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.