I recently had the distinct pleasure of sitting down with Aaron Campbell the other night and being walked through some of the key features of Turbine's latest additions to Lord of the Rings Online. With the Spring Festival just around the corner (the end of March to be exact) and the release of Volume III - Book I of the epic quest coming down the pipe in just a couple of weeks, there was a lot to cover. Never light on the amount of content they pump into Tolkien's world, Turbine's definitely throwing a good slew of bright and shiny things at players with their most recent free update. I logged into the game as a developer-juiced Champion named Clara, met up with Aaron's stout dwarven Guardian and we were off.
The first stop on my tour was a display of some of the new rewards players can earn for participating in the upcoming Spring Festival's events. Aaron plopped us outside an elven dwelling that had some pretty spiffy lawn décor on display. It seems that for accomplishing different tasks in the festival players will be able to spruce up the lawns of their homes with things like a giant shrew statue, a hobbit-shaped hedge, or even a nice little "garden dwarf" that sits atop a decorative watering can. Though I can't imagine too many of the stout folk will appreciate being likened to garden gnomes. Other rewards include things of a similar humorous variety. While browsing what the festival vendor had on-hand, Aaron smacked me across the face with a large fish. I was sad to find out I didn't have enough tokens to return the favor.
The Spring Festival itself brings back a lot of last year's favorite things such as the Inn League and the Ale Association, but the big addition is most definitely the Shrew-Stomping Arena inside of the Festival Garden. The garden is located in Falathorn, just south of Duillond. Once inside players will be able to get specific quests to participate in the stomping of shrews. While I'm sure PETA wouldn't approve, the objective is to take a large pair of boots and stomp the ever-living bejesus out of rampaging shrews in order to earn rewards. At the end of each scheduled "stomp" (they run back to back throughout the festival with a little break in between), one Enormous Shrew will come out and terrorize the players. The contestant that manages to use the special "enormous boots" to stomp said shrew will get a special victory and more tokens to use as a turn-in for the festival rewards.
The more serious portion of the new update is the continuation of the game's Epic Storyline. While Gandalf narrated Volume One and Galadriel narrated Volume Two, this time players will have the cut scenes explained to them by the voice of Elrond. The Lord of Rivendell looks to you, the player, in this portion of the story to aid him in gathering the Dunadain, and form the Grey Company to venture south and meet up with Aragorn in Rohan now that the Fellowship has broken. That's right... Rohan is not too far away if the epic storyline is any indication.
The bulk of Book One deals with the hunting and recruiting of about a dozen of these rangers. Players are charged with seeking out each of them and getting them to aid Aragorn, and Turbine was kind enough to give players the option of actually travelling all over the corners of the game world, or teleporting directly to them to advance the quest-line a bit faster. After meeting with Elrond in Rivendell, players will be allowed to either choose a weapon, armor, or some other useful item as a reward, or they can choose a map that will teleport them directly to the next ranger (presumably with a cooldown attached). It's nice that Turbine acknowledges the different preferences of its players and has the foresight to design around them.
The book will take players all over the map, and rather than just reuse old locales, the developer has seen fit to introduce some new vistas to the game with this update. One such place Aaron took me to was a frozen cave that utilized a brand new ice texture. It was pretty wicked to see polar bears blurred and lurking behind walls of ice, ready to pounce us as we came around the corner, and it gives the whole place a very distinctive "Fortress of Solitude" feel.
As we ran around the cave, Aaron made sure to mention that with this update one of the developer's more ambitious projects was being released along with all of the new content. The entirety of Volume One of the epic quest is now solo-able (Books 1-15). Thanks to the addition of a buff called "Inspired Greatness", alts, new players, and just folks who never could progress through the group-oriented content can finally experience one of the game's shining points. Aaron made sure to let me know that "Inspired Greatness" doesn't mean the quests will now be a walk in the park or make players invincible, but rather that the buff will make it possible for solo players to complete previously impossible content. It's a great way to deal with aging content, as opposed to just forgetting about it, and one hopes they'll do the same for Volume Two later on.
Next up on the tour was Turbine's latest addition to the recently added skirmish system. Entitled "Rescue in Nurz Gashu", the latest skirmish encounter continues the trend the developer began in Siege of Mirkwood by tying the epic storyline directly into skirmishes. This new one has players meeting up with one of the Dunadain in a particularly lava-infested area in order to track down another of his kin. Apparently, he's gone a bit cuckoo, and needs a good slap to bring him back to reality.
Turbine's always trying to think of new and interesting mechanics for the Skirmishes so that they're not just rehashes of each other and Rescue is no different. The focus of the new encounter is all about fellowship maneuvers. While solo players won't really have to worry about it as much, groups will have to follow on-screen hints to use specific fellowship maneuver combinations and get past obstacles blocking their progression. I don't want to spoil too much of the content for you, but once you finally make your way to Golodir, the final boss fight of the encounter triggers, and you have to manage to keep Golodir alive, while training the boss around a bunch of hot lava and using fellowship maneuvers at specific times to win the battle. It's a unique, interesting, and challenging fight for sure.
When asked, Aaron told me that the development team's goal is to keep expanding and building upon skirmishes. One of the new features going live in the update is an option to run skirmishes in "Duo Mode". The staff noticed a high rate of two-player teams running skirmishes in small fellowship (three players) mode, and a lot of players were requesting the ability to run skirmishes intended for two people, so that's just what Turbine did. Now husband and wife teams won't have to wring each other's necks when they find a skirmish encounter a little too tough on small fellowship mode.
And then my brief venture into Volume Three was over. There are tons of new weapons, armor, and collectibles to be had, and quite a bit of new story-driven content coming LotRO's way in the next couple weeks. And with Rohan right around the corner, it might be time for you to dust off your map of Middle-earth and make a return.