It’s been almost a month since The Lord of the Rings Online’s latest expansion, Minas Morgul hit the servers. Exploring the history of this cursed keep as well as continuing on the Epic storyline in the Black Book of Mordor so far has been an interesting notion for me. So how does it stack up thus far?
Oh, and before you read any further, here’s your minor SPOILER WARNING.
Minas Morgul’s main quest line, Book 11 of the Black Book of Mordor, doesn’t actually start in Mordor. Rather you find yourself hunting down the identity of a shade drifting around one of Middle-earth’s more infamous locations - the Gladden Fields. Finding out the identity of the shade - an important figure in all of Middle-earth Lore, you’ll actually find yourself traveling back to the Second Age, learning about the Shade’s story through a massive flashback sequence that takes place during the long siege of Barad-dur.
It’s nice to jump into ages past in Middle-earth’s history - and that’s honestly one of the great strengths of Standing Stone Games, the developers of The Lord of the Rings Online. With so much material to pull from - yet also so much room for creative license - the team behind LotRO has been able to create some memorable stories and experiences over their twelve years behind the helm of one of the world’s most beloved franchises.
Unfortunately, twelve years in and much of the design really feels dated.
Many of the quests in this early portion of the Black Book center around fetch quests, slayer quests and more. I found myself venturing into the plains of Mordor to bury fallen allies, slay a certain number of orcs and wargs, plant a certain number of flags, and more. And after a while they all felt like they were blending together - the stories themselves less important than just getting the task done for the experience points.
Some of the quests feel like repeats of previous quests as well - after I planted flags in Mordor bearing the standard of one of the great armies of Men, I found myself tasked doing the same thing for the standards of Gil-Galad the Elven King.
There are a ton of quests to do in addition to the Black Book, so I wasn’t left wanting for activities, but it just feels dated when you compare quests with other story-driven MMOs such as The Elder Scrolls Online. These questing activities really need to be hidden in a way that makes you feel less like you’re doing the same thing over and over again and more like you’re driving the story forward. And right now I’m not getting the sense that I am doing that.
Part of the issue too is that LotRO doesn’t actually have much in the way of voice acting as well. And once upon a time I praised this very fact. I adore the fact that the MMO is based off the books rather than the movies - and as such I loved that I was forced to read all the quests in order to get a sense of what was going on - much like I was reading an extension of the novel. And don’t get me wrong either - I’m still reading every single quest I come across and enjoying the story - but they just don’t feel as alive as they once did years ago. I would love to hear these characters inject life into the story even more, especially as it continues to progress after the downfall of Sauron.
The real treat of the Minas Morgul expansion, however, is obviously its namesake. The Morgul Vale itself wasn’t what I was initially expecting either, and I think that’s a great thing. Often we picture the Morgul Vale and we think nothing but desolation, and there is plenty of that. However, when I first stepped into the valley and saw Minas Morgul in the distance, it wasn’t the impressive city that first caught my eye, it was the trees that litter the vale.
Not twisted, gnarled trees either - though there are some of those. These are tall, strong spruce trees that remind me of Ithilien to the West. Indeed, you can immediately see why the Numenoreans built Minas Ithil in the Vale - it’s strong, protected on all sides and, before the destruction and corruption must have rivaled Rivendell in its splendor.
Minas Morgul itself is a sight to behold. I don’t think I’ve been impressed with how a city looks in LotRO since Minas Tirith was added a few years back. While not nearly as impressive as it’s Gondorian counterpart in size, Minas Morgul itself gives off the otherworldly glow we’ve come to expect from the home of the Nazgul. It’s instantly recognizable and pretty much visible from all parts of the Vale as well, towering menacingly over everyone and everything in its gaze. It’s imposing - and it’s definitely dangerous. I’m level 125 right now, and while monsters in the early parts of Minas Morgul are on level with me, I struggled just to get into the door. I’ve always wondered what crawled the streets of old Minas Ithil after Sauron was no more and the Nazgul gone after the destruction of the Ring. I needn’t wonder anymore.
I’m still gearing up to help the hopeful Gondorians at a nearby camp in the Morgul Vale start the hopeful cleansing of the Morgul Vale - we know from the books that Aragorn, as King Elessar decreed that the Tower of Sorcery and vale surrounding it be utterly destroyed and cleansed, and that no Man can live there for at least seven years. So we know the outcome of what happens to the city. However, I’m interested in the individual struggles of those carrying out those orders - the Men and Women of Gondor who have heard tales of Minas Ithil at its height and glory under the standard of Isildur. There is a hope among the people in the Morgul Vale working towards its eventual cleansing that makes me want to help them - especially as I would love to see the Morgul Vale with the evil influence utterly lifted.
LotRO’s development team recently said in an interview with Chris Carter at Destructoid that they have 20 years worth of content to pull from moving forward - and Minas Morgul is just a start to that end. While it does have its issues - particularly with how dated the questing design feels now compared to more modern MMOs - I’m finding myself more and more eager to keep exploring not just the Morgul Vale, but the Second Age portions of the Black Book of Mordor. I’m halfway to the level cap with still so much content to get through. We’ll keep at it and have our full review after the Thanksgiving holiday.