Entering the beta of an MMO expansion pack on a borrowed, pre-levelled character can be a bewildering experience. Who are you, rune-keeper Kronkite of Lórien, with your spiky grey hair and strangely low rep with the Galadrim? And what about you, minstrel Zzordon of the Blue Mountains, with your burgundy floppy hat and braided beard? What's your story? And more importantly, what the heck does this button do?
In a parallel Middle-earth, my level 60 champion is waiting impatiently on the banks of the Anduin in Lothlórien for the campaign against Sauron's forces in Mirkwood to begin, but on the beta server, I got a chance to run around the Siege of Mirkwood mini-expansion to The Lord of the Rings Online with Kronkite and Zzordon.
In Siege of Mirkwood, the main thrust of LOTRO's overarching narrative involves the elves of Lothlórien making incursions into the corrupted Mirkwood, where the forces of Sauron are gathering around the fortress of Dol Guldur. Alongside this new questing zone, however, the new Skirmishes system broadens the picture. In some ways, Skirmishing muddies the game's "Epic", Book-based chronological narrative flow, but it's also a great way of reminding the player that the whole land is at war. It's probably best to think of the Skirmishes as comparable to Session Play - the one-off events that have dotted the game and allowed you to experience other significant moments in the history of the Rings - but with your own character.
LOTRO's executive producer Jeffrey Steefel explains: "Well, there's MMOs, and then there's MMOs that are based on such a well-known, chronological story. I think we've balanced it as best we could by making sure there aren't too many things that you look at that are temporally jarring. But we do count on a certain amount of suspension of disbelief from the players. The nature of the Skirmishes in particular, it really feels like an arcade, coin-op experience, where it's outside of the overall experience of the game. I can go and have fun and do this, then go back to my immersion in the world, bringing rewards with me."
Skirmishes do have that arcade or mini-game feel - or at least an MMO version thereof. And it is gratifying to revisit places you've travelled through in the game and find them changed by the war. Of course, this does mean you can have slightly weird experiences like going to the "normal" Bree before entering a Skirmish and immediately find yourself in a war-ravaged, snowy Bree.
On first entering a Skirmish, you summon an ally - your Soldier. The idea is that he's a volunteer from among the Free People, and, as explained by Turbine's Brian Alosio in his Developer Diaries, "they are not as well trained as the Captain's Herald or Lore-master's companions. In battle, they will act without your orders, engaging the enemy as they see fit... they are not well-disciplined enough to be managed as much as seasoned soldiers." So don't expect squad controls. Instead, you define your Soldier's behaviour through the options in the new Skirmish panel. There are four tabs: Attribute, Skill, Training and Personal. The latter is how the Soldier has a direct influence on you: a buff, in other words. The Attribute is what Role you want your Soldier to take - effectively its class. With each Role you also get a special bonus. So the high-damage, ranged-attack Archer gives you an increased critical rating, the heavily-armoured Bannerguard support role gives an Armour Aura, and so on.
Each Role type has special skills which you can level up like your own character's Virtues. For example, the Protector, a tank, has some threat shouts and improved melee attacks. Training, meanwhile, can also be levelled up by spending the Skirmish Marks you earn with a trainer at one of the new Skirmish Camps, so you could train your Protector to utilise his heavy armour or shield more effectively. There are innumerable variables, making it a highly flexible system.
When you create a new Skirmish, you can adjust the level. If you knock it down too far below your character's level, you will only earn a lower percentage of Skirmish Marks. If, however, you keep the level on a par with your character level, and up the Difficulty, that percentage reward will be adjusted upwards. The final adjustment option for the Skirmishes is size (solo, three-man, six or 12).
Two Skirmishes take place in the aforementioned snowy Bree, which has been taken over by brigands. Defence of the Prancing Pony involves you fighting off waves of attackers, notably torch-bearing bandits who are trying to burn the pub with women and kids inside. Elsewhere in Bree, in Thievery and Mischief, you must reclaim the town, fighting in from the South Gate to the Auction House, Town Hall and beyond. When you claim capture points, you'll frequently be faced with counter-attacks of randomised enemies.
Tolkien fans will enjoy Trouble in Tuckborough for the simple fact that it brings to life the Scouring of the Shire, that sorry story which formed the penultimate chapter of The Return of the King but was side-stepped in the movies. Stand At Amon Sul, meanwhile, sees you fighting atop Weathertop. This one got a bit hectic for me on the minstrel Zzordon as I was running around keeping defensive fires lit, and fighting, as well as throwing a few heals at my slightly erratic Soldier, Trevor. Soldiers' behaviour can be a minor nuisance; like other MMO "pets", they can occasionally surprise you by pulling a bunch of enemies. Trevor even occasionally had some trouble getting stuck on the scenery. By and large, however, Turbine is introducing an impressively smooth experience with Skirmishing.
In The Ford of Bruinen - you know, the place with the Guinness surf horses - you fight alongside some Rivendell elves, facing waves of mobs, including elite Lieutenants, until an enemy General finally leaps into the fight. Generals are the bosses of the Skirmishes, but you can define how tough they're going to be by changing the Skirmish settings . The Siege of Gondamon, meanwhile, sees the market and fort in Ered Luin being besieged by sundry orcs and Dourhands, those treacherous dwarves who have sided with the enemy. Gondamon's usually such a pleasant place, but here the stalls are overturned, the stonework cracked, the ground charred. Survival: Barrow-downs is a little different, as you're on a timer. The fog rolls in, then the Wights and other nasties arrive. Trevor and I didn't last long, but in our defence this one has no solo option.
We'll return to look at the five new levels of Mirkwood itself, and Dol Guldur, in our review of Siege of Mirkwood soon. But based purely on the Skirmishes, this digitally-distributed mini-expansion looks set to subtly yet radically transform LOTRO. Like LOTRO's Monster Play - or even arenas and battlegrounds in World of Warcraft - Skirmishes will offer something that can be enjoyed entirely separately from the main questing structure of the game. Some players may dedicate themselves entirely to Skirmishes, grinding Skirmish Marks for new gear or Soldier levelling; others may stick with the more chronological, main thrust of the game, working on reaching the new Dol Guldur raid instances. But most will likely mix and match, as Skirmishes are so pleasingly flexible - perfect for a solo half-hour blast, but equally designed to satisfy the bigger raiding kinships.
The Lord of the Rings Online: Siege of Mirkwood will be available as a digital download only, for £14.99 / €19.99, on 3rd December.