"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.