The Lord of the Rings Online: Rise of Isengard Review
The Lord of the Rings Online: Rise of Isengard Box Art
System: PC
Dev: Turbine
Pub: WB Games
Release: September 27, 2011
Players: 1
Screen Resolution: 480p-1080p Blood and Gore, Use of Alcohol and Tobacco, Violence
Enter Saruman
by Josh Wirtanen

When starting up Rise of Isengard for the first time, longtime players of The Lord of the Rings Online will undoubtedly be surprised to see the WB Games logo show up before the Turbine logo appears. Even though WB Games had signed on over a year ago, before this expansion we hadn't seen any signs of this in-game. So this immediately brings up the question: How does this affect the world of Middle-Earth we've grown so familiar with over the past four and a half years? Many of us are likely a bit apprehensive of any major changes to something we love so much.

But Middle-Earth is changing; it must. When LotRO first launched back in 2007, players were restricted to areas west of the Misty Mountains. In these areas, Sauron's influence wasn't directly felt yet. Saruman's men would show up as far north as Breeland, but these thieves and brigands were geographically far enough away from Isengard that they were mostly disjointed and thinly spread. However, this new expansion brings us right to Isengard, the heart of Saruman's domain. The Battle for Middle-Earth is being prepared for, and now we get a real feel for how this is affecting the peoples of Middle-Earth. Some have fallen under the influence of the White Wizard, while others have tried to resist, only to be killed or enslaved. The bottom line: Middle-Earth is a darker, more cruel place this close to Isengard (and much closer to Mordor than we've ever been in-game yet.)

The Lord of the Rings Online: Rise of Isengard Screenshot

A big part of what makes the Rise of Isengard expansion unique in the LotRO world is that it shows us a different side of the evil we've been pushing back this whole time. We've fought against goblins and orcs and trolls, as well as some cantankerous brigands, but we never felt that these enemies may have had a good side to them. In Rise of Isengard, you will come across tribes of Dunlendings (the men of Dunland) who are serving Saruman because they simply don't have a choice. With war brewing all around, they've been forced to take a side, and many of them regret the side they've chosen. There's a real sense of humanity here, which is appropriate as we get closer to Rohan, a domain primarily of mankind.

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The scenery in LotRO has always remained mostly grounded in reality, eschewing the floating islands and cartoony visuals of similar MMOs for forests, valleys, and swamplands. In fact, I would even venture to say that LotRO's world feels a lot more like that of Oblivion than of World of Warcraft or Rift. Rise of Isengard continues this trend, bringing players into the swamps of Dunbog, the mountains and valleys of the Gap of Rohan, and Isengard itself, which will likely bring to mind Angmar, another of the game's regions.

The Lord of the Rings Online: Rise of Isengard Screenshot

Due to the way the free-to-play aspects of the game have been implemented, this is the first LotRO expansion that doesn't wall off its landscape to non-paying players. Unlike Moria and Mirkwood, its area is seamlessly inserted into the game's playable surface. This means that even if you don't pay for the expansion, you can walk from Michael Delving in the Shire all the way to the front steps of Orthanc (Saruman's tower) without encountering a single loading screen. This brings a refreshing level of continuity to the game world, and makes the world feel more cohesive overall than past expansions were able to.

When LotRO first came out, it was probably the best-looking MMO out there. Of course, four and a half long years have transpired, and games like Aion and Rift have brought a higher level of graphical quality. Still, LotRO very well could be the nicest looking free-to-play MMO on the market, and it's definitely a massive step up from WoW. Of course, my biggest complaint in the visual department is the map. The maps of the original regions have a very Tolkien-esque vibe that fits perfectly in the Middle-Earth environment. However, as time went on and new regions were added, the more recent maps have grown to look more and more like a child's coloring book than a hand-drawn Middle-Earth map. To longtime players, this can definitely be seen as distracting.

The Lord of the Rings Online: Rise of Isengard Screenshot

LotRO has always had a very strong soundtrack, and the new tracks in this expansion continue this trend. Like Enedwaith before it, the new areas have a blend of old tunes and new ones, making the world feel instantly familiar and fresh at the same time.

One of my biggest concerns about this expansion is that it skimps on end-game content. Sure, every dungeon that was scalable to level 65 before Isengard is scalable to 75 now, compensating for the increased level cap. But these are dungeons we have undoubtedly been through several times already. The only new instance is a single 24-man raid. However, Turbine has promised that an update is coming before the end of the year that will add new instances, and hopefully this will bolster the amount of end-game content to a more satisfying level.

Screenshots / Images
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