I have a hunch that this "something" is the big battle system, the brand-new feature that will be the cornerstone of Helm's Deep the same way that mounted combat was for Riders of Rohan. Recently, Turbine broke its expansion silence to deliver a series of 20 questions and answers about the big battle system, although oddly enough it kept this confined to the forums.
Whether or not LotRO's fifth expansion is coming this year, Helm's Deep's big battles do sound audacious and worth the wait. Let's see if we can't get to the core of what this new system will offer and what the studio is trying to do with it.
Let's start out by looking at the development of LotRO from Turbine's perspective. As the devs have to follow the books (more or less), there's a gradual building of scope and action that Tolkien includes in The Two Towers and Return of the King that isn't seen in Fellowship of the Ring. Specifically, there are "big battles" that are more than small forces clashing in a forest.
Even before Riders of Rohan released, we've known that the devs were looking ahead to Helm's Deep as the big setpiece of Rohan. After all, that battle is so well-known to fans of the franchise (or even casual viewers of the movie) that it had to be done justice. And there is simply nothing in the game that allowed Turbine to do that. Sure, the team had the skirmish system and instanced content, which it previously used to give an illusion of taking part in a major conflict (such as Volume III Book 5's battle at the gate of Isengard), but that just wouldn't do for the long run. Plus, the devs also had to realize that these battles would get even bigger the more they pushed on into the final book.
So the solution was to either keep us at the fringe of the action (or call us away while the big conflicts take place) or make a new system that could handle a battle on the scale that it deserved. The team decided on the latter and has been hard at work on it for years now.
So what are big battles?
The big battle of Helm's Deep will be an instanced experience where players will jump into the fray at several different points along the timeline. The developers wrote that they wanted to come up with a system that had visual impact, strategic decisions, victory and defeat standards, interactive environmental objects, and plenty of choices as to how players could approach the battle.
Players can jump into a big battle either solo or in group (3-man, 6-man, or 12-man) and run through part of the battle in under an hour. One of the interesting aspects of these big battles is that players will be auto-leveled up to 95 (presumably the new cap) even if they're as low as level 10. Players will earn medals based on performance and group size, although there will be just one difficulty level.
From my reading of the Q&A session, I think the biggest difference between big battles and everything else in the game is that it's not a linear fight to an end boss but instead will be a flexible environment where several groups can fight spread across the map in an effort to accomplish a wide variety of objectives.
It's purely PvE, won't be replacing standard instances or skirmishes going forward, and will be integrated with the epic story.
While there was a good amount of information handed out here, there's a lot that hasn't been revealed as of yet. I really want to see screenshots, or better yet, videos, to get a feel for what these battles will look like. How massive will they truly be? Will we use mounts? How much storytelling will go on inside of them? Will they be heavily scripted or more fluid and dynamic based on player actions? For all of Turbine's insistence that it won't, will it ultimately just feel like another skirmish?
This is why I thinkTurbine's got to take this topic out of the forums and onto the site proper. We need some solid information about the rest of Helm's Deep in the form of dev diaries, and this subject in particular begs for deeper explanation.
One question I have is just how rewarding will this system be, especially considering that you can access it at level 10. I mean, that's pretty powerful; you don't get skirmishes and instances for another 10 levels or so past that. If big battles hand out more XP and rewards than landscape content, will the appeal of doing such content dry up?
I think it's pretty awesome that this system won't be just for high-level characters. For several expansions now, it's been all about the endgame players with little to nothing for the rest of the crowd. At least this offers something new and a possible alternative path to leveling than was before.
I am most intrigued by the notion that players will be able to make strategic choices on the battlefield that may be able to change things. While its instanced and chopped-up nature preclude a permanent change in the game world itself, Helm's Deep could be enthralling for its ability to provide something new every time you run it.
Twenty questions just scratched the surface of big battles. What questions would you ask the studio about this system if you had the chance?
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.