Chances are you've heard of the little Tolkien game that could, otherwise known as The Lord of the Rings Online. Turbine's plucky PVE-centric game has carved out a respectable niche for itself in today's crowded online multiplayer market, striking a nifty balance between adapting the most widely read fantasy in history and following the rather bland and uninspiring blueprint for current generation MMORPG titles.
Chances are also good that you've heard of the game's first paid expansion, the Mines of Moria, debuting tomorrow in digital download format as well as two flavors of retail packaging. Turbine has long lavished free content updates on its player base, adding a total of six additional 'books' to the existing game since its original launch in April of 2007. Hundreds of new quests, raiding options, housing and reputation systems, and a generous helping of polish have been continuously bolted onto the core game, begging the question of whether or not the first paid expansion is in fact worth the money.
First, a word on pricing: Turbine is offering the digital download version of the Mines for around thirty dollars if you're a current subscriber, and, given the laundry list of features being introduced, it would seem to be a no-brainer if you're currently enjoying spending time in a digitized Middle-Earth. If you're a collector or you just have to have a retail box, you can choose from the Complete Edition (featuring the original Shadows of Angmar game) for $39.99, or the Collector's Edition (a $79.99 behemoth with replica rings, maps, a soundtrack, and more).
Each of these options will unlock two new game regions: Eregion, a barren wasteland located near the West Gate of Khazad-dûm, and the forest of Lothlorien, famously home to Galadriel and considered by many to be the seat of Elvish power in Middle-Earth. The titular Mines themselves are only accessible to players who've progressed as far as Volume 2, Book 1 of the game's main story line, so if you're planning on delving greedily and deep on release day, you'd do well to be sure your character is near the current level cap of 50 and caught up on his epic quests.
Aside from hundreds of new quests and several large areas to explore, the expansion also introduces two new character classes, the Runekeeper and the Warden, which will give long-time players something new to do once they've taken their pre-existing characters to the new level cap (60). The Runekeeper is something of an oddity. On the one hand, the flexible class mechanics that allow a player to shift between ranged DPS and healing capabilities on the fly offer something new and intriguing. Conversely, the way the class blatantly flies in the face of Tolkien's extensive lore (via garish spell effects and the fact that magic was only practiced by a handful of canonical characters) may be a turn off for purists. The Warden fares better, if the beta build is any indication, as the class is a fairly unusual creation. Basically a tank in medium armor, the Warden makes extensive use of a new 'Gambit' skill/combo system and is very solo-friendly.
No preview of the Mines would be complete without mentioning the new legendary item system. Legendary items, like your characters, will advance by earning experience points, and can also be given unique names (though you really should try to come up with something more original than Glamdring for your +25 sword of face-pwning). As you level, your legendary item, whether it be a weapon or a class item, can follow suit, and can also be re-forged into a more powerful version of itself. The items have a large number of data points associated with them, far more than any other item in the game, making them reasonable facsimiles of characters in their own right, and adding quite a bit of replay value and customization options to the title's end game.
Less promising is the fact that combat is being overhauled in the new expansion, and, while this may conjure up nightmarish visions of 'combat upgrades' from other MMORPGs, we'll hold off on sounding the alarm bells until the system has been put through the paces on the live servers. Many beta players, particularly Minstrels, are peppering Turbine with the equivalent of 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it,' but the development team has been adamant about keeping the game fresh and relevant for years to come, so the tweaks aren't exactly a surprise. In simple terms, the underlying combat engine will now calculate off of whole numbers when modifying everything from mitigation, to avoidance, to resistances, whereas previously the system was based off of percentages.
PVP is also getting some attention in the new expansion, with dozens of new traits and skills becoming available for your monster play characters. There will also be some structural changes including control points, flag capturing, and various pathing adjustments.
Finally, there are several less noticeable but very welcome tweaks, including additional character slots and the elimination of quest inventory items and keys (the former will be stored in your journal while the latter will reside on special key rings).
Ultimately, if you've been digging Turbine's version of Middle-Earth, picking up the Mines of Moria expansion will more than likely serve to deepen your enjoyment, as it has quite a few noteworthy mechanical additions that go far beyond the token new areas found in many game expansions. New players may be overwhelmed at the level of content, and much of what the expansion has to offer is geared toward veterans anyhow. Hardcore Tolkien purists may be put off by aspects of the new Runekeeper class, and there is some doubt as to the necessity of the forthcoming combat changes, but casual fans and those looking for a pleasant PVE-focused game with high production values will most likely feel at home in Turbine's world.