LOTRO Legendarium: First impressions of Minas Morgul

    
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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).

Anyway, from July 2014’s Update 14 through October 2016’s Update 19, the devs rolled out Gondor, Minas Tirith, the Battle of Pelennor Fields, and the Belfalas premium housing neighborhood. Even at the time I recognized that we were getting an expansion’s worth of content — and more! — over these two years, just without the stamp of “expansion” to make it official.

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.

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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teppic

The fact the game was changed so little there wasn’t even a skill reset emphasises how this was a content update, not an expansion. But expansions can have high price tags (over $100, seriously?) while a content update cannot. It’s unfortunately a bit of a cynical milking of the fans who’ll leap to buy the new ultimate packs regardless of what they offer.

The content creators in the game do a decent job with the minimal spending the studio makes. I mean you’re still often facing the exact same mobs with the same models that were in the starter area of the vanilla game over 10 years ago with a new name and level, as well as other huge asset reuse from older expansions. The same goes for the landscapes.

As a content update it’s fine. It’s just not an expansion by the standard of any other games.

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Michael18

I can’t remember the story of the Book of Mordor, either.

This is one of the gaming industry’s biggest problems: games do not help players to get back into a story after they took a break. And this applies to all genres (both MMO and single player).

For example, I played around 60h Assassin’s Creed Odyssey shortly after release. Now I’d be happy to go back and finish the main story and then play the DLCs. But I can’t remember anything about the story and the game does not care to remind me (iirc, the game does not even show a list of completed quests). Starting over isn’t an option either, because once I reach the point where I was I’d be ready for another break.

It also makes playing long games stressful, because you know if you get distracted and need a break, you’ll never get back into the game and it will remain half-finished forever. So you have to power through if you wanna complete it.

How companies are able to overlook this is beyond me, considering all this talk about “games as a service” which means players are expected to return to a game over and over.

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2Ton Gamer

It really begs the question of how they justify charging so much for this “expansion.”

Phenomen
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Phenomen

They want you to subscribe instead of buying all expansions. Right now it would be like $500 for all content. Or $99 for the year of subscription. Obiously most people would rather sub.

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Louie

But subscribing doesn’t give you access to any of the expansions. They all have to purchased separately.

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3dom

Now as the territory and quest lines are practically finished – they should release LOTRO2 with modern graphics and animations. Like GGG did with PoE. I’d totally pay $50-60 for the modern version if it had BlackDesert-like characters.

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2Ton Gamer

I’d back a LOTRO 2.0 with $500 if they would do it right. It’s time to let this game be what it is and stick around for players to enjoy and stop adding things that are not needed and coming off as lackluster. Besides, if SSG is to remain around as a gaming company they need something new in the future.