Update 14 is scheduled to release on Monday, July 14th, because marketers always get a special little thrill when they match up similar numbers. It's a pretty sizable content patch that's almost a mini-expansion, with five additional levels, a new epic book, three questing regions, well over 100 quests, and a new essence system for gear. This past week I sat down with Turbine to get a whirlwind tour of what lies beyond Rohan, and after seeing it, I think that LotRO fans have good reason to hope for an exciting summer.
The story picks up around March 9th of the book's timeline, right after Pippin looked into the Palantir and caught the attention of Sauron. The Nazgul are on the move once again, the kings of Gondor are being rallied to defend Minas Tirith, and an Army of the Dead is on the move.
Interestingly enough, Aragorn's confrontation with the Oathbreakers in the Paths and his subsequent recruiting them for a curse-breaking task presented a serious storytelling challenge for the devs. Why would players go into an emptied-out Paths of the Dead, and what would they find there? The answer to that comes in the form of spirits who were reluctant to join the crusade, staying behind as irredeemable (and hostile) Ruthless Dead.
One of the focuses of Update 14 was on giving players additional opportunities to engage in group activities. This shows up early on, as several Volume IV quests can be run in Fellowship mode if desired, triggering new challenges and an increased difficulty level.
In other words, it's as striking and beautiful as Rohan, just in its own way. Structures, NPCs, and outfits have all been given their own art pass, which gives me great hope as a cosmetic outfit collector that I'll be expanding my collection once I get in there.
One significant detail that you'll be seeing all over the region are the plumes of smoke from the lit beacons. You might recall that in the books and movies, the beacons were a rallying call for danger. So even while the country seems far more at peace than Rohan was, the smoke indicates that potential doom is not far off.
Gondorians aside, I was informed that we'll be seeing a return of two old factions: the corsairs and the Elves. The corsairs think that there's some easy plundering to be had now that the army's moved out, but they'll find only empty coffers and death. Meanwhile, the Elves are watching over one of their old refuges that served as a departure point from Middle-earth much like Mithlond.
However, it's hard to relay how well this will work without seeing it, and Turbine wasn't quite showing yet. Word is that Update 14 will be a "mini-launch" of the essence system, with essences dropping very rarely so as to not flood the market. Because they can be crafted and traded, Turbine expects that this will introduce a new spice to the economy. One possibility that the devs floated was to offer essences as rewards in festivals and through the buried treasure event.
The devs also emphasized that a bulk of the essence system will be in-game, not in the store, and that it won't be replacing raid gear, though it will allow players ways to tweak their build and complement the gear they already own.
As we closed our session, the devs spent some time talking about the MMO landscape. They freely acknowledge that working on an aging game puts them at a disadvantage in some ways. However, they're quite clear on what they see as LotRO's greatest strength: an unparalleled world and an unmatched story experience. We'll see just how that world and story expands come Update 14.
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 email@example.com or through his gaming blog, Bio Break.