Sitting in the snow-covered ruins dotting the Welkin-Lofts, I found myself thinking back on my nearly 15 year journey in The Lord of the Rings Online. One thing Fate of Gundabad has done is made me remember tales, stories and events from years past, especially as the Moria comparisons cannot stop being made. However, I found myself thinking even further back, to the Shadow of Angmar days again.
Names like Thorog, one of the MMO’s first real big bad bosses come up throughout the narrative of Fate of Gundabad, and while Orcs and goblins are an obvious threat in the Dwarvish stronghold, the threat of Angmar seemingly returned, even without their Witch-king Captain. It felt very much like LotRO, despite its age, was hearkening back to some of its roots and original storylines. This original storytelling in such an iconic world has been a strength of Turbine – and now Standing Stone Games since 2007.
Fate of Gundabad, largely, has felt like a return to form for the studio.
One of the enduring strengths of LotRO is the ability to adhere to the lore of the books Tolkien wrote while still crafting stories that feel like they would fit right into the world. The story that has been the focus for the last year or so with the Dwarves continues this, picking up the slack from the somewhat disappointing Minas Morgul expansion from a few years ago.
One thing that makes this story so great is not necessarily the characters themselves, though there are some entertaining moments with them. Rather it’s the drive to reclaim the homeland of the Dwarves itself. Gundabad is the centerpiece of this expansion, and rightfully so, as the Mountain-home of the Dwarves has long been in the minds of Durin’s folk. Aside from Moria in Middle-earth there is no more important location to the Naugrim.
There have been moments in The Lord of the Rings Online that have caused me to stop what I’m doing and just stare at my screen. Seeing Rivendell for the first time, or riding my horse on the plains of the Pelennor, viewing Minas Tirith looming in the distance were such moments. However, seeing the literal birthplace of a race – the spot where Durin the Deathless awoke shattered them all. It was so cool, especially as a lore junkie like myself, to step into the spot where Aulë, the Maker, first brought his children to life. It’s moments like this, and the fact that the developers seem so focused on staying as true to Tolkien’s vision as possible, that make The Lord of the Rings Online such a great MMO to me.
Additionally, tidying up one of the legendary stories of the Dwarves themselves, the reincarnations of Durin the Deathless, father of the Dwarves, is an interesting hook. Is the Prince Durin that we have been traveling with since Skarhald and more truly the seventh – and final – reincarnation of that legendary Dwarf king? Standing Stone Games also does a great job of driving home just how divided the Dwarves truly are thanks to the inner kin-strife of their people. The Zhelruka and Stout-Axes take center stage alongside the Longbeards themselves, helping to reclaim the Mountain-home of all the Dwarves.
It's been rather nice as well getting away from the main overarching story again and being taken through other, not so explored areas of Middle-earth. Standing Stone Games have done a great job of crafting a story that feels Dwarvish – it’s sorrowful, yet full of strength. Victorious, yet wary. However, there are times where I feel it strays a bit too safe, keeping to some of the tropes we see repeated in Tolkien’s lore.
There are dragons influencing the Dwarves, as well as the hunt for long-lost jewels in the mix of things. It feels like the comfort of those familiar story threads in other Lord of the Rings Dwarf tales – such as Thorin’s dragon-sickness driving his quest for the Arkenstone – are echoed a bit here as well. Thankfully the story doesn’t go full-blown repeat of The Hobbit in the Dwarves’ motivations, but it felt a bit too close to those old tropes for comfort at times.
Thankfully, while I don’t find Durin himself all that interesting (not that exploring the birthplace of the Khazad themselves with Durin was ever boring), it was nice to see other Dwarf characters step into the fore, specifically some of the first Dwarf-women I’ve encountered in The Lord of the Rings Online. Fastrith especially was a delight, and the dynamic between her, Broin and the other Dwarves energized some of the scenes in the main story quest, which spans about half a dozen chapters throughout Gundabad itself.
One thing that was disappointing to see is that while Fate of Gundabad does include new multiplayer instances and a new raid, some of the biggest story points in the Epic Questline were solo-only. I really wish MMOs, especially older ones, would try to cater some of these big moments for groups to experience together instead of relegating group content solely to instanced dungeons and larger raids. Being able to complete the Epic Story alongside friends was a nice treat of some of the older quest arcs, but as MMOs have catered more and more to solo players, it feels as though it’s come at the expense of what makes the genre great.
Not All That Glitters…
Unfortunately, one thing was certain whilst playing through Fate of Gundabad: The Lord of the Rings Online is starting to really show its age.
Visually, LotRO can still impress. The sights of Gundabad reminded me of those early days in Moria over a decade ago now: awe-inspiring and at times, incredible to behold. Giant stone statues of Dwarf Kings of old grace parts of Mountain-home, while waterfalls issuing from Dwarvish busts grace many of the halls of Gundabad.
But, thankfully, Gundabad itself isn’t simply the maze-like sprawl we saw with Mines of Moria over ten years ago. While the mansions of Khazad-dum were definitely a treat at the time, they could also be incredibly frustrating to navigate. Thankfully, Gundabad echoes Moria, but doesn’t simply devolve into Moria 2.0.
That said, there are moments during my time in Gundabad where it definitely feels like LotRO is starting to show it’s age somewhat. Specifically when it comes to performance.
My rig is a beast compared to the minimum specs you need to run The Lord of the Rings Online: Intel i7-10700K CPU, 32GB DDR4 RAM, an Nvidia RTX 3080 Ti – and yet there are times where the performance in The Lord of the Rings would be no better if I were running this off an Intel onboard graphics chip in a laptop.
Drops to 30 FPS were frequent in spots within Gundabad, especially in areas like the Clovengap. Inside the various caves within Gundabad this performance issue persisted, frequently seeing framerates buckle under the weight of what LotRO was trying to do it seemed. This is nothing new, performance in new areas of The Lord of the Rings Online has been terrible in spots ever since Riders of Rohan. Yet it’s still nonetheless disappointing. I’m not sure if it’s an issue with the aging engine doing more than it was initially designed to do or what, but it’s a mood killer when things start to chug.
Another massive issue plaguing LotRO that permeated throughout my time in Fate of Gundabad was lag. Man this is a laggy MMO, and at times there were spots where it was just less frustrating to go do something else instead of waiting for the server and client to sync back up. During combat I noticed spots where it would take a full 20 to 30 seconds before a skill would activate, and even during less heated moments the delay between selecting a quest giver and the quest text actually appearing on screen was frustratingly long.
This, also, is nothing new. Lag has plagued LotRO for years. It’s just a shame that it hasn’t been cleared up and it, at times, ruined an otherwise great experience. It pulls me out of my immersion when I’m having to wait for my action to be recognized instead of it being instantaneous as it should be.
Equipping New Legendaries
One of the major revamps to come to The Lord of the Rings Online alongside the Gundabad release has been the long-awaited Legendary Item revamp. While this was technically available before Gundabad itself, it bears mentioning here as it’s touted as one of the key features of the expansion.
In short, the Legendary Item revamp feels a bit incomplete. While the transition from the old LIs that have dominated LotRO for years is still seemingly ongoing (the Legendary Item panel still only shows the old items for instance), the new system can be downright confusing and convoluted.
Each item is designed to effectively grow with the player. This was the initial promise of Legendary Items, and thankfully now it feels like that promise will come to fruition. Each LI has various slots that you can place a myriad of traits and modifiers to customize your weapon to fit your style.
Myself, as a Hunter who likes to be mobile, I focused on things that would increase my Agility, critical chance and reduce skill induction speed while increasing single-target damage. As a Brawler, I did much the same – increasing physical mastery and critical chance, single target damage and more. It’s been fun toying with these weapons and finding something that really feels like it fits my style. My former Legendary Weapons felt stagnant – once I had slotted in the best fittings I could nothing really felt stronger. I immediately felt more powerful the first time I drew back a Quick Shot with my new LI.
However, the path to get there is incredibly convoluted. Instead of building out its own section in the Legendary Item panel, you need to drag the item in your character screen to the essence slot. Once there you can socket in Heraldry, Words of Power, Craft and more to augment and build your weapon.
While once you get this it doesn’t seem that bad, I really wish the team had taken the time to build its own LI panel to go along with this, especially since the one that currently existed displayed information just fine. Using a variation of that can go a long way I think towards making this feel a bit less complex.
Enter The Brawler
Another major addition with Gundabad has been the new Brawler class. Inspired by Helm Hammerhand who would go into battle without his weapon, the new class is a melee…erm…brawler that settles scores with their fists. The new class is damage-focused, but can also spec into a tanking role in a Fellowship as well.
At first I wasn’t all that impressed with the Brawler, and even so I’m not sure it does anything really new in the grand scheme of things in LotRO. You build up a meter, Mettle, which you then spend on higher-tiered skills to do devastating melee damage to foes. This, in practice, sets in a rotation that define tab-targeted MMOs, but it also doesn’t feel new to LotRO. So many classes already use a variation on this theme: Hunter’s with Focus, Minstrels setting up skills with Ballads and resolving them with Anthems and the like, or even the Champion with Fervour.
As the first class in The Lord of the Rings Online since the Beorning back in 2014, I was hoping for something that felt dramatically different to play, much like the Warden or Runekeeper from the Mines of Moria expansion. As a result, I did feel a little let down when I really got into the class.
That said, the Brawler is a nice change of pace for me, especially as I’ve pretty much played a ranged character exclusively for years. Getting up close and personal with my enemies has been fun, and the class’s animation work drives home the battle-joy the Brawler.
One thing to note here as well is that unlike the other classes in The Lord of the Rings Online, the Brawler cannot spec into a total of three trait trees – only two. The third tree is treated more like a utility tree, creating the chance to build bonus Mettle or improve physical or tactical mitigation. It does feel somewhat limiting when you consider it does somewhat limit gameplay options to a degree here. Hopefully, over time, we can see this expanded to create either a hybrid damage/tank role or something a bit more unique as well.
I stated at the outset that I felt Fate of Gundabad was a return to form for The Lord of the Rings Online. I truly do mean that. The storytelling specifically reminded me so much of those old Shadow of Angmar days that caused me to fall in love with this MMORPG. Questing in Gundabad itself, seeing the majesty of Durin’s folk on display, even after long years of Orcish occupation, brought me back to those first moments in Moria. Seeing familiar faces such as Gloin, Thorog and even the increased role of the Angmarim in the storyline drove this home even further.
While the story of Gundabad itself doesn’t fully wrap up until next year, where it ends now is satisfying, especially after so long traveling with Durin and the Longbeards. Those moments in Langflood, helping Imak, Gloin and Venko set up campsites to delving into the deepest depths of the Gloomingtarn are paid off, with Standing Stone Games creating moments of incredible character development.
That said, it’s not without its issues. It’s maddening that an MMO that is almost fifteen years old still struggles with performance issues that would cripple other games. The lag desperately needs to be brought under control, especially when it strikes in the most inopportune times.
The Legendary Item revamp currently in-game is a nice start as well, but I’m really hoping we’ll see a more bespoke panel to make it more clear exactly what we’re doing when we augment our new gear. And while the Brawler class is fun and provides a new tank or DPS avenue for players, I’m a bit disappointed it doesn’t feel like it’s bringing anything new other than a way to say we have a Monk class in LotRO now.
All that said, I’ve really enjoyed my time in Fate of Gundabad, and while it’ll be interesting to see how the story of the Dwarves progresses from here, the journey has been worth it overall. The Dwarves are an interesting race in Middle-earth, often overlooked in favor for Men or Elves, so seeing them get their due after years of fast tracking the War of the Ring story has been a nice change of pace.
The Lord of the Rings Online: Fate of Gundabad reminds me of LotRO of old, and that’s a good thing. I can’t wait to see where they take us next.