LotRO
This past week we heard from Turbine about its general plans for Lord of the Rings Online in 2012, and while it may not have hit everything on my personal wish list for the year, it was a good start.

I was mulling over the question of whether it's better for MMOs to show all of their big cards up front like Turbine or to parcel them out over the course of the year. Both have advantages, of course. Front-loading the year with a broad overview like this gives players long-term reasons to stick with the game, but it also can steal the exciting thunder from these events down the road. On the other hand, measuring the big news out during the year would probably give Turbine more publicity, but it could frustrate players who might feel "in the dark" about the company's plans.

In any case, we got what we got, and there's a lot to chew over for this week's column: unbound skirmish soldiers, Riders of Rohan, the Great River, and the fifth anniversary. So let's get started!

Rohirrim
Riders of Rohan

Let's start with the big story, shall we? Hot on the heels of last year's Rise of Isengard comes the game's fourth expansion, Riders of Rohan. This shouldn't be a surprise at this point, since we knew that both a Rohan expansion and mounted combat were in the works (in fact, some thought it was a dead-lock for the third expansion before it was announced), but it's pleasant news anyway.

Pleasant, although personally not exciting. I'm all for continuing to grow the game world and to flesh out the map, but the biggest draw for me will probably be limited to mounted combat. Granted, it looks to be a huge, key system of the expansion, and it is certainly something new (which I've been clamoring for), but it's hard to imagine the rolling grassy plains of Rohan being as exciting to explore as the daily life of the Shire, the depths of Moria, or the corrupted forest of Mirkwood.

Of course, I know that some folks have been absolutely drooling over the day that we get to those horseback Vikings (aka the Rohirrim), as they're a fan favorite. Moving forward, I see a lot of Man-centric zones in our future, and it makes me a little sad that the Dwarves and Hobbits probably won't be appearing as much anymore. What, I missed Elves? I thought they were leaving Middle-earth. Don't let the door hit you on the way out, quitters!

Mounted combat has to work and work well, otherwise there goes the expansion. Apart from the two smaller zones leading into Rohan, the bulk of the new region will be dominated by horses (and hopefully, up-armored goats). There's a lot we don't know about how this will work: Will all of our standard skills work on horseback or will they be completely replaced by new ones? How will mounted combat factor in latency with quick-moving targets? Will speed play into attacks (a la charges) or will we be equally affected standing still as we will galloping along? Will we be using mounted combat in all zones going forward? I'm understandably curious about all this and more, but it's going to be a while before we see more details.

I've heard a few people speculate that the new system of skills and mount armoring will be the Legendary Item system 2.0. I can see that, but I hope for interest sake that it'll be something different (and more clean-cut). I like the idea of armoring my mount and changing its appearance, and for the first time it will turn mounts into something other than mere speed boosts with cosmetic flair.

I've also heard some grumbling that even though we're going into Rohan, it's not all of Rohan -- especially not Helm's Deep. Looking at the map and the timeline, I think it makes sense to do it this way. I see Rise of Isengard bringing us down the western front, curving in toward Isengard, and Riders of Rohan is going down the eastern front with a hook toward Isengard as well. It's just the latest step in the escalating battle, leading up to the (hopefully soon) epic confrontation/last stand at Helm's Deep.

Swimming
Update 6

Update 6: The Great River will be not only bridging the gap between Update 5 and Riders of Rohan but connecting the pieces of Middle-earth so that Lothlorien connects down to Rohan on the east side of the Misty Mountains. At this point, I think if we were to draw lines showing our actual journey through Middle-earth, it would be the most convoluted spaghetti chart ever, but that's beside the point.

As with Lothlorien and Enedwaith, The Great River follows Turbine's practice of providing us an introductory zone for the next expansion while at the same time giving endgame players something to do other than twiddling their thumbs. We haven't had a river-dominated zone in the game yet, so this will certainly be new, although I haven't heard anything about player boats (which, as specific types of mounts, would really rock).

The improved functionality of the instance finder is welcome news as well, as it'll finally be at the level that most other MMOs using a similar system feature (RIFT and World of Warcraft come to mind). I still haven't had a lot of luck using the instance finder, although it's certainly on my to-do list to keep trying.

Soldiers on landscape

It's interesting that the most surprising thing about this roadmap didn't come out of the expansion, but it's something that we'll be seeing relatively soon: the ability to take skirmish soldiers into the world with us. It's not a new idea by far. Some might claim "conspiracy" with this timing so close to Star Wars: The Old Republic and its companion characters; others might point out titles like EverQuest II that have hireable mercs. But it's no less welcome because of that.

In my opinion, this is a terrific addition to the game for a number of reasons:
  1. For those of us (me!) who are tired of skirmishes but liked the flexibility and customization of the soldiers, it gives us a great reason to revisit that system.
  2. I've noticed that kill times with mobs have gotten longer and longer the higher up I go, and I've really been wishing for a way to mow through mobs faster. Two characters equals double the killing power!
  3. It will take some of the pressure off of our trait builds. Maybe you've always wanted a healing spec but are reluctant to go that route because you know that you'll be killing like a slowpoke. Bam! Now you can do so while relying on your Warrior to take up the slack!
  4. It'll certainly come in handy for those who have difficulties finding groups for difficult solo or small-fellowship quests.
  5. It should speed up leveling overall without making it feel artificial.
Anyway, the possibilities boggle the mind, and I'm already incredibly eager to test-drive my Hobbit Sage in Dunland!

Tent talkers
Fifth anniversary and summer festival

While I know that Turbine wasn't exactly pleased to have to talk about the problems with the fourth anniversary, I'm glad the devs were open enough to acknowledge that they were just as aware about the issues as we were and should have those corrected in time for the game's five-year celebration. I'm hoping that it will be a memorable time, both in and out of the game, since the five-year mark doesn't roll around very often.

But between the upgraded anniversary event and the new summer festival coming our way, I'm incredibly gratified that Turbine hasn't forgotten how unifying and fun these community-building activities can be.

What's missing

Of course, no matter what Turbine was prepared to announce, it would never have been enough to satisfy all our desires. So it's with a large portion of understanding limited resources that I mention a few items I had really hoped would be on the docket for the coming year.

Like many of you, I really wanted to hear something new about housing, but I'm getting the feeling it's one of those projects that's on the backburner and probably will be for a while yet to come. Still, I had hoped the devs would've surprised us with a revamp, but nothing doing.

In regard to the expansion, I'd have to say that my biggest disappointment is that we're getting 10 more levels with little to show for how our classes will develop. There will be more skills, to be sure, but the character I have at 75 will look very, very similar to his future 85 counterpart. More class traits and new ways to "grow" our characters would've been welcome.

The counterpoint to this is that the mounted combat system might well fill that void by presenting us with a different way for our characters to grow in power and abilities, but with very few details about how it all works, I'm reluctant to get overly excited at the moment. Already I'm growing restless and bored with my Lore-master after having played him for so many months, and I'm very ready for him to "evolve" into something greater. Perhaps an advanced class?

Postscript: Better communication

Finally, a quick followup to last week's column and Turbine's response to the community about the store armor. I am glad that Turbine ended up taking the matter seriously enough to provide an explanation past a comment or two. The one thing I'm in total agreement with Turbine about is the need for better communication and transparency moving forward, not just with the store but with all aspects of the game. Lack of information and communication are excellent ways to cause misunderstandings and damage relationships over the long term.

Likewise, it was interesting to see just how communicative the fans were about this issue and how so many people not only felt strongly enough about the store armor to write about it but generally did so with intelligent, civil posts. Not every thing is worth getting into a hissy fit over, but when something's important enough to you that it affects your future with a game, you need to speak up about it.

That wraps up this week's analysis of the year ahead! Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a skirmish soldier to level. He's very excited about being freed from the bonds of his prison.

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.
WRUP: Apropos of nothing, Star Trek Online edition