[Update: Made a clarification that there is no indication of "open-world" PvMP in the expansion.]

Times are tough in Middle-earth, even after the inexplicable appearance of several hundred thousand new adventurers this fall. The Fellowship of the Ring is broken, Sauron is rising in power, and the White Hand of Saruman is marching across the lands. Even the bravest and hardiest soldier of the Free Peoples cannot be blamed for feeling disheartened, especially in the face of the monumental struggle to come.

Welcome to the beginning of The Two Towers in Lord of the Rings Online. Welcome to Isengard.

The rumors are true: Next year we will be venturing into LotRO's third expansion, titled Rise of Isengard, to confront evil in its own backyard. While this may not be the Rohan or Gondor expansion that we've anticipated, Turbine is fairly confident that it will be well-received by players and will represent an ambitious step forward on (wait for it) the road to Mordor.

Turbine's Adam Mersky and Aaron Campbell were on hand to outline for us the company's near- and far-future plans with Massively, starting with the imminent November update and cruising all the way through 2011. Hit the jump as we look at interactive theater, busy bees, Monster Play improvements and, of course, Isengard.
November Update

Granted, "November Update" is about the most generic name for content patch imaginable, but it's what's inside that matters. Hitting North American servers on November 29th (and Europe "a little later"), this update is the first major patch to the game following the mega-F2P patch. As such, it incorporates a lot of feedback from players who participated in the F2P beta and post-launch.

While we won't be seeing a new zone or an additional book in the epic storyline, this update is anything but lightweight. In addition to major changes to the Rune-keeper and Lore-master classes (I guess you could call this the Hyphen Update? No... no... "November Update" is still preferable.), Turbine's assembled its Ikea-brand kitchen sink and is tossing it our way.

A lot of this has been covered on Massively and in dev diaries so far, so I'll merely run down the list. Opening all of the zones and Volumes II and III of the epic storyline for free players? Check. Allowing all players to level to 65? Check. Vault 3.0 revamp? Check. Task system? Check. Dwarf and Elf newbie zone tweakage? Check. Streamlining crafting? Check and mate, my friends.

The team is pretty pumped to be offering what it considers to be a huge amount of free content for all players, particularly with the new Tasks. Tasks are a great way for players of all levels (but particularly lowbies) to cash in their vendor trash to advance deeds and reputations and to snag a few exclusive cosmetic cloaks. If you like quirky cloaks, then the Task system is game to reward you with ones such as the "Busy Bee" or the "Eager Beaver."

If you liked the new Archet storyline for beginners, then chances are you're bound to appreciate the improved storyline that surrounds Thorin's Hall in the Elf and Dwarf starter zone. Turbine wanted to show more of the impact that the Dourhand Dwarves made -- and give you more incentive to clean up their mess. In the devs' words, they wanted to make the story "stronger" from the get-go.

Yule Festival 2010

Internally, Turbine was "blown away" by the work that the designers and artists put into the recent Fall Festival, and so the team is now challenging itself to go bigger and badder with the Yule Festival next month.

If you thought the Haunted Burrow was pretty spiffy stuff (at least during the first hundred times you ran in there checking for a skeleton horse), then you're going to spew eggnog in awe when you see Winter-home. Winter-home is a brand-new instanced village that's been created specifically for Yule, and it features a slew of events, quests and challenges for those long winter nights.

When not slinging snowballs at each other, players will sit back to watch a good old-fashioned play -- a retelling of the saga of "Mad Baggins," told from a local point of view. Not content just to be an audience member? Then Turbine invites you to jump up onstage and help enact the story by emoting when prompted (and perhaps even adding a few ad-libbed lines). If you lack theatrical chops, you'll want to watch out: Turbine's also equipping the audience with rotten vegetables to chuck at you when displeased.

The evolution of the LotRO store

We spent a few minutes discussing the relatively new LotRO store and its impact on the game, financial and otherwise. It turns out that Turbine's created an entirely new e-commerce department to evaluate, tweak and develop the in-game stores in Dungeons and Dragons Online and LotRO, and its employees jobs are never done.

Premium content (character slots, classes, etc.) and mounts are the current best-sellers in the store, although this is bound to change over time. Because of the shifting nature of player demand, Turbine's stayed on its toes to develop new content for the store and fashion the special sales that come up from time to time. While some of these sales are planned well in advance, Mersky and Campbell admitted that the team's thrown together a few special last-minute deals when situations (like PAX) have called for it.

Unfortunately for Turbine, nobody else is quite doing what the company is, and therefore Turbine has to forge its own path without a lot of examples from contemporaries. So far the team feels like it's getting a grasp on what things should cost and how to encourage players to buy instead of forcing them into the store, but there is always more to discover.

A glimpse into 2011

Then the devs were willing to give us a rough sketch of what lies ahead for LotRO in 2011. Although they were skimpy on details (which is to be expected -- have to save something to talk about in the future!), they dropped enough hints to suggest that 2011 is going to be an exciting year for the game.

More zones and epic story books are in order, although players have much more to be excited about. For instance, the cosmetic system -- one of the more beloved features of the game -- is going to get pimped the heck out. If you're always agonizing over the limits of the system, then rejoice as Turbine promises more outfit tabs, more slots, and a whole lot of new items to wear.

The upgraded cosmetic system will include non-combat pets, a first for the game (except for those lucky duck Lore-masters). While they wouldn't comment on how many vanity pets are in development, they said that they are currently testing out a squirrel and have designed the system in a way so that you can have a pet out at all time -- even in combat.

Fluff not your thing, Mr. or Mrs. Studly McAwesome? Turbine wants you to know that it hasn't forgotten its endgame players; on the contrary, the team is hard at work on new raids (yes, that's plural) and dungeons for those at the level cap. There will also be additional dungeons included for the mid-level (30 to 40) folks. And if you haven't heard the news, Turbine wants to make sure you know that radiance is on its way out of the game forever. The devs recognize that it wasn't fun in the least and are tweaking the dungeons to function without the gating that radiance gear required.

Other plans on tap for 2011 include unlocking level 65 First Age legendaries (they're on their way to Middle-earth after FedEx misplaced them) and a redesign of the legendary item (LI) system with a focus on removing the randomness and emphasizing choice through a more intuitive layout.

Expansion Three: Rise of Isengard

While free-to-play is a game-changer in many ways, Turbine is still committed to bringing out a hefty expansion now and then. Rise of Isengard not only meets the blank-OF-blank name format (Shadows of Angmar, Mines of Moria, Siege of Mirkwood) but looks to make serious headway into the territory of The Two Towers.

Coming in fall 2011, Rise of Isengard will be comprised of three hefty zones: Dunland, the Gap of Rohan, and Isengard itself. Journeying through these regions will bring players up to the increased level cap of 70.

Dunland shares a border with Enedwaith, the current level cap zone (which means we may not see a new zone until then, although Turbine demurred at commenting on that) and is as large, space-wise, as its neighbor. Isengard will include the tower of Orthanc, which is the base of operations for fallen wizard Saruman's wicked schemes.

The expansion -- or a content update near to it -- promises to change up the Monster Play (PvMP) system. In an effort to give more of a feeling of advancement to PvMPers, the system will be expanded to increase skill progression and add more variety to those who like to walk on the dark side of Middle-earth.

Even more exciting is the prospect of PvMP spilling out of the Ettenmoors into new areas. Where will the conflict take us? Possibly Isengard itself, although who knows? This move is also designed to allow F2P gamers a way to finally participate in PvP, although the team hasn't decided whether this will include an additional cost or not.

Expect to hear more about Rise of Isengard in the coming months, as Turbine has it "deep in development."

So what say you about the future of LotRO? Sound off in the comments section and check out the Rise of Isengard teaser video below!



When not enjoying second breakfast and a pint of ale, 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.
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