With the launch of Riders of Rohan, Lord of the Rings Online has now seen four expansion packs. I have reviewed every single one of those expansions and I can’t be sure but I would guess that I have spent more time in Middle Earth than any other reviewer out there. I have praised all three previous expansions, but there is no doubt that the game’s third expansion, The Rise of Isengard, was by far the weakest of the lot. So naturally I was worried that Riders of Rohan would also be a letdown and effectively end my love for Lord of the Rings Online. Well I am happy to report that Riders of Rohan is most definitely not a letdown, and it is also Lord of the Rings Online’s best expansion since Moria.
There are a number of things that make an expansion to an MMO a success. You have to give players new areas to explore, you have to give the players a reason to actually want to explore those areas, you have to retain the core of the game while at the same time adding new elements that will keep gamers interested for another couple hundred hours. Riders of Rohan does all of that and more by giving us a continuation of the outstanding storyline, an all new game mechanic with mounted combat, an entirely new orchestral sound track, five new zones to explore, a new level cap, a new crafting tier, a city that is customizable by the players, an atmosphere that surpasses most other MMOs, and more Tolkien lore than you can shake a stick at.
Let’s start with what’s new. Since this is Rohan we are talking about, the home of the Horse Lords, Turbine has added mounted combat to the game. The obvious question with mounted combat is, does it work in a standard foot based MMO? Mounted combat acts much differently than traditional combat, but it does work. The entire idea behind mounted combat is that you are constantly moving while fighting, you are either chasing an enemy down, or riding to and from them to deliver blows. Naturally this means that the faster your mount is moving the more damage they will deal. Sitting still and just hitting the button bar is not the ideal way to fight on your mount.
In order to simplify all of the moving, attacking, targeting, and camera work, Turbine has given us the option to use an auto pilot feature for our mounts. Activate the autopilot and your mount will automatically move to and from attacking range when an attack is queued up and ready. There is also an auto camera function that will keep the camera focused on your target. Freeing the player up to worry about their attacks. With those two things combined players can quickly learn how to use their mount in battle.
Mounts themselves do have a bit of a learning curve, since they aren’t just a copy of the regular travel mounts used in the game. The War-Steeds have a much more realistic gate to them and they aren’t as nimble as the traditional travel mount. The developers went with a much more realistic approach to War-Steeds and as a result it takes about an hour of play time before you can expect to be comfortable on your War-Steed.
The payoff is that your War-Steed is a powerful tool. There are three different types of War-Steeds, Heavy, Medium, and Light. As you would imagine each type has a different function in the game. They also each have three different skill branches to choose from as you level. In total the War-Steeds can reach level 50 and by the time they get there they are a really powerful tool. They can run much faster than your travel mounts and the damage they deal can be significant. War-Steeds also come with their own legendary item you can level up and hundreds of different cosmetic options that you can unlock, so no two War-Steeds should look the same.
The Town of Hytbold
The other major new gameplay mechanic comes near the end of the expansion with the town of Hytbold. At this point in the Lord of the Rings timeline Rohan is about to be attacked by Sarumon’s forces, and as a result most of the outlying cities have already come under siege. Hytbold is one of those cities that has been burned to the ground by Orcs. Your job as the player is to help rebuild the city. You do this by traveling throughout the new zones completing randomly generated quests that give you Hybolt tokens. These tokens can be used to complete a total of 162 different building options in Hybold. If you think the city should have a fully upgraded Lumber mill then you can complete that quest line, if you want a decked out Mead Hall, then it’s up to you to rebuild the Mead Hall. What’s cool about Hytbold is that it’s a public questing area that everyone can go to, but the changes that you make to the city are unique to you and can only be seen and used by your character.
One other major benefit with Hytbold is that you can use Hytbold tokens to trade for Raid level armour sets. Each class has three different armour sets they can unlock and trade for. However, unlocking the armour pieces requires very specific parts of the town to be rebuilt and each has different rebuilding requirements. Essentially what Turbine has done is created end game content designed with the solo player in mind. Now people can get really good gear who don’t like going on 6 hour 12 man raids. Although obtaining this gear will take some time and planning on the players part.
Quality of Life Upgrades
Lord of the Rings Online was originally released way back in 2007 and a lot of new MMO’s have come and gone since then. The game’s longevity and committed player base shows that Turbine is doing something right, but still there is always room for improvements to the old system. With that in mind Turbine has introduced several quality of life type things that make playing the game more enjoyable. The first and probably most significant is that all of the enemies in the expansion are subject to the “open tapping” system. This means that anyone who gets a hit in on an enemy will get credit for that kill and their own loot, regardless of who hit the enemy first and if you are in a group or not. This type of system actually encourages players traveling in the open field to work together and it effectively eliminates the much dreaded ganking and camping affects.
Another favorite change they have made is that the game will now auto loot after every kill. You don’t have to run up to a dead enemy and click on them to retrieve your goods. Instead everything automatically gets put into a temporary loot window that you can go into from time to time to grab the stuff that you want to keep. This helps out tremendously in groups and while you’re mounted.
The last big change I want to talk about is the quest system. Many quests will now become available simply by walking near the area where the quest takes place. Once completed you can finish the quest and obtain the rewards by clicking on the quest window. This cuts down the need to constantly run to and from a specific quest giver. Of course there are still quest givers in each town, but they are primarily used to further the storyline and to send you to new areas on the map where quests will pop up.
It’s the Story
One thing that LotRO has always done really well is tell a story. Rohan is no exception and with Rohan I think Turbine actually elevated their game. In Lord of the Rings Online there is an ongoing Epic Storyline that usually follows the path of the Fellowship of the Ring, but shows you what was happening in the background. Rohan adds three new books to the Epic storyline, starting with Volume 3 Book 7. This time around though players actually get to play as both Frodo and Boromir in order to experience the breaking of the fellowship at Amon Hen. From there the players get sent by Lady Galadriel to try and find out where Aragorn went, and are naturally sent on a course towards Rohan. The Epic storyline in Rohan is lengthy and it definitely sets the stage for the next book to be a big one.
The Epic storyline isn’t what elevated Turbine’s story telling pedigree though. With this expansion it’s all of the side story content that has really been improved. Each and every major town that you visit in Rohan will have its own storyline full of quests that you get to play through. Most of them deal with the oncoming Orc invasion, but they are each unique in their own way. Every town is headed by a “Thane” and each Thane has their own personality and goals. Completing every single quest in each city is the only real way to see all of the stories play out and it creates a system where you will want to complete just one more quest to see what happens next. This is a story telling system that so many MMOs just can’t seem to get right and it ultimately helps mask or even eliminate the kill X and gather X syndrome.
I normally don’t spend a whole lot of time talking about in game sound. But the new sound track in Rohan is exceptional and deserves its applause. There are 22 new songs that will play in the back ground, all of them are performed by a full orchestra conducted by Chance Thomas. The music is similar to the sound track in the movies, but it has its own personality that sets it apart. What’s even more impressive is that the sound track will be playing in the background while you play, but as soon as a battle starts up the music will switch seamlessly into a much more intense and up tempo sound that lets you know you are in a fight. There is chanting that will kick in and more than once I caught myself chanting along to the battle. The sound is so good that Turbine released an actual sound track for the game that you can buy. I have it and I have listened to it in my car several times, which only made me want to go home and play the game even more.
So What’s Wrong With the Game
If you can’t tell by now I really love Rohan. But that doesn’t mean the expansion is perfect. It has some major flaws that you need to be aware of. First and foremost this expansion is for high level players only. It adds almost nothing for players below level 74. So people who haven’t played the game in a couple of years will need to do some catch up work. The other major knock I have against Rohan is that almost 95% of the content is designed with the solo player in mind. There are no new group instances or Raids. Turbine promises to fix this with a free update in a couple of months. But for now don’t expect to find any new 6-man dungeons to explore. It should also be noted that the LotRO engine is not getting any younger. Turbine has done a good job with adapting it to new game mechanics, but its age is starting to show. Sure the graphics are still pretty good, but they can’t keep up with newer games and the overall engine performance isn’t as solid as it used to be.
One final complaint I have is with mounted instances. Most mounted instances take place in the regular game world, but for some reason Turbine uses invisible walls to limit the size of the instance. This wouldn’t be so bad if the walls were set far enough away from all of the action. But in many cases the walls create an instance that is too small for mounted combat. On top of that the enemies and friendly NPCs can actually run around outside of the walls. This means that you can get stuck inside the instance area while the enemies and NPCs are fighting outside of the walls where you can’t go. This is a real problem when you are supposed to keep certain NPCs alive. This could easily be fixed by increasing the size of the instance or coding the enemies and NPCs so they can’t go through the walls. Lets hope Turbine addresses this issue with a future patch.
Forward To Rohan
Don’t let my minor complaints deter you though. If you haven’t played Lord of the Rings Online for a while then Rohan is the perfect excuse to pick it up again. If you have never played LotRO then I would encourage you to give it a try, all of the stuff leading up to Rohan is still compelling and you will know that you have a good expansion waiting for you at the end. Riders of Rohan does everything a great expansion needs to do. It adds five huge zones to explore, it adds mounted combat that actually works, it has an Epic storyline that Tolkien fans will enjoy, and the sound track is the icing on top of the cake. As a long time player of Lord of the Rings Online I will freely admit that there was a period after the release of Rise of Isengard where I contemplated quitting the game. I’m glad I didn’t because Rohan has changed all of that and sucked me right back into Middle Earth.