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The Road to Mordor: Believing in Isengard


I find it's always awkward, to say the least, when someone tells you outright he dislikes something and then asks you to convince him otherwise. "I hate marmalade, it's so sticky! Why should I think it's awesome?" "Uh... you sound like you've made up your mind already."

However, if the person in question isn't being an outright marmalade troll, I'll do my best to answer him because usually contained in that bizarre request is a frustrated non-understanding of what he wants to like, what others seem to like, but what he cannot quite grasp. Sometimes a better perspective helps us appreciate something we may have formerly disliked, so there's no reason not to engage such queries.

This past week, a Massively forum poster expressed disatisfaction over Rise of Isengard, citing an abundance of kill 10 rats quests and a lackluster storyline. He finished by throwing down a challenge: "If anyone has some good things to say about Lord of the Rings Online that could convince me I am wrong, I would love to hear them."

Now, I'm not here to say that he's wrong; that's a matter of opinion and taste. But I'll gladly step up to the plate and share why I don't think this is the worst expansion yet -- far from it, actually. Without presenting a full post-mortem on Rise of Isengard, I can tell you what I do think is worth a player's investment of money or TP in this expansion. Hit the jump and the Road to Mordor will take you there!

Hobbit legal disclaimer

I'm not the fastest leveler, and even now, a few weeks out from the expansion's release, I'm just level 70 and only midway through Dunland itself. So obviously I'm not in a position to give a comprehensive overview of every single aspect of Rise of Isengard, good and bad, but I have no compunction over sharing what I've thought about it thus far.

Story that sticks

The first reason I can think of that Rise of Isengard is a worthwhile expansion already goes against what the poster cited as his chief complaint. I feel that the story is suitably gripping and "sticks" in my mind in ways that several previous areas (such as Mirkwood and Enedwaith) have not. Seriously, I could not tell you a single thing about any of Mirkwood's story except that, at one point, there was an escort quest that ended with giant spiders.

Thus far, I'm finding that I read and absorb just about every aspect of Isengard's story, and I think it is because it doesn't jump out of the gate all epic battles-like but rather takes the time to build up a case for why we're here, why we should care about these locals, and why Saruman is such a legitimate threat.

When it comes to a great story -- be it a novel, a movie, or a video game -- if you cannot convince me to care about the characters or take their key threat seriously, I will not be invested in what's unfolding. Chances are I'm not alone in that.

Sauron is a hard threat to take seriously because we don't see him (well, not in the way you'd expect of a main villain), and so Turbine's had to substitute other chief baddies such as the Witch King and Mazog to be physical representations of the evil that threatens this world. Saruman looks to top any bad guy (or gal) who's come before because he's the Hans Gruber of Dunland -- he's smart, wily, powerful, and an equal match to those who are coming to oppose him. He is, after all, the wizard who bested Gandalf, and that's not to be taken lightly. But his evil doesn't start as a whole "look at my mighty weather machine that will destroy the world!" melodrama but instead presents itself as a seduction, with Saruman playing the clans against Rohan to have two potential groups of enemies eliminate each other. After just a few stories in Isengard, I want to lay the smackdown on him so bad I can taste it.

I also really appreciate Turbine's efforts to get us to care about these diverse clans that populate Dunland because these are the victims of Saruman's treachery and not just quest-givers who have no stake in what's happening. They're fighting for their homes, and we're invited to understand their ways, see their plight, and help make a difference.

As for the epic storyline, I've heard it definitely gets more gripping later on, but as for right now I like that it merely leads us to these clans and steps back as we absorb the situation. It feels as though this is essential backstory to what's coming later, and I'm cool with that.

Too many standard quests?

With over 350 new quests in this expansion, chances are that "kill 10 rats" and "find the glowies" were going to come into play. You simply cannot have that many quests without relying on staple MMO tasks, and whether you like them or hate them, they're a part of the backbone of standard progression. So if you hate them, OK, but that's well-trod territory at this part. Saying that you hate kill 10 rats quests in Isengard is to ignore the fact we've been doing them for 65 levels now and been more or less fine with their presence.

What I have noticed is that there are several standout quests that aren't even in the epic storyline but rather come at a measured pace as you explore these towns and villages. Turbine's used a nice mix of instancing and phasing to help tell tales that are above and beyond the boring quest text box, and I find these unconventional quests are quite engaging.

They're also challenging. For a while now I've felt like I've been cakewalking all over this game, probably since I left Moria, but now my skills and attention are being put to the test as I've jumped into quests that have kicked my butt and left me bruised for a week. It just seems as though the game's upped the difficulty level in a good way and that engages instead of distances me.

The facts of life

The fact is, if you don't like this expansion's content or are disappointed in it, I'm in no position to tell you that you should be feeling differently. I think a lot of us had expectations for Isengard that didn't come true, but for me, the good far outweighs the bad.

I know I've harped on story here as the main reason for why Rise of Isengard is worthwhile, but the expansion lives or dies based on that story. Sure, there are neat vistas, cool armor designs and a few additional skills, but this expansion didn't shake anything up by introducing new to the game. Instead, we've been delivered a solid chunk of quests and stories, and we have the choice of accepting that as a filling meal or an unspectacular one.

If you're not enjoying Rise of Isengard, it might be worthwhile to examine if you've fallen into a gaming routine of picking up quests without engaging with the story at all. If this is you, then I'm not surprised that it just feels like more of the same. Lord of the Rings Online is about the tales, history, and details that make this world come alive, and even though it's saddled with kill 10 rats quests, there's so much more to it than that if you can shake yourself out of complacency and marinate in the rich stories being offered.

I have a lot more to say about this expansion, but I'm going to hold back those thoughts until I've finished with the lion's share of it. Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go break the chains of oppression and give Saruman a black eye.

What about you? How would you answer this gentleman when he asks why he should like this expansion?

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.

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