Due to popular demand, we have 5,000 more exclusive in-game items for Lord of the Rings Online to give away. Head over to Eurogamers to claim your Hauberk of the Mithril Guard, for use on European servers, and then read on for our impressions of the beta test of the Mines of Moria, first expansion of the Tolkein MMO.
Turbine is, without a doubt, the most value-for-money-orientated MMO developer in the market. There are no more spoiled subscribers than LOTRO-ites, who wallow in a new bundle of content every month as part of their monthly tithe. Which is why it's slightly quizzical that Turbine would - at the most challenging time of the year in gaming, let alone on the doorstep of the Lich King himself - throw out its first paid-for expansion since Asheron's Call 2: Legions.
The answer is actually rather simple: scale. With the Mines of Moria, Turbine has extended Lord of the Rings Online beyond the Shadows of Angmar. While many expansions (including Wrath of the Lich King) try their best to create an 'open world', and, in the process, a degree of storytelling ability, the Mines of Moria so far gladly leads players by the hand to areas of interest without managing to lose the first M in MMO.
The expansion adds two new classes, The Runekeeper and the Warden. The former, as well as causing a great deal of gnashing of teeth with lore-purists, bears some resemblance to Warhammer Online's Archmage and Shaman. As an offensive or defensive magic class, the Runekeeper blows up things or heals them, and the more that they err on the side of each one, the more effective said abilities become. The difference between the Runekeeper and WAR's offerings, though, is their ability to push their abilities much further - over the course of a long-scale battle, you can become a powerhouse or an effective healer, sacrificing whichever ability is less important. This makes them quite fun to solo as, too - though their weak-arsed cloth garments make them rather precious in a scrap.
The Warden is an off-tank, damage-focused class that uses a big spear and a selection of "gambit" moves to do his damage - and activate specific buffs for both himself and his group. The big difference is the moves that he queues up to activate the gambit affect the outcome - adding taunting abilities to the queue and releasing your gambits adds greater threat to them, but lowers the damage, and building shield gambits can either heal your Warden or add to your defence.
The end result is a class that requires a great deal more timing than the others to play, as you're constantly building different abilities - and it only becomes more interesting as you are allowed to delete gambits from the queue piece-by-piece, adapting to each situation with the more powerful abilities (for example, using the more complex Area of Effect taunts could save your group). They're only able to wear medium-armour, though, and the lesser-prepared and more-brazen Warden (i.e. me) will find himself ground under-orc rather quickly.
Both of these classes are a joy to play - a pair of refreshingly-tuned hybrid-classes that require, if not a mountain of it, a degree of forethought, more so with the Warden. Whether or not you want to completely start over again to play as one is up to you - the hesitation there is that, frankly, you're picking up the Mines of Moria to see the Mines.
This is one of the immediate problems with the beginning of the expansion. The beginning actually takes place outside of the Mines, in Eregion, Rivendell and at the Hollin Gate. You'd imagine that the beginning of an epic incursion into the forgotten ruins of the dwarven kingdoms, Khazad-dum, would best even the first steps through Warcraft's Dark Portal. Instead, your first hours are spent farting around like an exterminator-maid, killing local animals, vaunting across the same bloody countryside, and, at one horrifyingly boring part, picking up sticks.
It sounds petty, but when you're introducing your game's first paid-for expansion, the last thing you want to do is give people buyer's remorse because their epic journey begins with kicking crows in the face.
This monotony does end, eventually, as you somehow satisfy the dwarves and their menial tasks and are allowed to proceed to the Hollin Gate, only to get attacked by The Watcher In The Water. Again, this experience was remarkably underwhelming, as you're whipped by remarkably tender-looking tentacles and see nothing of the hulking beast within.
Scampering back under your mother's skirt, you're handed a weapon of the Third Age - your first Legendary item - and sent to Rivendell to work out how to use it to fight off The Watcher. This begins probably the coolest addition to itemisation in MMOs - levellable weaponry.
Essentially, these Legendary weapons level alongside you, and with each one you receive a pool of points that can be attributed to Legacies - useful, class-specific ability upgrades. These can range from critical damage upgrades to the addition of snares to your abilities, and there's something to be said for the utterly bewildering amount of choice - and that's to say nothing of each one having three sockets to add statistics to.
As you level them up, every ten levels requires you re-forge them, resetting all the statistics on the weapon and unlocking even tastier legacies. Turbine has really pushed the boat out on customisation, not just with the similarly-levellable titles you can give each weapon, but with the choices you can make to really forge a weapon that's yours. You can level six of them at a time, too, meaning that eventually you are armed to the teeth with customised battle-axes and bows.
Once you've levelled your weapon of choice through ten levels (which, while not as long as it sounds, was still far grindier than sits well with LOTRO), you can face off against the Watcher in a surprisingly dynamic and dramatic instance. While, once again, you're just fighting off the tentacles, at least this time you're able to turn around and hack them down as they pull dwarves into the Black Pool.
On entering Moria, the expansion's wow factor actually kicks in. Say what you will about the repetitiveness of this fine genre, but Turbine knows how to immerse the player in a world that feels truly huge. Moria is no exception, making Ironforge feel claustrophobic in comparison. The darkness stretches on seemingly forever, and areas like The Endless Stair gently nuzzled at my vertigo, while the Dwarven Structures are breathtaking.
Story-wise, Moria continues to be a triumph for Turbine's elaboration on the Lord of the Rings myths. While 'Mines' suggests 'carts', Moria is genuinely an underground world, with full-scale cities, civil wars between orcs, and the Dwarven contrivances that kept the city in working order before it all went to buggery. In fact, you're actually able to witness part of said buggery yourself - Moria tells part of its story via a series of historical instances which range from very interesting to full-on nerdgasmic, resplendent with dropped Mountain Dew and beads of sweat.
Moria has shaped up to be a bold evolution of Lord of the Rings Online. While we can't exactly say it stretches the genre, the technological changes used to simulate the epic size of it all are a triumph, and anybody who enjoys the well-done instanced story-quests will drink it up. With ten more levels to plough through and hours of content to do it to, as well as the potential for dragging your friends in with two easy-to-learn and satisfying classes, now is one of the best times to get into the game.
Lord of the Rings Online: The Mines of Moria is due out for the PC on 18th November.