The Lord of the Rings Online: Mines of Moria
While There's Pressure on MMO developers to get their dungeons right, the crunch on Turbine to really nail Moria is intense. As the first annual paid-for expansion pack for LOTRO, and the second volume in its epic storyline, Mines of Morici is opening up the long-dormant Dwarven capital of Kliazad-dum and its surrounding areas, and draws the player into the struggle to re-establish Dwarven supremacy underneath the world.
Players will also, once through the v mines, be able to meet with Lady Galadriel in Lothlorien, as well as rub shoulders with The Fellowship themselves. This is end-game done differently, with a focus on tight, story-driven questing, small groups and continuing the epic legacy of Turbine's take on LOTR.
The scale of the kingdom is such that executive producer Jeffrey Steefel and Turbine had to reconsider how to build their environments. "It's a challenge filling any space in a game like LOTRO. What helps us in Mines ofMoria is that the space itself is a character. It lias a lot of interesting architecture and lore, rather than being a flat space that we have to populate with objects, towns and NPCs. However, you've got to use the space right. If it's just about saying we've got X amount of space and each area needs to have Y amount of stuff in it, we'd never succeed.''
Turbine has had to monkey with the engine to texture both the skyline and the ground with the same amount of detail. While this sounds dull, it adds a sense of scale to the caverns on a level unseen in an MMO. Standing on top of a stairwell leading intq one of the first caverns of Moria gave me a genuine sense of nauseating vertigo as things stretched off into the distance - a distance that was fully rendered and accessible. Worse still, I could see the ceiling, resplendent with gigantic stalagmites, giving me the feeling that I was in very much a tiny part of a huge, hulking subterranean dungeon.
In fact, Turbine are deliberately leaving areas empty to both make it real and establish its scale. "It's about creating a space that makes sense, and asking yourself what parts need to be filled. There's a lot of spaces in the distance that are untouched caverns.
"The parts that are touched are markedly different, and that's the most important thing. It's a huge challenge - it's got six distinct environments and we wanted everything to feel new," nods Steefel. That's an important part to remember -just because it has 'mines' in the title, Moria wasn't and isn't an area that's populated by a series of bland caverns and troglodytes. It's full of ancient, beautiful architecture, created at the height of Dwarven civilisation and their collaboration with the Elves, ruins corrupted by the Goblins and Ores, and even the visually stunning waterworks -the science that kept the Dwarves alive below ground. To top it off, any lion-instanced content is all in one zone -there's no loading, just a seamless, gigantic cave.
Your entry into Moria takes place a few weeks after the Fellowship passes through, as you join a plucky bunch of Dwarves in their expedition to break past the Hollin Gate. As you'd expect things aren't as easy as opening a door and you're attacked by The Watcher, a vicious squid-like monster, and have to beat a retreat. To ward off the creature and gain access to Moria, you have to return with a legendary weapon. This is Turbine's new advancement system, that I reckon competitors are going to be wholesale copying very soon.
You pick up these items in a bit of a state, and have to take them to be identified by a specialist NPC. Once this is done, they level alongside your character, gaining experience that can be put into 'legacies' to improve characteristics. Things become a little complex past that, with each weapon having particularly effective legacies, and the ability to re-forge each one a few times over, making the Legendary Advancement system a potentially endless pursuit of augmenting these magical items (see A legend in your backpack' for more).
While There's Pressure
Luckily, it's not all content for the high-level stallions, as Mines of Moria introduces two new classes, The Warden and the Runekeeper.
The Warden is a medium-armour tank who uses a similar fighting style to Age of Conan. On the surface he only has a few abilities, but by using them in certain orders he can activate gambit moves. These can heal the Warden, taunt enemies to attack, stun opponents or deal damage. The intricacy of the class conies in knowing what gambit moves you're opening up with each combo, and Turbine touts that it will be one of the most complex classes to play.
The Rimekeeper is the first real magic user class in LOTRO, with the ability to both nuke anything and heal allies. The caveat is that each time you use an offensive or defensive ability, it pulls the Runekeeper's abilities towards that particular school. So over the course of a fight you may be constantly blowing up things, unlocking more destructive spells and making your attacks more effective. However, this may dampen or even lock out some of your healing abilities, and vice versa if you're healing a group. While this doesn't affect soloing ability until the later levels, it makes the Runekeeper an intriguing character to play, and one that, mixed with the new trait system (see Go on, trait yourself) will become unique depending on your play style.
However, The Runekeeper is a departure from Lord of the Rings lore. On Shadows ofAngmai's release, Turbine were very clear that they were keeping spell-casting reserved to Gandalf and Galadriel, but time has led them to change their mind, "When you're a level 60 in an MMO fighting The Watcher with just swords and arrows, it just doesn't feel right. We've demonstrated that we can package things in a way that they still fit in Middle-earth, and so when people are zapping other people with lightning, it'll still feel in some ways like it makes sense in the world.
"It's a stretch, no question about it, and we're going to have some hardcore fans who are going to be upset. Even when we first started talking about the Runekeeper, we had people in the development team who were opposed to the idea," admits Steefel.
Tolkien The Piss
"[Dealing with the Tolkien licensees] is interesting. It conies clown to trust, and in the last four years we've shown that first and foremost we value the world and lore, and not just because we paid for the license - we've become very protective of it. Part of the product is the believability of the world, so I think they've come to trust us. Even if we stretch it a little bit, they know we'll do it in a way that's believable.
"They're also learning more and more about what an MMORPG is, and getting a little more comfortable with the conceits that exist from a gameplay perspective. Players want certain things to make the game more enjoyable. However, they're going to be looking very closely, especially in areas like , this where we push the content. We're in contact over everything, , and we're very well-connected with them, because if they're on our side it's only a good thing."
This deep connection allows them to really exploit the great big dollops of Tolkien mytlios. Moria itself holds around 60 new instances, ranging from solo to three and six-man groups, delving into the huge underground gardens of the Dwarves, the burial chambers of those that fell in the war with the Ores and even the Shadowy Abyss, the place that the last Balrog hid after its race was killed off. In fact, Turbine hints that you may be able to find out the history of the flaming monstrosity. You can also look forward to a gigantic raid against The Watcher at the very end of the game.
The sheer scale, lore, potential and span of content coming with Mines ofMoria is stunning. My only worry lies in how much is left to be done between now and the end-of-the-year release, considering the somewhat rocky release of Book 14 and the amount of things Turbine are taking on. Also, constantly updating the main epic quest line could bring into question the game's accessibility - in two or three expansions, how could new players catch up?
While Burning Crusade may have been an impressive expansion pack, even opening the Dark Portal didn't trigger within me the sort of fearful nausea and jaw-gaped awe of Moria's Endless Stair. Even Azeroth's Hellfire Peninsula lacked the domineering scale that the cavernous Morin delivers, and while it had a great deal of glitz, I can't deny my gut feeling that Mines ofMoria may give LOTRO players a great deal more than Blizzard gave its addicts.
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