Rings and words of power: Going inside LotRO's Update 5

It's been a couple of days since the news broke that Lord of the Rings Online's Update 5 is going to be bigger than previously thought, with not only a new instance cluster but an additional book in the epic storyline and an Instance Finder system.

As Update 5 goes up on the test server for the remainder of the week, we got in touch with Turbine to talk about the details of this mountain of content heading our way, including an epic confrontation with Rise of Isengard's big baddie himself, Saruman. It wouldn't be a conference call without a few notable surprises as well, and Adam Merskey, Aaron Campbell, Jeff Libby, and Joe Barry were eager to share what the team has been working on for the first update after the expansion.

It's time to wave goodbye to the Rangers, stop putting off instance runs, and take the fight to the bearded dude himself. It's time for Update 5. Get all the skinny after the jump!

Instance Finder
The Instance Finder

Similar to the dungeon finders of other games, LotRO's Instance Finder should help you get into your favorite instance faster than ever before. As Turbine's proud of the instances the team's created, the devs have consistently moved the direction of the game to facilitate grouping and dungeon diving as much as possible. We've gone from the mustering horn to the Instance Launcher, and now with the Instance Finder, players have another tool on their UI to help battle the Enemy in all his forms.

While the Instance Finder isn't as full-featured as it could be (more on that later), it does go a long way to helping individuals and groups find others for dungeon runs. You simply pull up the interface and select your role, then choose a type of run (skirmish, Isengard cluster, or scaled instance), a size (1, 2, 3, or 6-man), and a tier (I, II, or III), and finally hit "join." At this point, the system will attempt to match you up with others, and once it does, it will transport your group into the instance automatically.

Of course, you can't queue up for a role that your class won't support. Some classes may be more specialized, offering only tank and damage roles, while others may be more wide-ranging. Captains, the "ultimate multi-taskers," according to the devs, can queue up for all four roles.

There's a few quirks to this system that are interesting to note. The first is that as of right now, you can't choose a specific instance to join if you're queuing up. The devs say this is something that they will work on in the future, but for now your choices are limited to a category rather than a specific instance. The second is that non-scalable instances are excluded from the Finder (which also will be hopefully changed at some point). Finally, if you queue up for multiple types, sizes, and/or tiers, the system will try to match you with the largest group size first, then continually move you down to your smallest until something fits.

Random groupers will enjoy the benefits of special rewards for that run, which currently include a boost to currency looted and a bump in power and morale. Turbine said that the rewards are another possible area to expand upon in future patches as the process of refining the instance system continues.

Cosmetic outfit rewards
Volume III Book 5: The Prince of Rohan

While the next book in LotRO's acclaimed epic storyline is relatively short -- spanning four chapters -- the developers think you'll find it an exciting and rewarding addition to the ongoing tale. Titled The Prince of Rohan, Book 5 sees players finally parting with the Grey Company and its associated Rangers as they head to Rohan to meet Aragorn while you assist Theodred and the contingent of Rohirrim in Dunland.

The first part of the book is actually a prolonged series of goodbyes between you and the various Rangers you've quested with over the years, and as a thank you, these familiar faces will grant you one of two new dyeable cosmetic outfits so that you can finally dress the part of a Ranger! You have your choice between the "classic" Ranger garb from the Shadows of Angmar era and the new Grey Company design (Pro tip: Run through the quest chain on two characters to get both sets).

We were told that we may yet see the Rangers again, as the meeting between them and Aragorn is part of the official story. We do know that 30 Rangers met with Aragorn, but which ones are largely up for grabs, and Turbine wants to keep us in suspense on that point.

Battle of Orthanc
The remainder of the new book sends us off with Theodred, who has been tasked by his father to guard the borders of Rohan from Saruman's incursion. He's decided that the best defense is a good offense, so he rallies his banners to take the fight to the gates of Orthanc.

This culminates in an epic, multi-stage battle that becomes the centerpiece of the book, and players will be thrown into the thick of the action from multiple perspectives as the longest day of Theodred's life progresses. We won't spoil what happens, but considering what happens to Theodred in the books, you can probably guess the ending. What we will say is that this book really shows off the devs' aspirations to cram in as much action and large scale excitement as possible.

Shadow boss
The Tower of Orthanc

Update 5's new instance cluster contains a little something for everyone: three three-man, one six-man, and one 12-man dungeon. It's meant to provide experienced Rise of Isengarders with plenty of endgame challenge while advancing the timeline of the game to the same point as Book 5. Because the good guys' forces in the area have mostly departed, players are left with the task of guerrilla warfare -- to harass, confound, and stymie Saruman at every turn.

Please note that there are plenty of spoilers ahead, including story and fight elements! So if you wish to remain blissfully ignorant, please skip to the conclusion.

At the end of the new six-man instance, The Foundry, players will discover that the devious wizard has created a ring forge of his own and is attempting to make rings of power like Sauron. This is canonical, by the way; the books contain two mentions to Saruman as a "ring-maker" but fail to elaborate on that. Turbine's decided to pick up that loose thread and run with it as far as possible.

So the 12-man raid, The Tower of Orthanc, tells the story of the players' attempt to destroy Saruman's newfound source of power. In a funny twist, Saruman welcomes us in, thinking that we've seen how mighty he is and are applying to become his apprentices (humility is not Saruman's strong point). It turns out that Saruman has crafted five minor rings and one major one and has bestowed the minor rings on other apprentices. We'll just call them "bosses," m'kay? Each minor ring is attuned to a different element -- fire, frost, acid, lightning and shadow -- with the major ring extending dominion over them.

Blue walls o death
The first stop in this raid is to tackle three separate wings in any order and capture the minor rings off the end bosses. Turbine says that these shouldn't take too long -- between 30 and 45 minutes on average -- and they only contain a couple of trash pulls before the boss. In addition to sporting unique looks, these trash mobs have a real purpose: They give clues as to the patterns and makeup of the boss fight ahead.

Once the wings are vanquished, it's on to the tower proper for a confrontation with the Shadow boss. His fight is considerably more difficult, as the 1.5 million-hit point foe has to be defeated in 10 minutes or less as glowing blue walls consistently close in on the players. Oh, and he can also throw up a self-healing bubble from time to time that needs to be shattered as quickly as possible.

For players who are well-versed in the "don't stand in the fire!" mantra, the Shadow boss is the opposite: When he starts exuding smoke, it's vital to stand still or else take massive damage. If you're up for his challenge mode, you'll need to defeat this boss within five minutes. Bring it on!

Facing down Saruman
Face-to-face with Saruman

The final stage of The Tower of Orthanc takes place on its top, as players finally confront Saruman in a showdown that we've been itching for ever since the expansion released. This is a challenging six-phase battle that requires raids to be at their very best. In its Tier 2 form, this will be the toughest battle in LotRO.

Before the fight begins, five members of the raid can pick up one of the minor elemental rings to redirect Saruman's power back against him. For the seven members feeling left out, the ring-bearers can bestow incredible buffs on the rest of the party that will, in the words of the devs, "have you make bigger numbers than you've ever seen in this game." New UI elements will pop up to reflect how the battle is progressing and whether you're on the track to winning... or losing.

The battle not only can be lost by a wipe but will automatically fail if players fail to reflect Saruman's damage three times or if 10 party members die during the struggle. The fight begins with Saruman summoning elemental clones of himself and grows increasingly more complex as it progresses. Later phases have Saruman controlling the weather, creating dangerous hot spots that will hurt those standing in them, and summoning extra clones in an attempt to swarm the player.

As a fun bonus feature, Saruman will sometimes attack players with light-based damage, which is a first for any enemy mob in the game. Guess how much defense there is for players against light damage? Yeah. You're going to get pounded. You can even be knocked off the top of the tower to your death, so positioning is key.

If you survive and prevail against Saruman, you'll eventually be able to break his ring and hurt him for the first time. Of course, since he's a wizard, he's not going to stand around taking that kind of abuse, and it's at this moment that the fight ends with his knocking you off the tower and onto the backs of helpful Eagles who are returning from EagleCon '11.

This raid represents Turbine's efforts to push the limits of what's doable in the game and to make a lasting challenge for endgame adventurers. The rewards for such efforts are worth it: Over 100 unique pieces of gear have been created for this instance cluster. There are even drops that will allow you to craft together a legendary necklace or upgrade your Draigoch cloak. The raid also has the allure of level 75 first-age legendaries. Tier 2 has a chance to drop them while you're running the challenge mode; beating it without a single player death will guarantee them.

Wizard flashlight
Into 2012 and beyond!

While the devs hedged any specific release date for Update 5, they confirmed that it should be released sometime in December.

The devs concluded on a high note by saying that Rise of Isengard's runaway success has really helped the game's future. Turbine has been able to reinvest the profits into more frequent future updates, and the devs are absolutely bursting to tell us what's coming in 2012. All they would say is that no matter how big we thought 2011 was for the game, next year will be even bigger and better.

Playable Ent race, perhaps? Hey, a Tolkien fan can dream.
This article was originally published on Massively.