The Road to Mordor: Rise of Isengard report card

LotRO
It's been a half-year since Lord of the Rings Online's third expansion, Rise of Isengard, opened the doors to Dunland and beyond. It was an interesting expansion compared to what came before in several ways: It finally took us into the pages of The Two Towers, it introduced Rohan and the Rohirrim, and it introduced what I consider to be the most compelling villain this game has seen to date.

While the game's hinted and alluded to Saruman and his White Hand back-up dancers leading up to RoI, the expansion finally unveiled the mastermind behind many of the machinations of Middle-earth's mischief. His was not an overt city-crushing type of evil; instead, he's a crafty politician-type who attempts to woo and seduce minds to his cause. More than the Witch-king of Angmar or Sara Oakheart, Saruman gives us a perfect target for our justified outrage. This is a guy we don't want to see succeed, ever.

So with six months under our belt, I thought it would be a great time to evaluate as much of Rise of Isengard as I've experienced with the ol' report card treatment. Where does it get good marks -- and where does it need tutoring?

Village bridge
The story

Rise of Isengard is, first and foremost, a PvE questing expansion. One could argue that Siege of Mirkwood was more a delivery platform for the skirmish system, which was fine for what it was but not so great for those looking for great swaths of land to explore. As a PvE quester myself, I was very delighted to see a return to what I consider to be LotRO's meat-and-potatoes.

The epic storyline of the area -- the journey of the Grey Company south from Eriador -- is intertwined with the plights of local villages, all of which are feeling the pressure from Saruman to capitulate. Some are firmly in his pocket, some stubbornly resist, and some are a mystery to everyone but themselves. Unlike the more civilized folks to the north, these are slightly more backward tribespeople eking out an existence while technologically advanced countries surround them. It makes for an interesting tone, similar to what we saw in Forochel.

I'm going to say that during the first half of the expansion, I generally enjoyed the stories and quests of the villages more than I did the epic storyline, but during the second half, that flipped. Questing got a lot more monotonous (especially in the Gap and in Isengard), while the epic storyline picked up steam.

The two greatest stories in the expansion for me were the saga of Lhan Tarren (one of the first two villages players encounter in Dunland) and the part of the epic storyline where (spoilers!) you are taken prisoner. Both have enough neat twists, compelling characters, and interesting situations that I didn't want to stop playing when I started them.

In Dunland, I started to get the impression that no matter how many small victories we were achieving, there was a really good chance we were going to lose the whole war. The expansion may be set in sunny lands, but it's cloudy in tone, with betrayal, loss, oppression, and failure all over the place. Turbine's upped its storytelling game, and as such, I'm giving the expansion's story a B+.

River battle
The mechanics

You've heard me say this before, so I'll try to make this the last time on this column, but I'm still disappointed that RoI didn't contain any new gameplay mechanics, classes, races, or any other substantial ways to develop our characters. There was a lot of solid content, yes, but no "exciting! new! different!" selling point upon which to hang the expansion's hook. My characters at 75 are more or less the same as they were at 65, and that's a shame. (On second thought, I'd be remiss to overlook the raising of the virtue cap and the additional deeds, which are welcome.)

I will give props to the studio for embracing the use of phasing technology, which allowed for the landscape and NPCs to be altered due to an individual player's storyline without physically separating players from each other. The phasing isn't in your face, and as such, it probably went unnoticed most of the time, but I kept a sharp eye out and appreciated it when it happened.

Also cool was seeing the use of packs of roving mobs using some new tech that Turbine's trying to refine before Helm's Deep comes out. Getting more mobs on the screen for battles and chaotic situations is great, and it goes a long way to making the game feel more large and epic at times.

While many of the humanoid mobs are far more detailed than savages we've seen before, there's little in the way of variety or freshness in the bulk of the expanion's combat. In fact, the most notable feature is one of the expansion's more annoying ones: Pretty much every mob has the ability to interrupt, stun, or knock you back. Without exception, everyone I know just hates this because it makes combat not exciting but aggravating. Plus, it seems to discriminate against classes with long activation times (my Lore-master had a beastly time in the expansion, whereas my Captain is doing just fine).

All in all, the mechanics are a mixed bag and deserving of no more than a D+.

The rewards

I'll freely admit that when it comes to Rise of Isengard's instances and raids, I'm relatively inexperienced. So when it comes to discussing the rewards from the expansion, I'm mostly speaking about what your average solo quester will acquire over the course of his or her journey.

With the stat revamps that came with the expansion, everyone's scrambling to fill out his class' headline stat. Oddly enough, most of the gear rewards that RoI dishes out lack the Vitality or Morale that should be paired with these main stats, leaving players to choose between survivability or boosting their overall power. This is weird to me, and I actually saw my Lore-master's morale decrease the more he went through Dunland.

On the plus side, as a cosmetic junkie, I was pretty excited to see more fluff in the epic storyline, including the prisoner set and the Grey Company set. Even better were the terrific armor models that Turbine's art department is churning out. Those sick of looking like bizarre renaissance fair rejects can now deck themselves out in serious-looking armor that feels more appropriate to a war-torn land rather than the incense booth between the turkey leg vendor and the corset store.

So if I'm not getting loads of thrillingly useful gear rewards, seeing new armor models and cosmetics is the next best thing. I'll give this a... hm... C+.

Saruman and Radagast
The landscape

Unlike Mines of Moria and Siege of Mirkwood, Rise of Isengard features territory that is generally bright, cheerful, and airy. It's not quite the pastoral landscape of the Shire, but it's pretty close in spots, with rapidly flowing streams, civilization dotting the map, and a nice variety of biospheres. Being outside in the sunlight is bolstering for the soul, especially when you're going to spend as much time in these zones as the quests demand.

That said, there really isn't anything new in Dunland that we haven't seen before, other than the Rohirrim camps. It feels like an extension of Eregion and Enedwaith (which makes logical sense), and as such it's just more of the same.

Isengard bucked this trend with its ugly brambles and destroyed forest, which certainly is a shocker after coming in out of the wilderness. It's here we see what "progress" could do to Middle-earth, and even though it's ugly, I'm giving it some thumbs-up because it should be ugly. My only complaint is that the region has the same shrill ambient noise that Angmar has, and it sets my teeth on edge.

Overall, the regions are large and pleasing to behold, if not terribly original. I'm going with a B on this.

The rest

It's so terribly hard to give a comprehensive review of an expansion because there are always so many perspectives, personal preferences, and uncategorizable items to deal with. I've already mentioned the excellent use of Saruman as an arch-villain, which I feels helps cement the tone of the game as it heads south, but I'm equally impressed with the village vignettes and the character pieces that went with it.

Plus, if nothing else, I'm eternally grateful to this expansion for bringing the haughty Rangers down a peg or two by making one haul poop around. Oh, I laughed and laughed when I saw that. It was a belly-shaker, it was.

In some ways, Rise of Isengard felt like a placeholder until a bigger and better expansion (such as Riders of Rohan) came along. I think the region will be forgettable once we leave it, and with no original music, big selling points, or Hobbit amusement parks to boast of, what is left? Was this just all busywork until we get to something important, or was it a vital piece of the larger LotRO story that really needed to be told?

When I'm honest to myself about it, I'm more positive about Rise of Isengard than hard on it, so ultimately I'm glad we have it. It is nice to have a great amount of content to chew on, and if approached sparingly, it could last one a good portion of the way from last September until this fall.

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.