With Rise of Isengard still fresh on the shelves, you might expect the folks behind the Lord of the Rings Online (LotRO) to be quiet for at least a few months in the wake of such an anticipated expansion pack. Quite the opposite, it seems—LotRO Update 5, which is due to release in December, has kept the Turbine team hard at work with some fantastic new features, an impressive new raid, and another chapter in the epic saga that is their Lord of the Rings story. We had an opportunity to hop into the game for a preview of what’s to come, and enjoyed a guided tour of some of the biggest changes coming to LotRO with Update 5.
A New Chapter: Saruman’s Fancy Ring, Hello Aragorn
One huge aspect of Update 5 is the continuation of the epic storyline players experience while exploring LotRO. “The Prince of Rohan” chapter is about saying goodbye to the familiar Grey Company rangers who have been around essentially since the beginning, and driving characters forward with new friends and allies—and Aragorn, of canon fame. The second chunk of new lore players will encounter involves the new cluster of instances available to players in Isengard, and Saruman’s quest to forge his own ring of power.
Now, before everyone starts criticizing the new chapters of lore the LotRO team has introduced to this virtual representation of the familiar world, keep in mind that within the original books there is a brief but vague mention of Saruman crafting his own ring of power. This self-proclaimed “ring-maker” is quite obsessed with rings, if you recall; the powers you can create with them, the One Ring, and all the others. It isn’t difficult to imagine that at some point, Saurman would become obsessed with creating his own ring of power.
Enter the challenge the developers have posed to players: How do you destroy Saruman’s ring of power before it corrupts him even further, and gives him powers beyond what even the most powerful of wizards possess? And, perhaps more importantly, how do you give players a hand in this without compromising the whole Lord of the Rings story?
During the walk-thru, I had the opportunity to hear tidbits of how much thought, consideration and creativity the team in charge of LotRO’s lore put into this latest chapter in the epic saga. These decisions are not lightly done, and I have to admit I am impressed by how devoted the developers, writers and producers are to adhering to the canon lore of the Lord of the Rings series while still giving players an immersing, satisfying chapter in the great tale they can personally experience.
While I don’t want to give away too many details and spoil the surprise, I will readily admit I was very impressed with the quest to destroy Saruman’s precious ring. The incorporation of elemental aspects (hint: you’ll encounter five elemental rings, not just one ring of ultimate power), the tactics required to defeat Saruman himself, and the resolution at the end of the long and appropriately difficult encounter were all very satisfying. Not to mention players will encounter gear specific to this raid, and some pretty steep requirements for obtaining the best pieces.
Instance Finder: Quick, Convenient Slaying
Few things are as frustrating in an MMO as a weak Looking-For-Group (LFG) system. Fortunately, LotRO players are getting a new LFG-style feature with Update 5 called the Instance Finder. The interface window allows you to flag the role you wish to play in the group, from Defense, Healer, Support and Damage. You can then choose a type of instance, size and tier before clicking to join a group. Members of a group formed using the Instance Finder also receive a 5% moral and power bonus, in attention to a 1.5x multiplier to experience.
The downside to this feature is the random match-up dynamic, pairing you with players based on how you’ve flagged yourselves rather than manual group formation. If you really don’t care about raiding with Pick-Up-Groups (PUGs), this won’t be much of a burden to you. However, since tactics and communication are critical in many of the Isengard-based instances, running around with strangers who know nothing about your play style can be frustrating to say the least—especially if you’re playing Tier 2. It can be utter madness, and an epic failure, going into a Tier 3 instance in a PUG. Another problem is that the Instance Finder currently offers no advice on what each dungeon requires—more melee damage versus magic, for example—though I suppose that’s par for the course with Looking-For-Group features in most MMOs.
The standard LFG system will still be in place, and odds are the Instance Finder isn’t going to make the old LFG methods obsolete. However, if you want quick action and don’t care who it’s with, the Instance Finder is great for getting the job started in a hurry.
Tactics, Tactics, Tactics
I have to admit, the fundamental requirement of combat tactics, strong communication and teamwork within both of Turbine’s major MMOs—namely LotRO and Dungeons & Dragons Online—is one of my favorite aspects of gameplay. LotRO goes above and beyond with the Tier System, in which monsters get even more wickedly powerful as they progress from Tier 1 to Tier 3. During the walk-thru, I had an opportunity to experience one of the boss encounters present within the new Isengard instances: Elemental giants, who tie into the elemental aspect surrounding Saruman’s ring, which players will encounter on their path to defeating Saruman himself. You can’t simply zerg this pair, but must pay close attention to what Tier the giants are at, while taking care to defeat them both within a few moments of each other.
The implementation of new User Interface (UI) trackers arriving with Update 5 made this infinitely easier to do. Players will no longer have to keep an eye on tiny little icons under the creature’s avatar, making it far easier to get your timing just right in these encounters. The final battle also includes a mini UI window for each player who picks-up an elemental ring, which makes it far easier to use the impressive special abilities these trinkets possess.
Still, “combat is a means to an end” in the eyes of the LotRO development team, so players can expect a whole lot more than challenging combat scenarios with Update 5.
LotRO Update 5: In Conclusion
I am impressed that the Turbine team is completely committed to delivering both a first-hand experience to the players, but also to maintaining the integrity of the Lord of the Rings lore. In the books, a ring Saruman crafted is mentioned, but only once—and never again. So, the team decided to make that mystery ring a focus of Update 5, and handed the players a personal piece of Middle Earth’s fate by tasking them with the destruction of the ring. While this deviation from the canon storyline might frustrate some players, it was fun to experience this piece of the puzzle as a player, and I appreciate that the canon story is not compromised by this chapter.
The new armor and item sets introduced in Update 5 lend extra value to these new features, especially “The Tower of Orthanc” raid. While I don’t anticipate the new gear making everything else obsolete, it certainly gives players some more flexibility in their end-game template. Players even receive a choice between the cosmetic versions of the ranger garb, whether classic white and green or the dark grey implemented in Volume III, allowing characters to dress like the familiar Dunedain characters.
I highly recommend purchasing the latest LotRO expansion, Rise of Isengard, if you want to fully enjoy all of the new bells and whistles coming with Update 5. While it surprises me to see new content for the level 75 level cap coming so quickly after the expansion release, it is nice to see the team behind LotRO delivering even more content above and beyond the amount of free-2-play (F2P) content already available. Even if you opt to never spend a dime on LotRO, the Instance Finder alone is a nifty new toy definitely worth playing around with.
In a nutshell, I think Update 5 is poised to be a great addition to the LotRO world. The new raid is a lot of fun, and the rewards are certainly worth your time. Although the new Instance Finder still has some bugs to be worked out, player feedback is welcomed and there’s absolutely no reason not to offer your opinion if you find it to be lacking. If you’ve never tested the waters, LotRO has a surprising amount of F2P content available, and Update 5 is a great example of how the Turbine team continues to bring free, quality “mini-expansions” full of new content, upgrades to current systems, and additional in-game lore. While Update 5 might seem to focus mostly on the level 75 end-game, it never hurts to see more free content being added to give players even more value for their buck in case they are considering the jump from F2P to subscription status.