The two expansions in between – Siege of Mirkwood and Rise of Isengard – didn’t add much in terms of markedly new gameplay. But from what I saw in my guided tour last week, RoR might be enough to get players back in the saddle.
Producer Aaron Campbell and I started off in the rolling grasslands of Rohan and immediately jumped onto our new mounts. As he started his explanation, I took my war-steed out for a little spin.
I could immediately tell this was different from my usual mount. The acceleration, deceleration, and maneuvering mechanics were natural though unexpected, and my entire skill bar had changed.
Your mount itself has nine ability trees – three for each light, medium, and heavy builds – which allow you to customize it to your choosing, letting you decide on the proper mix between speed and durability or offense and defense to suit your play style.
(And, as Campbell explained to me, this isn’t like a legendary weapon where you’ll need to “deconstruct” your horse every now and then to access new abilities. That would probably get the animal-rights people up in arms.)
Still, drive-by shootings – with arrows, naturally – of similarly mounted orcs made my first impression of mounted combat to be enjoyable enough, but not exceptionally impressive.
Then Campbell got to telling me about the areas we’d be roaming. I’d already known about the vastness of Rohan, the new open-tapping rules for engaging mobs, and warbands-as-group-content, but for some reason, it took until now for it to all click.
LOTRO is showing its age, and new games are coming out all the time that implement new and fresh ideas. There’s only so much the Turbine team can do to emulate this new wave, but mounted combat in Rohan is a clear nudge in the direction of large, group open-world events as seen in games like Rift and Guild Wars 2.
Granted, it’s only one zone, and you’ll probably spend only a part of your time there leveling as other tasks take you away from it, but it’s refreshing to see that the dev team understands where MMOs are going and are willing to take much-needed steps to keep their game fresh and relevant.
Village in peril
Our tour left the open fields and continued around the noteworthy sites eastern Rohan – sorry, there’s no Helm’s Deep yet – including the awe-inspiring Argonath and the seat of Amon Hen, where Frodo escaped from Boromir.
Then it was a visit to the more civilized homes of the Horse-lords, as Campbell took me around to the various mead-halls of the lords of Rohan, great and small, each with its own distinct flavor and design.
Finally, there’s the majestic Golden Hall, at the heart of Theoden king’s realm, which players will experience during the epic storyline. Tapestries along the walls detailed major events in the history of Rohan, from its founding to the handing over of the keys of Isengard to Saruman – bad idea, chaps.
We’re accustomed to Turbine building us attractive set pieces, but in RoR, you’ll have to spend some time building your own.
The village of Hytbold starts off as a blasted and charred wreck, ravaged by marauding orcs and in generally pitiful shape. Through your actions, though, you can rebuild Hytbold and its 20-odd structures, bringing it back to life.
Thanks to LOTRO‘s phasing technology, each player’s Hytbold will appear different to that player, depending on its level of development. As Hytbold is rebuilt, vendors will appear, offering up phat loot for barter.
That’s probably where you’ll get the best loot, at least for the time being, because there are no new instanced dungeons or raids shipping with Riders of Rohan. Current scaling instances and skirmishes will be upgraded to accommodate level 85 characters.
Last year, Rise of Isengard shipped with just one new instance – Draigoch’s Lair – with a new instance cluster centered around Isengard itself coming a few months later. Campbell assured me that there would be a similar instance cluster coming in a free update before the end of the year.
Still, it’s a bit of an odd decision to not even include one new instance space, even one as abbreviated as Draigoch’s Lair, with the expansion. Maybe Turbine hopes the lure of mounted combat will be enough to offset this omission.
And really, that’s what it’s all about. Ultimately, Riders of Rohan‘s success will hinge on how well mounted combat is implemented and received. From what I’ve seen so far, it’s got a solid chance to succeed.
When I got my first look at Rise of Isengard last year, I couldn’t help but yawn. The new landscapes and storylines were all well and good, but it lacked anything to really set it apart, and the grind for 10 new levels was at times excruciating.
So I went into our session with a healthy dose of skepticism, expecting mounted combat to be little more than a gimmick.
But now that I’ve had a taste of Riders of Rohan, I want more. If warband-hunting is enjoyable and rewarding enough, players won’t miss the usual endgame dungeons and raids.
And for people who have wandered off to other, newer games in the meantime, it might make the transition back to a five-year-old game seem like less of a step backwards.
Riders of Rohan goes live Oct. 15. You can pre-order one of three packages here.