It’s a fascinating place to begin an expansion, really. Most games like to set up a new threat, pit players against impossible odds, and have them struggle toward a final boss in some distant raid somewhere. Lord of the Rings Online, however, enjoys bucking trends now and then, and no more so than with its new Mordor expansion.
The first few minutes revisit the conclusion of the Quest of the One Ring, with the surprising triumph of the Battle of the Black Gate, the eagle air-lift of Sam and Frodo, and the destruction of the Ring. Everyone is taken to a peaceful glade to lick their wounds, reconnect with friends, and savor the victory. Even the epic book, which we’ve been working on completing for 10 years now, has come to a conclusion. Shortest expansion ever, right?
A peaceful prologue
In a way, I admire the design decision to kick off Mordor by wrapping up Frodo’s Quest. Players experience the grand finale of the story during the Battle of the Black Gate — a near-hopeless battle that turns triumphant when the Ring is destroyed from afar. After a daring last-minute rescue, everyone is taken to the gorgeous lands of North Ithilien for a time of reflection, and it’s here that the epic book comes to a close.
It might seem strange to begin an expansion this way, but for Lord of the Rings Online, it makes a whole lot of sense. Timeline conflicts and lore restrictions kept players from charging into Mordor alongside Frodo and Sam as previously unknown bodyguards. It wasn’t our quest and that wasn’t our struggle. They had to do it alone. Plus, can you imagine if the whole expansion was leading up to the destruction of the Ring? It would be a prolonged effort to which we already knew the ending, and would probably serve to be more frustrating than fulfilling.
A shift into the unknown
That’s why I’m really digging the fact that the start of Mordor is an actual new beginning of sorts. The country is being given its own unique “book” in the story of the game, and players heading into the diminished (but not docile) former stronghold of Sauron have no idea what to expect. While there is more of the books to visit, for the first time in a long time, we are off the beaten path of Tolkien’s narrative while still adventuring through his world.
What nasty projects did Sauron leave behind? What forces remain? What does Mordor look like up close and personal? What secrets are there to uncover? Is the land redeemable? Not knowing can be thrilling, especially after having many of the MMO’s major story beats “spoiled” by the books.
Similar to how the Dwarves launched an expeditionary force into Moria after the Fellowship passed through, so too do the Free Peoples start making in-roads in this hostile region. This way there are some familiar and friendly faces along the way, which keeps an already oppressive realm from being too overwhelming.
I want to take a step back from the overview of the expansion here to talk about my experiences from launch. First of all, it pains me to say that Standing Stone Games did a pretty lackluster job with marketing this expansion. This being Mordor and all, the first expansion for the game in four years, the studio should’ve gone all-out with promotions. Unfortunately, this studio and team never seems to have the resources or talent in that area, and as such we got one of the absolute worst trailers I’ve ever seen — not just for LOTRO but for video games, period — and very little launch hype outside of the immediate community.
Where were the developer diaries that this team used to do? Where is the soundtrack release by Chance Thomas? Where were the ads? And why was testing rushed? It all points to an indie studio that is taking on a monumental task of building an expansion without having anything extra left over to promote it. And that was a shame.
Baby steps into hell
I only got a couple of nights to play before writing this column, due to the early week delay that pushed the launch to Wednesday. And I’m not the type of player to blaze through content, so I’m still slowly progressing through the starting area. But my first first impressions? Mordor is actually engrossing while also being an area that will kick your butt upon initial contact.
Until I started getting new gear (and I recommend following the main quest lines for a while for these rewards before returning to do side quests), I seriously struggled. Mobs were hitting very hard, due to the new light/shadow mechanic and the content being balanced around a much higher item level. It was good in that it made me take Mordor seriously as a dangerous zone, but it also hampered my enjoyment by being frustrating and slow at the start.
Plus, those signal flags are incredibly tricky to spot. If you’ve done this quest, you know what I mean. Nothing like doing a scavenger hunt across mob-packed camps.
As a player who is greatly impacted by his environment, I’m concerned that Mordor will get to me after a while. At least for now, the novelty and the interesting sights — such as mechanical forges and the far-off sight of Mount Doom — is helping to stave off that feeling.
The increase in difficulty and the influx of players led to a lot of people grouping up, formally or informally, and I took advantage of this as much as possible. I would definitely recommend trying to seek out a partner for the first few hours, at least. I was diving down into the underbelly of a forge when I came upon a friendly Hunter who also was trying to figure out the use of four cursed stones. The environment broiled me alive, unfortunately, and I discovered that resurrecting sent me all the way back to the beginning of the zone with a 15 minute run ahead of me.
But what was nice is that this player, upon seeing that I didn’t have any more time that night, promised to send me a letter to tell me what she found out about the quest if she solved it. This game has such a great community.
With a full book to conquer, five regions to explore, 300 or so quests to complete, and the whole new gear grind ahead of me, I will not be lacking goals in LOTRO for a while. I’m looking forward getting to a point where combat isn’t a pain and seeing what mysteries that Mordor has to offer. Hopefully the next time we speak, I’ll have a much better grasp of this expansion and its ins and outs!