The Road to Mordor: A tour of LotRO's update 14 and majestic Gondor

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With Update 13, Volume III, and the good nation of Rohan in our rear-view mirrors, we now turn ahead to see Gondor, next six exits, straight ahead. Lord of the Rings Online players have a lot to be excited for when Update 14 arrives, not the least of which is a new country that was central to the events of The Return of the King.

Update 14 is scheduled to release on Monday, July 14th, because marketers always get a special little thrill when they match up similar numbers. It's a pretty sizable content patch that's almost a mini-expansion, with five additional levels, a new epic book, three questing regions, well over 100 quests, and a new essence system for gear. This past week I sat down with Turbine to get a whirlwind tour of what lies beyond Rohan, and after seeing it, I think that LotRO fans have good reason to hope for an exciting summer.

As Volume IV: The Strength of Sauron begins in a player's epic story, he or she will be beckoned to travel after Aragorn along the Paths of the Dead and into Western Gondor. We've been looking at the forbidding doorway of the Paths for several months now without knowing exactly what lay within.

The story picks up around March 9th of the book's timeline, right after Pippin looked into the Palantir and caught the attention of Sauron. The Nazgul are on the move once again, the kings of Gondor are being rallied to defend Minas Tirith, and an Army of the Dead is on the move.

Interestingly enough, Aragorn's confrontation with the Oathbreakers in the Paths and his subsequent recruiting them for a curse-breaking task presented a serious storytelling challenge for the devs. Why would players go into an emptied-out Paths of the Dead, and what would they find there? The answer to that comes in the form of spirits who were reluctant to join the crusade, staying behind as irredeemable (and hostile) Ruthless Dead.

One of the focuses of Update 14 was on giving players additional opportunities to engage in group activities. This shows up early on, as several Volume IV quests can be run in Fellowship mode if desired, triggering new challenges and an increased difficulty level.

On the other side of the paths in Western Gondor proper, players will find a familiar sight: the Stone of Erech. It's here that players (in a flashback) witnessed the oathbreaking of generations ago that created the undead. The area looks a little different in the present time, however, with fewer trees and Gondorian settlements around.

So what is Gondor like? It's not a radical shift from the neighboring country of Rohan, but there are several distinguishing qualities that set it apart. The biome has more of a Mediterranean feel, with a slightly more arid landscape, vertical shrubbery, and tightly packed towns with plenty of bright stone and marble. But more than that, Gondor encapsulates a feeling of ancient history. Previously, players had witnessed old Gondorian ruins across Middle-earth; here, they'll be able to experience the architecture in a place where the torch of Numenorian culture still burns.

In other words, it's as striking and beautiful as Rohan, just in its own way. Structures, NPCs, and outfits have all been given their own art pass, which gives me great hope as a cosmetic outfit collector that I'll be expanding my collection once I get in there.

Questing through the region will lead players to small settlements like Morlad to sprawling cities like Dol Amroth. In one town, Lamedon, players will arrive the morning after Aragorn and the army of the dead camped out for the evening. As you might have guessed, the townfolk are freaked the heck out.

One significant detail that you'll be seeing all over the region are the plumes of smoke from the lit beacons. You might recall that in the books and movies, the beacons were a rallying call for danger. So even while the country seems far more at peace than Rohan was, the smoke indicates that potential doom is not far off.

Oh yeah, and there are swans and swan motifs just about everywhere. Apparently one of the old kings was really keen on the birds, so we're trading horses for swans. Turbine said that in the court of the prince, there was a bug in beta that caused all of the live swans to honk constantly, creating a horrible racket. In my experience, this is exactly what they do in real life, but I can see why that was toned down for the game.

Gondorians aside, I was informed that we'll be seeing a return of two old factions: the corsairs and the Elves. The corsairs think that there's some easy plundering to be had now that the army's moved out, but they'll find only empty coffers and death. Meanwhile, the Elves are watching over one of their old refuges that served as a departure point from Middle-earth much like Mithlond.

The devs also took some time to talk about the new essence system that's coming with Update 14. It won't be -- as I feared -- a gear version of the legendary item system. As explained to me, it will be special pieces of armor that can be equipped with "essences" that feature certain stats. By mix-and-matching essences, players can customize their gear to complement their build.

However, it's hard to relay how well this will work without seeing it, and Turbine wasn't quite showing yet. Word is that Update 14 will be a "mini-launch" of the essence system, with essences dropping very rarely so as to not flood the market. Because they can be crafted and traded, Turbine expects that this will introduce a new spice to the economy. One possibility that the devs floated was to offer essences as rewards in festivals and through the buried treasure event.

The devs also emphasized that a bulk of the essence system will be in-game, not in the store, and that it won't be replacing raid gear, though it will allow players ways to tweak their build and complement the gear they already own.

As we closed our session, the devs spent some time talking about the MMO landscape. They freely acknowledge that working on an aging game puts them at a disadvantage in some ways. However, they're quite clear on what they see as LotRO's greatest strength: an unparalleled world and an unmatched story experience. We'll see just how that world and story expands come Update 14.

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.