We're sure that developer Turbine realised this before it took on The Lord of the Rings Online, but Tolkien's world is mighty big. Although they re-created a good deal of it for the original game, there remain vast chunks of LOTR lore that players haven't even been able to visit yet. Thankfully, Turbine hopes to rectify this with what it says will be annual updates to the game. The first will be Mines of Moria, an expansion that adds not only the vast underground environments populated by dwarves, but also two new classes and a new legendary-item system. We managed to go hands-on with the game for the first time, as well as talk to Turbine's Jeffrey Steefel, at a recent London event.
At the beginning of the expansion, you'll find yourself in Eregion at the entrance to the mines. All LOTRO players will have access to about 90 percent of Eregion, but the last 10 percent is accessible only to the people who buy the expansion. Here, you'll come across a character named Rathwald who lets you into Moria, but before you can enter, you and your band of dwarves will encounter a watcher. Naturally, this encounter pretty much decimates your team, but its real purpose is to introduce you to the new legendary-item system. This new feature will let you customise up to six items in the game and have them level up, much like individual characters in the game, so that they become more and more powerful as you progress. The first weapon that you choose will help you go back and defeat the watcher, albeit only temporarily, given that you'll encounter it two more times throughout the game.
Although the mines are obviously underground, Turbine has strived to make them as expansive as possible. We got to see the endless stair--the pillar of stairs that Gandalf climbs after battling the balrog in the books--and though it didn't quite stretch the distance that we saw him fall in the films, it took many seconds to fall to the bottom. Speaking of balrogs, we also got to see one in the game, in an encounter that will happen fairly early on, according to Turbine. The game will feature a time-traveling narrative and you will play out King Durin's first encounter with the massive beast. It will be the most formidable enemy character in the entire game, pretty much unbeatable in fact, and your only option will be to run away as quickly as possible.
In addition to the impressive scale of the balrog, we got to take in more of the huge environments that will feature in the game. The dwarves are responsible for carving out huge statues and structures, as well as important natural resources such as gardens and water-cooling chambers to draw heat through the mines. We could see how they took the small amount of sunlight that filtered through from above and built mirrors to send the light and heat around to a huge purpose-built garden underneath. Further into the mines, we saw huge volcanic factories that used giant troll-like creatures secured on tracks to drive giant machines.
Although there will still be instances in which you'll meet the fellowship of the ring, the fact that you go into Moria just as the fellowship has passed through means that these encounters will be less frequent. The team says that it has responded to player feedback and made the game focused on single players with hundreds of new quests. There will also be new 12-player raids as well as 10 new three- and six-player instances. Thankfully, there will also be a teleportation system to take you around this huge labyrinth, and although you can't bring in a horse from the outside, you will be able to use new mounts and take them back aboveground if you wish.
We were impressed with the size and scope of Mines of Moria, and it's certainly a huge change compared to some of the lush, open environments found in the original game. Turbine said that the expansion pack would be out during 2008, and the company promised to lock down a final date by the end of September. Stay tuned to GameSpot for more news on the game's release soon.