30,000 Orcs and you A LotRO epic battle story
The rain beats hard down on steel helms as a flash of lightning illuminates the horrible truth: a carpet of monsters stretching to the horizon, advancing on the last refuge of an entire country. A catapult rolls up and fires a flaming shot over the battlements and into the troops behind you. People die. More people take their place. As you watch, a formation of 600 Orcs breaks away from the host for the first charge against the wall. Your wall. The wall you've sworn to protect at all costs. The wall that may well be your grave in the next 30 minutes.

This isn't just flowery language but actual in-game events we witnessed when Turbine took us in for our first look at the epic battles coming to Lord of the Rings Online: Helm's Deep. There's been plenty of talk on the studio's part as to the scale and scope of the system, but it's something else entirely to see it in action.

Turbine's been working on the epic battle system for well over a year now, drawing inspiration from World War II documentaries as well as the 10-page description of the battle in Tolkien's novel. The team reworked the game's technology from the ground-up to allow for thousands of characters to fill the screen and up to 50 NPCs to be in combat at any one time. And even though the outcome of the battle is locked into place by lore, the conceit is that you will be judged based on your performance.

Join us and 30,000 Orcs as we go over the many, many details of epic battles. But be quick about it -- we've only a few moments before the fight is rejoined.

30,000 Orcs and you A LotRO epic battle story
What are epic battles?

As Lord of the Rings progresses, the action in the books gradually expands until it arrives at absolutely massive battles that rage across Middle-earth. This was a huge challenge to the team to bring to the game, especially considering that LotRO's technology allowed for only around eight NPCs to be fighting on the screen at a time. Shattering the notions of scale, the devs created a new type of instanced content that was part-skirmish, part-group content, and part something we have never seen before.

You can choose to dive into the Battle of Helm's Deep at one of five points in time and location. Helm's Dike contains both a solo and six-man version, the Deeping Wall has a solo and 12-man version, the Deeping-comb is just solo, the Glittering Caves is only available as a three-man, and the Hornberg is solo. Interestingly enough, all of the solo instances can be duoed with a friend if desired.

Turbine's obviously hoping that the epic battle brings friends and kinships together because it's created a new character upscaling feature to facilitate level mismatched teams. Basically, as long as you're level 10 or above, you can jump into the epic battle and see your level, stats, skills, and gear raised to 95. In this way, a level 31 Hunter and a level 87 Lore-master can join forces without worrying about the disparity. We asked whether upscaling will be used elsewhere in the game; Turbine hedged by saying that it was going to see how Helm's Deep worked out first.

As you go through the half-hour or so long battles, you'll be attempting to achieve your primary objective and as many secondaries as you can handle. The better you do overall, the higher your merit rating (it's like being graded on a test that involves spears and death by decapitation). Battles award bronze, silver, gold, and platinum medals that can be spent later on for perks and gear.

30,000 Orcs and you A LotRO epic battle story
There's a new UI for the epic battle system that allows you to choose not only your instance poison but your promotions, not to mention to see how your battle rewards are stacking up. Promotions are much like the upcoming class trait trees, although this system uses a point system based on medals earned (up to 216 points total). You can unlock abilities in any of the three epic battle roles (more on those later), choosing to specialize or hybrid your spec out. The more you spend in any one tree, the more basic abilities are unlocked for you as well. However, going deep has a substantial point cost, so there's definitely a trade-off at work here.

At the end of the day, it's all about the rewards, of course. The battle history tab on the UI has a field for advancement toward your next treasure chest in the bronze, silver, gold, and platinum arenas. When you fill up one of those four bars, you have the option to take what's in the box (a red snapper?) or to convert that bar's points into fewer points for the next tier up. This works only from bronze to silver and silver to gold; you'll have to earn platinum rewards the hard way.

Most of the rewards from these chests will be new sets of jewelry that come in several tiers and rarity. For some reason, Turbine isn't throwing in armor sets into the epic battles, although the "why" of this was not fully explained during our tour.

30,000 Orcs and you A LotRO epic battle story
The Deeping Wall

While our dev tour was full of explanation, we only were able to see one quick instance: the Deeping Wall. In this portion of the Battle of Helm's Deep, you're on the wall fending off the initial wave of attackers against the castle.

The hype was partially validated when we saw what Turbine called "distant battlefield" technology to generate the large Orc army. What made us sit up a bit straighter was when that distant army started to get nearer and nearer, seamlessly sending in a wave of 600 or so Orcs in formation at us. You can track their progress from far away to right in front of your face with nary a visual burp.

First came the catapult fire, from both the enemy and from us. Then came the arrows, the grappling hooks, and the ladders. Orcs charged over the top, each moving fast and furious as he clashed with NPCs and players. Turbine explained that another new system that the devs created implements behavior priority in each of the enemies. Instead of just mobbing mindlessly, all NPCs now have a list of priorities for their actions. Sappers might bypass troops entirely in an effort to get at that catapult, while commanders might seek out their equal on the battlefield and engage him or her. This target priority also means that the enemy isn't necessarily out to get you, so you will have more freedom of movement than you would in a traditional skirmish.

As a hero helping to defend the wall, you have the choice of one of three roles to help win the day. First up are Engineers, who are perfect for those who like to interact with "clickies," lay traps, and fire off catapults. Turbine's invented the unfortunately titled "multi-usage system" to give more options to each interactive object on the battlefield. Catapults, for example, can be loaded, cranked, repaired, extinguished (if on fire), upgraded, and constructed using this pop-up interface.

Even more cool is the fact that the interface allows for multiple people to interact with the object at the same time. You might be cranking the catapult while I aim it, or we might both crank it in order to finish the job faster.

If throwing rocks on Orc heads and being a battlefield repair technician isn't your thing, then consider the second role, Officer. Officers get to boss NPCs around in a sort of "RTS-lite." Using the same pop-up interface, you can go over to a friendly NPC, give it instructions, and watch your pawn go out to die a glorious death. These instructions include healing, pulling out a shield, switching to two-handers, going aggressive, playing defensive, guarding areas, and setting target priority.

30,000 Orcs and you A LotRO epic battle story
If the Engineer or Officer life isn't for you, there's always the glory of being a Vanguard. This is the most straightforward role: the role of someone who wants to stab or smack people in the face. There's some complexity to the role, as it utilizes kill streaks and stacks up pips to expend in death. That's right: When you die as a Vanguard, your comrades are so inspired by your sacrifice that it buffs them in various ways.

Because of the chaotic flow of battle, the three roles, and the randomized secondary objectives that arise, no two battles will be alike. The idea here is that there are always more options at any given moment than you can accomplish, so you'll be making tough decisions left and right in an effort to get the best merit rating possible. Let's say a secondary objective pops up telling you that Orcs are trying to break down a door that leads into a first aid area. If you ignore it, you'll watch your merit bar take a dive when the door caves in and the injured die. But if you focus on defending it, your catapult might be burned up by that group of sappers that just appeared.

Turbine seems pretty confident in the epic battle system as it stands. It's been in internal testing for quite some time now as well as the more recent expansion beta test, and the devs said that it's been performing admirably. It's still a big gamble, as the epic battles are replacing the traditional instance cluster that has come with expansions, so raiders will have to adjust to a more chaotic system instead of a well-choreographed dungeon dance.

We have only a couple of weeks left before epic battles stop being theory for most of the playerbase and start being fact. We'll see how it pans out when the Orcs meet the road.

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This article was originally published on Massively.