If there is one thing that players of The Lord of the Rings Online are not surprised by, it is what is coming down the line. That is the pro as well as the con of designing a game based on as famous a piece of literature as Tolkien's epic work. However, now that the story has progressed beyond the Mines of Moria, the anticipation turns to answering the question, "Which area comes next?" Turbine Executive Producer Jeffrey Steefel and I chuckled over that as he took me on a run through the upcoming expansion - Siege of Mirkwood. "Black squirrels?" I asked. Indeed. All that is dark and evil lurk in Mirkwood, so tainted that even the squirrels are black.
Siege of Mirkwood is due to launch in the fall and is a digital expansion at a $19.95 cost. "We looked at the consumers for the last expansion and found that there were more digital consumers." Digital downloads were a much larger percentage than they had expected, I was told, and the numbers large enough for them to decide that this was the way to go for Siege of Mirkwood. This expansion ends the epic story of Moria and the land mass that players will be able to explore is Southern Mirkwood. Dol Guldor, Elves and Olog Hai, oh my! What about Northern? Well yes, if there's Southern Mirkwood, Northern will follow. Soon. Okay, it's not Rohan, but we'll get there eventually.
Siege of Mirkwood raises the level cap to 65 and the power of Legendary gear to level 60. At this level, they will have a 4th runic slot that only Master Crafters will be able to create and players will be able to craft 2nd and 3rd age Legendary items as well. Horses become a slottable skill and players won't have to dismount before interacting with NPCs and no longer sit stiffly on their horse but will have access to animated emotes. Turbine has also given more depth to the Identify skill, which will give players a better sense of where the item is headed before they invest a lot of time into it. There will also be shared storage between characters on the same account. "I'm sure players enjoyed the immersion of having to mail things between their characters," said Jeff, whispering "Not!" as an aside. "But I'm also sure they will enjoy this convenience even more." I agreed. After all, why shouldn't they be able to share a bank vault?
The big game system to be launched in Siege of Mirkwood is the Skirmish System. A complementary way of gaining XP and usable by players of level 30 on up, Skirmishes are accessible anywhere in the game via the UI which will bring up the Skirmish menu. Skirmishes are repeatable, randomized and accommodate up to 12 players. Players can also set difficulty levels (Tier 1 through 4) and nine random objectives will show up during the skirmish system and it's up to players to decide if they wish to hit them all. The Skirmish system introduces an NPC pet - the Soldier that is accessible only within the system.
Apart from the fun, games and XP, players will reap Skirmish points which can be exchanged for rewards or used to train their Soldier. This NPC pet starts as a common foot Soldier, a simple meat shield. Players can change and improve his role by the skills that they decide to train. Yes, players can choose to re-spec the Soldier - in exchange for mere token sum of money of course. In the Skirmish system, each player can bring a Soldier with him or her, so your group can contain as many as 12 players and 12 Soldiers. Don't think you will crush the scenario with a party that large though. Although the difficulty tier can be set down, the system scales to numbers as well.
Saving the best for last, Jeff spoke of the raid instances in Siege of Mirkwood. In the Tower of Dol Guldur players can raid in the Sword-halls and Warg-pens. There are new three-man instances there and parties of six can go after the Sorcerer of Dol Guldur within Sauron's Sanctuary of Sammath Gûl. The boss raid takes place on the top of the Tower of Col Guldur, a 12-man instance where players get to take down a Nazgul mounted on his Felbeast. His presence will have a powerful dread effect on the players all the way to the top of the tower and players will need all the Radiance and Hope effects they can get. Jeff ran his Warden up the tower, joking along the way about falling off, until we got outside the gate where he ran back and forth, trying to aggro the beasts so I could get a good look. Nasty! The art on the Nazghul and the Felbeast was beautifully horrid and the power of the beast conveyed in its form. This battle will be epic. Never mind that Eowyn took one down all by herself.
No big surprises in the storyline, but exciting additions to game content, a level cap increase and convenience improvements. Although they were not doing hands-on demos at PAX, there's not much fun in killing a Boss Mob with GM powers at any rate. The expansion at this stage in what they showed looked gorgeous. Siege of Mirkwood will be available "in the Fall" and that's just around the corner.