LOTRO Saruman
This week I want to switch from the general optimism of last week's Lord of the Rings Online forecast and future suggestions to something that's been troubling me the more we read about Rise of Isengard.

To put it frankly, it's coming across as an unfinished expansion. An expansion with promise, but one that needs a little more... oomph, for lack of a better grunt. More of an "it" factor, if you will.

Am I excited about Isengard? Oh, most definitely; that's not in question. I'm looking forward to exploring new lands, to meeting new people, and to killing pretty much everything in sight. I wouldn't kill them, but they're refusing to give me that loot, see? I'm pumped for skill consolidation, giving Saruman a taste of rebellion, and a new book in the epic storyline. I'm not going to be complaining come September 27th, I can tell you that.

And yet, I have to be up front and voice a few concerns that need to be said, even if it's just me being a worry-wart. I've been concerned that Isengard is not going to be up to the standards set by previous expansions, and perhaps there are forces of time, pressure, and external competition that have caused this to not measure up to true potential.

Hit the jump and follow my convoluted line of thought, and see if you come to the same conclusion.

LOTRO Daigoch
A fear is born

When Turbine announced the expansion last year, I, like most of you, was spinning in my chair in ecstasy. I mean, hey, we've been itching to head south, to level our 65s once more, and to see what surprises Turbine has to offer. We didn't hear a lot of solid specifics at the time, but we knew what the theme would be and had expectations set by Moria and Mirkwood.

But when Turbine came out with the pre-order details at this year's E3, a little red light went off in the back of my head. The problem was that I wasn't seeing anything new overall on the Isengard page -- just the three regions, the rise in level cap, and the 24-man raid as the main feature points. Honestly, I was expecting... more. Something like a new system or class or... anything, really.

I mean, I can't grouse about a new area to explore or new quests or even the sprucing up of classes and skills that the team has been working so diligently to bring to us. I know we just had a pretty big region come online last year, and Turbine's been terrific getting us regular updates since free-to-play hit. But I really, really thought the studio had an ace up its sleeve, some bombshell of a feature that it was going to break out and steal headlines when convention season got hot.

So far, no bombshell. And now we have official word that what we see is what we're going to get. From A Casual Stroll to Mordor:
"Sorry to disappoint you and all others, but according to Sapience (talked to him on Wednesday), there won't be any new instances, except the 24 dragon raid. No secrets, no hidden kept stuff that they will show on GC or PAX. But he said that they're working on the next stuff, and even if he can't confirm a date, it sounds like we're getting some new instances before the end of the year."
At least I wasn't alone in assuming that there was more to Isengard than we already knew.

LOTRO Orthanc
Stacking Isengard up to Moria and Mirkwood

While Rise of Isengard may represent the first of several expansions done in a different way and on a different timetable than the pre-F2P expansions were, our only point of reference is to look back at the two expansions that we've experienced already.

Mines of Moria, LotRO's first and only boxed expansion pack, fit most people's definition of "expansion" to a T. For the price of admission, we got a huge set of zones, two new classes, and the legendary item system. Siege of Mirkwood, however, felt smaller yet was still significant, not only with its titular zone, but the skirmish system that felt truly revolutionary and accessible.

Without knowing the exact landmass or number of quests, it's hard to say whether Rise of Isengard will keep us occupied as long as either of these expansions. The devs say yes, and I'm not going to doubt them until I see otherwise. However, Isengard is missing two elements in comparison to its X-pack brothers: non-raid dungeons and a new game system.

And while we're comparing, it's also notable that there's very little here for anyone who doesn't have a level 65 character. Moria and Mirkwood both gave low- and mid-level characters something to cheer about -- new classes and skirmishes, respectively -- but we have nothing like that here. In fact, if one were to get too bitter and cynical, one might point to that 25% bonus XP trinket that Turbine packaged in with the pre-order, as if to acknowledge that the endgame is where it's at, so you might as well get there ASAP.

In comparison to what came before, Isengard feels a little weak. Maybe we're not seeing the full picture just yet, and that bears saying, but I'm not going to lie and say I haven't felt a little deflated since hearing this official confirmation that, yup, we pretty much know all there is at this point, at least in terms of major changes and additions.

LOTRO Wolf's Cleft
My little pet theories

Without having a full backstage access to Turbine's secret lair, sometimes we just have to extrapolate the missing details of the dev process by looking at the rest of the picture. Despite my slightly sour tone today, I want to be up front and say that there's no indication that Turbine's being lazy or shortcutting us on purpose. What I think happened with Isengard is pretty understandable and honestly not that bad for the game at large.

My first pet theory is that Enedwaith, the zone, was originally slated to be part of the Isengard expansion pack. It simply fits with the regions we're going to see in a month, it's where Volume 3 picks up force and kicks off the journey south, and thematically it gels. What could have happened is that Turbine knew players were rankled with the overly long delay in updates prior to the F2P switch and wanted to either pacify us with content overload or to show the newcomers that this studio was serious about its release schedule. So Enedwaith was given priority in development and cut out of Isengard to become its own free release.

Again, it's just a theory. I don't think this makes Turbine sinister in any way; in fact, whether Enedwaith originally was part of the expansion or not, it's probably best the devs did get us that zone when it did. I only mention this because it could explain why Isengard may feel smaller than what was first planned for it.

My second pet theory is that, as I said before, we're simply moving into a new era of development that shouldn't necessarily be compared with how it used to be done. We're already seeing faster and more considerable updates than we were, and it's not fair to ignore just how many free goodies we've gotten in the past year, such as the wardrobe, tasks, new instances, new skirmishes, and Enedwaith. Rise of Isengard may not be as full-featured as the other expansions because Turbine might not want to lump all of its in-development projects into one bag.

It's important to note that Turbine's got a lot in the works that we'll be seeing following the expansion, such as an instance cluster scheduled for later this year. So while Isengard may not be finished in the old, conventional sense, it could merely be the launching ground for a bunch of better ideas that we've yet to see.

I have no doubt that we as a playerbase will be all the better for Rise of Isengard once it hits. Even though I'm labeling it "the unfinished expansion," it's with the hope that there are plans to round it out with future updates and so-far-hidden projects.

What say you, Middle-earth adventurers? Do you think Isengard needs more to be considered a full-fledged expansion, or is it just fine as is?

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.