Reviewed: January 9, 2009
Released: November 18, 2008
Subscription fee required for online play
When The Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar was first released in 2007, it was the first massively multiplayer online game to be based in J.R.R. Tolkienís Middle-earth fantasy universe, pulling rich game-world lore from Tolkienís The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit books, and it generally received very positive reviews from the gamer audience. Since its launch, developer Turbine has been regularly releasing free content updates (including quests, new areas, story continuations, and other improvements) to its subscribers approximately once every couple of months, but The Lord of the Rings Online: Mines of Moria is the first actual expansion to be released for the game.
Gameplay-wise, LotRO mostly sticks to the classic MMO formula: players create customizable character avatars and move them around in a virtual Middle-earth shared with other online players that they can interact with, as well as non-player characters like townsfolk and merchants, and, of course, creatures that can be defeated. Numerous quests can be picked up from various characters and then carried out, whether by a playerís individual devices or grouped up in fellowships of up to six players. There are also a number of requisite, more challenging instance dungeons, some designed for six-man fellowships, and some for raids of up to four full fellowships. To any veteran MMO player, these basic gameplay features wonít be new, but LotRO certainly manages to carry them out very well, all the while maintaining the delightful flavor of some of Tolkienís most famous works.
As the first expansion to an already excellent game, Mines of Moria adds new character classes, new locations (including, most notably, the iconic dwarven Mines of Moria and elfish Lothlorien beloved of Tolkien readers everywhere), new quests, new story chapters, and new customizable legendary weapons. LotRO may have been new to me when I began playing it for this review, but after experiencing the sheer variety and richness of content available in the game and its expansion, I can honestly say that Mines of Moria stands out as one of the most enjoyable MMOs Iíve played to date.
Though LotRO doesnít stray far from the typical MMO style of play, if youíve played other MMOs, youíll probably find LotRO to be a bit more linear than the other titles youíve tried. Unlike most other MMOs, LotRO organizes its main storyline into sets of Books (with Shadows of Angmar comprising Volume I, and the Mines of Moria expansion comprising Volume II), which are, in turn, divided into separate chapters that play out in sequence. This means the same content is not available to all players simultaneously; for instance, some quests can only be completed by players currently in a particular chapter of the storyline, and some locations only become accessible after certain points in the main story.
Thatís not to say, however, that there isnít a lot of choice and flexibility out there for players to indulge in. Other than the main storyline quests, thereís a huge number of assorted arbitrary quests to choose from, many of which provide supplemental backstory and add a lot of depth to the game. Mines of Moria continues this hybrid approach to storytelling and gameplay, compelling players to earn their way into Moria and beyond, while allowing free exploration within the areas thus far unveiled.
If thereís one thing that LotRO and the Mines of Moria expansion excels at, itís accommodating different play styles. The linear aspects of the game allow for deeper immersion into the main epic plot, while the non-linear aspects encourage players to be adventurous, to get a better feel for Middle-earth as they wander freely as far as the current chapter lets them roam. Additionally, alongside the fellowship and raid quests, Turbine made sure to make most quests (including many plot-vital instances) winnable in solo play, so that players can enjoy the game whether they play well with others or not. The end result is an engaging massively multiplayer game that simultaneously captures much of the personality and depth of a good single-player role-playing game along with the cooperative community aspect of an MMO.
As for the community, the general population of gamers on LotROóat least on the two servers on which I played, as well as on the LotRO website forums as far as Iíve seenóseems to be perhaps slightly more mature than what Iíve encountered while playing many other MMOs. In-game, player chat is neatly organized into channels like OOC (Out-Of-Character), Trade, LFF (Looking For Fellowship, for forming groups with other players), and Advice, and I found to my relief that very little irrelevant personal chatter leaked into the public channels. Every player that Iíve met or played with on LotRO this past month has been reasonably friendly and polite, and the general atmosphere is casual and comfortable.
All of these aspects of Mines of Moria, however, should already be familiar to those players who have already been playing LotRO. Besides continuing the storyline from Volume I, the expansion also increases the character level cap from 50 to 60, adds a new crafting tier, and brings in two new character classes, the Rune-keeper and the Warden.
The Rune-keeper is a caster class capable of both healing and elemental destruction magicówith the caveat that each spell cast attunes the character one way or another, thus amplifying or eliminating a given spellís effectiveness. For instance, a Rune-keeper who has just called down bolt upon bolt of fire and lightning during a given encounter may not be able to then summon up a potent heal. Even with this limitation, though, the Rune-keeper class provides a great deal of adaptability for a variety of situations and is a welcome addition to the existing character classes.
Perhaps even more interesting is the Warden, a new warrior class that does especially well in solo excursions or as a tank in a group. Even more flexible than the Rune-keeper, the Wardenís arsenal of attacks comes from executing skills in combination to trigger finishing moves called Gambits. The exact Gambit activated is determined by the sequence of skills performed leading up to the finisher and can have a wide possible range of results, from improved damage and stun effects to self-healing or increased threat. If youíre familiar with Diablo 2ís Assassin class, youíll find playing a Warden in LotRO to be somewhat similar.
Of course, taking advantage of either of the new classes means starting from the beginning and delaying an expedition to Moria, but from playing both classes, Iíd say itís worth the wait. Theyíre both very flexible and a lot of fun.
Players with a level 50 raring to go, however, are in just the position to taste the real meat of the expansion, the Mines of Moriaóthe dwarven realm of Khazad-dum, which the dwarves intend on taking back from the goblin hordes that now infest it. The expansion adds three main new areas: the eastern region of Eregion bordering Moria, Moria itself, and Lorien just beyond Moria to the east. The pre-expedition quests just outside Moria are a bit of a grind (mostly, possibly, because the promise of Moria is so alluring), but once the dwarven reclamation of Khazad-dum begins and youíre able to get inside that glowing door, things quickly ramp up and become much more interesting.
Moriaís impressive interior, as expected, is vast, dark, and most definitely atmospheric. Even the earlier quests will have players running between the lighted, safe areas and into unpredictable and twisting passageways that sometimes terminate unexpectedly in bottomless chasms or gaggles of murderous goblins. Itís easy to get lost (or surprise-shanked by orckind, for that matter) just getting from place to placeóbut all of this just adds to the appropriate ambiance of danger and excitement that should come from exploring an epic, evil-infested underground realm.
To help players beat back the goblins, though, is the new Legendary Item system. Unlike the typical epic item, Legendary Items arenít just static, pre-generated pieces of high-level equipment. Instead, the player is given a base Legendary Item (like a bow or a sword) that he or she can then modify freely by choosing from a variety of characteristics and abilities and by adding stat-enhancing runes, settings, and gems. Even better, these items gain experience and levels as theyíre used to defeat enemies, becoming stronger as their owners advance. And, as the cherry on top of it all, Legendary Items can even be given unique names personally entered by the player.
All in all, the improvements introduced by Mines of Moria are exemplary for expansion content, serving only to add even more enjoyment and variety to an MMO that stands solidly on its own.
The graphics in Mines of Moria, just as with the original game as released, are enchantingly beautiful, even with all the simplifications necessary for massively multiplayer online performance. Charming despite their generally dark and underground nature, the meticulously detailed visuals for the new locations mesh in seamlessly with the existing graphics and do Tolkienís legendary Middle-earth locations adequate justice. If nothing else, the environmental design of the ancestral dwarven realm of Khazad-dum more than impresses with its sheer, cavernous size; the immense walls and towering columns do a great job providing players with an awe-inspiring sense of scale. As much as a virtual world can provide the overwhelming sense of standing inside an ancient, gigantic mine inside a mountain, Mines of Moria does it.
Thatís not to say that the other visuals arenít excellent. From the tentacled Watchers to the lushly golden trees of Lorien, Turbineís new additions to its virtual Middle-earth meet or exceed the high expectations set by Shadows of Angmarís success and maintain a cohesive fantasy setting.
On top of all the praise Iíve given LotRO and Mines of Moria already, I canít forget to mention that the soundtrack is absolutely superb; game music typically doesnít receive much notice stateside, but this is a musical score comparable to a quality film soundtrack. The LotRO background music is a varied collection of over 60 orchestral tracks that use choral voices and both ancient and contemporary instruments to create memorable and culturally suitable themes for each area.
Chance Thomas (who also composed music for Quest for Glory V, The Hobbit, and other Lord of the Rings games) and Turbineís lead composer Stephen DiGregorio continue to do an excellent job with the Moria expansion, adding at least 17 more mood-setting pieces to the gameís already remarkable soundtrack. (While I canít help but wonder why it hasnít yet been separately released as an album for purchase, Turbine has released the LotRO soundtrack as MP3s freely downloadable by LotRO players and non-players alike.)
The voice acting is, as before with Shadows of Angmar, well done. Rather than just include generic greetings for all the NPCs, Mines of Moria throws in a variety of voices for each race, as well as introductory commentary for instance quests and specially voiced dialogue specific to particular storyline quests. While LotRO may not be able to provide fully voiced-over dialogue because of the sheer number of characters and quests available, the smattering of plot-specific narration adds that touch of cinematic flavor that gives players a better sense of immersion and participation in the story.
Iíve tried many MMOs over the years, and LotRO is turning out to be one of my favorites so far. While the Mines of Moria expansion wonít necessarily surprise players who have already been playing LotRO for some time, it does provide two new (and solid) character classes, hours of new quests and story, an engaging new Legendary Item system, and fantastic additions to the explorable expanse of Middle-earth. For most MMO players, especially those who are already savoring LotROís delights, these improvements should be worthwhile and very enjoyable.
At the time of this writing, the complete retail version (including both Shadows of Angmar and the Mines of Moria expansion) is going for $39.99, and the digital upgrade is currently being offered to existing players at $29.99. The monthly subscription fee starts at $14.99 (with the typical discounts if more months are prepaid at a time), and a one-time payment lifetime subscription option is available for about the equivalent of 20 monthsí fees ($299). Itís not a bad deal, if you ask me.
Given the amount of fresh and brilliantly executed content Mines of Moria adds to the already-outstanding Lord of the Rings Online, most gamers are likely to find this expansion a satisfying addition to their gaming experience. The two new character classes, unfolding story chapters and myriad quests, and customizable epic weapons could easily keep a player coming back for months on end. For existing LotRO subscribers and Tolkien-loving gamers especially, this one should be a no-brainer.