, only a minimal amount of smoke can enter the tunnels. This involves dividing the raid's forces between shutting down the valves and attacking the grim in the central furnace, defending that position from groups of attackers and thwarting the Easterlings who come in to dump more noxious chemicals on the raging fire.
Battle for Erebor
"The Ring has been destroyed and Sauron is vanquished from Middle-earth! The Easterlings in the North are dismayed by the news, and the time has come to break the siege of Erebor. However, Sauron's champions await you at the gateway to the Lonely Mountain...."
The final raid is kind of a spoiler. It is set at the end of the siege, after the One Ring is destroyed in the fires of Mount Doom and the message has been sent out to all armies. The Easterlings are teetering on the edge of defeat, and have been camped out at the foot of the Lonely Mountain for a month. The Dwarves mean to send them home with a resounding, absolutely unambiguous declaration of victory by embarassing the Easterling champions in one final, brutal arena match. They're even confident enough in their own champions that they are willing to accept up to six handicaps - basically, the Dwarf equivalent of "I could beat him with one arm tied behind my back! And hopping on one leg! And blindfolded, carrying a crying baby, weak from eating too many iffy tacos and composing an epic power ballad in a new language!"
There are six terms that can be set for this battle royale. Tier 1 requires selecting two terms, Tier 2 requires four, and Challenge Mode requires all six. Each term does something different; the Blood Brother term, for example, causes the twins to deal more damage when their morale begins to vary. If they are not burned down evenly, their damage can get out of control fast and quickly overwhelm the group, and this is challenging because they have different damage-resist buffs. The Inferno term causes the entire arena floor to burn during the last stages of the fight, dealing 5% morale damage every tick - this term will almost certainly be largely reserved for Challenge Modes. Catapults is a fun one, creating random hot spots where falling boulders crash down.
A few players have expressed some confusion about the timeline and setting of these instances, and have questioned why they are tied to Rohan. According to Senior Producer Aaron Campbell, the new instances answer the question of why the Easterlings never invaded Rohan from the north - the invasion force got held up by the men of Dale, and foolishly attempted to root the dwarves out of the Lonely Mountain with a failed siege. The Battle of Dale and the siege of the Lonely Mountain are not a direct part of the main narrative of the Lord of the Rings story, but are recounted in the appendices of the Return of the King, and mentioned by Gimli and Gandalf at various times. And while the Battle for Erebor raid skips ahead to the end of the book, after the good guys have won, its inclusion in the instance cluster isn't a total derailment. It's a side trip, one that follows its own progression and takes its own time. And it's not the only instance that takes place post-war.
Update 10 is on the Bullroarer server now, undergoing public beta testing.