Until November 2008, Eriador was the only place in Middle-earth that we could explore, and although some criticized Lord of the Rings Online for not shipping with, well, every locale in J.R.R. Tolkien's imaginarium open for business, it was a smart decision. The devs could take this section of the world and focus on building depth and detail instead of spreading it thin, like butter scraped over too much bread. As a result, Eriador remains a wonderful starting point -- not to mention the bulk of any current player's journey -- and many of us have grown attached to these familiar sights and sounds as a result.
Today I'd like to take a brief overview of all of Eriador's zones (we'll leave Rhovanion for another day) and rate them from best to worst in terms of zone design, questing, and that slippery cool-factor that's hard to define. Where would I suggest a summer vacation home and where would be an ideal spot for a penal colony? Hit the jump and let's run it down.
While the sentiment's not universal, The Shire is widely agreed to be one of the best zones of the game -- and I heartily concur. As I detailed in an article last year, Frodo's home turf is one of the most uniquely realized areas of any MMORPG. It's the only zone dominated by Hobbit culture (and there are only three zones other than The Shire that boast Hobbit settlements of any size); it has a wide variety of interesting non-combat quests; and it's definitely easy on the eyes, especially if you love pastoral landscapes. I always begin a new character's career in The Shire because it feels right and because, by falling in love with the best that Middle-earth has to offer, I develop a strong motivation to fight for it.
Forochel is an oddity in LotRO: It's part of the world and storyline and yet feels almost foreign, distant, removed from the immediate events. Unlike other snow zones, the winter aspects of this frozen tundra are as beautiful as they are deadly, and it's a solo quester's dream. Plus, every time I'm there, I always wish that Turbine would bend to allow moose, sled, or mammoth mounts in the game. One of my favorites.
While Bree-land could be initially seen as "that generic human starting zone," at closer inspection it's far more than that. It's got Hobbits and Man living in harmony (and the combination of cultures is interesting, to say the least); it covers 20 levels of content; and it has everything from freeze tag ruins to creepy crypts to a mysterious forest to a crazy cat lady. Not to mention that Bree is the hub of the early game, with travelers of all types passing through.
I give a hearty thumbs-up to Enedwaith, LotRO's newest zone (well, newest permanent zone) for diversity, general appeal, and demon goats. Questing-wise, it's a significant chunk of content that showcases many of the lessons that Turbine has learned over the years in regards to design and story. If we have to be waiting in a high-level zone for the rest of the world to open up, I'd much rather it be here than in a dreary fire-blasted wasteland.
I place this a little lower than Enedwaith simply because it's not as interesting overall, although it's a great place to knock out a few levels with the bevy of quests at your fingertips. It's airy, it's easy to navigate, and it serves as a decent build up to Moria. I certainly never regret having to spend time romping around here.
Now we're getting to the middle of the pack -- zones that are good but have significant flaws. I've always liked the fact that The Trollshaws theme seems to be "autumn," with its multi-colored trees as the elves are about to depart Middle-earth forever. First-time visitors should enjoy the references to The Hobbit (such as Bilbo's trolls) and the first (as far as I know) appearance of Gollum. Unfortunately, it's an anemic questing zone that simply doesn't flow well, even with Rivendell as the reward for the dedicated adventurer.
Let's get it out of the way: Everswim! Yes, that lake may be thematically important, but it's a pain in the rear when you consider how many times you need to cross it (even with the boat masters). Otherwise, it's a nice zone with a surprising lack of boars, although it's never really grown on me as a place. Generally I don't spend more time than I need to in Evendim, although Volume 1 thinks it's a peachy place for a good part of its story.
The third of the starting zones, Ered Luin is a "twofer" that attempts to deliver both an Elf and Dwarf beginning experience, although in my opinion it falls flat for both races. Compared to The Shire and Bree-land, Ered Luin is bland and without a lot of the flavor that I'd expect from two great cultures. Sure, it gets points for working the animosity of Elves vs. Dwarves into the general storyline, but it never gets me to care, and that is a shame.
Lone-lands has two great factors in its favor: Weathertop and the new streamlined questing experience. In fact, it's a wonderful (and necessary) area to quest in, and I don't exactly run screaming from it when I'm there. So why so low on the list? Quite simply, if looks were everything, Lone-lands would never be picked to dance at the ball. Visually (outside of Weathertop) it's a whole lot of nothing. Brown hills, some ruins, ooh there's a giant spider!
So I don't loathe Lone-lands or anything; it just doesn't give me a reason to bounce in my chair and squeal, "Goodie! Lone-lands again!"
At the polar opposite of Forochel in terms of winter-themed areas are the Misty Mountains. They certainly are foreboding and bone-chilling, but there's something here that doesn't quite click. A good portion of the zone is deep in signature mob territory, which is a pain to work through if you don't have a group, and I'm never "oohing" and "ahhing" at the sights when I pass through. On the upside is Goblin-town, which is amusing as it is a treat for Hobbit fans.
Ugh. North Downs. Where do I begin? It's too big, the quests and locales are too dull, and by the time you leave, you feel like you've been there half of forever. I used to think that I was the only one who thought North Downs was a game-killer, but I've since met plenty of players who quit, struggled, or simply switched to alts when they hit the wall that this zone represents. It's hard to put an exact finger on it other than it has the potential to suck the fun from the game like a big... fun-sucker.
Let's see some hands -- does anyone actually like this zone? I mean, I know that this is the Witch-king's stomping grounds and should indeed exude more "evil" than "fluffy bunnies," but it's almost aggressively depressing. If you head into Angmar, enjoy the dead trees, dark brown dirt, scary-ass sky, and a soundtrack that is as catchy as fingernails on a chalkboard. Ironically, it's not a half-bad place to quest if you need some XP and gear, but you'll hate yourself for doing it all the while.
Special Mention: Ettenmoors
I'm not including Ettenmoors on my list mostly because I haven't spent much time in this PvMP zone (it's on my list of experiences to do and then never talk about again), and it should probably be exempt from comparisons to the PvE zones as a whole.
So what do you think? How would you rate Eriador's zones? Do we agree on any of these points or am I way off?
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.