The Lord of the Rings Online: Mines of Moria Review

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The Lord of the Rings Online: Mines of Moria Publisher: Turbine
Developer: Turbine

Platform: PC
Reviewed on PC

Windows System Requirements: Pentium 4 1.8 GHz, 512 MB RAM, 64 MB nVidia GeForce 3 or ATI Radeon 8500 with DirectX 9.0c, 9 GB HD space, 2x DVD ROM, internet connection, Windows XP

"Moria. Once it was glorious, the greatest of Dwarf-cities, but now its fabled halls are filled with shadow and death. Men and Dwarves whisper its name with awe, and even Hobbits know enough to fear it. Known by the Dwarves as Khazad-dum, Moria is a realm far greater than any have imagined. Filled with incredible treasures and unspeakable dangers, the Black Pit has been the bane of many, but has never been fully explored until now."

Kyle Ackerman

Ah! To be a dwarf and reclaim the long lost halls of Khazad-dum, known to some as the mines of Moria. That's the fantasy of many a Tolkien-obsessed fan, and worth weeks of good fun even to those who can barely tell an elf from an orc. Lord of the Rings Online is already a stellar game, even for those who aren't deeply immersed in the world of Middle-earth, but for $40 you can now get into the original game (with the "Complete Edition") with one month's access (more requires an additional subscription) and be able to work your way up to entirely new (and underground) content. So even if you don't know Saruman from The Silmarillon, at least rent the recent films and jump into the game. If you are playing and haven't yet jumped into the hallowed halls of Khazad-dum, know that Mines of Moria is a particularly meaty expansion.

The Deeps Are Everything I Dreamed (and Feared) They Would Be

Turbine is an accomplished developer of massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs) – famous for constantly adding content, responding to player requests and, most of all, constantly polishing their games (even well after release). With Mines of Moria, Turbine can add "considerable cinematic flair" to its list of accomplishments.

Where Mines of Moria (and Lord of the Rings Online as a whole) diverges most from other MMOGs is that it is deeply story-oriented. The game gives players a meaningful role, fighting for the forces of good against evil of epic depth and depravity. The sort of evil that serves as the basis for much of modern fantasy fiction and film. This isn't the sort of game you play to gank newbs and teabag their corpses (although admittedly, with the game's "monster play" options, there's fun to be had as the bad guy). This game has a story to tell, and you fight side-by-side with other players and the greatest figures from Tolkien's books. Lord of the Rings Online is also one of the more solo-able games around. So speaking as someone who loves fiction, drama, and doesn't necessarily have time for regular guild meetings, I think Lord of the Rings Online is already brilliant. The Mines of Moria content is the sort of addition that can keep me hooked for a long time.

Durin's Bane Awakens

From the Watcher to Durin's Bane, the Mines themselves are easily the most exciting and dramatically different of the new zones added by the expansion. Moria feels different from anything else that The Lord of the Rings Online's Middle-earth has yet offered. Far from monolithic, the underground setting varies from gigantic chambers filled with epic-scale stonework of ancient dwarves, brightly lit by glowing crystal, to open expanses in deep darkness, and claustrophobic corridors. There are lush gardens to be found, as well as goblin camps galore.

At times, Moria seemed like an appropriately impossible, three-dimensional maze. It could be frustrating to see my destination glowing in the distance, and yet have no idea how to get there without falling into bottomless crevasses. But that was part of the fun – even more than other zones, learning to navigate the territory was, in itself, an achievement. Moreover, the quests tied into one another nicely, both continuing the tale told by the game and gradually introducing me to new areas and enemies. The design of this former dwarf-home was so jaw-droppingly clever that I found myself thinking how cool Khazad-dum must have been in its heyday, when the forges ran hot and the goblins were nowhere to be found.

Of course, Moria is now a dangerous place, and that led to my biggest frustration with the expansion. I expected the horrors and dread that I gambled my life against every time I undertook a quest. Unfortunately, with the vast chasms and precipitous drops of the underground realm, I died more often from mis-steps than I did in battle. A brief lag spike can mean death, even out of combat, when a bottomless pit lies hidden by darkness in the middle of the path.

Every MMOG has those pieces of loot or nasty mobs you can brag to your guildmates you found or slew. Mines of Moria has locations and events that made me call non-gamers into the room to make them gasp.

Need a Weapon of the Third Age?

Aside from the Mines themselves, Legendary Items are one of the bigger additions the expansion brings to The Lord of the Rings Online. Before players can actually enter Moria, they are introduced to items that can level up, as well as be slotted with settings, gems and runes that enhance the item. As you kill (experience-granting) foes, these Legendary Items gain levels, providing points that can be spent to improve the item's abilities, as you choose. Once these items gain enough levels, they can be reforged, granting them a new name and additional powers.

I figured Legendary Items would be a silly gimmick, another item-oriented hook that would simply fall before legions of dedicated min-maxers. Like anything else, Legendary Items can be min-maxed to death. But I was surprised – I really liked Legendary Items and got attached to them. Once I had renamed my axe, I grew fond of it. And once I had several legendary items, I started to feel like my character and his items were their own mini-adventuring party. It was nice to feel an even closer connection to my equipment, and to feel like I nearly had multiple characters without needing several computers and another set of hotkeys. But it's bad enough in an MMOG that I find myself wanting to stay up to make ten more yellow kills so I can gain a level. It's brutal (and a lot of fun) when two more kills levels up my rune, and then I can't go to sleep because four more kills will level my axe and increase my DPS. Then another quest or two will bring my character up... and so on.

The quests in Khazad-dum are also designed to support items. Many of the quests themselves reward players with runes, item experience, or other awards that improve the Legendary Item experience. If I have any complaints about Legendary Items, it's that some aspects are even more bewildering than typical MMOG play. Learning to play a character in any MMOG is like mastering a college-level class. You need to understand the character's role in a group, its strengths and weaknesses, and how to make the character's skills and traits work together to move beyond mere survival and become a killing machine. Some of the keywords and functions of the item Legacies add a whole new level of complication to guiding your character (and her items') advancement. So, if playing a character is like learning (and enjoying) calculus, managing your Legendary Items can feel a little like having eigenfunctions shoved in your face.

The Power of the Written Word

Experienced players of The Lord of the Rings Online can simply take their characters and rush right into Moria to explore the raised level cap (once they level a Legendary Item a bit), or they can start anew with the two new character classes. So that no one will have to give up a prized hero (or even a prized alt), accounts now get two new character slots (bringing the total up to seven), so there's very little excuse not to try out the Warden and the Rune-keeper.

The Rune-keeper is a new sort of beast: tremendously powerful, highly vulnerable, and, while good at many things, not all at once. Rune-keepers draw power from writing, bringing their rune-satchels to bear, and using dwarven runes to inflict damage, and elvish runes to heal – all tempered by the elemental alignment of the rune-stones themselves. Rune-keepers can be powerful healers and mighty damage-dealers, but they can't do both at once. To avoid simply bifurcating the class into two paths, Rune-keepers get a new gauge on the user interface – the "Attunement Meter." The more damage the Rune-keeper inflicts, the better he becomes at doing damage, while some healing effects simply won't work. The reverse also holds true. As the game says, "...a mind bent on harm is not quick to heal, and one who is mending becomes slow to harm."

To my mind, the Rune-keeper is a bit like an aircraft carrier. He is powerful and flexible, but vulnerable and slow to change course. The Rune-keeper is a powerful new role for Fellowships, challenging to play and exceptionally difficult to solo.

Defend the Meek With a Big Stick

The Warden, too, is a different sort of character, and also challenging to play, but can provide a powerful and rewarding solo experience, while serving as a tank in fellowships. The Warden codifies what MMOG gamers already know – that it makes sense to use certain combinations of skills in a certain order. In the case of the Warden, it makes even more sense because those combinations unlock gambits that make the character even more effective, making up for the fact that Wardens can only use medium armor. Besides, Wardens finally make spears cool.

Like with Rune-keepers, Wardens get a new element in the user interface – the "Gambit Display." The gambit display starts with two boxes that fill up when the right types of skills are used (such as offensive thrusts or shield actions), unlocking a powerful gambit that can be executed like any other skill. As the Warden levels, more boxes become available along with more powerful gambits that can be unlocked through sequences of moves. Gambits can get really nasty, sapping the morale of foes over time or just doing a whole lot of extra damage. I'm not sure the idea carried through that Wardens are tanks who battle evil through their moral authority rather than their might, but I thought the Warden was a lot of fun to play, looked cool, and got some useful travel abilities.

Feel Hope, Not Dread

Mines of Moria is a superlative expansion for an exemplary game. It's simply mandatory for current players of Lord of the Rings Online; a call-to-arms for lapsed players; and yet another reason to join up for those who haven't played. Set in the greatest fantasy setting of all time, The Lord of the Rings Online: Mines of Moria is a worthy adventure for anyone who enjoys a story-driven role-playing game, massively multiplayer or otherwise.

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on December 21, 2008 12:58 PM.

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