Expansions have a funny way of making or breaking MMOs, you see. They can exemplify some of the best qualities of the genre: they represent the persistent growing world; they give our characters new challenges to overcome; and they can introduce new features that significantly change how the game is played. Of course, they can damage the game's reputation by creating a worse endgame than before, by screwing up the good aspects of the game, or simply by being unpopular.
So how does Mines of Moria fare two-plus years after its release? Today, I want to take a look back at what will probably be the single largest expansion that LotRO will ever see and examine how its purpose has changed from 2008 to 2011. Also, we'll probably make fun of Dwarves.
In retrospect, Moria was the most logical direction for the game to progress. Shadows of Angmar had effectively mined the first book (plus a couple of chapters of the second) of The Fellowship of the Ring, and if players were to continue on their journey parallel to that of Frodo and the Ring, they would have to pass into Khazad-dûm itself.
From a design standpoint, it was as radical as they come. The team created an expansion that was almost entirely underground, and I'm personally still amazed the devs came up with that much variety for what really is just a series of cave tunnels. Players would be plunged deep into the inky darkness for months until Turbine added the Lothlórien zone in March of 2009.
While I wasn't there during this period, friends and associates tell me that after a while the walls started to close in and there was a real sense of claustrophobia that ran through the community. Moria was liked well enough, but not as an end-point for the game -- people needed to be able to leave.
Mines of Moria was also significant in that it focused heavily on the Dwarves as a race and culture. Sure, the bearded, stubborn shorties aren't everyone's hairy cup of tea, but since they are one of the four primary Free Peoples of Middle-earth, it was important that they receive their focus just as much as the others. We saw Dwarven architecture, snippets of past history, and a glimpse of the potential future of the race if Moria could be reclaimed.
As an underground kingdom, the devs had opportunities to experiment with Moria's layout, especially in the use of the Z-axis. Until you're very well-acquainted with the zones, it's entirely possible to get lost looking for your next destination or to be two levels under where you need to be with no clue how to get there. The old-timey maps that used to serve us well in Eriador become frustratingly vague in Moria, adding to the frustration.
Moria also becomes more dangerous due to the lack of maneuvering room and the increase of mob density. Out in the open lands, it's not too difficult to approach your objective from multiple angles or to outrun a horde of mobs to relative safety. In Moria, your approach is usually limited, and there are few safe spots once you get in over your head.
This isn't to say that it's a horrible excursion, just a more difficult one. I'm forever taking screenshots of Moria's many scenic locations, and I truly love just how different the region feels compared to where we've been before (or after, for that matter). For Tolkien fans, Moria represents a wealth of lore and geek tourism that shouldn't be missed.
Of course, what Moria used to be and what it is now are two different things. Moria long ago lost its place as the endgame champ, first to Siege of Mirkwood and now to Enedwaith. Its instances and raids, while still run, aren't as fresh or essential as they used to be.
And probably the most significant change is that now Moria is a thoroughfare, a place that players pass through generally as quickly as possible. It's the double-edged sword of expansions: When they release, you want to have a ton of content for players to enjoy, but when future expansions come out, a good chunk of that content is no longer needed.
This isn't to say that Moria is without its relevance. Volume II is still essential to gain access to legendary items, and Moria itself is deeply integrated with the LI system. The Twenty-First Hall is still the biggest and best center for services east of Rivendell. And without progressing through Moria, players deny themselves access to key legendary traits (from class quests, Volume II, and the Iron Guard reputation vendors).
The recent Echoes of the Dead update rocked Moria with two significant changes: the "solofication" of the entirety of Volume II and the reworking of Moria battle instances into skirmishes. Both of these help make the content more accessible to everyone, especially those who are just passing through.
In my MMO journeys, Moria is unique in that it seems to produce a type of fatigue from players who've spent weeks and months in its belly. It's definitely fascinating to see how people react when their virtual sky is taken away for a good period of time, as many folks just start yearning to be out and free again. This is why Lothlórien is usually received with a hearty sigh of relief, even if adventures in Moria were fulfilling.
The problem comes from players such as yours truly who are leveling alts through the area. We've been there, we've endured the long dark, and many of us just don't want to go back. Unfortunately, with the way the game is designed, there's really little choice in the matter if you don't want to miss out on those important legendary traits.
But say you're OK with skipping those traits, and you want your alt to bypass Moria entirely. With the advent of the skirmish system, it's certainly possible to do so. I'd recommend milking Forochel, Angmar and Eregion for all of the experience you can, which might get you up into the mid-50s, and then skirmishing like crazy. Once you hit 58 or so, you can do a speed run through Moria (or have a friend summon you to the end) and head right into the splendor and agony of the Elvish kingdoms.
Looking at my alts, I have to say it's tempting. I think one of the problems is that Moria-Lothlórien-Mirkwood have become a massive cul-de-sac in the game. While Frodo and Co. left Lothlórien heading south, LotRO asks us to continue west for a while, then swing allll the way back to Eriador and Enedwaith. This creates a bizarre pathing progression to where you'll be leaving Eregion for a lengthy journey west, only to come right back and head one zone south much later on.
I wonder what more Turbine could do to streamline Moria so that it stops being a leveling speed bump and becomes more integrated into the entire journey. Simple fixes like more stable masters and a lighter mob density in some areas would be welcome, and I know I'd stand up and cheer if an artist took the time to draw up more useful maps.
I'd love to hear what you think about Moria as both a place and an expansion. Do you love it or dread it? How do you see its role in the game now versus what it used to be? What are your strategies for leveling through it?
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.