The Road to Level 75
I ended Day 5 on my Road to Level 75 in the Gap of Rohan, the southernmost region in the Rise of Isengard expansion for the Lord of the Rings Online. Gunkydoc had reached level 73 and was looking forward to continuing his association with the Rohirrim, who are involved in a long military engagement with the Draig-luth tribe of Dunlendings. The Riders of Theodred are a bunch of hard-fightin' badasses who ride the best horses, wear awesome armor and follow their own rules. They're the cool kids of Middle-earth.
At this point of the game, I was still using a lot of level 65 gear - Helegrod armor pieces, a Second Age spear, jewellery from old raids and instances - and I was rapidly running out of consumables since I needed to stay buffed up and quaff morale and power potions for just about every fight. But no matter. The thrill of the hunt was on me, and the end was in sight.
Forthbrond and Grimbold's Camp
Forthbrond and Grimbold's Camp are the last bastions of friendly civilization before you get to Isengard, and the quests will generally send you out into the hills and valleys of Isendale and on into Nan Curunir. There are a couple of tricky instances here, but for the most part it feels pretty standard.
An interesting battle instance takes place on the top of the purple-heather-crowned hill of Dol Baran (88.4S, 6.8W). For this one, you need to help Grimbold and his riders fend off a Draig-luth attack force and help them secure the hilltop. This hilltop is a heavily-contested battle-zone already, but the battle instance is even more intense. The goal of this instance is to destroy 4 Draig-luth battle standards while the Rohirrim defend their encampment against the attack. This is tricky, because the Dunlendings spawn in right around the battle standards, and each one is guarded by another Dunlending. Move in at the wrong time and you can end up fighting 4 or 5 of them at once, which can be overwhelming.
The strategy I used for this was to run wide around the standard, wait behind it for a fresh enemy spawn (which then rushes towards the barricades to attack Grimbold and his guys), quickly take out the lone guard defending the standard, and then burn it. When that was done, I would run back to the barricades and help with the attackers.
The Rohirrim fight like mad and have loads of morale, but the Dunlendings tend to attack in big numbers, so over the course of the instance, several of the Rohirrim will be defeated, and Grimbold (who has around 31,000 morale) becomes more vulnerable. By the time the Dunlending boss shows up, after the 4th standard is destroyed, Grimbold may be pretty weak. This can be a difficult situation for a squishy Hunter with poor defenses, limited self-heals and no way to keep an ally standing. If Grimbold starts getting into real trouble, you may need to pull as much aggro as you can and kite the mobs around through the Rohirrim forces.
Isendale is the same as all the other areas in that there are only just enough quests in the area to complete the quests-completion deed. Unfortunately, this involves going into the Iron Pit Mine, a bug-ridden aggravation-fest that shouldn't have made it past beta.
Let's start this discussion on a positive note: the place looks awesome. It's epic in size and scale, reminiscent of Moria, with a vast central chamber surrounded by scaffolding and tracks. Down below, the orcs whip the captured slaves into submission and ship the ore off to Isengard to be smelted into weapons of war.
If only the place worked as well as it looked. The walkways and elevated scaffolds are terribly glitchy, with gaps in the floor that characters and mobs can fall through. These are not breaks you can see - they look like paths you can walk on, but you fall clean through the floor. In some lower areas, you can get stuck behind obstacles, and in the high areas (for example, at the top layers after you run through some of the shell-game blind tunnels), you can plummet to your death. The mobs can also fall through the floor, and if you pass over or near them, they can aggro on you and glitch out, locking you in combat mode. This happened to me every few minutes or so when I was walking around on the scaffolding areas trying to complete quests, and the only fix for it was to log out and back in.
Another fairly significant problem with the Iron Pit is the lack of a map. The quest tracker direction arrow on the radar can be pretty vague when you are being directed to find somebody within the pit, or to gather up Strange Ore for that quest. It's very easy to get lost in here, especially with the blind tunnels leading you to different levels.
The worst part is, in order to complete the quest-completion deed for the area, you need to do some of the repeatable quests in here. I only had to do one, so I did the one that involves killing the orc slavers and looting their whips. The ore-gathering repeatable is too frustrating because of the broken walkways.
Nan Curunir And Hitting The Wall
I hit Nan Curunir, the valley in which Isengard is the dominant feature, at level 74. This is where I hit the wall, and I was not alone.
As grand and beautifully-designed as the new areas are, there are simply not enough quests. The guys who raced to 75 on the first day did so with a combination of pre-completion of Enedwaith and Mirkwood quests without turning them in, Enhanced XP purchased with Destiny Points and from the LotRO Store, and using Turbine Points to unlock daily task limits for the significant contribution of XP and rep from turning in hundreds of tasks. If you don't use these tactics, you basically run out of quests around level 74 and have to grind out difficult repeatables for the last stretch.
The quests in Nan Curunir are all marked as solo, but some players will find them extremely difficult. For instance, the quest inside the ring of Isengard to kill overseers defeated me several times before I enlisted the aid of a friend. There are also three repeatable solo instances out of Galtrev, but these can also be very difficult. The Defense of Galtrev instance is particularly brutal, and I was not able to complete it.
This is incredibly frustrating. The first 4/5ths of the expansion content is great - there are some buggy bits yet, of course, but it's still early in the release and these will be remedied. But that last 5th is problematic when you have limited options for going forward. You can either backtrack and grind or... backtrack and grind.
Grinding old content (even scaled up to your new level) or even new repeatables is a terrible way to reach the new level cap. In all previous versions of the game, there was still much to do once you reached level cap - in Shadows of Angmar, there was Carn Dum, Urugarth, Barad Gularan, the Rift of Nurz Ghashu, and Helegrod, and whole maps like Forochel. In the Mines of Moria expansion, you could hit level 60 before you ever got out of Moria, and then there were instances and raids to conquer and all of Lothlorien to explore. Even Siege of Mirkwood, which was a much smaller expansion than Rise of Isengard, had more quests than you could finish by the time you hit level cap, and then you still had Enedwaith afterward. With any of these, you could hit level cap early and still have a ton of stuff to do with a full quest log. But if you enter Dunland at level 65, this is not the case. You'll run out of regular quests and be left with nothing but repeatables and grind.
I'm going to go ahead and accept part of the blame for this myself. I was chasing the levels on just this one toon, pushing through at a fairly hard pace. If I had spent more time on my alts, for instance, Gunkydoc would have had more rested XP and the last half of level 74 would have gone faster. That's the price you pay for chasing the levels.
On the other hand, characters who were not yet level-capped before the expansion launched might not face these kinds of problems. A player first entering Enedwaith at level 65 will have that whole area to level with, and the final-stretch wall might not be an obstacle at all. These players might find that they hit the cap before they even get to the Gap of Rohan.
But it's also clear that these later areas need more quests, and a lot more bug-fixing. The Iron Pit is inexcusable, and the anti-exploit exploits of the mobs in Nan Curunir and other places was frustrating. When you're standing directly in front of a mob and he starts to inexplicably "quizzle," you have to start questioning the design of the area. Logs laying flat against the ground should not be unscalable walls. As outstanding as everything has been leading up to this final stretch, this last bit is rather disappointing.
When Gunkydoc got finished with the first set of repeatables in
Isengard, I took him to Galtrev and did the two instances there
that I was able to actually complete. Then he had an hour or so
to wait until everything reset and he could do them again. I was
one bar away from level cap and not willing to wait, so I went
to Forthbrond and handed in a bunch of tasks. I had to buy
several task daily limit reset tokens from the LotRO Store to do
it, but I had enough Punctured Shields and Decorative Sword
Sheaths stockpiled to put me over the top. And that was how
Gunkydoc hit level cap - not with a triumphant victory, but by
swapping vendor trash for XP and rep. Not a bang, but a whimper.
75 And Beyond
Handing in all those tasks to reach level cap had the added
bonus of bumping up Gunkydoc's standing with Theodred's Riders
to Kindred, and my first act as a level 75 character was to go
shopping for new gear from the rep vendors in Galtrev. The
Rohirrim vendor has some excellent jewellery, and the intrepid
Hobbit bumped his Agility score to 991. There is going to be a
lot of tweaking in Gunkydoc's future - perfecting his gear
load-out for a better balance of stats by discovering and using
different combinations of equipment. At this stage, I could
re-equip Determination and bump his Agility to
well over 1000, but his power pool would suffer for it.
He will also need to work on his crafting some more. I didn't spend a lot of time on crafting - just enough to clear out bag space and get halfway to Master of the Guild for Tailor. There are some excellent Tailor recipes he still needs to find and learn, and a new tier he as yet to master.
But for the most part, Gunkydoc will be kept busy running old skirmishes and instances at level 75. Groups on Arkenstone have been running 12-man skirmishes like Defense of the Prancing Pony, and have been making out like bandits from them. Since I spent so little time running skirmishes between 65 and 75, Gunkydoc's Herbalist soldier has fallen behind and requires substantial upkeep. This requires running a lot of daily skirmishes and spending the marks on upgrading her skills - as it stand now, she is barely capable of keeping Gunkydoc alive during Tier 1 skirmishes, and I end up having to do a lot of kiting to stay in the fight.
When I'm not busy running Gunkydoc through skirmishes, old instances and (hopefully) the new dragon raid, I will probably be concentrating on my Captain, Capngunk. I made a conscious effort to avoid questing in Enedwaith with him when he hit 65, and didn't worry about getting him geared up. He will be able to hit Dunland at a running start, and shouldn't have to worry about replacing precious raid armor. And he will probably not hit the endgame wall like his predecessor.
Right now, Rise of Isengard feels like a strong - but
unfinished - foundation upon which to build. It's completely
unfair to decry the entire expansion simply because of the
dearth of late-game quests, or the bugginess of a couple of
areas that likely didn't see all that much testing in beta. Yes,
those are frustrating when you reach them, but there's a lot
going on before you ever reach these places. Every day from Day
1 through Day 5, I would find a new favorite thing about the
game (the Culling
Pit in Avardin, the
Peaceful Glade in northern Dunbog, the truly excellent later
chapters in Volume III Book 4, etc), and I fully expect
more to come in December when Turbine plans to launch a new