"It's the iconic dungeon." That's how Turbine's developers describe the vast underground world, former kingdom of the Dwarves, that furnishes the first expansion to their Lord of the Rings MMO with its title and centrepiece. After the slightly forced, if beautifully finished, adventuring in the peaceful lands of Eriador presented in the game's launch volume, Shadows of Angmar, Tolkien's narrative has led Turbine straight to the motherlode.
In the endless, monster-infested darkness of Moria, Turbine is going straight to the source of role-playing games, massively multiplayer or otherwise. And in the process, it's creating the ultimate dungeon, a cavern-crawl on a scale gaming has never seen.
It's a gift, really - especially for Turbine, an experienced but modestly-sized MMO developer that prides itself on delivering a steady, reliable stream of new content at a pace that shames competing teams three times the size. Due this autumn, Mines of Moria will arrive around a year and a half after LOTRO's launch, and on the heels of a string of substantial free updates. Grandiose but contained, the underground Dwarven civilisation is a perfect fit for a developer that knows, better than anyone else in the sector, how to avoid over-reaching itself.
It might be a little more compact than the usual sprawling sky-kingdoms and parallel dimensions, but Moria will still take you through the best part of ten levels, to the raised level cap of 60. The expansion's other major additions are two ambitious and unusual new classes - the Rune-Keeper and Warden - and a Legendary Item system that opens avenues of customisation and advancement of the scale of entire characters to pieces of weaponry and armour.
Beyond that, crafting guilds will offer new depth to the tradeskills, the Trait system of class specialisation will be expanded, there will be a new raid, new instances for smaller groups, new 'session-play' interludes, and an overhaul of the player-versus-player Monster Play battlegrounds, and deeper integration of the game with its website. Mines of Moria stops short of the epic revisionism of World of Warcraft's Burning Crusade, but it still presents a hefty chunk of changes.
Mine over matter
Moria itself will be book-ended by two exterior zones - Eregion in the west, and Loth Lorien in the east. Loth Lorien will allow players to collect rewards for their adventuring from Galadriel herself, and catch up with the Fellowship, and will also include some top-level instances. Players have already inched into Eregion in the last free update, Book 14, but this area will be expanded with high-level instances and the forges and quests that introduce the Legendary Item system. You'll need to begin to reforge, customise and level up your first Legendary weapon in order to best the Watcher - the tentacled creature in the dark pool - and gain access to the mines.
Most of your adventuring in the mines will be in the service of Dwarven expeditions seeking to investigate, reclaim and restore their former civilisation - as well as clearing up some of the trouble stirred up by the Fellowship in its passing. Beginning with the imposing 300 steps up into the Great Delving, the route through Moria is intended to take players on a thematic journey, from the early days of Dwarven excavation, through the co-operation with the Elves to the stern, arrogant hubris of the reign of Durin, and in Turbine's words, "what it means to delve too deep".
Yes - it's dark. Turbine has done a lot to bring variety and a sense of wonder to the mines, but not too much - an eerie, doom-laden claustrophobia is an essential part of this unique expansion, and it's brought out beautifully by the dynamic lighting, including player lights, from torches, lava flows and glowing crystals. What you don't expect are the distances.
The caverns are immense, filled with entire cities, and finding their end in sheer, infinite cliffs. Ruined cities of Elven architecture, tangled with improbably overgrown gardens, give way to Dwarven statue halls desecrated with Orcish graffiti and lit by the bonfires of hardscrabble Goblin camps. Goblins and two competing tribes of orcs - Sauron's and Saruman's - are the principal antagonists here, but by no means the only ones.
The vertiginous Endless Stair prefaces the impervious, harsh majesty of the height of Dwarven civilisation, from the sepulchral throne room of Durin IV to a perfectly symmetrical forest of fake trees, carved from the rock. The giant twenty-first hall, depicted in Peter Jackson's film, has become the site of a major encampment and will be the main social space and trading post in the expansion.
Physically contained it may be, but the depths of Moria provide the Turbine team with far greater artistic licence than pastoral Eriador did. Beneath the halls are the great forges of Khazad-Dum, worked by hulking Trolls and smothered in heat haze; the misty waterworks, with huge and desolate Gothic architecture that recalls Ico; and the "nameless deep". Here, given free reign by Tolkien's words, Turbine has let rip in a horrific fungal labyrinth infested with giant insects, demons and headless horrors.
Moria is under-populated at the moment, and while our tour takes in some truly amazing sights, we can't yet get a feeling for its overall size and how it fits together. But there's no doubt that Tolkien has inspired Turbine to some of the most focused, thought-out and atmospheric world-building in MMOs to date. Future free updates will expand the Mines as well as move players further east towards Fangorn Forest, Rohan and Eisengard; we imagine you'll be as eager to return to its mysteries as you are happy to emerge into Loth Lorien for the first time.
Unconventionally designed, Mines of Moria's two new classes don't plug gaps in the LOTRO line-up so much as create new ones for themselves. The Rune-Keeper - an out-and-out magic user who can change from a mage-style ranged damage-dealer to a healer from one fight to the next - is the more daring of the two, not least because it stretches Turbine's interpretation of Tolkien's world to the breaking point. The Warden is a lightly armoured, shield-and-spear-carrying tank with some stealth abilities, and an intriguing spin on the skill combo system that's all the rage in MMOs at the moment. Both are intended to have a more direct, pacy feel in combat.
The Rune-Keeper, inspired by Galadriel, flies in the face of received MMO wisdom by allowing players to change their group role dynamically according to how they play, rather than requiring them to switch between talent-tree builds or armour sets. An on-screen gauge tracks how attuned you are to either healing or destructive magic; the more healing spells you use, the more you'll unlock and the greater power you'll have a healer, while you lose offensive spells and power. The same goes the other way around. You can use carefully balanced spell rotations and Trait selection to balance yourself somewhere in between the two, but even at extremes the Rune-Keeper isn't a substitute for a Minstrel at healing or a Hunter in ranged damage - instead, most of its spell heal or damage over time, creating a more proactive than reactive play style.
Despite its reverentially careful treatment of the source material elsewhere, and the fact that actual wizards are extremely rare in Middle-Earth, Turbine has chosen to put the needs of the RPG fan-base first for once - "you've just got to have magic users", executive producer Jeffrey Steefel says. The one sop to the lore nerds is to characterise the Rune-Keeper as a linguist using the power of words - perhaps that's enough in keeping with Tolkien's own enthusiasms to slow the great man's grave-spinning somewhat.
The Warden, based on Haldir, wears medium armour, carries a shield, and uses javelins as both melee and medium-range throwing weapons; it's a decent pulling and tanking class that avoids damage, rather than mitigating it with heavy armour. Its gimmick is the Gambit system that allows players to build up to a selection of powerful skills through preset combos of offensive and defensive moves, and taunts.
There are some 40 different combinations you can use to assemble skills, and plenty of flexibility to change your plan halfway through; you begin with two-skill Gambits, but progress to five skill slots as you level up. Unlike most similar systems, the combo can be interrupted while you perform other attacks, transferred to another enemy, or the final gambit saved for later use. The Warden is a supremely flexible short-term tactician, and designed to be a superior solo class, as tanks go.
Playing both classes through the early levels, we thoroughly enjoyed the Warden; although basic at this point, the potential for a melee class that's both technically deep and viscerally satisfying to play is clear. The Rune-Keeper is harder to judge. Played solo, healing - and thus half the class design - are seldom used. The seesaw from damage to healing attunement and back again feels laboured and limiting, but this might just be the lack of options at such a low level. If it can balance the class correctly and make it satisfying to play, Turbine will have pulled off an audacious conjuring trick of an RPG hybrid - but the jury's out.
A blade to call my own
There's a greater innovation elsewhere in Mines of Moria, however - and one that seems an assured success. The item advancement system that gives Legendary items their own progression paths - with experience, attributes, customisation options and even specific quests - is an appallingly detailed and ruthlessly clever new obsession for LOTRO players. Mindful of its audience of solo and small-group adventurers, Turbine has forged a fascinating solo endgame, and the strongest link yet between an MMO character and its kit.
Legendary items are characterised as the relics of Moria, although crafters can make them too. They come in two flavours - weapons and the new "class items", for example a Champion's battle-horn - are always specific to one class, and each character can possess up to five. Weapons get experience from kills and specific quests, and level up; lower-quality ones you'll find at level 50 have a cap of level 10, but the best Legendaries can progress to 30 or even higher.
To begin with, you'll need to take the weapon to a Runeforge to have it identified and expose its Legacies - the attributes it has that modify your character's skills. These are all rated from bronze to gold, and each has its own progression path through a series of ranks; gold Legacies aren't just better, they have more ranks, but you might choose a weapon with all silver Legacies if they suit your play style better. Effectively talents, you'll need to spend points out of a limited pool to choose these Legacies, but every 10 levels the weapon stops gaining experience and needs to be reforged - this increases its power and also gives you a chance to rebuild its Legacy specialisation.
Not complicated enough for you? Try this. Every item advancement weapon has three slots for Relics (one each for settings, gems and runes), which provide the sort of inherent stat modifiers of more standard gear. Relics are obtained by deconstructing other Legendaries that you decide you don't want to keep; once equipped, they can be over-written, but not removed. Relic-masters provide a random chance to convert lesser-used relics into something more useful, and crafters will be able to make relics too. Mercifully, Turbine allows you to carry an infinite number of Relics without using bag space.
Item advancement is at once a bewilderingly and mouth-wateringly deep system. Finding, levelling and tuning a perfect set of five Legendaries - not to mention getting Deeds to change their names and titles - is bound to become an overriding urge for all LOTRO players. Item advancement blows the typical end-game pursuit of the finest gear wide open. This is very smart stuff; our only concern is finding the right balance between tuning the Legendaries you have and creating new ones, since if new Legendaries come too thick and fast, it could devalue them, and deflate your sense of pride and personal connection with this special new species of RPG loot.
Trait me right
Oddly, this extreme depth of customisation is something Turbine has avoided in its character classes so far, as it replaced traditional talent trees with a simple grab bag of Traits that could be slotted willy-nilly. Mines of Moria modifies that somewhat, giving each class three distinct paths of specialisation with the introduction of Trait sets, starting sometime after level 40. These are groups of five themed traits belonging to one path that give greater rewards when equipped together; five grants a Legendary trait and unlocks a new skill.
There are eight Traits per set, leaving some room for choice in your character build; and also a couple of spare Trait slots beyond the five for further customisation - Turbine points out that many players may eschew the Legendary Trait in favour of a sets of four and three. An advantage of this simple system over standard talent trees is that Turbine can introduce new Traits and sets at will, and it's considering doing so in future updates.
Turbine is less forthcoming on the remaining changes in Mines of Moria at the moment. The new crafting guilds will take the tradeskill-inclined down particular specialisation paths using a reputation system. Turbine is promising to make far greater use of its "session play" style where players can take jump out of their own characters' skins for a while to play as a great hero (or villain, or chicken) of Middle-Earth. Although there no word of new Monster Play battlegrounds yet, the Ettenmoors is being thoroughly reworked; monster classes will be tweaked, an automatic system introduced to balance conflicts by buffing the weaker side, as well as new hot-spot and artefact-based objectives.
Mines of Moria might only make a quiet splash when it's released in a few months time, drowned out by the noisy heavyweight clash between Warhammer Online and the next World of Warcraft expansion, Wrath of the Lich King. But Lord of the Rings Online shouldn't be underestimated; it's the quiet success story of MMOs, profitable, smoothly run, elegant, polished and brimming with good ideas. Subscribers won't be surprised to learn that this expansion is no exception; the only trouble is getting that message out to everyone else.