And thus I ended up hanging out with the Turbine crew -- Aaron Campbell, Jared Pruett, and Jeff Libby -- as they walked me through Update 6 with the optional developer commentary mode set to "on." I highly recommend you rent a developer for the same experience, as it helps to have someone giving you a Cliff's Notes version of the game's complicated lore.
Pruett first caught me up on the major PvMP changes of this coming Monday's update. The team wanted to increase rewards and turn progression into a seasonal mechanic to keep players coming to the Ettenmoors. As such, PvMP now has a universal currency -- that's account-wide, by the way -- that will allow players to purchase top-end gear. The team also tweaked down what the devs saw as a DPS race in order to give players time to deliberate and make strategic choices during fights.
Beyond PvMP, the devs marched me right into the next epic storyline book that whisked us away to a strange new land: The Great River. What did I find waiting for me there?
If you were wondering how Turbine was going to get players from the southern reaches of Isengard all the way back to Lothlorien, I was right there with you. The bridge between these zones comes in the form of Book 6, which is made up of 12 new chapters in the epic storyline and has plenty of tasty rewards (housing items, anyone?).
Following the terrible events of Book 5, your character falls to sleep and has one of the most disturbing dreams in the game. In it, the world turns to silver and you begin to encounter various characters from your past -- some dead, some still alive -- as well as get a glimpse of the Fellowship's journey in recent days.
The story writing team at Turbine loved using an interactive dream to kick off this book, as it allowed the writers to do all sorts of crazy things. The dream helps to remind players of the story up to this point and shows them that many of the cliffhangers and dangling plot threads haven't been forgotten by the team.
The dream takes you from Dunland to Evendim to Lothlorien and then finally to the Great River itself. By the end of it, your character is convinced that he or she has business back up north, and to the latest zone in LotRO you go!
The majority of our play date together was spent getting an overview of The Great River's varied landscapes and storylines. It's here that the foundation for this fall's Riders of Rohan is being laid, and as such, there will be plenty of lore-candy for those interested in this new nation we're about to encounter. In fact, it's here that the horsemen of the south came north to answer the call of Gondor, and after a mighty battle, Gondor recognized the bravery of these Men by giving them the region that would become the nation of Rohan.
The Great River is bordered on the east by the mighty Anduin, whose currents are too swift for any of the Free Peoples to cross (give it a try if you like a quick death, however). It's not as if you'd want to get to the other side, anyway, as the lands to the east have been decimated by Sauron. You get a taste of that desolation down in the Brown Lands, but more on that in a bit.
Players will be reminded of Lothlorien's great beauty as they start out in the north, but they'll quickly realize that this isn't the same "safe" golden forest that they encountered coming out of Moria. It's more overgrown and wild, and servants of the Enemy roam everywhere.
There's a lot to see and do in the Great River, so don't you worry. The devs were adamant that this zone is the biggest throwback to Shadows of Angmar-style content, and this is deliberate. They wanted to create a lore-rich zone that had tough challenges to keep endgame players busy until the expansion hits. That's why there's Limlight Gorge, where grouping is a necessity -- and where the rewards are incredibly tempting for those who venture into the area.
An increased focus on the Fellowship is another reason the Great River harkens to Shadows of Angmar. It's on the Anduin that Frodo and the rest traveled, and players will have many opportunities to rub shoulders with the aftermath of that journey.
Other highlights of the zone include a statue commemorating the teaming up of Rohan and Gondor (although there's a large white hand missing from one of the statues... hmm, where could that be?), giant eagles in the Wailing Hills (Landroval isn't just the name of a server, you know), and plenty of unique Ents to encounter.
One of the coolest locations is the town of Stangard, which is an outpost where disgraced Rohirrim are sent to guard the northern borders and reclaim their honor. The devs said they originally planned Stangard to be a small fort, but it kept growing and growing as the team couldn't stop creating structures for it. Because of this, there are lots of buildings, houses, and a great hall to explore -- and yes, you can go inside most of them to see what Rohirric architecture is like. I'll say this: It definitely has a different feel than the anything seen in the game up till now.
I was also pleasantly surprised to hear that the mystery of the Ent-wives' disappearance will be resolved, at least in-game. I'm not going to spoil it for you, but there's a very good reason to check out the Brown Lands and ask yourself what this area used to be like before Sauron came along.
Unfortunately, we didn't get a lot of time to talk about two of the most controversial topics of the update -- namely, the paid upgrade to the barter wallet and the cost of using skirmish soldiers on landscape. Now, I'm going to hold off talking about this until I get my hands on the update, but suffice it to say that Turbine isn't exactly garnering heaploads of praise about the way these two features are being implemented.
So in the few minutes we had left, I asked Campbell why the barter wallet upgrade isn't being included as a standard feature (especially for VIPs and since that the name of the wallet implies that it should already handle barter items) and what the thought was behind the expensive cost of wielding a skirmish soldier out in the world.
Turbine's stance is that the wallet upgrade is similar to other space upgrades (vault, wardrobe, etc.), and as such, the studio is going to charge for it. The devs said they didn't mean to mislead anyone with the name of it when the basic version was introduced. As for the soldiers on landscape, the cost is meant to make summoning a soldier more rare than common, so as not to unbalance the game. However, the devs stressed in both cases that they would be monitoring players' reactions to the features (and their cost after Update 6 releases) and will continually evaluate the cost.
I did ask if we'd ever see an increase in normal inventory space and was happy to hear that it's something the devs do want to accomplish at some point.
Rohan under construction
Concerns about the barter wallet and Landscape Soldiers aside, I'm plenty excited about Update 6 after getting a first-hand look at the new region. Middle-earth has been growing consistently over the past couple of years, and from what I can tell, this will make a fine addition to any adventurer's passport.
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 email@example.com or through his gaming blog, Bio Break.