It's a smoke-and-mirrors disguise for grind, but one that's incredibly addictive – Skirmish Points and Marks awarded from these events can be used to purchase both cosmetic items and armour sets at various stages of levelling. If you wish to enjoy them in a more social setting, a group of up to 12 can be set up with the challenge scaled accordingly.
The new zone of Enedwaith has also been released to introduce some fresh air to the final stages of the levelling process. While many of the zones have an overcast feel to them, Enedwaith is a riot of colour and the artists at Turbine have taken to the task with abundant enthusiasm.
Polished as all of these elements are, they're almost incidental to what makes LOTRO so special. Even more so than the films, the MMO medium provides the perfect vehicle for this most epic of yarns.
Typically, the genre suffers from an intrinsic need to fill your time and retain the attention of your wallet with repetitive, arbitrary content tied to piecemeal character advancement. Turbine, on the other hand, has picked up every missed opportunity from the film trilogy in order to delight its audience.
We can even give this love a name, if you like, and it's Tom Bombadil. Ordinarily I'm not given to crying at films, but after sitting through The Fellowship of the Ring with an increasingly distraught look on my face, I realised with wobbly-lipped despondency that it simply wasn't going to be.
In LOTRO, he not only appears with his delightful nature and his own house hidden deep within the forest, but also his own soundtrack. It's devotion to details like these that brings a tear of nostalgia – gratitude, even – to the eye as you savour long-loved characters brought to life.
The take on Middle-Earth feels like a rural England seen in an older, more austere age where bleak is beautiful. Walking through rain-spattered landscapes with nothing in sight except grazing wildlife, there's a sense of loneliness and gloom that provides the perfect backdrop to the journey of the Fellowship.
Snow crunches underfoot, spurs jingle upon mounting your horse and nearby fires crackle with inviting warmth. If you're at all uncomfortable with your inner rambler, Turbine wants you to know that it's OK to dream of a weekend caravan parked on the outskirts of the New Forest while you trudge through the nine-to-five of daily life.
To breathe further life into this world, the relaunch also brings DX11 graphics to the table, though the impact is only really noticeable in the water where little ripples spread out in your wake. Anyway, LOTRO has always been a game of diminishing returns when it comes to tweaking and enhancing its beauty. You will not upgrade your graphics card to take advantage of these new developments but – if you have a relatively new PC – you really won't need to.
Given the labour of love the game represents, it's a pity that there are still gremlins lurking in the engine. For the most part, distant objects fade in gently without jarring, but there are also a shocking number of occasions where textures jump into view at near-distance, even altering the geometry of a building. Tested on a number of PCs, the effect still blemishes the world, even with all settings reduced. It's not an outright failure by any means, but it feels like a greater oversight than it really is due simply to the sheer splendour on display.
The Lord of the Rings Online is still everything it was in 2007 when Rob awarded it a 9/10. That it's now free to at least sample makes it compelling for any MMO fan. But it's not a technically perfect game, and its long-term appeal will likely come down to a matter of taste as well as your willingness to embrace the game for what it is, rather than what you've perhaps become accustomed to.
Standing on its own merits, the game comes as close to knocking on the door of a perfect 10 without quite making it as any other you'll play. It's opening night, and Turbine has prepared a table for you – tuck in.