When Lord of the Rings Online launched back in 2007 the thought on mine and just about every other player's mind was "I can't wait to see how this game grows!" Two years later, we've followed the Fellowship through Rivendell and into the Mines of Moria and out the other side into Lothlorien. Now as Frodo and the others head further south, the burden of distraction and subterfuge lies on the hands of the elves of Lothlorien and the other heroes of Middle-earth. In Siege of Mirkwood players will work closely with the elves to draw the eye of Sauron and the wrath of the Ringwraiths to the tower of Dol Goldur and keep it there while the Fellowship slips into the south. This is the point in Turbine's retelling of the classic story where the war starts to heat up. Things are about to get hairy in Middle-earth.
With that in mind, I logged into the test server with the Live Producer of LoTRO, Aaron Campbell to be shown around the game's latest expansion, Siege of Mirkwood, which is due to be released on December 1st. I met up with him as the Dwarf Guardian Rowan on the docks of Lothlorien. I was then escorted, using the aforementioned magic developer powers, to a spot along the Anduin looking across into Mirkwood.
It quickly became clear comparing the forests on either side of the river that Mirkwood is no longer the safe haven it had once been. The forces of Dol Guldur had long since twisted and corrupted the trees and wildlife and this could be seen in the stark contrast between Lorien behind me and Mirkwood across the river. But rather than simply stare at scenery for the entirety of my tour, I asked my dwarf companion to show me around the primary new feature in Siege of Mirkwood: Skirmishes.
Skirmishes are Turbine's way of creating enjoyable, repeatable, randomized, and story-driven encounters for all different sizes of groups to enjoy. The entire system has been created from the ground up with several different notions in mind. They need to be relatively quick pieces of content to enjoy, they need to scale for all play-styles and party-sizes, and they need to be dynamic enough and rewarding enough to encourage multiple play-throughs. And as I quickly learned, all three criteria were handily met by the developers.
In a camp on the edge of Mirkwood, Aaron and I opened up the Skirmish window to select which one we wanted to attempt. That's right, there's no need to go find some magic door or scrying portal in order to experience these new encounters. You need only open up your menu and pick the one you want to do. From that same window, you can select the level range of the enemies within (the first Skirmish becomes available at level 30 and all can be scaled up to the level cap of 65). You can also select the group size for the encounter (solo, small fellowship, full fellowship, and 12-man raid) so that you and your kinsmen are always fighting an appropriate number of enemies, or if you would prefer you could even make yourself vastly outnumbered. And lastly you can change the difficulty of each Skirmish. Playing solo but want a challenge? Up the difficulty from one to three, and so forth.
I asked Aaron if we could attempt "The Battle of the Tower" which is actually one of the higher level Skirmishes in the game. In it you and your mates will attempt to reclaim the Tower of the Necromancer. Because of our special immortal capabilities, Aaron set the Skirmish to 12-man raid size so that we could see just how epic the battles could be. One feature of the UI that is really quite nice is that when a member of your party selects to start a Skirmish you are given a notice on your screen and can decide whether or not to join in. There's nothing preventing you from sitting one out if you would rather go about your own business.
Once inside the instance, it became clear to me that these Skirmishes are more than just randomized dungeons for LotRO. They're as much part of the story as the Epic Book quests. We were met by an elf who told us what was going down in the tower and that we would need to reclaim the place room by room as we scaled the dark and terrible building. NPCs, as a matter of fact, have their own little upgrade with Mirkwood. Gone are the days where players had to constantly highlight an NPC to check on their morale. Now each NPC of import will have a glowing marker beneath them to indicate their status: green for good all the way down to red for bad. But NPCs won't be your only help in the Skirmishes.