LOTRO Legendarium: Why Mordor fails and Northern Mirkwood succeeds

When Lord of the Rings Online turned its sight toward Mordor, it had been running off of a rather hot streak. Not perfect, mind you, but the past couple of years had seen a lot of great content come into the game. Gondor itself was beautiful and, taken together, a full expansion’s worth of content. Minas Tirith is one of the most breathtaking cities ever created for an MMORPG (performance issues aside). The game reached its 10th anniversary and had us all buzzing about with the new scavenger hunts.

And then… and then we knew we were finally headed into Mordor. That in itself was a monumental moment for many players, and I lost track of how many friends I saw taking screenshots of themselves “walking into Mordor.”

Unfortunately, this ultimate moment of storytelling in a story-heavy, IP-grounded game ended up being a disappointment. Mild for some, crushing for others. From my perspective, I say without malice that Mordor, as an expansion and a region, failed. Today we’re going to touch on the multiple reasons why this is, as well as how Standing Stone Games is getting its groove back with Northern Mirkwood.

Where evil does not sleep

From start to finish, Mordor just didn’t work. It didn’t work from as a product, it didn’t work as a worthy expansion to the game, and it didn’t work as storytelling. From my personal observations and reading those of many others, I don’t think that there’s a single point of failure but rather a slew of missteps.

I have a particular point I want to focus on, so I’m going to list the others really quickly here. Mordor didn’t quite work due to:

  • A lackluster promotional campaign
  • An absolutely hideous trailer
  • Overaggressive business model practices including ludicrously priced editions and a proliferation of lockboxes
  • Very, very few stable masters and milestones, which necessitated a lot of foot travel
  • Far too much backtracking
  • Terrain that was difficult to navigate
  • Mob density and difficulty
  • Too many indoor zones that were slog-fests to complete
  • A storyline with too many villains (see the third installment of any superhero movie series)

I’m still on the fence about bringing us into Mordor after the destruction of the One Ring. I mean, I really do understand why it had to happen from a design and story standpoint. It’s kind of neat to find out what happened next and to see the aftermath of Sauron’s downfall. But it also felt — and correct me if I’m alone on this — that the actual destruction was so quick that it was downright anti-climactic. Especially when you consider that we’ve been spending years building up to this very moment in all of the struggles and journeys we’ve undertaken.

While all of these are legitimate factors, the one I want to focus on today and contrast with LOTRO’s newest update is the environment and setting.

Swanky.

Volcanos, spiders, and green pools of death

I feel like I have to be careful here, because every time I’ve tried to express my disappointment with Mordor’s landscape, the common response is, “Dude, it’s Mordor! What did you expect, rainbows and sunshine? It’s supposed to be dour and malevolent!”

I acknowledge and understand that. I know that it’s important for MMOs to have more sinister areas that telegraph evil’s presence and to put players on their guard. And Mordor is arguably the most iconic evil country in all of fantasy literature.

But that doesn’t make it a fun, enjoyable, or compelling place to visit. The problem here is not that Mordor is covered with lava, ash, spiderwebs, and green pools of death, it’s that the developers plunked us down in this region for a long, long time. You cannot blitz through Mordor. It’s a long campaign that covers five expansive zones, and most all of that time you’re dwelling in an environment that might as well be the poster child for the apocalypse.

It’s so dreary and so depressing that I actually cheered when I got to visit the couple of areas that had trees — dead and sagging though they were. Giving LOTRO its due, the artists can really sell the ugly and corrupt parts of Middle-earth as well as the good — but it doesn’t mean that we want to marinate in those regions for days, weeks, and even months.

It reminds me of why I and many others avoid Angmar like the plague. It also recalls the era where we were stuck in Moria for a long time and ended up feeling claustrophobic and irrationally angry by the end.

The solution, which I think SSG is only now catching on to, is that Mordor should have been taken in small doses instead of a lengthy, continuous journey. There also needed to be more of a sense of civilization returning, too. We meet far too few friendly NPCs and camps along the way, and for obvious reasons, we don’t really identify with the enemy hordes still roaming around.

If SSG is going to continue to expand Mordor, I’d like to see some of the regions that aren’t as blasted or antagonistic, too. There has to be regions where food is grown, trees are chopped down, and people exist. Those would be interesting to see.

Life after Mordor

The result of all of the above was that Mordor, despite any great intentions on behalf of the developers, didn’t feel at all like the LOTRO that I fell in love with many years ago. I didn’t want to explore that region, but merely endure it until I could escape it.

Happily, escape I did, right into Update 22 and Northern Mirkwood. I cannot tell you what a relief it was to not just get out of Mordor, but to rediscover the beauty and life that infuses so much of this MMO. Unlike Southern Mirkwood (which I love for different reasons), the northern region is much more verdant and vibrant. As I rode under the giant leafy canopy and listened to the ambient noises of forest life, I felt relaxed and jovial once more.

I love that one of the very first things that you do in Northern Mirkwood is to visit the Halls of the Elven-king. Not because Elves are awesome, as they are not, but because it brought us back in the cradle of civilization that Mordor so severely lacked. The world of LOTRO isn’t merely small quest hubs and the occasional capital city; it’s a place with a lot more history and life to it than the usual MMO. It’s a world that’s populated and, to some extent, settled, with countries and cultures that carry continuity across them. Apologies for unintended alliteration there.

The lush green forest and this bizarrely beautiful cave city were what I had been missing in this game. LOTRO, to me, isn’t Angmar or dungeons or charging up Mt. Doom. It’s the daily life of the Shire, the quaint feel of Bree-land, the proud history of Rohan, the striking visuals of Lothlorien, and the seaside vistas of Gondor. There are evil places and evil forces, yes, but even in high-level zones, it’s good to see that beauty and civilization endure and haven’t been abandoned because the devs want to make the scariest and most foreboding place imaginable.

If you find yourself despairing as you plod through Mordor, then take heart: There is a great journey ahead of you afterward! And if the recent producer’s letter is any indication, we’ll be sticking around in the north all year long. That is completely fine by me.

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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Leix Icon

Other than the promotional, this writer is completely wrong about Mordor.

LOTRO has only five zones in the game that are Headquarters of evil.

Angmar, Isengard, Moria, Southern Mirkwood, and Mordor.

All five zones should be the most challenging content for their levels. We already know Kate Paiz, prior LOTRO Exec Producer, nerfed the challenge of Moria, Mirkwood, and Isengard to cater to easy mode players like this author.

There are about 30 other Regions in LOTRO that specifically cater to people like this author who only care about flower, trees, and pristine glades.

This author should stick to those regions, and either find friends for challenging content, or simply don’t participate in it since he can’t handle it.

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krieglich

“This author” has a name, wtf is your problem?

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Dreema

The author isn’t the only one who thinks Mordor is too hard. You should really hold off on the “condescending prick” attitude. You aren’t very good at it and you only come across as an idiot when you try it.

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Leix Icon

Read the author’s other articles, he clearly demonstrates that he can’t handle harder combat in LOTRO. but he is condescending toward LOTRO for having combat zones, where evil is headquarters.

Also, I’m guessing he never spent some time gearing up appropriately to do the zones, as the author is a self-described part time player dabbling in LOTRO.

And the author’s preferred content is strictly flowers, hobbits, festivals, and forest frolicking.

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Dreema

If you want to get a point across and have people take you seriously, patronising isn’t the best way to do it.

For what it’s worth, I hit Mordor at level 112 on my minstrel – seven full levels above what the content is aimed at – and found it too hard. God knows what it would have been like if I’d gone there at level 105 (I’d have probably got my ass kicked by the first mob I came across). So in my opinion, the zones are massively overtuned. A little extra difficulty probably was required, but this went way overboard.

I’m not quite sure what you mean by “gearing up appropriately to do the zones” – how else do you gear up other than by doing the zones? Farm old raids and dungeons for weeks? Running old content in order to be able to do leveling zones seems a bit much. Or do you expect everyone to buy a multitude of loot boxes with real life money just so they can get better gear?

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Tobasco da Gama

Nailed it, Justin.

Honestly, I think the bigger issue is that the LOTRO team just isn’t positioned well to deliver expansion-sized content drops. Whenever they do, the end result always feels like, ahem… butter spread on too much bread.

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Coldin Torrence

My biggest problem is that Mordor just felt like forever to get any kind of power increases. Mobs even a level higher were harder to hit, and to get the big stat bumps needed were not even handed out quickly. Shouldn’t take till midway through the expansion to get some meaningful gear upgrades

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Paragon Lost

Nice write up Justin. Agree with all the points made in the article but the elf one of course. :)

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draugris

While i agree with some points, especially the business model, i disagree with anything else. I play Lotro since the open Beta of this game and with Mordor for the first time since Shadows of Angmar i had that old school feeling with LOTRO. The game was too easy for too long, a lot of the times when i travelled in Mordor i was remembered on what a hard time i had in Angmar back in the days. Also travelling during that time was not so easy as it was after and i liked it better than all the quick travel options today because it connected me more to the world.

What i disliked about the expansion was the introduction of the difficulty, that was imo a bit too harsh for the first zone in Udun. So Mordor was a great expansion for me, to be honest the greatest expansion since the base game.

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Koshelkin

It can’t be all lush forests and beautiful mountain glades, no? And making Mordor tough as nails fits the place perfectly. I understand all the frustration surrounding it but conceptually and lore-wise it’s all very fitting. I’d even say they invoked the right feelings in the playerbase: tiredness and despair. <:-)

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Vincent Clark

I see your point here, to a degree. But, this is after the ring was destroyed. The tone should have been different…dare I say even lighter (even given the environment). It’s still a wasteland, sure–but they didn’t strike a good balance (as they did in Moria, imo).

And I’m all for increasing the overall difficult of the mobs, but they should have simultaneously reduced the size/number of the mobs. Otherwise, it just gets tedious really quick. That was Mordor for me–tedious.

The inclusion of superior gear in loot-boxes, actually the whole LoE mechanic in general was just…meh.

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cambruin

I tried this on the official forums, but they are as dead as the server before I left after 10+years (closed beta included), now 18 or so months ago. So I’ll try this here instead;

Pre-Moria the game was fairly ‘open’. You had the best of sceneries, loads of atmosphere, a great community and you were free to explore. Ever since Moria I felt the game was very on-rails. To me it’s the game that managed to put on-rails on rails with the release of Rohan. It’s the game that put lootboxes inside lootboxes and had a launch trailer for it’s most epic of expansions that would have been out of place and outdated 10years ago.

So my question to those who still play; which LotRO is it? Do they continue down that very same path or are they going back to their roots?

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Fred Douglas

I’m an eleven year lotro player whose done all the raids etc. and I found Mordor unnecessarily difficult. I liked the challenge of SoA, but Mordor just felt forced and needlessly challenging. Almost felt like a scheme to sell store buffs and LI upgrades.

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Dreema

I wasn’t fond of Mordor, either. The increased difficulty was a major pain for me. My minstrel, who had slaughtered her way through every zone up that point with no trouble, was suddenly struggling to kill mobs if she happened to pull more than one at a time. Every time I logged on, I felt kinda depressed at how little progress I was going to make. Whereas kill quests used to be just one of those things you do in MMOs, I’d now find myself dreading them because “kill 10 orcs” meant a boring, slow slog.

The atmosphere of the zones was dull through and through, and this is from someone who actually liked Angmar. Isn’t this meant to be the seat of Sauron’s power? Even with him gone, surely there should be more than ruins and small camps around? Mordor just wasn’t anywhere near epic enough.

And yeah, I found the idea of finally arriving in Mordor after all these long years only to find Sauron dead and the One Ring destroyed to be a major disappointment. I know it wouldn’t have made much sense from a lore point of view to have us face off against Sauron in a raid, but that’s the way I always expected it to be and it’s not like they haven’t veered away from the lore in the past when it suited them. At the very least they should have done it in a better way than the deathly dull epic battle-style mess at the Black Gate and then “oh, Sauron’s dead and the Ring is destroyed. Welcome to Mordor”.

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Paul

Yeah the scaling broke minstrels unless you already had high gear (even then it was painful not enjoyable) – had to take an alt through first to get the gear for the mini but the nerf made me lose interest in playing

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Martin Catchpole

Not played mordor but have to say mirkwood killed the game for me after moria :(