Turbine showed the upcoming Rise of Isengard expansion at PAX and was generous enough to provide me with both a preview of the expansion and an interview, both with Senior Producer Aaron “Rowan” Campbell. I managed to snag some pictures and videos as well, albeit low-quality and shaky, so you’ll have to imagine the amazing sights for now (and they truly were spectacular).
Spoilers abound, the biggest plot ones being marked, so read carefully if you want to discover the story on your own.
The preview began in Galtrev, a Dunlending village Aaron described as the “Twenty-First Hall” of the Isengard expansion. As he showed off the hub, Aaron walked me past a task board. As it turns out, there will be new tasks coming in the expansion, allowing players to complete tasks even if they have reached the endgame (providing a way to complete the lengthy deeds associated with tasks). However, it seems that there are probably not tasks in the Moria, Mirkwood, or Enedwaith regions yet, so players not yet 65 will have a gap in their leveling before they can start the new ones.
Dunland is the large region south of Enedwaith and there is a continuation of the earlier region seen both in the geography and themes. The need to convince various Dunlending tribes of Saruman’s treachery is one of these continuing themes and serves as a central objective during the expansion, though to a greater degree than before. There are several tribes who we have to sway to our side, each with separate leaders and politics. Some of the Enedwaith mythology, such as the Huntsman, continues into Dunland as well; Aaron explained that it made sense to tap into something more primitive as we go into lands that are a little more primitive. These characters and elements, inspired in part by Welsh mythology, serve as reminders that there it is not simply the forces of evil and the forces of good. Middle-Earth is more complex than that.
While some of Enedwaith’s geographical and thematic features share similarities with Dunland, what stood out to me the most was the uniqueness and variety of the new regions. There are villages built on top of bogs, mountainous areas, and my favorite landmark: a very wide and gnarled tree that we have seen in earlier screenshots. The new regions are also populated with new enemy designs, including new versions of uruks and trolls and also several odd looking creatures including one Aaron described as a “platypus-raccoon”.
One of the most impressive locations is Wulf’s Cleft, an enormous White Hand encampment. Aaron took a moment to note Saruman’s strategy here – he has been deceiving the local tribes to gain their support, meanwhile building up an army nearby but hidden from sight behind the hills. The size of this encampment is incredible to see in-game, and it is not merely a background feature to inspire awe but not be interacted with. Turbine is experimenting with new tech to generating mass-scale armies, and the first trial of this tech is a solo instance fought inside Wulf’s cleft. Aaron described this as a way to experience a large battle on a small scale, something Turbine is looking to expand on the idea in the future in such battles as the famous defense of Helm’s Deep.
Our quest also takes us up to Orthanc. There has been concern over the tower’s size, so let me reassure you that it is massive. Like has been mentioned previously, it is hard to show in pictures because of issues of perspective (the tower is situated in the middle of a valley featuring tall mountains in the background), but the size is clear from the in-game player perspective. Isengard is located in Nan Curunír, a dark place full of Saruman’s armies. With so many enemies in the area there are fewer allies at hand. The closest hub to Isengard is at the Ford of Isen, though there may be a hidden Ranger or two closer to the fortress.
Draigoch’s Lair is the upcoming raid featuring the massive dragon Turbine is using to highlight the expansion. Draigoch has a unique role in the game, being the deity worshipped by a strange tribe of Dunlending as well as having a fully lip-synched voice, creating an interesting boss.
The dragon is enormous, towering over players with his 80 meter length and 108 meter wingspan. As can be seen in Merric’s screenshots from the Bullroarer beta or the video I captured at PAX, players attack Dragon in the center of its lair, running up and down tunnels surrounding the central cave. This allows the full scope of the dragon to be taken in as it is flanked on all sides by individual raiders coordinating separately across the room(tanks taking one position directly in front of the direction, attackers going on the offensive at others, engaging the head and all four claws individually).
Defeating Draigoch will not only award tokens as usual but actual equipment now, an example of the changing itemization that will reward players with items they can use and not simply gather many of to trade in. The new features and the complex fight makes it sound like the raid will be lots of fun to run, even for someone who raids infrequently like myself.
Aaron clarified what comes with the expansion purchase and what is available to all for free, purchase or not. The regions added in this update (Update 4) will be accessible to all, without any artificial boundaries in place between Enedwaith and Dunland. The recently announced Update 5 will contain instances free to those who pre-order the expansion or buy it in the Turbine web store (buying it at isengard.lotro.com, with a credit card or PayPal). When the expansion is released in the LOTRO store (the in-game store where you spend Turbine Points), Aaron believes the expansion will have separate parts to buy with TP individually, saying that this is one benefit to pre-ordering.
It is important to note that a good portion of the content will be free to all regardless, with Epic Quests continuing to be open in addition to tasks and levels. This seems (in my opinion) to follow the pattern of the Halls of Night/Inn of the Forsaken release, with the regions being bought in quest packs separate from the individual instances.
Beginning in the Rise of Isengard, F2P and Premium players may purchase creep classes to play, but not Freep-side play. As for potential balance issues, Aaron says that they always see a tug in the Moors. He expects that there will be a lot of creeps early on, but that experienced players are already playing on both sides (implying that there will be additional numbers of creeps, but not necessarily ones with skills to create an uneven playing field). He also said that it is hard to predict how changes like this will affect any world. This seems further evidenced by what I have heard about the moors from players of various servers; some servers seem to have fairly stable balances currently while others lean one way or the other (with different people giving different opinions on activity even for the same server), and no change would shift PVMP the same way for everyone. We’ll have to watch with Turbine to see what happens and if any additional changes need to be made.
Turbine has made a lot of the changes they want to for LIs. They are now focusing on itemization, and in the case of LIs this means reducing randomization and making the individual items feel worth it.
With Tier 7 incoming, there have been some questions about faction and guild reputation-restricted items affecting crafting alts. Crafting guild reputation will still be viable, though it wouldn’t be a surprise if some of the new recipes needed to be earned. Also, while some recipes and rewards will be kept to the higher levels, they are talking about ways to make some of the items bound-to-account so that players them between characters.
- In regards to skirmishes, Turbine is “definitely planning a few things”, though nothing Aaron could talk about
- There are not any housing updates currently in the works.
- Besides the continuation of the main Epic Story along familiar paths, we can look forward to heading off the beaten path, as is a tradition in LOTRO.
- There are no current details on LUA changes at the moment, though a few things are in beta and info will be released as time allows.
Rise of Isengard Epic Story Spoilers
The main story in the expansion is of Isengard as a fortress on the verge of war; Saruman is building his army of uruks and getting the local tribes to fight on his side against Rohan. This is the slow rise of Isengard by which the story gets its name. During the main section of the story we serve as the eyes and ears of the Rohirrim as well as continuing to aid the Grey company. The Rohirrim, who we encounter for the first time in the expansion, are mistrusted by the Dunlending so we act as their envoy and spy, scouting out the region.
Aaron gave some insight into the Grey Company from the devs’ and writers’ perspectives. We have encountered a good number of this company over the course of the game, forming long relationships with them ever since meeting many of them in quests in the 20s and 30s leveling range where they knew their respective regions well and were well capable to handle the challenges we faced. In Dunland they are now stepping out of their comfort zone. “They’re definitely foreign in this region”, Aaron explained, saying that Dunland will push their limits and even lead to tragedy for many in the company.
The second story is set in the past, told through session-play much like the encounters with Isildur in recent Epic Quest books.
In a surprising twist Aaron revealed that we play as Grima Wormtongue and witness Isengard’s past over the course of several months. Grima only has access to one skill, planting “Seeds of Doubt” in other characters, but it serves him well (this portion of the Epic Quest is very much focused on the story rather than combat).
The passing months are used to show contrast as Isengard changes from a peaceful woodland area into a dark and foreboding place, also allowing fans of the book to witness key story moments. As you might be able to make out on the guard in the garden picture or the image of Grima and Gandalf at the top of Orthanc, the old White Hand emblem in the past is straighter and more refined than the blotchy, orcish version on the shirts and buttons Turbine gave out at PAX.
Saruman himself goes through changes during this period, his cloak changing from pure white into many colors after he forges his own ring and extends his power (Aaron compared the colors to a prism, Saruman’s power radiating from him and changing his appearance).
The third story of Isengard takes place beyond the expansion. Future updates will cover Isengard’s fall, when it is flooded and Orthanc is broken. They have already begun thinking about these plot developments, though there will be different stories to explore as well. While there aren’t any specifics, it seems that we have a lot of interesting developments to look forward to in the coming months.