The Road to Mordor: Why nothing stacks up to Shadows of Angmar

I'm putting all of my cards out on the table here: I am in a massive Lord of the Rings Online slump right now. It's perhaps one of the biggest that I've had in years, which is made baffling by the fact that it was triggered by a new patch. I was pretty psyched about Update 13 until it came out, at which point I felt my enthusiasm drain away as I picked at the remainders of the epic story and a frustratingly boring Fangorn zone.

I tried not to swing into bitter burnout mode and calmly backed away to give myself a sabbatical from the game. Hey, it happens to all of us no matter how much we love a game, right? But during this time off from LotRO, I've been wondering a lot why for all of the improvements to story, questing, and art in the recent expansions, when I think of what I love about the game it's always everything pre-Moria.

So I'm going to start today's column with a bold hypothesis and then see if I can back it up: Nothing in this game can stack up to Shadows of Angmar content. Nothing feels as right as it does and did in those zones.

It comes from nostalgic bonds

I don't think it's unreasonable to start with the obvious assumption that nostalgia has a strong say in how I feel about this. We form strong attachments to our first experiences and areas in the game for both that new zone smell and because we've gone through those areas on alts so many times.

One must remember that from April 2007 to November 2008, the initial portion of Eriador was the game entire. There was nothing to the east or south, and places like Angmar and the Misty Mountains were considered the high-level zones instead of the stepping stones to Moria. Spend a year and a half in any place and you get attached in deep ways. Sure, we got anxious to leave and move on, but like kids who go to college, there's a surprising fondness for the comforts and familiarity of home.

Maybe this home connection isn't being cultivated as strongly today. There are quicker paths to leveling and even the occasional cash shop purchase to skip over Shadows of Angmar. The bulk of the playerbase is more spread out, leaving these zones emptier than before. I would hope that a newcomer would still fall in love with these lands the way we did even in a new time, however. The quests, characters, and places are still there with that undeniable charm.

It's where everything social happens

Unlike some other MMOs I could mention, LotRO hasn't tried to force the population out of low-level town hubs in an effort to make new "it" places. Sure, there is the Twenty-First Hall and Edoras, but these still feel like more convenience shopping centers than any place where "real" Middle-earth life plays out among the community. No, for that you'll have to go to the Shire, where roleplaying hobbits are content to stay within its borders, or Bree, where the Prancing Pony and the nearby theater are almost always hopping with entertainment and conversation.

I'm really glad that Turbine's spent time over the last year or two building Bree up instead of letting it degrade into mediocrity. It looks better and has more amenities than it ever did before, and I always welome a trip back because of that.

To be as inclusive as possible, Turbine's kept all of the periodic social festivities in Eriador, save for the instanced town of Winter-home. The spring festival, summer festival, fall festival, anniversary celebration, and buried treasure event all take place right there in the same lowbie lands that everyone first experiences. Seeing the playerbase take a break from adventures to return as a larger community to simply have fun and celebrate a season or occasion always makes me smile.

Plus, there are racial skills that give you easy ports to your home towns, which is always a good excuse to head back instead of elsewhere when you need the services of an auction house. It's also where all of the player housing exists, meaning that our characters have physical roots in those zones.

It has diversity unmatched elsewhere

While I am as tepid as can be on the scatterbrained nature of Volume I of the epic story, that's the extent of my disappointment when it comes to the content offerings of Shadows of Angmar. Even compared against, say, Rohan, Eriador's zones are brimming with personality and -- more importantly -- diversity.

Nowhere else in the game do we get such a wonderful mix of people, places, and concepts. Within the scope of Shadows of Angmar, we can see the cultures of Dwarves, Hobbits, Men, and Elves independently and cooperatively function. We get the far north of Forochel, the decrepit decay of Angmar, the pastoral beauty of the Shire, the autumnal bliss of the Trollshaws, and the fading legacy of Ered Luin. We are invited to peek inside the lives of the Free Peoples of Middle-earth and perhaps walk (or run with mail) a day in their shoes. We don't start out by saving the world; we begin by learning about it.

For the lore junkie, there's just so much here. The Fellowship of the Ring was always my favorite of the trilogy, mostly because it felt like traveling through a wide scope of the world instead of focusing on the Man-centric lands of the south. Likewise, Eriador contains so many of the "greatest hits" that Tolkein fans cherish: Bag End, Weathertop, Bilbo's Trolls, Rivendell, the Prancing Pony, Buckleberry Ferry, the Barrow-downs, Tom Bombadil, and Goblin-town.

It's the calm before the storm

There's an adrenaline rush of being asked to go on an epic adventure to combat Big Bad Evil, but there's also a strong appeal to enjoy life at a slower pace. I'm reminded of how there was a subset of players in Guild Wars 1 that refused to move past the Searing and instead chose to enjoy the game in the peaceful lands of Ascalon. It wasn't what the devs intended, which made it fascinating to witness.

Maybe we have a yearning to go back to simpler times in our life, and since we can't do that, we might imitate that in the game. Shadows of Angmar was not without conflict, but the whole of that portion of the game is downright tranquil compared to what came after. It's the childhood of our characters before we're ushered into the adolescence of Moria and Mirkwood, eventually arriving at the adult era of Dunland and Rohan. Simpler times. Better times, perhaps.

Like those pre-searing players in Guild Wars 1, I've seen players purchase the experience disabler in LotRO and choose to stay in Shadows of Angmar for good. For them, the game exists there and no where else, and that makes them happy. I wish them well.

Simpler times. Diverse content. Home nesting. Hobbit pies. It set a bar so impossibly high that no war-steed could ever hurdle it.

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.