Last night before I drifted off to sleep, I was idly wondering what it would be like to actually live in Middle-earth. Apart from the extremely high mortality rate due to wandering wolves, bold bandits, and orchestrating orcs, it might be a pretty excellent place to dwell, as long as one didn't mind a lack of Wi-Fi and Starbucks. I think Hobbit pies and Dwarf ale would be an acceptable substitute.

Next week our virtual world will grow a bit in girth and depth with the Echoes of the Dead update. When all is patched and done, it'll be a truly big update containing meaty piles of content to devour. I think many of us are still scrutinizing Turbine as we go through this first year after the free-to-play switch, watching to see whether all of this additional revenue will be pumped back into the game or not. Echoes of the Dead marks the second post-F2P update for Lord of the Rings Online, following last November's Journey to Winter-home, and I have to say that I'm pretty impressed with just how much is being served up this time around.

So in anticipation of the patch, let's walk through the major features of LotRO's latest update and see whether it was worth the wait!

Evendim revamp

While I do have a strong personal beef with the poor layout and flow of North Downs, I'll grudgingly admit that Evendim needed just as much love with its quests and purpose. With the update, Turbine signed Evendim up for a personal trainer, trimmed the fat, and added plenty of bulky quest muscle.

The result should be an excellent alternative to questing elsewhere in your 30s, giving you a zone that should not only take you from 30 to 40 but give you a whole new set of gear when you're finished. Evendim has always had the looks -- and now it has the brains as well. Double the number of quests is an impressive amount of new content, and I'll look forward to trying it out with my alts in the future.

New instances

Now, not every player is max-level, so I can understand those who may grouse about the lack of additional lower-level dungeons with this update, but we have to be fair. It's not as if pre-65 characters are without any instances at all, and they can also have plenty of content to advance through. Level 65s who've finished Enedwaith have been twiddling their thumbs in frustration for a few months now, so I'm totally cool with giving them a platter of five new instances to explore.

I also appreciate that Turbine's mixed the instances up, both between indoor and outdoor experiences and in size. Not everyone's into raiding, so it's certainly nice to have those three- and six-man dungeons for more casual dungeon-diving. I think there's a lot of expectation that players are bringing to these instances, knowing that they'll most likely have to tide us over until Rise of Isengard.

Finally, I really love the themes here. These five instances are diverse in tone, but they're also tied together by the Gaunt-lords looking to spread mischief and get revenge. I relish being able to explore a good Forochel dungeon, and the Hobbit one looks equally fun. There's also a neat little quest arc that leads you through all five, so hopefully players will be cajoled into giving them a go.

Volume II solofication

One word: heck yes! Well, it's one word when I say it, kind of a "heckyessss!" In any case, I know I haven't been alone in clamoring for a revamp to Volume II like the one the team gave Volume I, and it's great to see Turbine come through on this. The epic storyline's always been one of the key features of the game, so it was disappointing to get stuck on fellowship-level chapters just because you couldn't find a group. Nobody likes reading a good book and being told that he can't go past chapter 5 unless he finds four other people reading the same book at the same place.

So now soloers should be able to go all the way through the epic storyline, from the prologue all the way up through wherever we are in Volume III. And, of course, they can do it whether they are subscribers or free players.

Volume III, Book 3

And for those of us who've made it to the current stopping point of the epic storyline, this update keeps the good times rolling with Book 3. Continuing the story of the slowest road trip south ever, Book 3 keeps the Rangers in Enedwaith as they investigate a library or somesuch. Also, there may be echoes. OF THE DEAD.

But seriously, new books in the epic storyline are always the first things players demand with any new update, so bully for Turbine for including it. The stories get better and better as we go along, and I can't wait to see what Isengard brings.

Monster Play updates

I've never really been into the PvMP side of the game, but I know that those who are always feel that Turbine gives short shrift to PvMP, and they certainly crave more, more, MORE! With Echoes of the Dead, Turbine's implementing a two-pronged approach to getting more people into LotRO's PvP. It is providing additional incentives for Freeps to join in the battle and is also helping new Creep players by buffing up their characters and explaining the systems a bit better through an improved tutorial.

This all isn't enough to really tug at my interest and pull me over to the Ettenmoors, but I have to get past my own self-interest to realize that there are plenty of players who dwell here exclusively and have been dying for improvements. So enjoy your Middle-earth pillow fight, PvMPers!

Legendary Item changes

As cool as the Legendary Item system is -- and I firmly believe it's an excellent addition to the game -- it really did need an attentive hand to fix a few parts that have been cruelly broken since Mines of Moria's launch. Happily, with Echoes of the Dead, players will have a lot more control over shaping their LIs by being able to pull off and replace legacies in order to make the item you wanted instead of rolling the grind dice and hoping against the odds.

All in all, I heartily applaud this. LIs should be a blessing, not a curse, and it looks as though this update is a definite step in the right direction.

Character panel overhaul

Man, this new UI element looks sexy. LotRO's UI always seemed a little too small and cluttered for my liking, so I appreciate the sleeker, bigger look that the character panel takes on with this patch.

It not only looks cleaner, but Turbine's adding three more (unlockable) outfit slots, which is a huge boon to people like yours truly who can't stop fiddling with how their characters look. Of course, give us five slots and we'll want 10, but that's just how it goes.

Hunter, Burglar and Minstrel improvements

With each of these big updates, Turbine's been working its way through the class roster, examining what works and what could be better and buffing things up to spec. I know many Minstrels who are jittering with excitement over this update, and I imagine the other two classes are pleased with the love as well. Sometimes all it takes is a new skill or fixing an underpowered one to make your day.

And the rest of the bag...

Of course, it doesn't just stop there; Echoes of the Dead has far more changes than I have space to discuss in this column. Radiance removal. Transforming Moria battle instances into skirmishes. Crafting improvements (yay!).

What always makes a great update in my book is the dev team putting together content that appeals to a wide swath of players instead of just a select few. Echoes of the Dead seems like it has something for everyone, unless you're just impossible to please even if your friends spent all day shopping at Sharper Image. Dude, those massage chairs are heavenly.

What's next?

I know it probably seems unfair for us to ask "What's next?" right as a major content update lands, but I can't help it. It's not so much my being unappreciative of what's been added to the game as my being curious about the future.

So what is next? Looking at the year, we know that Rise of Isengard is most likely coming this fall, which leaves a huge gap of time between now and then. Unless Turbine's going to duck its head down, go into crunch mode, and leave us with a dearth of new content during this time period, there's room for at least one more big update. I hope.

Personally, I'd like to see a new zone, although that's a tall order and probably not going to happen. A small zone? Smallish? Somewhere with Hobbits and more pie? Pies that need to be eaten and not run all over the place as though I were a one-man Sara Lee delivery truck? That's all I ask.

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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