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Lord of the Rings Online
Mines of Moria
Play Session
By John Funk

Though I’d seen a demo of the new LotRO expansion Mines of Moria on the show floor at PAX, I hadn’t been able to play it for myself. Even so, the preview build had certainly captured my interest and I was rather looking forward to getting a chance to check out Moria in-person (well … sort of). Aaron Campbell, LotRO‘s Live Producer, was gracious enough to give me a guided tour through some of the new content.

I logged in to an account with a pre-made character, a level 60 Dwarf Runekeeper. The Runekeeper is one of two new classes in the expansion, a caster capable of using both healing and damage-dealing spells. Campbell explained that since we’d be playing on the actual server used for the Moria Closed Beta, normal beta testers could see us, and see our fancy admin tags – so he apologized in advance for any “Can you give me awesome loot please?” requests I’d get. There are downsides to celebrity.

We started out by the eastern edge of Moria, near a bridge that led out to the Elven lands of Nimrodel and Lorien. No, not that bridge – the Bridge of Khazad-Dum was a bit further down the way. Not that players could use it, of course: Moria takes place immediately after the Fellowship of the Ring has fled the kingdom under the mountain, and said bridge had a severe structural failure due to Balrog-related complications. Whether by chance or by admin h4x, we’d only killed a few random enemies when we happened to come across a rare epic drop – a Supreme Tailoring pattern.

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As we continued to make our way through Moria, Campbell talked about the goals, challenges, and solutions the Turbine team had faced with this expansion. The foremost challenge was, of course, making the space of Moria itself. Not only did they have to make it as gigantic and vertical as possible to be authentic to the source material, but they had to do so in a way that wouldn’t kill the computers their subscribers were using. Moria is not built like a dungeon, but rather an outdoor landscape much like the rest of LotRO‘s Middle-Earth – it just has a floor and a ceiling.

While the technical specifics are a bit over my head, whatever they’ve done to create these gigantic, cavernous spaces has worked fantastically well. The PC I was playing on is certainly no slouch when it comes to gaming specs, but even so, I was impressed by how tremendously vast Moria seemed without running into any performance hits whatsoever. Moria doesn’t just seem huge – it is huge. At Campbell’s encouragement, I jumped off a nearby cliff and fell quite a distance; had I not been under admin invulnerability, I’d have been killed instantly upon hitting the water.

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Campbell briefly led me through the 21st Hall, one of the primary social spaces in Moria. The Hall is the setting for the iconic scene in the book (and movie) where the Fellowship races the band of murderous Orcs, trying to escape. It, like the rest of Moria, is truly massive, with a forest of towering pillars that Campbell pointed out had been designed to reflect their age. Some of them were old and gilded; others were braced with wood – still tremendous, but not nearly as sturdy or ageless.

While the Fellowship passed through the Hall on its journey from Point A to Point B (to Point M), players will aid the Dwarves in setting up a more permanent outpost there and elsewhere throughout Moria. This particular social area, I was told, was a counterpart to the Rangers’ Esteldin – a hub for players to gather, explore and adventure, specifically meant for characters in the mid-50s.

From the Hall, we instantly teleported to the Redhorn Lodes, located quite literally in the exact center of Moria. The Lodes were the old working environment of the Dwarves – one of the eponymous “Mines” of Moria – a primary resource-gathering space of the legendary civilization. At the moment, though, it’s the hang-out for clans of Orcs bearing the White Hand of Saruman. Much of the storyline of Moria, Campbell explained to me, would have players dealing with several battling tribes: the local Goblins and Orcs who had already been there and indebted to the Balrog for their power, the White Hand of Saruman, and the forces of the Witch-King in Angmar, all of whom would be seeking to fill the power vacuum left by Gandalf’s thorough smiting of said Balrog. There would also, he hinted, be some more horrific foes found far beneath the surface of Moria.

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Unfortunately, whoever had taken Thalin the Dwarf Runekeeper on a trial spin before me had gotten him diseased, resulting in a nasty and distracting yellow border around the screen that we were unable to remove. Nor were we able to cure the disease itself, even with our awesome admin powers. So, Campbell was kind enough to provide me with another level 60 character, a Human Captain – who came equipped with some nice legendary items, giving me a chance to check out that new feature of the expansion as well.

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After I’d logged back in, the two of us headed to the Waterworks. The Waterworks are built around a vast underground lake, built not just to act as underground cooling chambers for the blazing forges nearby, but as the power behind the whole civilization of Moria itself. While many of the places in Moria had been thoroughly fleshed out in the source material – such as the aforementioned 21st Hall or Durin’s Tomb – the Waterworks was an area where the Turbine crew had a bit more freedom to explore on their own.

Though the Fellowship was bound to their path from A to B, here the developers had the chance to stray from that path, along with places like the Flaming Deeps, Durin’s Throne Room, and the Foundations of Stone. According to Campbell, LotRO Executive Producer Jeffery Steefel describes the atmosphere and design of the Waterworks as similar to that of the classic 1920s sci-fi Metropolis, a comparison not entirely unwarranted.

We moved from water to fire, checking out the Flaming Deeps. Here, the local Orcs apparently spent too much time close to the fire and caught on fire themselves. One wonders how said Orcs work from an evolutionary standpoint. Upon slaying a handful of these enemies, I was told that one of my legendary weapons – my Mace of the Third Age – had leveled up, and Campbell took the opportunity to expand upon Moria‘s legendary weapon system.

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As characters adventure, they might find a “generic” legendary weapon (oxymoronic as it might sound), like the “Guardian’s Axe of the First Age” or something along those lines. These weapons can be identified, revealing their history and their Legacies: strengths, skill benefits, and capabilities, all of which would be specific to the wielder’s chosen class. Weapons gain experience just like a character would, and upon leveling up will accrue points to spend on these Legacies, enhancing the weapon’s abilities in combat. These weapons can further be customized through Relics – each one comes with three open slots for a Setting, a Gem, and a Rune (in ascending order of rarity), which offer stat or ability bonuses.

Though points spent as the weapon levels up can be used to advance its existing Legacies, every tenth level players will have the option to reforge it, refunding all points spent – and can add an additional Legacy of their own, which is a nice little touch that makes the player feel like a hero or a champion in their own right. Upon reforging, any slotted Relics can be safely removed (otherwise, the only way to get them out is to replace them, which will destroy whatever is currently in the slot). There’s also the option to name the weapon whatever you’d like when you reforge; my “Captain’s Sword of the Third Age” became “This Is A Totally Awesome Sword.” (If you’re reading this, Aaron, I’m sorry.)

Relics and legendary weapons can both be deconstructed, combined and reappropriated to create new Relics – the philosophy, according to Campbell, was that they didn’t want anything to be wasted. If you had an item you weren’t using, you could repurpose it to advance one you were. Interestingly enough, it had been my legendary mace that had leveled up, though I’d had my sword equipped – players can slot up to six items to gain experience, split between however many they’d like. They can level up all six more slowly, or focus on just advancing one at a time.

We continued on in the Flaming Deeps, which Campbell continued to explain was an area close to where the Balrog might have first exerted his power. One of the primary goals for Moria is to make sure that every space told a story; they want every area to have a unique feel and presence in relation to the others. One of the ways in which the team sought to do this is with the architecture of Moria. In the earlier parts of the kingdom, the stonework is rougher, less advanced. However, as players advance deeper into the Mines, the architecture becomes more ornate and advanced – representing the growing arrogance of Durin and the Dwarves leading to the fall of their race.

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Perhaps the single most impressive Dwarven achievement is the Endless Stair, a dizzying spiral that players will traverse from top – the snow-covered peaks where the fight between Gandalf and the Balrog reached its conclusion – to the bottom, an area that the team refers to as the Foundations of Stone. It was there that the Dwarves “delved too deep,” uncovering some Nameless enemies as well as one in particular who happened to be made of smoke, fire, and one hell of a temper. The Endless Stair lives up to the name, and Campbell mentions that he’d fallen off it once during early testing, and his character had still been falling three minutes later. Really, it’s quite a drop.

Continuing the theme of architecture reflecting the history of Moria is a large indoor garden built during the period when the Dwarves were friendliest with the Elves of Lorien. While showing me around the garden, Campbell was pleasantly surprised to see that one of the Wolf-Riders had an entirely new model; for developers, seeing a game slowly come together is an unsurpassable feeling.

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From the garden, Campbell then decided to take me back in time to the heyday of Moria in one of the new Session Play encounters. From its earliest beginnings as Monster Play, the idea of Session Play – putting players in the shoes of NPCs and other characters – is becoming one of the core storytelling techniques for the LotRO team, giving players the chance to experience the rich lore of Tolkien in ways that would otherwise be impossible.

This particular instance was set during the time of Durin VI, and while I was just along for the ride, Campbell controlled one of the Dwarf-Lord’s chief lieutenants and close friends. Durin’s Throne Room alone was one of the most impressive places I’d yet seen in Moria, tremendously huge and grand with a marvelous sense of atmosphere. In this instance’s story, a delegation of Elves had arrived to speak with the king, concerned that the supply of mithril was running low. Durin assured them that it was nonsense, and that they’d just found a brand-new vein that very day, asking them to accompany him to survey it.

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Naturally, while the Dwarves might have discovered a new vein of mithril, they’d also discovered the Balrog, whose release is displayed in a neat little cutscene. Durin begs his friend to flee and seal the tunnels, staying to fight the fiend to delay it. Players aren’t supposed to take on the Balrog themselves, of course – not only is it a level 64 Arch-Nemesis, but killing the Balrog here might mess with the history of Middle-Earth let alone the story of the books.

Campbell was kind enough to show me a raid encounter that players are intended to kill, however – a Watcher. This isn’t the smaller Watcher found outside Moria’s gates, though; this thing is full-sized, has found a home deep in the underground waters of the mountain, and is cranky at being woken up from its nap. Even with admin powers, the fight against the Watcher was clearly meant for a raid of more than just two people, so we gave up – though not before a nifty little phase transition where the Watcher destroys a stone bridge above him, sending it crashing into the lake where it resides.

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After the Watcher, we checked out more of the Foundations of Stone, including some very stubborn – or unlucky – Orcs and Dwarves alike who were now covered in fungus. Quite pleasant. The two of us got lost quickly in the twisting, very vertical space, so Campbell decided to show me something less labyrinthine, taking me to the garden of a certain Elfish Queen – Galadriel (who acts as the narrator for the Moria expansion). Players will encounter Galadriel as part of the epic quest storyline; While Campbell’s character was, mine wasn’t, so sadly there was to be no mirror-gazing for me this time around.

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Immediately thereafter, Campbell introduced me with pride in his voice to the “largest quest-giver in the game,” a massive giant eagle that descended up on the garden, taking the two of us out to the forest of Lorien. Mines of Moria includes not just the eponymous Khazad-Dum, but some of the areas of Eregion and Lothlorien as well, and I spent a few minutes running around the golden and autumn-y forest of Nimrodel, just south of the Miramere.

The music for Moria has already been completed and integrated into the game, and it’s worth mentioning on its own, because it really is striking. The soundtrack lends a wonderful atmosphere to the various regions in the expansion, to lilting and somewhat mournful music for the forests of Nimrodel to grandiose and bombastic for Durin’s Throne Room. (Actually, the folks at Turbine were gracious enough to share a few tracks with us, so look for them soon!)

Finally, Campbell showed me the second new class, the Warden. Whereas the Runekeeper is a caster with the “healing vs. damage” dynamic, the Warden is a quick, medium-armor tank class that wields a shield and spear – a cool and unique profile with a bit of a “300” vibe to it. The Warden class has been very popular in the beta, according to Campbell, and there’s a lot of enthusiasm and praise for its core mechanic, the Gambit system.

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From what I saw, that praise is deserved – using the class’s base abilities in a certain order and combination will unlock a more powerful skill. Shorter Gambits can be built up quickly, but the more powerful abilities will require forethought and planning in order to set them up. Gambits have a wide range of effects from simple damage-dealing (I pulled off “Onslaught,” a standard flaming spear attack) to healing the Warden and his allies, to Taunting and building more threat. It’s a fun and intuitive little mechanic that has, from what I’ve been told, generated tons of positive feedback.

Said positive feedback is certainly warranted – not just on the Warden class in particular, but for all of Moria as a whole. While they’re certainly not the only MMORPG developer beholden to an existing IP and franchise, Turbine must do justice to the works of Tolkien, one of the most popular and beloved tales of modern times. Not only are they working with Tolkien, they’re working with one of the most iconic bits of all of Middle-Earth. These are some mighty big shoes to fill, but they definitely seem up to the task so far.

Something that nearly all the LotRO staff has in common, said Campbell, is a tremendous love and passion for the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. There’s nobody who wants to be more faithful to the source material than them, and he admits that even he himself was stunned when he’d first seen the rough builds of Moria – and he works there! The same care that went into the Mines goes into every part of Moria, from the new classes and monsters to the new skills and all the rest of the environment. He repeated what he’d said earlier when surprised by the new Wolf-Rider model: as a developer, there’s no feeling quite like seeing a project come together. While Moria might not be quite ready just yet, it’s definitely shaping up to knock the ball out of the park – a solid contender definitely worthy of standing next to certain other big-name MMORPGs coming out this season.

Now they just need to get the rights to the Silmarillion… well, we can dream, can’t we?

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