Update 5: Saruman's Obviously Not Compensating for Anything With That Tower will undoubtedly be the last hurrah of Lord of the Rings Online -- this year, that is. It's an interesting update that looks to patch in the rest of Rise of Isengard's content (namely, the instance cluster) and provide a little something-something for players who have already reached the end of the epic storyline and are looking for more.
Earlier this week I took a dev tour through some of the main parts of the update, and while I wasn't able to see all of it (such as the non-raid instances), what I did preview certainly filled my head with opinions, analysis and further questions. Generally I came away pleased with what we're going to experience next month, although the comments section of the tour showed split feelings on what's in store for the patch.
Is this a case of too little, too late for those dissatisfied with Rise of Isengard's release? Will it breathe new life into dungeon-running, especially for the many soloers out there? Is it what this game needs right here and now? Hit the jump and I'll give you my honest thoughts on it all, both the good and the bad.
Instance cluster o' honey and nuts
Back in August, I called Rise of Isengard "the unfinished expansion," a perspective that I think many others continue to share. It's not that it was a small expansion or lacking in substance but rather that it failed to provide, right off the bat, the endgame instances that came standard with Mirkwood, Moria and Angmar. It rankled a lot of folks, and I personally thought it smelled like something Blizzard would pull -- release an expansion with advance claims to have all of these endgame dungeons but wait until a later point to actually release them.
Now, I have no insider knowledge of what goes on in Turbine's dev meetings and why the Isengard cluster got pushed back, but the logical assumption would be that (a) the instances really were not ready in September, and (b) Turbine really could not hold off launching the expansion, especially after locking in a date. The good news is that once Update 5 hits, all those who have paid for the full expansion (versus a la carte purchases) will receive the cluster for no additional charge, and the expansion will finally be complete. This may not be enough to pacify those who have felt wronged by all this, but after seeing all of the work put into it, I told the devs that they're forgiven at least by me.
The cluster does feel substantial, and more than that, wide-ranging. I probably will never get my character to the point where I can run the 12-man raid, as fun as it looks, but there's still the one regular and three smaller instances that are accessible to just about anyone.
Is instance-running for everyone? Nope, especially not in LotRO where the quest content is king. However, the ones who do love this content -- doing either fellowship or raid instances -- needed more than what was present. It really wasn't an option (well, not a good option) to neglect adding expansion-themed instances in favor of some other content right now, no matter where your personal interest may lie.
Finding a fellowship
Because Update 5 is very much an instance-themed content patch, it makes sense that this would be the best time to introduce an Instance Finder into the game. Turbine's been inching toward this for a while now -- the Instance Join interface being a notable step -- but unfortunately it looks like it still has some distance to go.
The good first: I'm excited about it. I really, truly am. I can't speak for anyone apart from myself in this regard, but I don't often get to run instances in LotRO because either everyone I know is occupied, I don't have the energy to sift through the /glff channel, or I'm too shy in starting a group up. I've enjoyed similar interfaces in RIFT and World of Warcraft, and while I share the opinion that opening up a finder to cross-server participants hurts the community, an Instance Finder centered on one's server is merely a tool to ease the access of some of the game's more juicy content.
One of the complaints I've heard is that this will kill interest in adventuring out into the world, that we'll be able to merely queue up for dungeons nonstop and not have to worry about questing and the whatnot. This is poppycock, really, and I'm not afraid to say so. First of all, we've had the reflecting pool, monster play, and skirmishes for a while now, all of which are XP/token-generating activities that can be accessed without having to "go" anywhere. And as far as I can tell, the game world is still hopping. Second, LotRO's meat is not in its instances; it's in the continuing journey that's out there in the world. To neglect that just to grind dungeons would be silly.
I'm pleased that Turbine's listened to our complaints about the absurd amount of currency types in the game and is simplifying all of these instance tokens down to three: marks, medallions and seals. The long and the short of this is that it'll give us more freedom to pursue barter rewards through a wider variety of activities instead of being forced to run one specific instance over and over again.
What I am frowning upon is the fact that the Instance Finder is coming to us inexplicably half-baked. We can choose a type of instance -- skirmish, scaling, or Isengard -- but not a specific one. That is just... bad. All-around bad. It makes me think that this is more of a rush job than it should've been. Like my parents told me, if you're going to do something, do it right -- don't do it halfway.
Earlier this year, RIFT implemented a similar system post-launch, and right from the go you had the choice to either queue up for a random dungeon (which would get you in quicker and get you more rewards) or a specific one of your choosing. Going from that to LotRO's version feels like a step backwards, even if we're moving forward. Does that make sense?
The Professor, Mary-Ann, and the rest of them
Instances aren't the only thing coming with Update 5, of course. A new book in the epic storyline is welcome news, even if it's not super-long or anything. I'm nowhere near the end of my journey through Isengard, so it's great to know that more's being added on for me to explore in the future. And how about those cosmetic Ranger sets? How awesome is that! You may not be a wardrobe person, but if you are, that's thrilling news in and of itself.
I'm tickled that Update 5 is adding, of all things, coffee into the game. Coffee. It may seem like the smallest, most piddly thing in the world, but that's what I love about LotRO: We and Turbine care about these details because they're part of Tolkien's Middle-earth. So prepare all of the Starbucks jokes you can think of because we're going to get Hobbits wired on java in a couple weeks!
The track nearby quests function is nice, although I never felt a pressing need for the game to tell me which of my quest objectives was the closest. I suppose it'll cut down on back-and-forth roaming while handling a dozen or so quests, which could be a great help to some.
The rest of the notes concern smaller changes, such as simplifying mastery stats and assorted class tweaks, but nothing too major.
While I can't say that Update 5 has me more excited than I've ever been, I'm anticipating its release, and I'm quite interested to see how the Instance Finder pans out. Will it be used often enough or be condemned to the same fate as the LFG tool? I was also kind of hoping for a more fluff-centric update, since Isengard is not huge on fluff so far, and last year we go so much of it (including the Haunted Burrow and Winter-home).
Let's open the floor to y'all. Objectively speaking, is this a good update for the game? And subjectively, are you excited about it or do you wish that Turbine had concentrated its efforts elsewhere?
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 email@example.com or through his gaming blog, Bio Break.