The Road to Mordor: Do-over! Do-over!

This past week I took a break from kowtowing to the haughty elves of Lothlórien and their super-secret elf club to start up a couple alts. It was ultimately a good decision, as I ended up both digging my new lore-master and getting to sample first-hand the many changes that Turbine made to the new player experience.

In mega-patches like this recent one, revamping the starter experience tends to be overlooked by all. Unless they're itching to roll an alt -- like I am -- current players won't be on hand to witness the changes, and completely new players to the game lack the knowledge of how it used to be in order to appreciate how it's been improved. But unsung improvements or no, Turbine's done an excellent job of smoothing out an already-engaging lowbie journey with a startling number of tweaks. I certainly didn't expect there to be so many, but since I have done the 1-20 run umpteen times in the past few years, it felt like a breath of fresh air to me.

So what's all sparkly and different? Is the road to Mordor paved with good decisions (see what I did there)? Reroll a baby-faced adventurer with me and hit the jump!
1. New character creation screen

It's not a huge thing, but Turbine gave the character creation screens a once-over. The team rolled a couple steps into one, enlarged the size of the buttons, and helpfully supplied access to the LotRO store right off the bat. Actually, the latter is sort of important if you're a F2P player who wants to unlock the rune-keeper or warden before entering the game.

On the whole, it simply looks more attractive, although I am still holding out hope that Turbine's artists will provide more visual customizations in the future -- new hairstyles, beards, faces and gruesome scars.

2. Tutorial popups

Unless and until you turn them off, the tutorial popups will be dogging your every step for the first dozen levels (and sparsely thereafter as well). While the popups aren't new in and of themselves, they've been reworked to include helpful graphics and diagrams.

Even though I don't need them any longer, I kept the popups enabled just to see how far they've come. It's a small thing, but including graphics along with the text really makes a big difference and goes a long way to making the introduction of complex MMO play more palpable.

3. LotRO store intro quest


Obviously, Turbine wants to push the LotRO store as strong as it can without becoming too obnoxious about it. I generally like that approach, which mixes free rewards with advertising. One way the game does this is by providing a one-time-per-server quest in the starter zone that serves as a quick introduction to the store. An NPC hands you 10 Turbine points and tells you that if you purchase a special quest -- conveniently priced at 10 TP -- then you'll get a nifty in-game reward.

Now, the reward isn't anything great; it's a horn that you can stun enemies with, but only if you're level 8 or lower. Seeing as how you're generally level 6 by the time you leave the starting areas and level 10 within the first couple hours, it's probably not worth buying. So I'd just hang on to the 10 TP if I were you.

4. Archet's got a brand-new bag


One of the keystones of the improved starter experience is the complete overhaul of Archet, the newbie instance for both Hobbit and Man players. I never thought the old Archet was that bad, but apparently someone at Turbine did and subsequently sent the entire zone to Glamour Shots.

The result is a streamlined story that honestly flows a lot better than it used to. Previously, the Blackwold menace felt like a frat mildly hazing townies, but now the Blackwolds are a genuine threat to the region. The story begins with the town more or less oblivious to its impending doom, but as you progress through your quests, you shed light on the truth, expose a traitor, and recruit a band of hunters to help defend the town. One of my favorite moments was when you're sent to Combe to ask for help, only to find a huge band of Blackwolds at the gate barring your way and mocking you for even trying. At that point, you couldn't fight them, but just seethe a bit and feel impotent. I like it when a game makes me feel impotent (wait, what?).

Another addition to the tale is the presence of Strider, who is now at Amdir's side ever since the restraining order dropped. It's nothing major, but I can see fresh players to a game with the Lord of the Rings label wanting a bit of familiar fan service right out of the gate.

5. Rearrangement of skills

Most classes -- other than captains and hunters -- weren't too pleased to hear that the most they'd be getting in the new patch was a rearrangement of their low-level skills. While it certainly didn't do anything for the old timers, it makes a world of difference for lowbies. For example, before level 10 my lore-master became the recipient of several survival skills -- heals and stuns -- that normally would take much longer to attain. Not dying as much at lower levels because you have the proper tools equals a "win" in my book.

6. Free gifts!

When you leave the starter instance and set out into the proper world, you now get a new companion in your inventory: the Magical Ever-Lasting Gift Box. OK, that's not its real name, but it sort of feels like it. This gift box grants you assorted goodies and an additional gift box that can be opened up at a later level, so it really is the gift that keeps on giving.

Of course, this isn't Turbine being purely altruistic here, although I'm sure the devs like to do nice things for us because we're so darn adorable. It's best to see these gift boxes as LotRO store samplers, giving you a little taste of the good life that the store can offer to you. It's a great marketing strategy, because both sides win here -- players get free goodies, and Turbine gets exposure for items in its cash shop that might have been overlooked otherwise.

Some of my favorite freebies in these swag bags include a 24-hour temporary mount (which requires no riding skill to use), free stable travel for a limited time, an XP and deed accelerator, and a decoration for my house. All this for just leveling up? Can't say no to that!

7. Level five horsies


In my opinion, one of the best investments of Turbine points in the game is purchasing your riding skill at level five. For less than 200 TP, you can go on to buy a mount with either additional TP or in-game currency (I used my temporary gift mount to ride up to the horse farm and purchase one of those now-discounted mounts).

Don't dismiss this -- the ability to use a mount right away is a monumental boon to any player. Middle-earth is a big place, and the difference between running between distant locations (which you do more often than you'd like) and riding can be measured in retained sanity and faster leveling.

8. Outfits 'R Us

Another terrific change that flew under my radar until I took my alt to Michel Delving for the first time is that we're now allowed to equip cosmetic outfits right away instead of waiting until level 20. No disrespect intended to Turbine's artists, but I haven't exactly been quiet in my dislike of a majority of armor models in this game (especially -- especially -- the dorky hats). It used to be quite painful to spend 20 levels running around in goofy-looking mismatched armor until I was allowed to piece together something that didn't kill my enemies with laughter.

Now? Now I can pull right up to the auction house or wardrobe and slap together a fashion statement that says, "Look out, Sauron! For I am on my way to destroy you, but perhaps I will stop at a shindig or five-star restaurant along the way!" It's awesome.


When not clawing his eyes out at the atrocious state of general chat channels, Justin "Syp" Olivetti jaws about hobbits in his Lord of the Rings Online column, The Road to Mordor. You can contact him via email at justin@massively.com or through his gaming blog, Bio Break.
This article was originally published on Massively.