Though my St. Patrick’s Day was quite busy, I took some time at the end of the night to check out the new LOTRO free content update. For the past month, I’ve been reading everything I could get my hands on about Book 7, hoping for the tiniest morsel of information to hold me over until I could finally experience it for myself. Surprisingly, a lot of what I read was negative. A lot of people were unhappy about the new experience curves, the self-rez, the quest tracker, and the DPS nerfs. I myself almost became a naysayer, ranting about Turbine’s betrayal of its loyal fan base. But I reserved a small shred of hope that maybe these changes would not be so bad, and I would wait to form a final opinion until after I got to test the new content for myself. I finally got to do this.

What I noticed was that the changes were mainly incorporated very well. I saw a graph illustrating the new XP curve compared to the old version, and this change actually makes a ton of sense. Around mid-level, there was originally a large chunk of levels that required XP in a manner that was completely unbalanced when compared with the early and end-game levels. Turbine basically just fixed this. I was actually quite impressed at how smooth the new transitions looked.

I took a few minutes to play with the new quest tracker, which was also much less of a disappointment than I had expected. This feature is turned off by default, but a check box in the UI options panel will switch it on. On your overhead map (accessed by pressing the “m” key) the five quests currently on your tracker will have check boxes; checking one of these creates a glowing area on your map that shows you where you need to go. An arrow also appears on your mini-map that will guide you in the proper direction. Though the glowing areas didn’t bother me so much, I felt that the mini-map arrow was overkill, and to be frank, completely obnoxious. Fortunately, Turbine put a check box for each of these features in the options panel, so it is possible to use one without the other.

And now to the part I was the most impressed with: Lothlorien. Turbine really delivered. Visually, the forest of Lorien is breathtaking. Enormous trees loom overhead, making men and elves feel a little more like hobbits and dwarves. The elf architecture is also gorgeous. Ornately designed arches stretch across gazebos and bridges, and these are well lit with torches at night. In fact, the whole area seems to blaze with a dreamlike glow.

Perhaps even better than the visuals (believe it or not) are the innovative new ideas Turbine incorporated in this new area, which not only give us something fun to do, but also adhere fairly strictly to Tolkien’s lore. Any of us who have read the books will remember that the elves of Lothlorien were very protective of their forest. In LOTRO, you will find guards stationed along the border of these woods, preventing those who they don’t trust from entering. In order to gain their trust, you must earn acquaintance standing with the new faction of Galadhrim elves. Some of my kinmates could not help but laugh while watching hasty players get shot down by these strict protectors of the Golden Wood.

Once you have earned the trust of the Galadhrim and cross into this beautiful forest, you will encounter many creatures, some of which are friends of the elves. These animals have the word “protected” under their names, and killing one of these results in a loss of reputation. This is the very first time in LOTRO history where players have the option to make decisions that result in negative rep points.

Don’t expect to be completely free from danger in this new area. The borders of these woods are patrolled by orcs, and you will get to aid the elves in keeping their property safe. On the Eastern edge of the woods is the River Anduin. Crossing this river means certain death for the traveler, since the orcs that guard the other side are elite masters that can fell even the most experienced adventurers with a single arrow.

Of course this is only scratching the surface of the new content, but for now I will shut up and go back to Lorien, leaving you with a few screenshots to drool over.