LotRO's Update 13: The Breaking of Isengard
The Lord of the Rings Online is marching into its seventh year, and despite the recent unfortunate staffing cuts, development is still strongly moving forward. Currently slated for a spring release is Update 13: The Breaking of Isengard.
My first thought upon hearing the title of this update:
And I'm not far off the mark. Update 13 focuses on the Ents who turned dark and violent when their world became intolerable. It also focuses on the downfall of the Gustavo Fring of Middle-earth - Saruman the Many-Coloured - as it closes out the longest-running epic book to date.
We sat down for a play-session stream-and-chat with members of Turbine's development team - Leo Tan, Digital Communications Manager; Rick "Sapience" Heaton, Community Manager; Jeff Libby and Joe Barry from the design department; and Aaron Campbell, returning as Executive Producer from his stint with the DDO team.
Jeff Libby introduced the update with a bit of history: "I did a little
research recently and I realized that we have been in Volume 3 of the epic
story, Allies of the King, for about 4 years at this point, so it is with
great delight that we are wrapping up this volume of the epic story in
Volume III began in March of 2010 with Book 1: Oath of the Rangers, just 3 months after the launch of the Siege of Mirkwood expansion. We've been in the same volume for over half of the game's life now.
"This volume started way back in the Trollshaws at Rivendell, with the
gathering of the Grey Company, Aragorn's kinsmen, and their journey south
to rendezvous with him in Rohan. What this means is that we've had a
pretty consistent threat for much of this volume. Saruman, the
formerly-good and now thoroughly-evil wizard, has been our main opponent -
first for the Grey Company, because they're traveling through Enedwaith
and Dunland and getting close to his stronghold at Isengard, and he has
his sights set on Rohan. He's been breeding his armies to attack Rohan,
which has been depicted in several expansion packs including the recent
Helm's Deep. So we have had a consistent threat for most of the volume,
and here at the end we are going to wrap up the threat that he has posed."
The final book of Volume III picks up after the Battle of the Hornburg, where Gandalf, Theoden and Aragorn are deciding how they ought to deal with Saruman now that the White Hand army has been wiped out. They travel to Isengard to confront him, only to find that the matter has already been handled, in a manner of speaking, by the Ents of Fangorn Forest.
For those keeping track, this is the third major "version" of Isengard we've seen to date. Our first look at the place was during Saruman's production phase, when it was a grim and bleak war factory churning out weapons, war-machines and soldiers at a terrifying pace. The second version we see is a flashback to when the grounds were still green and lush, when he was still the White Wizard and things had not yet taken their dark turn.
This new version is the battle-damaged, post-flood Isengard. The gates
and walls are smashed and broken, the courtyard flooded, the production
fires extinguished and steaming. Through the magic of session play, we see
how all of this came to pass, from the point of view of the Ents who did
This is one of those things that some long-time players have been really anticipating for a long time. Watching the Ent Moot and feeding the tiny hobbits their comically-giant bowls of Ent-draught is neat, but the real fun comes during the assault. Treebeard is like a tree-shaped Jaeger from Pacific Rim, with two tiny pilots hucking rocks from the highest branches. Watching the angry Ents at work and seeing the destruction of Isengard is pretty awesome.
The first Ent sessions are narrated by Merry, telling the story of how he and Pippin met Treebeard. It's kind of strange - Merry is telling the story, but you're playing as Treebeard, and the hobbits are named "Small Creature" when first encountered. So it's kind of a double first-person point of view.
Jeff Libby notes, "I am unreasonably proud of the script that changes their names from 'Small Creature' to Merry or Pippin when Treebeard learns their names."
He also points out an interesting detail that might otherwise escape our notice. When the hobbits drink the Ent-draught, its powerful but subtle magic causes them to grow slightly taller. This is true in the game just as it is within the books: "In our game, I've set it up so that every time you see them after this moment taken place, they will indeed be slightly larger." The difference will be slight, and difficult to perceive without a direct comparison, but he assures us that it is there.
The Ents are also the path to the new endgame content, repeatable dailies which takes place in the Entwood region of Fangorn. Entwood is the angry remnants of Fangorn that haven't yet gotten the message that Saruman is defeated - pissed-off huorns still waking up, insects, roots and wood-trolls are still responding the the fury of the Ents, but haven't the presence of mind to go on the march. The Ent Quickbeam seeks help in spreading the word of their victory in order to return the forest to a state of quiet.
"There's 4 different components to our end-game," explains Joe Barry. "Different exploration-based questing and repeatable-based questing. There's a series of 'quieting' quests, where once a day you will be sent randomly to one of six different locations within this chunk of Fangorn. There's different things to do at each location, they randomize daily; you don't know what you're gonna get until you get there. It's kind of presented as what's in the world and what's happening at that point."
"The second set is a series of explorables. Through initially meeting Quickbeam in flooded Isengard, there's a huorn that you're asked to help out. This huorn has come back to Fangorn with Quickbeam and you get him, similar to what we did in Annuminas, he'll follow you around the forest, and at a dozen different locations, he'll have quests as he notices things that need to be taken care of and dealt with.
"Our third section is three new resource instances - a wood, a scholar and an ore. These can all be run daily kind of in our typical pattern that we've set with those. There are locations, too, which are underground, and one of them is a lumber camp, so they're places the Ents either can't go or aren't overly eager to go to. There's three quests in each, and you can do each of the spaces everyday. "
"The fourth component is a new style of quest that we're calling 'incrementals.' What these are is an arc that has 4, 5, 6 different steps and you can do one step a day. The base idea with these is that Quickbeam has seeds from fallen Ents that used to be really good friends of his that were cut down as Saruman encroached upon the forest. He's planted these in various places around Fangorn and one of them actually at Isengard. He asks you to do different tasks to help grow the seeds each day, and when you go and do that task, he needs time to figure out what the nest thing is. And for Ents, time is not measured as it is for beings that are smaller. So he needs about 18 hours to ponder and think about what's the next thing to do."
These new quests integrate with the other daily repeatables in a new, layered way that is somewhat more immersive than previous dailies. But the best part of the new incrementals is the end reward.
"The really cool thing that I personally think comes out of these is, the three seed quests at the end each have a chance to give you a new cosmetic pet. So we're introducing cosmetic pets with this update. There's three of them initially, varieties of huorn - two that are Fangorn-looking and one that is a black huron with a honeycomb. We're kind of dipping our toes in the water here to see what all does it take to do tech-wise, how do we want to expand upon it, we want to see what the players' reaction is. But it's something we're pretty excited about and it adds an interesting new angle of words, of cosmetics, of social aspects to the game."
In other words, this is the icebreaker for cosmetic pets. At first, these three huorn pets will be the only cosmetic pets available in the game, and the only way to get them will be through these three quests, which take 4, 5 or 6 days to complete (i.e. one of the three quests takes 4 days, one takes 5 days, one takes 6 days). They will not be available through the store. And they will be rare, because completing these quests only gives the player a chance to earn one from a random gift box, and random number generators can be screwy. The player is just as - if not more - likely to end up with a box of barter coins.
It should be pointed out, though, that these incrementals are repeatable, so you can keep running them until you get the pet huorns.
All of these changes are part of the Helm's Deep expansion, and are free to players who own it.
There are also some nice changes coming to other areas of the game as well. Inventory bags can be organized differently - rows of 5 slots can be dragged out of one bag and added to another, allowing the to have one gigantic bag and numerous other tiny ones, or various combinations of sizes. The inventory, which can currently hold up to 120 items, can be expanded further by purchasing blocks of 5 additional slots from the store. There's also a new search function, allowing players to find items by name rather than just by hunting for elusive icons. The new mail system will be able to support multiple attachments, and will be accessible via the alert button out in the wild for VIPs. And three lower-level zones - North Downs, the Trollshaws and the Misty Mountains - are getting the revamp treatment to make them more streamlined. These updates are free to all, and the region revamps are part of their respective quest packs.
Update 13: The Breaking of Isengard is scheduled to launch April 14. Also
coming in April is a new producer's letter with some details about the
start of Volume 4 of the epic books, and more information about the new
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