To kick off this early look at Lord of the Rings Online: Minas Morgul, I want to start by taking a step back to 2014. At the time, LOTRO was fresh off of its Helm’s Deep expansion and Gondor was next up. Turbine was going through a phase during this time in which it had sworn off expansion packs, instead vowing for more frequent content packs. I’ve seen studios go through this phase several times now and it almost always rounds back on “yeah, it’s probably good to release expansions” (take note, Guild Wars 2).
Whenever I brought up Gondor to friends and questioned why the studio didn’t just make it a real expansion, the usual response was that the studio didn’t have one really big tentpole feature — a new class or major system — to justify it. In other words, it’s not just enough for some people to have an expansion add regions and quests to the game, it needs something new and exciting too.
I think that this is generally the case — but not always. You see why I’m bringing Gondor up: because Minas Morgul does not meet this fuller definition of an MMO expansion. There is no tentpole feature here, not unless you squint very, very hard and think that the Stout-Axe Dwarf racial variant fills this role. There isn’t even the allegiance system of Mordor (as forgettable as that was). It’s just… two big honking zones and a whole lot of quests that are, in a way, retreading very old territory.
This is a very roundabout way of starting this first impressions piece by saying that Minas Morgul doesn’t feel like an expansion. It just doesn’t. It’s a massive content update, to be sure, but it’s too small and limited to fit that expansion bill. Still, it is a whole lot of new LOTRO to experience, and I went into it with an optimistic outlook.
The framework for the start of Minas Morgul’s story is rather unique to Lord of the Rings Online to date. It all takes place as an extended flashback as the ghost of Isildur — best known as “that guy who took the One Ring from Sauron and didn’t throw it into Mount Doom” — recalls the war in Mordor in the Second Age. As an aside, I find it weirdly funny that Third Age legendaries drop in a Second Age setting. Maybe nobody noticed because nobody cares about Third Agers these days.
Anyway, it’s a really interesting way to return to Mordor, not in the “present” but in the distant past. We get a different take on how the old war against Sauron raged for years across a landscape that was, if not beautiful, then less ash-strewn apocalyptic than we get in modern Mordor. I actually perked up when I saw trees and blue sky in this zone, and the number of friendly camps and stable-masters didn’t hurt none, either.
I was really hoping that after a week of play I would have been able to share with you my experiences going into the titular City of the Dead, but that was not to be. The first zone is very long and involved, especially if you are (as I was) doing all of the side quests and bounties. Plus, I beg pardon for a few days of being AFK due to sickness. We’ll have to take a look at Minas Morgul (the city) next time.
For now, I can say that the Mordor Besieged map is pretty well done. It has a nice flow and isn’t as intensely aggravating as some of Mordor’s areas were. I still think that the mobs are a touch too beefy to kill, especially for some classes, but it’s not impossible.
And really, I’ll put up with almost any challenge if the story is compelling enough to keep me moving forward. Now, the Black Book of Mordor has kind of lost me up to this point — there are parts of it I grasp, but if I had to stand up in front of the class and give a synopsis, it would be a lot of mumbling and “Uh, there’s this guy with a rusty mask and some dragons and a black book that has something to do with time travel.” It doesn’t help that this current epic has been stretched over two years now with a lot of breaks in between.
Confusion aside, I liked how this zone moved the story along. At the start, it’s been years of a protracted siege against Sauron during which the good guys haven’t made a lot of advances and Sauron has largely withdrawn into his fortress. Yet there are silent abductions in the night and a trio of princes who are antsy to make headway in the campaign. It was neat to see all of the races of the Free Peoples together, each with their own specialties and perspectives, and I felt for them when everything (spoiler) started to go south and Sauron made his big move.
What intrigues me the most about this expansion and the Black Book series is that I have absolutely no idea where any of this is going. For most of LOTRO’s history, we’ve known where the general narrative was taking us because it was bound to the novels. Now we are in the margins and the appendices of the novels as well as the imaginations of the writers, and it’s “anything goes” time. I really do want to know what the City of the Dead is like and what it contains in the present. I have high hopes for some strong narrative moments and surprising reveals.
But I’ll admit that even with this general hope, part of me is straining to look past Minas Morgul to where the game is going next. We’ve been in Mordor now, twice, and I don’t have the urge to linger around for a third expansion or another two years puttering around this dismal place. Middle-earth is full of glory and wonder, but lingering on the dead of the past is not going to help us get there any faster.