The Road to Mordor: Inside Isengard

Lord of the Rings Online

It's one thing to sit down during a beta and poke around on your own, making educated guesses about why what went where and who what is wherefore. It's another thing entirely to pick up the phone and go, "Hey Turbine? Drop everything -- no, not your pants! -- and take me on a tour of Rise of Isengard! Um, magic word? Oh! Pretty please? With a cherry on top?"

The first approach is good, but I wanted to get a more in-depth look into the making of Lord of the Rings Online's third expansion from the people who actually made it. How does one approach fleshing out an area that received relatively little source support from the books? What is Turbine trying to do differently in its fourth year of LotRO development? And why should we be afraid of an old guy in a bathrobe who won't come out of his tower?

See? These are good questions to ask, which is why I sat down with Bob Hess, Aaron Campbell and Adam Mersky, who graciously took me on a whirlwind tour of Rise of Isengard. I wanted to cut through the PR-speak and learn about the real stories of the making of the expansion and what we'll be encountering within, and the devs were happy to oblige.

Hit the jump as we travel further down The Road to Mordor and take the Hobbits to Isengard!

Isengard 1

I-Day approacheth

The countdown is on, and Turbine's development team is at a fever pitch, fresh off a convention tour in Germany and Seattle and gearing up for the expansion's release. It's not just all about Isengard, however; the team's also gearing up for Update 5, which will add several new dungeons to the game and is deep in planning for 2012's content.

As Campbell flitted between conventions, he said that he would get new builds of the game to display and would personally see how the expansion was shaping up. "What I love about this stage in the beta is that every time I log in, I see something different," he told us. For example, as the new builds went in, animations such as the massive dragon Draigoch improved exponentially.

The next chapter of Middle-earth unfolds

Rise of Isengard is not meant to be an isolated pocket of storytelling but rather an extension of what's happened before and a foreshadowing of what is still to come. Players familiar with last year's Enedwaith zone release will discover that many of the themes and storylines will be continued in Dunland. We were pleased to hear that the old woman in the mountain, perhaps the most memorable NPC from Enedwaith, will be returning for a side-story that will flesh her character out and set the stage for even more down the road.

This offered the team a unique opportunity to not only add another chapter on to the tale but flex its storytelling muscles and switch points of view. One example we were given was of the account of a cursed father and son in Enedwaith's Lich Bluffs, which will be explored in a different fashion once players make headway into Dunland's Bonevales. There they'll discover a tribe that's suffering from the same dark curse that plagued the father and son, and in an eerie echo of what players had encountered previously, they'll be tackling a similar situation as they assist a daughter of a cursed tribesman.

The less-defined "gray space" of Dunland (which, like Enedwaith, was not given much attention in J.R.R. Tolkien's novels) gave the team the chance to fill in the gaps with how the devs imagined it would look and play out. Little moments that occur here, such as the sighting of a flying Nazgul in a frenzied search for the One Ring, will serve to remind players that the events of Frodo, Aragorn and Gandalf are not put on "pause" but are taking place simultaneously.

Isengard 2

Horses, ho!

There were more than a few LotRO players who felt let down that the third expansion wouldn't take place in the previously rumored Rohan, but fans of the Rohirrim won't be left in the dark. In fact, Rise of Isengard may well prove an excellent introduction to the horse-riding nation and its inhabitants. As players progress toward Isengard, they'll come upon Heathfells and Isendale, a couple of major Rohirrim hubs with the distinct characters, culture and style of Rohan.

"The Rohirrim are very important to us," Mersky said, citing additional work that's been put into the barding, horses, and character models we'll be encountering. We noted that the Rohirrim horses seem to be more lively, and the team confirmed that it had been working on more animations -- such as ear twitching, tail swooshing, stamping and twitching -- to make Turbine's little ponies more engaging (and 20% cooler). We asked if these animations would be coming to player mounts in the future, but the team couldn't comment on that.

It's here in Dunland that players will encounter signature Rohirrim characters like Theodred, Theoden's only son, prior to their roles in the books.

They're gonna need a bigger toolbox

The content team is always looking to expand its "storytelling toolbox," as the more ways a tale can be told equals fewer bored players who are tired of the tyranny of the quest box. One of these new tools is the better use of the game engine to show hordes of NPCs on a much larger scale than anything we've seen previously.

"Wulf's Cleft is a good indication of the sense of scale of the story we're telling," Hess said, pointing to the now-infamous camp that features scores of people milling around almost as far as the eye can see. Turbine's not only pushing the limits of what the game engine can do but using "smoke and mirrors" to accomplish this visual feat without bringing player computers to their knees.

"Think of it like a movie set," Campbell explained. "You may have a set that looks deep and huge, but it's really just a wall three inches thick. The illusion pulls you in."

Other tools that the team is utilizing are moral choices and phasing. A handful of Isengard quests will allow players to pick between a couple of options that will indeed influence events and characters down the line, much in the same way that Enedwaith explorers had the choice to send a ranger on down the road or keep him at the camp. Moral choices are trickier in LotRO than other IPs, however, because the worldview is much more black-and-white -- meaning that heroic characters wouldn't choose to do evil things but rather have to choose between two well-intentioned actions.

Like these choices, phasing has been a part of LotRO (most notably in Evendim), and it will be wielded with greater impact in Dunland. Depending on one's actions, NPCs may live and die, questgivers appear or are non-existent, and buildings could be razed or remain intact. Because all of this takes place in a single public instance, what one player may be seeing in front of him may not be what his friend sees in the same location -- even though they're together.

Isengard 3

The road goes ever on... but it splits up a lot, too

Unlike Mirkwood's generally linear quest flow, Rise of Isengard questing experience is meant to be less rigid. As a result, players will often be faced with the option to go to one area or another, all while still progressing toward Orthanc itself. This was designed to feed the explorer soul that exists in some players.

The story's flow is picking up pace as well, with the timeline progressing forward more rapidly than before. The Turbine team has a "monstrous" flow chart in the office that shows where the characters all are, where they go as the timeline progresses, and how they relate to each other.

The numbers game

In terms of size and scope, Rise of Isengard is impressive by any measure. There are 375 standard quests, 60 new epic storyline quests, over 40 brand-new deeds, at least one new set of armor per class, plus multiple sets for races and cosmetic armor models. Plenty of new creatures, such as the "crocobeaver" (an unofficial term the team likes to use for a bizarre mish-mash of beast), Shaka-hai, and Abominations will be encountered, as will updated variants on old classics. For instance, the Warg-riders in Dunland will look a lot more heavily armored than the ones encountered by players in Moria.

The team was proud in just how many visual distinctions that Dunlanding and Rohirrim characters feature. We asked whether player character models -- a sore point among some -- would be seeing similar improvements. Campbell said that it's a possibility, but it's just one of many ideas that the team is tackling. "We can't guarantee it, but it is something we'd love to do because player appearance and the feeling that you're attached to your character is very important to what we're building."

Ultimately, Turbine hopes that players will look past the numbers game and simply enjoy this epic journey up to -- and inside -- the doors of Orthanc. We asked the team members if there was an office pool as to how soon after the expansion's launch we would see the first level 75. The team laughed, and Mersky replied, "It'll probably be pretty quick, but a lot of players are going to want to slow down and enjoy the story."

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 or through his gaming blog, Bio Break.