While last year's Mines of Moria expansion to Lord of the Rings Online brought with it two new classes, a major ad campaign, and a big retail push, the fanfare behind 2009's big Middle-earth update is decidedly more tame and humble. Available only through digital purchase and at half the price of Moria when it launched, Siege of Mirkwood has many players thinking this expansion is more akin to a large micro-transaction than a full on content update. But as I've seen over the past few weeks, nothing could be further from the truth.
One of the biggest features added to LotRO with this expansion, and probably one of the features in any AAA game that will be talked about and lauded for a while is what Turbine is calling Skirmishes. Fully scalable, repeatable, randomized and story-driven content nuggets of goodness, Skirmishes do for Lord of the Rings Online what Instances did for the dungeon years ago. It's an evolution of sorts for the dungeon crawl, and quite frankly I only see an upside to their arrival.
Perhaps I'm glowing a bit too much, but as a time-limited player who loves a good dungeon crawl but hates waiting for a full group to form, the scalable nature and randomization of these encounters makes me hope Turbine only has more in store for the system, like say tying all future books to it so that they can be completed by any party size? The Skirmishes are intended to be a sort of "side-feature" to the main content in LotRO, but perhaps because of their newness I find myself doing more and more of them each time I log in. Addictive is the appropriate way to describe them.
The skirmish system also comes with its own mini-feature: The Soldier. Each player has access to their own soldier for use within Skirmishes only. They're intended to bolster the parties within the skirmishes to fill in any roles that might be missing or needed. Add in the fact that each player can customize their soldier's abilities and even looks and you have what is effectively Middle-earth Pokémon. Some will laud it while others will loathe the feature, but since they're only for use within Skirmishes and not required, there's little to moan about.
I will say that sometimes the Soldiers feel unresponsive, or rather not very adept at doing what you want them to. Being a Warden, I set my Soldier to the healer role and while his heals are very good at keeping me up and fighting, sometimes he just didn't seem eager to help out and preferred to run around doing nothing instead.
While Skirmishes are the new hotness in the game, there has been plenty added and upgraded in LotRO with the latest update as well. The story's going ever on, and we now find the focus of the game on (of course) Mirkwood. Other than being Legolas' home, the dark and now overrun by evil, forest is home to the Necromancer's Tower: Dol Goldur.
The Free Peoples of Middle-earth are doing everything they can to aid what's left of the Fellowship by drawing the eye of the Nazgul that calls Dol Guldur home while Frodo and company make their way ever south. Hence the focus of the expansion has players knocking on Dol Guldur's door and asking the Nazgul to come out and play. Within the Necromancer's Tower are three small-fellowship instances (including my current favorite: The Swordhalls), one fellowship instance, and one 12-person raid. Again this serves to illustrate Turbine's current focus on smaller raid content.
Right now it seems the 24-person battles might be a thing of the past. The only downside to these new instances is that obtaining certain gear before attempting the 12-person raid is still necessary. Gating content is never good in this reviewer's opinion, but general consensus is that it's far less of an arduous process this time around.