With Update 5 on the horizon, there's certainly plenty to look forward to in Lord of the Rings Online, especially if you've exhausted all of Rise of Isengard's content to date. Personally, I'm still trucking along: level 73, in the middle of the Gap of Rohan, picking flowers and pontificating on Hobbit meal schedules. As you can tell, I haven't been in any particular rush to get to the end.
However, I realized this past week that somewhere along the line I had abandoned my pursuit of Volume III, Book 4, so I went to pick it back up. It turned out that I was on the verge of some of the most interesting and gripping quests in the game, and for the first time since forever, I stayed up really late to see how the questing would pan out.
Obviously, there's going to be some serious spoilers in this here column, so if you haven't finished Book 4 of Rise of Isengard, you may wish to just bookmark this for later reading. I'm not typically eager to spoil story points, but this quest line got me so worked up that I simply had to talk about it this week.
Betrayal most foul
Up to Chapter 18, Book 4 seemed to be "average" for me -- a couple of decent quests and moments, lots of busy work, nothing super-special. If anything, the book accomplished the job of showing you Saruman's influence over the region and how not everyone's on board with opposing him.
However, you do find a couple of clans who aren't going to vote Saruman/Wormtongue in 2012, and that gives you hope. One of these is the Falcon Clan in the winter resort town of Tûr Morva, and eventually the book sends you back to them to interrogate a captive. Frankly, I was kind of yawning through it at this point, but it's here the game stunned me.
The captive was dead. When I turned around, the Falcon clan members had drawn their swords and declared their intent to turn me and my Ranger pals over to Saruman in an effort to cull favor with the wizard. There was no fighting my way out; I became a prisoner (although, oddly enough, nobody thought to strip me of my weapons). They trundled me off to the pits below the surface of Isengard for my new life as a captive.
Seriously, the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. This was interesting and -- most importantly -- different. Different is good in MMO stories, especially when you're sick of killing ten rats all the time.
That thought came back to haunt me later, by the way.
I am not a number -- I am a Man!
I'm not going to go into huge detail about the subsequent quests, but they were astonishingly creative. In single-player RPGs, being a prisoner is almost a trope; in MMOs it's much, much harder to pull off. Turbine had to think a little outside the box here, especially since the devs couldn't truly trap you for the duration of these quests (well, they could, but there would be howling). An imaginative compromise came in the form of an inventory item called Reminder of Captivity, which gave me the ability to return to prison at any time and informed me that anything I might experience on the outside is nothing more than a fanciful dream. Cool, huh?
By making most of the NPCs unattackable and giving you few options to proceed other than to do what your captives say, the game has a lot of fun immersing you into a prisoner mentality. I wasn't doing grand, epic things; I was cleaning up Orc puke and... yeah... killing ten rats (OK, I laughed at that quest). It's slow and menial at the beginning, and that, coupled with the underground locale, really gave a nice claustrophobic feel. I also appreciated the increased animations (and noises) of the NPCs, something that Isengard's been doing very well. It's a small touch, but it adds so much to the "life" of the game.
I especially liked the fact that over the course of this questline, I was rewarded with new cosmetic items that could be fashioned into a prisoner outfit. As each article of clothing was granted to me, I dutifully put it on and accepted my life as an inmate.
Of course, it didn't go on forever; sooner or later you know that there has to be a prison break, but the game makes you stay just long enough so that you honestly want some revenge upon Saruman, the Falcon clan, and your Orc guards.
Another neat twist is that a special flashback quest during your time in prison lets you see Isengard before its fall and has you assume the role of a limping, twisted man: Wormtongue. Fans of the books had to be loving this interlude for sure.
Not everything in this questline is perfect, however. There's way too much running back and forth in the dungeons (pro tip: Kill surly orcs to gain a speed boost). I was disappointed that there's little in the way of choices that can be made, especially since this seems like it would be an ideal time to give you options for how you respond in captivity.
And the ending, especially, was extremely disappointing. After finally getting free, you make a bee-line to the Falcon Clan to rescue the Rangers (Rescue Rangers? Oh, Turbine missed an opportunity with a quest title there!) and confront your betrayers. It's a complete letdown because the game basically tells you that you can't fight them at this time and you have to limp away. After days in captivity, I wanted my vengeance, and that was denied. It kind of sucked.
The storyline also does not do any favors to the Rangers, who continue their long streak as the game's whipping boys whom you're constantly bailing out. They don't see the betrayal coming, they get overwhelmed, many of them get killed, and they have to rely on you to free them. Aragorn is better off hiring the Bounders, in my opinion, instead of leaning on the Grey Company.
But all in all, Book 4 reminded me of just how good the epic storyline can be, and even after 30 chapters I was definitely wanting more!
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or through his gaming blog, Bio Break.