Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Lord of the Rings Online: Siege of Mirkwood

You are about to enter the first true battle of what will likely be our last war in Middle-earth." With that pronouncement, you enter the Mirkwood. From the golden shores of Lothlorien, we cross to the eastern shore of the Anduin where the forests have been corrupted by the forces of Sauron. It is a dark, dreadful place, filled with patrolling goblins, orcs, poisonous spiders, dank forests, and murky swamps. The foothold the elves have carved out is a pitiful bridgehead barely holding its own and we are assisting the elves in assaulting the orc fortresses and defending the ground they have gained.

The content in The Lord of the Rings Online is much more linear and focused on narrative than many other MMOs, based as it is on the works of Tolkien. There is an overarching storyline to follow in the War of the Ring, and Turbine has done a great job in bringing the story and the atmosphere of it to The Lord of the Rings Online. From the Shadows of Angmar to the Mines of Moria, Turbine has created a game and a world that is at once both familiar and unpredictable. The Siege of Mirkwood is no different. The next chapter of the story as it were, we are brought into Southern Mirkwood. Dol Guldor is occupied by one of Sauron's lieutenants and that is what we are pushing for.

Turbine has created a sense of impending doom as we move from the glorious sunlit wonder of Lothlorien, right into the frontlines of the battle. The atmosphere, the ambient sounds, the music, the immediate quests, all assist in creating that visceral urgency of being in the frontlines of a war zone. This then, is what we've been training for. All through the Shadows of Angmar, even through the "long dark" of the Mines of Moria, the War of the Ring has been a backdrop to our adventuring, but this, this is the frontline. No longer are we singing to trees; now we are patrolling the pickets, defending camps and assaulting the enemy.

The Siege of Mirkwood has been termed a "mini-expansion" by fans and certainly, it seems to be that as there's only one region, Southern Mirkwood, with nine areas within it. They are all dark, even in the day cycle, but still quite different from each other. Canyons and valleys and ruins mark one region, putrid swamp gases rise from another and the sense of being watched is high as you encounter goblins and orcs behind dead tree stumps and rocks. A high level expansion, The Siege of Mirkwood raises the player level cap to 65 and the Legendary item cap to 70. It also brings with it, several welcome changes to the game.

Legendary items, introduced in the Mines of Moria, are equipment that changes with you as you level. The Identify skill now gives more information about the Legendary item so players will get a better sense of where the item is headed before they invest a great deal of time into it only to find it less than useful later on.

Mounts have become a skill rather than an inventory item, freeing up an inventory slot, and in exchange for a long summon, players can interact with NPCs while mounted instead of having to dismount each time and you can ride them through portals and stay mounted when you zone.

More important is the change to combat. A change to the queuing of skills vis-a-vis auto-attack has made combat feel much more interactive and live, firing off when the skill is activated rather than a second or two later.

This expansion also brings a new feature to the game, Skirmishes. Skirmishes are combat instances that can be run solo or with a fellowship. Accessible via the UI, players can choose between eleven different maps and set the difficulty level between one and four. It is an alternative path for advancement from level 30 on up, and designed to complement Session play. Both are deeply entwined into the lore and further develop the story of Middle-Earth. The tutorial for example, takes you back to the brigand invasion of Bree with you defending the Prancing Pony. They are replayable and contain enough randomized elements that each instance feels different. One of these random elements is the placement and types of Lieutenants (mini-bosses) that may enter the fray, and another is the additional objectives that show up as you play through the instance.

A feature of Skirmishes is the minion system. Each player is provided with a soldier that they can train, advance, pick traits for and assign roles to. However, the soldier is not a pet. Usable only in the skirmish system, they are AI controlled and can sometimes seem to run around aimlessly. They are meant to complement the player character and can be used as a healer, archer or warrior, etc. The Skirmish system has a separate reward system. Different types of Skirmish marks are earned and these are used to upgrade your soldier and to purchase rewards from vendors in Skirmish camps found outside major cities.

A number of these Skirmishes are also part of the Epic Book and they feel more like full-scale battles than mere a mere skirmish. This sense of scale is greatly enhanced by the presence of soldiers together with your fellowship and their pets. A twelve-man instance can have twelve soldiers as well as the Captain and Loremaster pets, creating an allied force of over twenty-four.

The Lord of the Rings Online always had beautiful graphics to complement the gameplay and this expansion is no different. The dark atmosphere of Mirkwood greatly enhances the immersiveness of the game. The graphics and animations of creatures such as the spiders, Orcs and Felbeasts are also second to none, and there are plenty to be seen, both in Mirkwood itself as well as in the instances. Turbine has also managed to do wonders with contrast and color saturation so you aren't just tempted to crank up the gamma on your screen. It's not all browns and grays. There are colors and shades of browns, greens and grays as well as intense black contrasting with the more subtle shades.

Lest you think this is an entirely outdoor zone, we then get to the end objective of Dol Guldor. A massive structure inhabited by one of Sauron's lieutenants and his Fell Beast. The walls and towers of Dol Guldor loom menacingly in the distance long before you reach them. The Hell Hawks circling the sky, the eerie silhouettes of dead trees, the tendrils of fog that creep along the ground, all contribute to the feeling of dread even before the beast flies overhead and your character cringes in response. There, players will raid in the sword halls and dungeons of Dol Guldor, and in the chambers of the tower itself, all the way up to the final tower raid for a 12-man raid against the Nazghul on his Fell Beast. If that isn't challenging enough, there's also a "challenge" mode in the Dol Guldor instances. Light the challenge brazier and the instance becomes much harder. More NPCs perhaps and/or more mini-bosses, or even all the mini-bosses at once and again, there is the randomization factor for replayability.


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