If you've been faithfully following along with the Lord of the Rings Online: Siege of Mirkwood beta, you may be excited by what you've heard -- or even seen yourself -- so far. The new expansion, which is set to launch on December 1st of this year (December 3rd for EU), centers around the forest of Mirkwood, just to the east of Lothlorien. It introduces us to a large new map of Mirkwood, the skirmish system, five new instances and much more.

On top of this officially-released news of these features, we were able to get together with Turbine's Aaron "Rowan" Campbell for a sample tour of the new content. Follow along after the jump for what we saw.


Let's start with a bit of background for this new expansion. You and your party have just secured Lothlorien, and the challenges of Moria are even further behind you. Galadriel is not done with you yet. She has called upon you to advance into Mirkwood to help the Lorien Elves, who are under constant attack by an advancing army of Sauron's minions. You enter the area at what Rowan calls "the Elvish D-Day", taking down fortifications and building the beachhead for the elves.

Despite the resilience of the elves, they know they can't win against the corruption of Sauron's powers -- especially since they've seen what he has already done to their great forest once known as the Greenwood. So a distraction is their last hope, to draw Sauron's attention away from the Ringbearer as he makes his way south to Mordor. It's up to you to become part of this distraction.

New Instances
Five new instances have been added to the game with Mirkwood. Rowan brought us into a 3-person instance named the Sword Hall of Dol Guldur, which acts as an arena-style encounter. The difficulty can be tweaked by touching a nearby brazier in the arena. For this tour, we turned on the hard mode, which consists of a battle with all three bosses at once. At the end of the battle, you get a chest reward for each boss, plus one more for completing the instance in hard mode.

Yet another instance we entered was the Dungeons of Dol Guldur, described to us as a game of cat and mouse. It's set up as a prison, where it was up to us to rescue several prisoners caught in jail rooms. The interesting thing here is that each room is randomized, so you could open the door to either a prisoner in need of rescue, or some enemies who aren't very pleased at being disturbed. Each time you enter the instance, these rooms are different, so there's no way a player can memorize patterns.

The guards in this instance are a whole different challenge. They have patrol patterns (also randomized) that keep you on your toes while searching for prisoners to rescue. If the guards catch you, they turn the tides by throwing you in jail, which requires a really long time to break out; just long enough to make you not want to get caught! Luckily, there are poppy seed barrels you can find scattered around the dungeon that act as traps to put the guards to sleep for a short time.

At the end of it all, you will face The Warden who is not exactly willing to show you the way out alive. One of your incentives to gather as many prisoners as you can (before the final alarm sounds) is that these prisoners will helps you in this final boss battle. The more you rescue, the more you'll have on your side.

Skirmishes
Not only are there five new instance spaces in the expansion, but there are also Skirmishes, which really is the main feature in this expansion.

These Skirmishes scale difficulty by the size of the group, allowing everything from solo play to 12-man groups. You start off by joining a Skirmish with the Skirmish Join panel (Ctrl-J). They start as early as level 30, allowing mid-level characters the chance at these as well. The locations vary quite a bit, also. You can defend Bree's Prancing Pony, The Shire's Tuckborough or even see how long you can survive against waves of undead in the Barrow-downs. The Skirmish Join panel also allows for adjustment of difficulty level, creating even more possibilities with the range of challenges to you or your entire party.

In these Skirmishes, the objectives vary quite a bit, but you'll always face special Lieutenants which function as mini-bosses, leading the armies of Sauron against you. They each have their own vulnerabilities and powers, and they're randomized to prevent the memorization of patterns and to add much more of a challenge.

As for your side of the battle, Skirmishes allow you to call upon the help of a new soldier companion to heed your command. These soldiers include many of the popular roles, such as an Herbalist to heal, Archer for ranged attacks, and so on. You assign which role you'll use at the beginning of the Skirmish, as well as your soldier's skillset and training.


Skirmish Marks
As rewards for your valor in these Skirmishes, you gain what are known as Skirmish Marks. These tokens can be used to trade for just about anything you can think of, from weapons, armor, consumables, cosmetic items, rep items and much more. Essentially, it seems that Turbine wants you to be able to acquire most items in the game -- as well as items exclusive to Skirmishes -- through the collection of these Skirmish Marks. This adds a whole new game-play style for those who may enjoy progressing their character through an alternate to questing.

Skirmish reward camps, as the one we were shown just outside of Ost Guruth, have NPC traders for these Marks. Plus, they have a Skirmish Captain which allows you to slot the new traits you've earned in the Skirmishes. These traits are completely separate from your normal trait slots, opening up another reason to participate in Skirmishes.

New Legendary Relic Slot
A new Legendary Relic slot has been added to Legendary items, allowing even more customization. This fourth slot is a crafted slot, where players who have reached the Supreme Master tier of crafting can create these special relics. Since Mirkwood is not expanding the crafting tiers, players who are already Supreme Masters will be able to craft these Relics right away.

Legendary Items in general have been tweaked quite a bit with this expansion. When first identified, the primary legacy will now show. New legacies will still be available when they level (up to level 60 with the expansion), but they've all been revamped to pull from the most valuable options, according to player feedback.

And More!
Turbine took the opportunity with this expansion to give another upgrade to LotRO's combat system. Now, the combat skills will feel more responsive, while not being gated behind an auto-attack. The weapon damage is more instant, and front line fighters will see the most improvements from this.

Mounts are now a skill, instead of an item to take up inventory space. When you call your mount, you may notice that they now have their own little companion bar showing health and a name. That's right, you can now name your mounts! The health bar shown might throw you off at first, but it doesn't mean your mount can die from an attack. It is simply a new way to show the points it takes to knock you off, as with your current mount. Reputation mounts have more of these hit points, while normal mounts have less.

You can also speak to NPCs and merchants while mounted, as well as perform emotes. While neither of these are game-changing, they're both small things that players have wanted for a long time.

So as you can see, Siege of Mirkwood not only fixes some parts of the game that players had problems with before (Legendary relics), but it also continues the tradition of bringing new content. Even though we may already be spoiled by the vastness that is last year's Mines of Moria, Siege of Mirkwood shows that Turbine hasn't lost their touch when it comes to balancing player-requested changes and brand new ways to experience fun in the game.

This article was originally published on Massively.