LOTRO Legendarium: Mirkwood, the best zone no one remembers


The other day I was continuing on with my Bingo Boffin adventures in Lord of the Rings Online when Mr. Boffin decided he was going to sneak his way across battle lines and into Mirkwood Forest. Like most of his encounters, I don’t think he ended up loving it quite as much as he anticipated, but you know what? I did.

You see, ever since Siege of Mirkwood came out with LOTRO’s second expansion, I’ve always been quite partial to this odd little zone in Middle-earth. Perhaps this makes me the odd man out among the community; I rarely see anyone speak highly of Mirkwood (or these days, speak of it at all). It seems like it’s forgotten, this strange cul-de-sac of the game world that only exists to be a stopping point on the epic story before players have to turn around and go back the way they came.

Yet as I was running all over the place trying to secure first and second breakfastses for Bingo Boffin, I was reminded of how much I love this zone. I’d even say that Mirkwood is in my top five zones of the game as a whole (alongside The Shire, Forochel, West Rohan, and North Ithilien). It’s time this forgotten land got some recognition, so here goes.

The lay of the land

Mirkwood is a level 61 to 65 zone that lies just on the other side of the Great River Anduin from Lothlorien. It should be pointed out that what we get in the game is only a very small part of Mirkwood Forest as a whole, which is a truly gigantic and sprawling tract of wilderness that is home to Wood Elves, gigantic spiders, and even its own mountains.

Part of the enduring reputation of Mirkwood as a disappointing and disposable zone is the fact that this one zone represented the whole of a much smaller expansion than Mines of Moria (Siege of Mirkwood only contained five new levels and split its focus with the then-new skirmish system). It’s also hampered by the fact that the forest isn’t as large a setting in the Lord of the Rings books as it was in The Hobbit, and so might not have been as appreciated by fans who wanted to stay on the trail of Frodo rather than take an excursion after the tradition of Bilbo.

If you look at the map, Mirkwood comes off as anything but sprawling and vast. It’s ringed on three sides by impassible cliffs and can be accessed only via boat, which makes it impossible to enter or leave in a seamless transition like much (but not all) of the rest of the game world.

Taking a closer look at the map, however, reveals that there is a lot packed into this dense and surprisingly diverse region. There are approximately nine sections of the forest, ranging from the spider-filled maze of the Scuttledells to the eerie marshesof Drownholt. Naturally, there are plenty of trees, although Mirkwood is a different type of forest than, say, the Old Forest or Fangorn. It’s not “alive” — or at least mobile — in the way that those other woods are, nor are the trees and foliage so closely packed that it makes navigating difficult.

The region and storyline both end up funneling players to one place: Dul Guldur to the east, the former headquarters of Sauron and current apartments of some of his nastiest followers. It’s an imposing sight to be traveling along and see this gigantic castle stretch up into the sky far above the treetops, with no way around or through it.

A dark love

Really, Mirkwood has gotten a bad rap that’s far independent of its actual zone and story design. Personally, I have to look past the focus on Elves, since they’re my least favorite fantasy race (and that is an understatement if you know me), to see one of the most unique locations in the game.

My love starts with its location, which currently stands as one of the “frontier’ zones of the game. Mirkwood is as far northeast as you can travel in LOTRO, setting it far apart from the more civilized lands of Rohan, Gondor, and Eriador. When Bilbo and the Dwarves passed through it on the Old Forest road back in the Hobbit, I found myself captivated by a forest that was a mystery, a threat, and a wonder wrapped into a single package. I could hardly wait to explore it here.

But more than that, my appreciation for this zone comes down to its overall art design. Mirkwood is, to lack a better term, a perfect “Halloween zone.” If the Trollshaws are Elvish lands in early autumn, Mirkwood is what the world looks like as the end of October rolls around and the unsettling nights start to creep in. It’s always gloomy, even in the day, and contains some of the best ground shadows I’ve seen in the game. Shadows may seem like a strange thing to compliment, but there are a few places where Mirkwood’s artists make that zone look striking and wild in a way I haven’t seen anywhere else in the game.

Mirkwood isn’t a friendly port of call for travelers; it’s a wild, untamed land that makes it known that invaders are not welcome. It feels isolated and cut off from the rest of Middle-earth, with spiders, ghosts, Orcs, will-o-wisps, and leathery flying things moving through and above the trees.

Look at the Haunted Inn, which seems to be the perfect icon for this zone. Inns are supposed to feel warm and friendly, even when the world around it is anything but. The Haunted Inn, as you may have guessed, is hardly better than sleeping outside. It feels like everyone inside is huddling in subconscious fear, and the fact that there are actually ghosts (which you can sometimes see) roaming the place doesn’t help.

And if the visuals aren’t enough, Mirkwood’s audio design is amazing. Do me a favor: Make a trip to Mirkwood in the game, turn off the music, turn up the ambient sounds, and listen with headphones as you travel. It’s amazing how well-done and honestly terrifying the sound design is in this area. The creaking trees, the far-off growls, and this deep undertone all keep you from becoming too comfortable with the region.

More Mirkwood, please

Mirkwood’s reputation can be redeemed, even still. As everyone — developers and players alike — muse over where the game can go after Mordor is wrapped up, I say that forging further into Mirkwood and Rhovanion is a terrific contender.

Obviously, there’s a lot more to Mirkwood than we currently can experience in the game, so much so that I could envision two or even three additional zones to flesh it out. And by connecting these new regions to the old Mirkwood, it would alleviate the current bias presented by cartography.

Plus, Mirkwood is an excellent example of how the devs can make a dark and oppressive zone while still keeping it from becoming annoying or ugly (a lesson that Angmar sorely needed). More of that would be welcome in the game, and I imagine that after Mordor, getting back to a forested landscape would also be a relief.

What is your opinion about Mirkwood? Do you have any ideas what could be done with this region? Sound off in the comments!

Every two weeks, the LOTRO Legendarium goes on an adventure (horrid things, those) through the wondrous, terrifying, inspiring, and, well, legendary online world of Middle-earth. Justin has been playing LOTRO since its launch in 2007! If you have a topic for the column, send it to him at justin@massivelyop.com.
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