LOTRO Legendarium: Will Before the Shadow evade the mini-expansion stigma?

    
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With the announcement this week at Gamescom’s Devcom of Lord of the Rings Online’s “mini-expansion,” Before the Shadow, we now have a pretty good idea of what the rest of the year looks like in terms of new content. It may not be a full-fledged expansion (which nobody reasonably expected at this point), but this fall update represents a sizable addition to the game — and a huge change to how the early game functions.

In today’s column, I’m going to recap the announcement (and subsequent dev posts about it) and offer up my analysis of its potential impact. Looming above all of that, however, is the key question: Will Before the Shadow evade the negative stigma that plagued War of the Three Peaks two years ago?

Because I love organizing announcements into lists, here’s the quick-and-dirty rundown of Before the Shadow:

  • This will likely be Update 34 and will come after September’s Update 33.2 (which will add the new class/race combos).
  • It adds two new zones (Swanfleet and Cardolan), which will make up a brand-new, alternative 1-32 leveling experience.
  • The story focuses on Boromir traveling north, the Nazg├╗l search, and the rising threat from Mordor and Saruman.
  • Update 34 will also add a new six-person dungeon, a skirmish, and a new “Delving” difficulty system.
  • There will be incentives for subscribers.
  • SSG is charging for the zones, with the pre-purchase opening up in late September.
  • “The main story content of this update will connect with main epic story at an appropriate level.” (Scenario)
  • “This landscape has been in the works basically since I finished Erebor Housing!” (Scenario)
  • “I think we’ve achieved something really special with the landscape, in terms of how it looks and in terms of our development process behind it.” (Scenario)
  • “Even just my part of it is two or three times as big as what I’ve traditionally done for quest packs. I’m pretty excited. It’s unusual to expand the early levels of an MMO, but it’s an interesting challenge. It’s bringing me back to some of the feeling I had in the early days.” (MadeOfLions)
  • “All characters will be able to start with the new Before the Shadow Prologue and run the new story content, although obviously you’ll be quite a bit over-level in terms of challenge. There will be a new starter instance for newly-made characters, but it takes place just prior to the prologue, and is typically gated to newly-created characters just like the other starter instances.” (Cordovan)
  • “Cardolan and Swanfleet comprise more terrain than the Plateau of Gorgoroth in Mordor, and much more traversable space. This update will certainly be one of the largest landmasses introduced in any update.” (Scenario)
  • “Most of our updates next year will be focused on advancing our narrative through the landscape — which means more level cap regions can be expected. We’ll be starting that journey in some familiar spaces, and then moving into unknown territory as the story progresses!” (Scenario)

Whew, that’s a lot to unpack! I’ve seen some people be quickly dismissive of this announcement, but the more I ponder the announcement and subsequent dev quotes on it, the more I’m of the opinion that this will be a substantial and exciting addition to the game. Looking at those leaked maps shows a vast swath of new landscape that I cannot wait to explore.

Now, of course there are some details we still don’t know. It’s frustrating that SSG made this announcement and then followed it up with, “Stay tuned for more of the announcement!” instead of just giving us the full rundown. For instance, we don’t know the price point, we don’t know when it’ll go on sale for LOTRO points, and we’re still a little fuzzy on how onboarding via the new leveling path works.

The two biggest objections to this that I’ve seen are concerns about the lag and sour memories of the last time SSG pulled the “mini-expansion” card. The lag is a valid concern — I hate it just as much as you, trust me, and I think it’s right to be worried that stacking even more zones onto the game will worsen the existing problem. Then again, the worldbuilding team and the engineering team are separate entities working on their own parts, so I don’t feel it’s fair to say that SSG can’t develop new content while simultaneously working on the lag issue.

As for the “mini-expansion” thing, it fell flat in 2020 for a few reasons. First, SSG did nothing to prepare us for a shift in its business model; it just sprang this on the community and upset a whole lot of VIPs used to getting free zone content. Second, War of the Three Peaks definitely was not worthy of a “mini-expansion” label, quotes or no quotes.

In 2022, I feel less bothered by this. A studio’s got to make money, and putting some extra effort into creating an alternate, optional leveling path through two zones is not a terrible way to do that. I’m fine paying for content if it’s above and beyond the norm, especially considering how much LOTRO has given away to all accounts for free this year.

What has me scratching my head a little bit is the studio’s odd fixation with Eriador at the expense of the rest of the game these past two years. It never felt like a region lacking in leveling options and paths (if anything, it’s too easy to over-level content if you’re doing everything). But I guess SSG wanted to fill in some holes in the map, so we got the Wildwood, the Angle, and Yondershire. Now we’re receiving two more zones, bringing the count up to five — an expansion’s worth of additions, if you lump them all together.

As the studio itself has acknowledged, this exclusive focus on Eriador has put out players who have been sitting on their thumbs after finishing Gundabad. I trust that it’ll make good on its word to add more to the rest of the game (as we read in one of the dev quotes above) in 2023 and beyond.

Once I got past my puzzlement — not even a concern, really — I see multiple benefits of adding this new leveling path to the game. First, it appeals to brand-new players who want to experience the latest in leveling design and art. LOTRO is no doubt hoping to scoop up a bunch of television viewers who will be high on Tolkien with Rings of Power, and it never hurts to have a best foot to put forward.

And second, this greatly benefits veterans. LOTRO is a game where alt rolling is frequent and embraced, and I’m sure that many people who have been around for a while find the legacy zones in Eriador a little stale and well-worn. Having a fresh leveling path for the first 32 levels allows us to bypass all of those beginning zones up through Lone-lands and North Downs, sending us onward to hit Evendim, Forochel, Trollshaws, Eregion, and beyond.

The hints of the new story are pretty intriguing as well, hewing closer to the narrative of the books than the old Volume I. Name-dropping and lore recognition are a couple of ways to suck in fans.

We’ll see how it goes when Before the Shadow arrives, but SSG already has me on board with it. If nothing else, I’m just thrilled to see our favorite MMO receive three new zones this year — how many other older MMOs can say that?

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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