LOTRO Legendarium: Lord of the Rings Online’s Corsairs of Umbar is a vacation into the unknown


Those of you who follow this column know that I’m never in a particular rush to plow through Lord of the Rings Online expansions for the sake of a timely review. I’d rather go at my own pace, explore all of the content, and give a more informed verdict at the end.

This is to say that I finally finished my first full playthrough of Corsairs of Umbar and am ready to deliver my verdict. Ready? Seven-point-five stars out of 10. Ah just kidding, we don’t do numbers around here; we use our brains! So what do I think of LOTRO’s latest story? It turns out that what I discovered is more surprising than I first thought.

Revisiting the familiar…

After trudging through the depths of Gundabad for a couple years, I was eager to get back out into the sunshine and enjoy a full expansion in bright, lush lands. Yet the start of this pack is a retread through Gondor, a kind of reverse-journey from the one we made on our way to Minas Tirith a long time ago. While I applaud repurposing the content and seeing these areas without a pall of ash hanging over them, it does feel like a good fourth of this expansion is reheated leftovers.

Outer King’s Gondor is a fresh zone with a nice Mediterranean twist, with rolling hills, more wide-open spaces, vineyards, and a touch of wilderness. As the story progressed — no major spoilers here, I promise — I was tasked with gathering together a ship crew for a journey south. This part was pretty cool: You are required to recruit five particular NPCs, but there’s an additional five optional NPCs that come with their own questlines if you take the extra effort to bring them along. And yes, there are a couple surprises on that roster by the time you board your ship heading south.

Unfortunately, all that time in both version of King’s Gondor was laced with a minor irritant. And I know exactly what it was, too. It was the sense that this was the “Umbar expansion” and here I was spending half of it decidedly not in Umbar. LOTRO does love to drag its feet in getting places, but this felt ridiculous.

Fortunately, I was mollified by the rather excellent writing and world-building. There were some genuinely funny and intriguing stories to be found here. SSG really had fun with the cheeky subtitles, let me tell you.

…before diving into the unknown

While it’s certainly a haul to get to Umbar, I promise you that it’s worth the wait. Hitting the Shield Isles for the first time felt like an actual discovery as the game showed me something new and different. This is the furthest south we’ve ever gone in Middle-earth, and that’s reflected in the visual design of the flora, fauna, and architecture. It’s also jaw-droppingly beautiful.

The Shield Isles themselves were some of the most fun I had in this expansion, as I was given leeway to explore them, find quests, and take all the screenshots to my heart’s content. There’s something about the rolling waves, palm trees, and vivid sunsets that gave me those instant “vacation vibes.” Yet it was still unmistakingly LOTRO through and through.

Making landfall on the continent was a little more of the same — town-hopping in a linear progression with some nice scenery and plenty of quests to do. This region with its steep hills reminded me a lot of Hawaii and other islands (and I laughed when I saw a palm tree version of the huorns!). One of my favorite quest lines from the entire expansion took place here, as I helped a village investigate why their food source was so tainted.

Then I finally plunged into the city of Umbar itself. This was a huge sprawling metropolis that draws inspiration from a variety of real-world places, including Greece, Italy, India, and North Africa. There’s certainly a whole lot to do in Umbar, and you can spend weeks on all of the side quests alone. Some of these were fine; most were forgettable.

My biggest problem with Umbar is that it’s a slight nightmare to navigate. I got trapped inside this city for a long time in the pursuit of story completion, and at no point did it get much easier to traverse. Thematically, the twisty-turny streets and warren of buildings fit a city that grew organically over time. But the density of the map, the too-few milestones and stable masters, and the overlay of quest objective blobs gave me a headache on more than one occasion.

Again, without spoiling anything, I want to report that the main storyline is incredibly strong all the way through. There are old friends, new acquaintances, and a giant fellowship that’s working together for a single purpose augmented by individual pursuits. Everyone has a reason to be in this city, and those purposes often bring the player in contact with the new Keepers of the Coins — a motley crew of bad (mostly bad? suspicious?) leaders.

Other random thoughts

The other big draw of this expansion is the new Mariner class (which came out a month before Corsairs launched). I played one into the 20s and wasn’t immediately hooked. Sure, it killed plenty fast, but the balance mechanic didn’t click, and I didn’t see much to recommend this over, say, the Burglar or Champion. However, I’ll be fair and report that some of my kinship friends had glowing things to say about their Mariner journeys, so I may be the odd Hobbit out on this one. I suspect that SSG still has a lot of balancing to do with this one.

I didn’t get into any of the new instances (yet) or missions/delvings, so I have nothing to say about those. There are some new allegiance tracks to pursue that offer some nice rewards, and since you can do at least one of these in parallel to questing, you might as well put in the slight bit of extra effort.

Overall, Corsairs of Umbar doesn’t shake up the LOTRO formula, but it does bring some much-needed new scenery and critters (baboons! lions! crocodiles!) to the table. The writers did a great job not making Umbar a one-note den of scoundrels; there are as many noble and dastardly characters here as anywhere else in Middle-earth. This is an expansion from a game that is sure of itself and not afraid to try a different flavor without rocking the boat too much.

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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