Lord of the Rings Online: Siege of Mirkwood Beta Impressions

The holiday season comes earlier and earlier each year as lights are strung up and store shelves flooded with merchandise and decorations.  Some gamers are preparing for an early Christmas as...
The holiday season comes earlier and earlier each year as lights are strung up and store shelves flooded with merchandise and decorations.  Some gamers are preparing for an early Christmas as developer Turbine gets set to launch the newest expansion for Lord of the Rings Online, The Siege of Mirkwood, but are fans of the series getting their hearts desire or just another lump of coal in their stockings?

Notable for being one of the first AAA titles to release an expansion in downloadable form only, many critics assume this to be a mini-expansion. Luckily for us, this isn’t so. Mirkwood is a full blown expansion that adds not only considerable story based content, it is the conclusion to the events that were began with the Mines of Moria expansion, it also introduces some game altering new features that add a much needed extra layer of depth to the game.

The expansion launches with a scripted event that takes the players to the shores at the edge of the forest once known as Greenwood the Great. This looming and ominous forest has been corrupted over the years by Sauron’s taint and is now an almost visual representation of the fiend’s heart, black and twisted.  Once you help the elves establish a beachhead it becomes the introductory quest hub and the launching point for the adventure into the forest.

Quests in Mirkwood are plentiful and story driven and they range from the typical kill and gather to keep sieges with NPC assistance. Questing here does a great job of pacing you through the game and moving you along to the next area or part of the story and while most of it has been soloable thus far on my hunter, I would have liked to have had a fellowship to tackle some of the more intense quests, but I am getting well acquainted with the various respawn graveyards throughout the area, so I guess there is an exploration upside with that. I was a relative late-comer to beta so I didn’t have the advantage of a larger pool of same level folks to explore and quest with, but the community is amazingly friendly and I have been able to take advantage of their knowledge base and tips to help balance out the lack of comrades.

Trash mob placement throughout the forest is reminiscent of EverQuest more so than some of the newer games, and you really need to proceed with caution in many areas. While some ADD gamers may find this annoying, it adds to the immersion and the overall feeling that Mirkwood is no place to be after dark. (A special thanks to Turbine for helping me relive memories of Kithicor Forest from EQ1). From random patrols that seem to always show up at the worst times, to stealthy mobs that tease you with a glimpse before pouncing, the area is teeming with challenges that enhance the sense of dread that is the hallmark of both the Tolkien based work and some of the more difficult areas elsewhere in LotRO.
I haven’t been able to hit level cap yet, so I have little experience in the new instances, but I did get to run through them with a game developer a couple weeks ago in our live preview of the content, and they look awesome.  With only a couple weeks left in beta I am scrambling to hit the cap to run instances with a fellowship. Long time players will enjoy the new dungeon without a doubt, and top end players will enjoy the hard mode versions of these encounters.  Hard mode is initiated, in the three player instance, by lighting a challenge brazier in the corner of the room. Lighting the brazier calls forth all three of the bosses without any trash waves, but you face all three bosses at the same time for an intense fight that tests your strength and coordination as a group.

Besides the heavily story driven quests and raids, there are two other main focuses of the expansion, besides the obvious five new levels and accompanying traits,  and they are the Skirmish system and a revamp to the legendary item system with a new way to earn slots for the weapons.  The more important of these two is the Skirmish system, as it can be game changing depending on your playstyle. And while the item revamp is a welcome change, it isn’t as groundbreaking for LotRO as skirmishes are.

Skirmishes are instanced encounters that can be done in every fellowship size or solo and feature some highly innovative features that are sure to become a popular addition to the game. Skirmish camps are located outside of each major city area and feature vendors where players can redeem the marks they earn in the instances. These vendors run the gambit from refreshments and reagents all the way to legendary items.  Probably the most intriguing aspect of the system is that you don’t need to be level capped to participate; quite the opposite really, as players can hop in as early as level thirty and start earning marks and learning the system.    

As an on-again, off-again player of the game, I have been impressed by just about every aspect of this expansion but the selling point really is the skirmish system. For those that remember the Lost Dungeons of Norrath in EverQuest, this has a very similar feel to it but has the benefit of time and is infinitely more accessible.  One very specific aspect of the skirmishes that are a boon to all players - the solo minded player even more so - is the ability to call forth an NPC companion to help you on your way to victory. These summonable helpers are much more than token pets; they pack some firepower and can actually help turn the tide in a tough scrape. The companion mechanic is a good one and a great way to assist the soloist. It is an idea that will no doubt continue to gain traction in MMOGs and be even more widely used than it is now by games of the genre.

Perhaps I have developed an acute immunity to the normal detractions of beta tests and the expected amount of bugs, glitches, oddities, and trivialities no longer register on my radar, but I have found this beta to be surprisingly fun to play and have never experienced the sense of tedium that I normally associate with play testing. The enhancements to the game, the further deepening of perhaps the deepest story in MMOGs to date and the introduction of the skirmish system have given me new hope that LotRO can remain a viable player in the MMOG scene and perhaps even transcend its past accomplishments with renewed popularity much like DDOU and AoC are experiencing. 

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