If "the long dark of Moria" was all about the black depths, and "the Golden Wood" of Lothlórien was a vibrant blaze, then Mirkwood plunges you back into the gloom. Main colour in the palette: brown. Offset by grey. It's not a cheery place. Lord of the Rings Online executive producer Jeffrey Steefel says, "It's grim, but some sunlight does get into there. There are encampments that are controlled by elves and there are definitely places where it's not going to be all dingy and dark." That's true, but there are also some areas where, even in the game's daytime, it's like wading through pea soup. You may well find yourself tweaking your gamma.
Despite the gloom, though, Mirkwood - the sole setting of this downloadable mini-expansion to Turbine's Tolkien MMO - is a compelling place. Why? Because Turbine has done an excellent job of making it feel like you're playing your part in a significant military campaign. Sure, the War of the Ring has been the backdrop to much of your adventuring in Middle-earth through the original game and the Mines of Moria expansion pack, but this is tangibly the front line. After crossing the Anduin, the first encampment you reach, Echad Sirion in the Mirk-eaves, is very much a bridgehead. It's a supply point for the war effort that's pushing deeper into the wood, with Dol Guldur, stronghold of Sauron's forces in the region, the goal. The first key NPC you meet says, ''You are about to enter the first true battle of what will likely be our last war in Middle-earth.'' He's not kidding.
Mirkwood is one of those places that's steeped in Tolkien's detailed history. It's the forest formerly known as Greenwood the Great, a place where the elves, in ages past, created the Woodland Realm. It became Mirkwood when it fell under the influence of Morgoth - Sauron's boss when he was just a trainee in evil. In the Third Age, Sauron took over Dol Guldur, and the Woodland Realm was further diminished, pushed north. Bilbo guided the company of Dwarves through the woods in The Hobbit. In Turbine's interpretation of the lore, although Sauron is now resident in Mordor, he has left lieutenants at Dol Guldur, and many of their orc forces patrol Mirkwood, alongside sundry bats, wolves, spiders and all the sort of things you'd expect to find in gloomy, nasty places - also, naturally, the sort of things you'll have to cull to complete quests.
Most of the questing in Mirkwood is pretty standard stuff, but Turbine has also incorporated some of the new Skirmish system (discussed in our earlier hands-on) into the questing, specifically the new "Conclusion to Volume II" Epic book quests, which form the main thrust of your movement towards Dol Guldur. Some of the book quests take the form of Skirmishes and can be completed with one, three, or six people. It's a nifty move that will help players who prefer to solo, or have small kinships, avoid choke-points in quest chains.
Indeed, Mirkwood in general provides a solid questing experience - much better than that of Lothlórien, where you sung to trees, and, despite surviving the serious rigours of in Moria, found yourself taking damage from hungry shrews. The nine-ish areas of Mirkwood are given nuance and distinction by variations in the brown and grey colour scheme; in fairness, there are some mouldy greens too. There are marshes, canyons, and plenty of ruins, which often provide locations for transport hubs and elf encampments.
As you get closer to Dol Guldur, it rises up in the distance, Fel beasts circling its turrets. Elf encampments near the fortress have siege engines and ballista, pointed at the evil bastion. The elves even manage to have a camp on the walls of Dol Guldur, which is handy for those hardcore players who rushed through the new content to start tackling the climactic 12-man raid instance, Barad Guldur, which consists of fighting your way up the tower towards Sauron's Nazgűl lieutenants. (The expansion raised the level cap from 60 to 65 – some insomniac, dedicated folk managed this in less than two days.) There are also three new three-man dungeons and one new six-man instance.