One of The Lord of the Rings Online's greatest strengths is the ability to flesh out Middle-earth in more ways than just the main quest for Mount Doom. This is something that the team over at Standing Stone Games has done for ages now since launching the MMO back in 2007, and today's mini-expansion continues that legacy with Before the Shadow.
Before the Shadow takes place before the events of LotRO's launch incarnation, Shadows of Angmar and follows the journey of Boromir of Gondor as he travels to the House of Elrond to learn the answer to his riddle. The new expansion in The Lord of the Rings Online acts as a way to revamp the starting experience, bringing a more cohesive, unified experience to the MMO compared to the disparate regions of SoA. This means instead of starting off in the Shire, Ered Luin, or Bree, if players choose to they will instead start in the new regions and journey through the next questline that leads into the Council of Elrond.
"One of the things that we felt wasn't great for the original starter zones is that they all felt hemmed in like you were in a fish bowl," senior world designer Matt Elliot told us in a press preview earlier this month. "As we've grown and built the game, we kind of further moved away from that style of design. And now with Swanfleet and Cardolan, we have something that really does represent an open world that connects a lot of the original starter game together with these two regions."
The new starter regions have the added effect of putting players together from the start, rather than segmenting them by race as is the case in Shadows of Angmar.
"With Before the Shadow, if you opt to do the Mossward starting experience," Elliot continued later on, "Every player who does that starts in the same location. So you don't have to worry about trying to meet up with and connect with your friends, your friends are all there and you can start your fellowship experience there."
The new regions are huge and represent the largest individual addition to The Lord of the Rings Online in terms of the land area since the MMO's launch. The hemmed-in design, while it still shows some impressive vistas and draw distances that make other MMOs weep with jealousy, gives way here to a more open land area, where Matt states you can take in "unrestricted view[s]" of the wide open landscape the team has added onto LotRO.
As such, the world of Before the Shadow explores some of the long-forgotten kingdoms of Men in the North. We oftentimes fixate on Gondor or Annuminas, but Lotro has always been keen to remind players that other Kingdoms arose amid the ashes of Arnor's fall, namely Rhudaur, Arthedain and Cardolan.
Before the Shadow explores Cardolan as one of the new regions, giving the team a chance to showcase a long, forgotten kingdom of Men in a way that hasn't really been done in any Tolkien media to date.
"One of the exciting things about working on the game is this sort of timeframe is that we're beginning to move outside of things that are really defined," Executive Producer Rob Ciccolini told us in our preview. "And so we're beginning to open up areas that might have been detailed with as much information, and doing that and staying true to the feel of Tolkien's lore is really a cool and exciting position to be."
"I think what's really great about areas like this," Allan Maki, LotRO's lead systems designer says, "and specifically tied to the lore is that it gives us a little more ability to dive into just the remnants that Tolkien left about these areas, right? What's great is it's a measure of freedom, at the same time within the walls that are created by the source material, but it's a really awesome way that we can expand and explore the world at large."
The Lord of the Rings Online: Before the Shadow is definitely geared toward new players, but that doesn't mean veterans are left in the lurch, though. There will be new instances coming in the next few weeks, as well as the new Delving system to...erm...delve into. Level 140 characters can take on new missions in addition to the Delving system to earn gear and get ready for those new instances being introduced later on. Also, a new starter zone gives those alt-a-holics a break from the same old grind the next time we get the urge to create a new, inquisitive Hobbit to go on an adventure with.
The Delving system is going to be expanded in the future as well in an effort to revamp older dungeons and experiences players have grown to love over the years, including the School of Tham Mirdain and the Library at Tham Mirdain in Eregion. Maki states that the team is looking to create the first three-person Delvings in those two legendary instances. The team is also looking at more ways to expand the new Delving system for players long-term.
"Any new missions that we up creating, moving forward, we will have the Delving system embedded into it so you can actually play in there, " Maki says. "We're looking at potentially even putting them in skirmishes and six-man instances at some point in the future."
Before the Shadow seems to have escaped much of the criticism that surrounded The Lord of the Rings Online's first mini-expansion, War of Three Peaks. Despite still selling LotRO's next "mini-expansion" instead of giving it as part of the VIP benefits players pay for (though VIP players do get a discount), SSG is selling Before the Shadow in three editions, each more expensive (but comes with more in-game goodies) than the last. However, the package feels adequate for the asking price this time around.
From massive new zones in Swanfleet and Cardolan, 200 quests to enjoy, a whole new starting experience and area in Mossward, and a new end-game Delving system, the mini-expansion fits the billing. It'll be interesting to see where LotRO goes from here, and how players respond to the new area and new Delving mechanic. However, The Lord of the Rings Online is best, in my opinion, when it's telling its own stories, exploring areas underexplored, and staying true to its vision of giving players the most complete version of Middle-earth to explore.
Before the Shadow easily continues that vision forward.