Rise of Isengard Impressions
Lord of the Rings Online. It's a now-four year old title coming to us straight outta' Turbine. It's been a while since I've had the opportunity to jump in the game, as I played for a time when it first dropped onto the Tolkien-starved masses back in '07, but as with most things, I ran out of free time and had to say goodbye. Walking into the WB booth and meeting with members of the LotRO team to discuss the forthcoming expansion, Rise of Isengard (set to drop on September 27th) may have just swayed me back to wander Middle-earth once again.
The expansion introduces characters to three new regions, Dunland, the Gap of Rohan and Isengard itself, glorious onyx tower and all. The level cap is jumping ten more levels to the prestigious ¾ of a century mark at 75 (including improved skills for the 10 new levels and class revisions), a new 24-player raid (which we unfortunately didn't get to see) and, perhaps the most surprising feature of the expansion: the Monster Play is coming to Free-to-Play players the day the expansion drops.
Excellent news for those of you free players who miss your Tolkien-verse PvP. The free players will have access to the Reaver monster class, and be able to purchase further classes from the store, should they so wish.
The expansion though is really all about the regional content and the storyline leading up to your confrontation at Isengard. Working with the Grey Company of Rangers (who are scouting out Dunland), you must learn the nuances and intricacies of the Dunland people, learning just what kind of hold Saruman has over them and what's in store for the Rohirrim. The Rangers have split up their forces, allowing you two entrances into the content of the expansion with two regions within Dunland. First, I was shown the Bonevales, the ancient resting place of the elder dead of Dunland, where one of the Dunland clans was forced to settle. Having lost their army in their quest to retake their ancestral homeland to a campaign against the Rohirrim, the clan now uses the bodies of their fallen to, essentially make a new army.
Trum Dreng is the second of these locations, the home of the Stag Clan, a peaceful, agricultural clan of the Dunlandings who don't deal typically in the politics of the Dunland people; the politics being a recurring theme in the expansion between Dunland Clans, the Rangers, the Rohirrim and even Saruman himself. You're responsible to do the best that you can by the Stag Clan, and to protect them from the violent and aggressive Dragon Clan. Pren Gwyth, the hub of the Dunland region, is a staggering region to look at, showing the true diversity of the Dunlandings, and how varied they are clan-to-clan. Dunbog is an isolated region populated by particularly reclusive Dunlanders who distrust the outside world, including Saruman.
Once they were ousted by their capital city because of “abominations” (created unnaturally by the wizard Saruman), they were forced to relocate to the swampy region. It's in Dunbog where you discover the Boar Clan, which gives you the narrative of the overall arc of the story, bringing you to Wolf's Cleft: the most impressive visual site that I think I've seen in any MMO LotRO's age. Standing upon the cliff, overlooking the Dunland camp, you see the army preparing for their attack against the Rohirrim, soldiers moving about, forces mobilizing and the transport of goods about the camp was an impressive site to see, actually prompting me to glue my eyes to the large screen for several moments just to take it all in.
Phasing is being used much more frequently in the latest expansion (dating back to the last update) wherein you can physically affect the region your in by, for example, saving a group of prisoners whom are back in the main questing hub once it's been completed. Storytelling or how the stories were being told in-game has also evolved, allowing for the developers to construct not only a complete overarching story for the campaign itself, but also to have small, individual and unique stories littered throughout each region and, for example, each Dunland Clan.
So four years later, the Lord of the Rings Online team continues to keep their game fresh and interesting for all players; be you a paid VIP, or freemium user. My jaw is still on the floor from the visuals, staring down the pathway and up to the tower of Orthanc itself in Isengard was a sight that may just always be burned in my video-game brain. Stay tuned for more from us as Rise of Isengard nears its release!