But it wasn't until a week ago when my slow-but-steady Captain finally encountered my favorite aspect of this expansion: the Eves of Fangorn. I wasn't expecting to be so enchanted and engaged, but LotRO threw me for a loop and there I was -- grinning at the zone design and happy that the game can still produce a sense of wonder and adventure in my soul.
Why is it so good? What won me over? If you're thinking, "He's got a tree fetish, he does," then you might not be too far off base.
A concern that's been gnawing at the back of my mind for a while now is that we've wrapped up the lands and areas that boast the most diversity in Middle-earth. I mean, the beginning of the game has these four free cultures -- Man, Dwarf, Elf, and Hobbit -- co-existing in Eriador among the ruins of older civilizations. We've seen the depths of Moria, the dark of Mirkwood, the far north of Forochel, and the crazy cat lady's house. But the further we go south, the more we're leaving three of those races behind. Gondor and Rohan are primarily countries of Man, and it was already stretching the IP a little to include a small Hobbit village in Enedwaith a while back.
So while I think that Rohan is pretty cool both as a place and as a culture, part of me is sad that we won't be seeing the variety of civilization that we got in the past. And indeed, for a good part of the expansion, it's all Rohan, all the time. It's beautiful to see and full of bustling life, but it's a single country dominated by Man.
That's why going into Fangorn was such a relief. For a couple of brief days, I was invited to leave Rohan behind and explore a completely different setting and culture (if you can call it that) and meet the fifth member of the Free Peoples of Middle-earth: the Ents.
One of these forests is not like the other
LotRO is renowned for its unique forests. The Old Forest in Bree-land holds a spot (both good and bad!) in the memories of many vets, and Mirkwood was spot-on in being a creepy, Halloween-ish setting. But Fangorn is something else entirely, and I'm kind of amazed that the devs were able to give it a really unique feel.
The minute you step into the Eves, shadows fall over you. It's not oppressive, not exactly, but it's also not a place of light and space. Only occasionally does the sun peek in, and for the most part you're tromping through dense foliage where you can't see too far ahead thanks to the fog. It gives the zone a humid, almost claustrophobic atmosphere, despite there being very few "tree walls" as is present in the Old Forest.
It's also quiet... almost too quiet. Fangorn is a really ancient place where most people, good and evil, fear to tread. So it just reeks with untouched age, a place unique when compared to the tidy farms and settlements just a few miles away.
Fangorn is fascinating to me because there are so few landmarks, no settlements, and none of the typical conveniences (such as vendors) that populate other zones. It is the true wild in a way that we haven't really seen in the game.
The primary storyline is a quest to find out what happened to Merry and Pippin while stirring up the sleeping, apathetic Ents. There's very little dialogue and only one other person you encounter, but the quest writers were able to come up with an interesting variety nonetheless. I didn't think I'd be befriending Huorns before going into Fangorn or getting a little emotional about the fate of a tiny bird, but here we are.
The Ents themselves are wonderfully portrayed. OK, Turbine didn't spring for awesome voice acting on them, but they definitely felt weird and alien. Many of the quests come from your character noticing moods, small gestures, or surrounding details and responding accordingly. It's a quieter, more intimate line of missions than a town chief howling at you to decapitate 16 Orcs by dinnertime. Sometimes those small, subtle moments are what makes LotRO work so well.
Story-wise, it's an appreciated intermission that reminds us that there are important events going on outside of Rohan, a fact that might understandably be forgotten when you've spent months in the country.
In the end, the gradual progression of Ent-hub to Ent-hub took me on a slightly confusing and always-interesting adventure into the heart of a small mystery. I'm trying to avoid spoilers, but the rotten core of Fangorn honestly disgusted me after I'd come to appreciate the region and its people.
Maybe the Eves of Fangorn irritated you or felt like an unnecessary detour in the overall storyline, but I think it's places and approaches like this that are crucial to keeping the game from becoming a homogenized product over the next couple of years.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or through his gaming blog, Bio Break.