I'm sure many of you are already level 85 and masters of the horse, whereas I am but a lowly level 77 and am cursing at my war-steed because it handles like a drunken garbage scow. I don't fly through expansions uber-quickly, but in this case I don't feel the need to. I want to savor all of this.
I want to save a more intricate discussion of mounted combat until next time, so for today I would like to look at the initial stages of the Rohan story and how Turbine is handling the franchise as it moves deeper into The Two Towers territory.
Once again, LotRO puts us in the position of a guardian angel hurrying to catch up with his charge. For years now we've been on the trail of the Fellowship, from the Shire to Rivendell through Moria and down into Eregion, but only rarely has our timeline caught up with Frodo's. We move about in the wake of a grand journey, a journey that has now ended.
Riders of Rohan signals a significant change in course direction for the game's story. It's right here that the Fellowship -- in the parlance of MMOs -- disbands. The one group we've been following becomes four: the deceased Gandalf; the kidnapped Merry and Pippin; the pursuing Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas; and the stoic Frodo and Sam. Some turn east, while others go west. It's a huge moment in the books and so very important for Turbine to get right.
And get it right the devs did. We don't have to wait long in the new book of the epic story to get to the breaking (which isn't a spoiler at all, seeing as how it's being splashed across loading screens for weeks now). With the ingenuity that we've come to expect from this storytelling team, we're given multiple perspectives of this historic event.
"It looks like... he lost his precious." "YEEAAAHH!"
Our characters, still in catch-up mode, come upon the aftermath of the breaking: a campfire, a torn pack, footprints, and beached canoes. After a little CSI: Middle-earth investigating, we're thrown into a series of flashbacks that (somehow) put us right into the skin of those involved.
First of all, I love that Turbine's recommitting its focus to following the Fellowship's story. I'm all for side adventures and whatnot, but I think you'll agree that it's gotten a little too meandering in the past few years. We needed to be reminded not just of the world we inhabit but of the key figures that drew us into this franchise in the first place.
Second, it's kind of genius to make us play through the breaking of the Fellowship in multiple roles, from Boromir to Frodo to Sam. It's like we're performing a one-person play in which we assume the mannerisms and motives of multiple characters. There was something poignant and striking of being in the hairy feet of Frodo as Boromir attacked in a ring-induced frenzy, knowing that just a few minutes ago, I was playing the part of Boromir and doing that attacking.
The breaking sets the scene for the major events to come, and it signals to all of us that nothing will ever quite be the same.
Instead of racing after the remnants of the Fellowship, we come to realize that we've formed our own Fellowship with its own goals. The ragtag team that our characters have been assembling through the Great River is another significant storytelling device. It's drilled into our head that we're not alone in this, that our adventures have had consequences, and that we need help in the coming battle. I especially was fond of an early quest that saw my paltry Fellowship sit around a campfire telling stories. When the time came, you can pick one of your previous adventures -- all of which dredge up memories in the player -- and see a brief play happen around you. Of course, you can choose to be silent as well, if that befits your character.
Even though we briefly touched the coattails of Frodo and company early on, their departure from Amon Hen presented a game design challenge. The devs can't let us choose which path to pursue because the lands of Gondor and Mordor are frightful voids at the moment. So instead, the devs create the conceit that we need proper horses to cross the vast plains of Rohan, which loops us back to the beginning of the expansion's zones.
It's here that we're finally immersed into Rohan culture after flirting with it in Stangard. The land is not terrifying for a high-level zone; it's absolutely beautiful and majestic. Seriously, my jaw drops every time I look at that sky. The towns are vastly different than the plain-Jane buildings of Men in the north, with a Celtic/Norse crossover that I find welcoming and delightful. It's a culture that's unique in the franchise, and the devs are giving us a good amount of time to fall in love with it before coming to its defense.
Or... not, considering that the first town we go through (spoilers!) quickly comes under attack by a Nazgul and an invading army. I don't know about you, but I was seeing not a mere quest hub but a living, breathing village that gets snuffed out in a tragic course of events.
The bonds that tie us together
As the breaking of the Fellowship sets the tone for the epic story, the first town's quests in Rohan set the tone for the area. It helps us become attached to these hardy folk; I couldn't help but be charmed when the kids wanted to play a game with me. It shows us how powerless we (almost) are to forestall the devastation that's about to come. It hints at the discord of the land as its king is under the thrall of a liar.
And we go from a village where we were hailed as warrior heroes to a second, this time treated as suspicious outsiders who probably brought doom on everyone's head.
Seriously, people, I am so into all of this!
I know that I'm just scratching the surface of Rohan, but this expansion feels so much more substantial and special than the ones that have come before. I want to savor it. I am getting into the story and plight of the Rohirrim in a way that I never did with the Dunlandings or the Dwarf expedition. In just a couple of short weeks, I have decided that this is the LotRO that I've been wanting to see for a long time now.
I don't want to go back at all -- I just want to ride forward.
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.