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 Nazgûl 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.
Through all of this, you'll be able to take advantage of some major tweaks Turbine has made to gameplay. Key among these is the revised combat system. Not only have weapon classes all had their speed and damage standardized, combat itself has been made more slick, more responsive. This is one of those changes that probably involved a lot of industrious work on Turbine's part, but for the player is so subtle you may not even notice the difference, which is probably a good thing - it just feels right. It's still not quite perfect, though. My Champion still feels the need to swing his axes for a few more seconds after a fight, despite an enemy being felled. The dimwit. Too many knocks on the head.
The expansion's not all about Mirkwood, endgame content and combat though. There's been extensive revision across the main body of the game. Steefel talks about revamps to all the book quest content, and considerable work on the "the way the first 30 levels of the game work, to more efficiently enter the game." So even though most of the above won't mean much to non-players, rest assured, if you like Tolkien, LOTRO is a great place to indulge your inner hobbit, and even more so now the entry-level content has been revised. Personally, I came to the game because I loved the films, and wanted to see more of Moria. The game can visualise Middle-earth in a broader way than the movies - and it is, after all, the original fantasy world, so influential on the entire genre of fantasy RPGs. Steefel rightly says, "you can't build a 300 hour movie," so the game fills in the gaps.
Among the other tweaks in Siege of Mirkwood are some that answer some of the most nagging irritants in the game, like the way you had to dismount to talk to an NPC or go through a portal or doorway. There's even a mail name auto-complete now too. About time. A pity Turbine didn't add an option to attach multiple items though. World of Warcraft players, with their innumerable fancy mods, will probably scoff, but LOTRO has never about laborious third-party customisations. We rely on the generally pretty flexible UI, and just hope Turbine keeps implementing such tweaks.
Turbine has also done a lot of work on the Legendary Item and Legacy system - the equipment that levels alongside you, introduced in the Mines of Moria expansion. Notable among these changes are the provision of Legacy information sooner in your handling of a Legendary item, so you don't get into a frustrating bind where you invest a lot of time levelling a weapon only for Legacies to unlock that are no use to you. Crafters will also benefit from changes relating to Legendary items. Mirkwood introduces new Legendary recipes, and there's also a new, fourth relic slot on legendary items, for crafted relics.
It's not all hunky-dory, however. Although the Skirmishing is great fun and a reliable way to accrue XP and item XP, now that I've played it more and played it on my own character rather than loaners in beta, I'm feeling a little nonplussed about the rewards. As discussed in the hands-on, Skirmishes yield Skirmish Marks, which can either be invested in your soldiers, or on crafting items, or on kit. In the developer diaries, designer Brian Aloisio said the Skirmish "rewards are usually slightly less powerful than those found through endgame instances or top-tier crafting." Really? None of the gear rewards seem to even come close to gear players can still get from Moria content (and there doesn't seem to be even a whiff of Radiance), which seems a bit odd, especially at level 65. Hopefully Turbine wil re-appraise this, as however much fun Skirmishing is, players don't just want fun - they want shinies.
Mirkwood is a great expansion, but compared to Moria, its quest and instance content is fairly limited. This is because the expansion was also introducing the Skirmish system, an entire new area of the game. Some players may feel slightly short-charged by Siege of Mirkwood unless those Skirmish rewards are improved, and new Skirmish content is rolled out on a regular basis. On the latter point, I got the impression it would be. After all, this is the company that's done 22 book updates since April 2007 on LOTRO, and in its 10 years on Asheron's Call has done more than 110. The Lord of the Rings Online, like that veteran stable-mate, could run and run.
8 / 10