Design & Technical Issues Overshadow Good Work
Rise of Isengard is the third expansion to the Lord of the Rings Online MMORPG. It adds three new regions (Dunland, The Gap of Rohan, and Isengard), raises the level cap from 65 to 75, and introduces wide-sweeping changes to classes and game mechanics. It was released on September 27, 2011 and a patch followed in October to deal with some of the problems encountered during beta and after going live. Note that this does not include content coming in December with Update 5, which were instances originally slated to launch with Isengard but were postponed to meet the launch day instead of delaying the entire release.
What They Did Right
As one can imagine with Tolkien lore, story and narrative are important. This is perhaps the greatest feature of this expansion. The story continues with the rangers heading to Aragorn's aid and introduces you to Theodred, son of Theoden and thus prince of Rohan, and his riders investigating Dunland. As you go through the regions, you discover the different tribes of Dunlendings and come to aid or fight against them. You see their interaction with Isengard, whether it be as allies, enemies, indifferent, or oppressed. You will also help Theodred's Riders as they investigate the Dunlending threat to Rohan and as they begin to hear whispers of treachery about Isengard. Overall, this is well done and engaging.
The areas are also quite impressive. The different regions of Dunland look and feel different as you transition between them. The different tribes have their own unique attitudes, buildings, and looks. Isengard looks dark & industrial without looking steampunk, which is not Tolkien. The tower of Orthanc is also an impressive sight to behold. The environmental design is great.
The changes to game mechanics and classes were overall good. Essentially, instead of dividing focus between 3-5 of the 5 stats, greater emphasis was placed on 1 stat for each class. Each class now has a "primary stat" while others are given lesser focus with the exception being vitality, which dictates morale (health) and defenses. Gear reflects this too as you will encounter items with considerably high values in one stat and little to nothing in others. The changes were not perfect of course. Some classes have issues still while others were made too powerful and are going to be getting nerfed. You cannot please everyone obviously so there are probably many who will disagree, but overall the changes are ok. You can work with them and it makes it easier to focus on one or two primary and a few secondary stats rather than spreading oneself thin like before.
They added gear drop in skirmishes, LotRO's version of repeatable instances scalable in difficulty, level and group size. If you can get a raid (12-person) skirmish going, you can get the new item to craft yourself a legendary item and possibly new, shiny gear. Sadly, this is largely to make us forget that they added no new group content except Draigoch.
What They Did Wrong
Unfortunately, despite a lot of good will incurred with the above, there are several problems with this release. First and foremost are the technical issues that marred release. Issues raised in beta weeks before release did not have fixes implemented when the content went live. Some deeds were not completable. Quests involving different layers or phasing could be rendered bugged and unable to be completed under some circumstances. The infamous Pit of Iron area had many pathways that were visible and made to be walked upon, but someone didn't tell the game they were floors, so you fell through. There were many such holes in this area and you could fall to your death possibly, depending on which intangible floor you found. This was fixed in the October patch, but launching with this marred the expansion. Perhaps the most persistent and annoying problem is that the only new group content launched with the expansion, the Draigoch raid, can inexplicably bug out. He will stop attacking and you can no longer target him, rendering the raid done and you have to restart. More on this later.
They tried a new technology with this release in the Battle of Wulf Cleft quest, where they display many more NPCs than they usually do and provide you with NPC lackeys that buff you and help you fight. This quest would have been fun except the mobs you are up against spam disarming and stunning skills, rendering you able to fire off a couple skills and spending the rest of the battle watching your NPC followers fight instead. After you are stunned, you still have a 10-second window of stun immunity, but no such thing exists for being disarmed. This was rather frustrating as the fight looked fun.
They launched no new content except the Draigoch raid, so instead of the MMO staple of introducing new material to grind, they simply directed us to the old grind. They made the scalable instances scale to the new cap of 75, moved the challenge quests (difficult quests for higher rewards) to the 75 instance, and replaced the barter currency you used to get. So we are literally doing the same instances we did before Rise of Isengard launched, just at a higher level and for a different barter currency. If you weren't sick of doing those instances at the old level 65 cap, you will be after doing them at the new cap as well.
Draigoch is a dragon and taking him down in either a 24- or 12-person raid is the new and only group content added at launch with Rise of Isengard. It is a bit of a mixed bag. The fight itself is cool for a while, but it is literally doing the same thing over and over and over for 3 hours and that's if you do it right. The process of the fight can be summed up as attack claws until they die, change position when necessary, and attack the body when all four claws are temporarily down. It is a tad more complicated obviously, but that is the process. If you can do that for hours on end...well maybe you can finish. Draigoch is very buggy. He can randomly stop attacking you and you can suddenly be unable to target him. Some of what bugs him out is known (pets getting aggro, defeating a claw while he changes perches, etc.) but avoiding these things are no guarantee he won't bug out on you at 100 health and you'll have to start all over. When I attempted it, I and a few others would lag out, get disconnected, or have our client or even entire computer crash several times during the raid.
The rewards are nice. You get the new crafting item for making legendary items if you complete the deeds associated with him, some will drop in the chests, you can get some of his scales to make some good cloaks, you can get the barter tokens for two pieces of the new gear set, and there are other assorted goodies. They are not worth the unvarying grind and potential bugginess of the raid if you ask me. Considering this is the only new group content they launched with, they should have done a better job. Yes, the dragon himself is awesome and the voiceover is cool, but those don't make up for everything else.
The Rise of Isengard expansion comes with good story bits and plenty to do within the new areas themselves. The game changes, though some controversial, overall work well. Where it falls flat is the QA aspect, making us repeat the same grind we just did for over a year, and leaving little to nothing to do when you finally reach the new cap. New content is coming in December and if you bought the expansion with real money already (instead of the in-game store points) you get that as part of the expansion, but as it currently stands, Rise of Isengard came out to be average at best.