In my book, Lord of the Rings Online (LotRO) continues to be one of the most impressive MMO titles on the market in terms of consistent, immersive game updates and expansions. After covering the details of Update 5 for MMORPG.com, I was excited to get another sneak-peek of the new features awaiting players with the release of Update 6, “Shores of the Great River.” This bundle of content continues the journey towards Rohan, and opens up a visually stunning portion of Middle-earth for exploration, conquest, and intrigue.
According to the LotRO website, the Shores of the Great River area is “a level 75 end-game region, designed mostly for solo or duo gameplay,” so this new content is more for the pay-2-play crowd rather than free members. That being said, Update 6 certainly has a variety of new additions and regions to keep end-game players busy for quite some time. The Update 6 content is scheduled to go live on the servers on Monday, March 12th, and I am sufficiently convinced that players have quite a few surprises and plenty of excellent content awaiting them at the end of the download.
Here are some of my favorite details of Update 6, based on my walkthrough with the Turbine crew. Of course, there are many more details about Update 6 available on the LotRO website, especially in the developer diaries, in case you haven’t managed a hands-on exploration of the live content. You can also read a great overview of the Soldiers on Landscape “henchmen” style system from Dylan Grozdanich here on MMORPG.com, including a pros and cons list of this skirmish-based feature.
The Great River: New Lands Await Explorers
From the enchanting yet deadly waters of the river itself, to the surprisingly un-bland quality of The Brown Lands (despite what the name implies at first glance), the new regions waiting for your exploration in Update 6 are exactly what I’ve come to expect from LotRO. I got an opportunity to visit several of the lands composing “The Great River” lands of Middle Earth, and I wish I had received even more time to run around wildly, taking screenshots of everything. From the verdant green hues of Limlight Glade, to the twisting, gnarled old trees of the Garden of the Entwives, Update 6’s atmosphere is positively stunning. Even the swamplands have a rustic charm; I remarked to the Devs that Turbine does “swamps like nobody else can,” and it’s true – few designers could make muck and mire so much fun to explore.
Many of the landmarks in the Update 6 expansion to the game have significant political meaning, or lots of historical value for the characters within Middle Earth. Stangard, for example, was a refuge for nobles of Rohan who had fallen out of favor with the king. Stangard’s architecture and detail is superb, and I imagine I’m not the only LotRO enthusiast who will want a player house made in this fashion. The Mead Hall is a wonderful meeting point for in-game events, Fellowship meetings, and role-playing activities; it is just one example of these little pockets of top-notch design new in Update 6. In fact, Stangard in particular is very reminiscent of lands introduced early on in LotRO’s history, which lends a nice, nostalgic feel to the area.
The Even-Further-Improved “Instance Finder”
While listening to senior designer Joe Barry explain the updates to the Instance Finder the team first introduced with Update 5, it was very apparent to me just how determined the folks at Turbine were to actually listen to the feedback from players regarding this feature. In this latest chapter of LotRO’s ongoing design, “the Instance Finder is all grown up,” and has evolved from a basic tool for securing quick action to a complete system with excellent diversity.
Instead of being a Russian roulette of random instances and parties, the new “advanced” and “specific” tabs enable players to have lots more control in what adventure they participate in. On the advanced tab, you can still specify what role you care to take in the party – from defense, support, damage, and healer – while also selecting a type, party size, and tier level. In this tab, only instances your party members meet the requirements for will be shown; you don’t have to look through options only available to a portion of your players. Under the specific tab, players can sort through a list of every instance, skirmish, or Isengard location currently implemented in the game. I found this feature to be especially beneficial to newer players, who might not have an accurate idea of just how much content is available at their level. The fact that you can search for an appropriate instance based on category type (such as defensive), but also by instance name is a nice perk.
While in the instance finder, you can also add a check mark next to the instances you are willing to participate in, and exclude those you simply can’t stomach another run-through. The more instances you approve of, the better your bonuses for your effort, so I highly recommend excluding only your least favorite locations. You can also adjust your Fellowship’s settings, such as loot rules, and the new Fellowship voting system is a great way to deal with a problem member of your Fellowship as diplomatically as possible with a poll to remove the player from the party.
More Lore, Mysteries, and Schemes for LotRO
It is a lofty goal to create an MMO from one of the most successful, popular, and beloved works of fiction ever created, and the LotRO team’s commitment to this goal is obvious in Update 6. As with previous updates and expansions, players gain more insight into the history of this virtual world through quests, NPC dialog, and exploration. In one village, two foreboding statues stand in silent watch over the lands, and it’s up for players to uncover the secrets of these magnificent relics. “They always did things big in the old days,” commented Aaron Campbell, the senior producer for LotRO, and I feel that the graphic of the statues adequately captures that. “There is a mystery surrounding these statues,” Campbell elaborated by saying, “in that the statues have been defaced. Somebody cut a large, white stone hand off of one of the statues and took it somewhere.”
The lands which once served as the safe haven for the Ents and Entwives is now a dreary, stark reminder of Sauron’s wrath, and the mystery of the Entwives’ disappearance still haunts the Ents who visit these lands. While the fate of the Entwives and other lingering mysteries of The Lord of the Rings book series are unlikely to ever be declared within the LotRO world, it certainly gives players a hands-on feel to experience these pieces of the world and explore lands described in the books.
LotRO Update 6: In Conclusion
If you’ve read either my general LotRO re-review, or my coverage of Update 5 following my preview, then you are well aware that I have plenty of praise for Turbine and the LotRO team. I continue to be blown away by just how visually impressive this MMO is, and the art team certainly continued with their great work in this update.
The Great River Region is stunning, from the flowing waters to the desolate hills of The Brown Lands, and the variety within the opponents you encounter only lends to the immersion. Players will find diversity within monsters of the same species and faction, from randomly generated facial features, to alterations in cloak colors and armor patterns. This attention to detail is one of my favorite things about LotRO, and the unfolding journey to Rohan has plenty of places perfect for role-playing events, Fellowship meetings, and other community activities.
The improvements to the Instance Finder are a sure sign that the developers care about the player feedback, and the team continues to invite you to share your input over on the official forum. If you play around with the new tabs and options and think the instance finder feature needs further improvement, go explain it to them; not every MMO applies feedback in such an obvious, gratifying manner as LotRO has. The further expansion on the epic storyline is very well done, and the team continues to walk the very thin line between doing justice to the original The Lord of the Rings book series and still providing new, interactive content for the players.
While you might need to invest the time and money required to hit level 75 to truly enjoy the Great River Region, the area is certainly worth that level of commitment. Without a doubt, the journey to Rohan has officially begun, and I cannot wait to see how it unfolds. If Update 6 is any indicator, current players and newcomers alike have plenty of surprises, mysteries, and intriguing new lands to explore on the way to experiencing Rohan at last.