I don't know anything about Lord of the Rings. I watched The Fellowship of the Ring a year or two after it came out but retain none of the events. My knowledge of the films begins at "You shall not pass" and ends at Liv Tyler. Naturally, my E3 appointment to look at Lord of the Rings Online's new expansion, Riders of Rohan, had me a bit nervous. I may not connect to the world and its lore the way the developers at Turbine do — and trust me, they do — but the expansion still impresses, even for someone with limited knowledge of Lord of the Rings.
Riders of Rohan introduces mounted combat, something I have long felt was missing in most MMOs. As you enter the expansion content, you gain access to a special mount that doesn’t shy away from danger the way older steeds would. Mounted combat is exclusive to specific areas in the expansion and can only be done on the specific mount that allows it, but adding variety to MMO combat is always welcome. Turbine assured me that classes would maintain their distinctions even while mounted. A mounted archer won't play the same as a mounted minstrel, for example. Details were up in the air for how mounted group combat would be handled, but it is something Turbine is interested in pursuing. They want to nail down the solo mounted combat first before becoming too adventurous with the mechanic.
Your horse is more than just a mount that won't get fussy under attack, though. The horse is uniquely yours and can be customized in a multitude of ways including different manes, tails, sizes, and armor. My request for zebra skin armor was met with head shakes and groans, so you won't have to worry about the customization of your horse going too far. Thankfully, you can use your Rohan mount outside of the expansion content, and all your customization comes with it. What fun is having a sweet looking steed if you can’t brag about it to everyone around you? Your horse doesn't just have cosmetic changes either, it gains experience, levels up, and even has its own skill tree. A horse skill tree! If that isn't awesome, I don't know what is. As a loot junkie, horse customization may be my favorite aspect of the new expansion.
Because mounted combat is so integral to Riders of Rohan, the landmass has expanded to let the player explore on their trusty steed. The land is at least twice the size of their second largest expansion map, so don't expect to see it all in a couple hours. Turbine has also included mead halls in all the towns that are unique and related to the thane of each town. In addition to atmospheric storytelling, Turbine mentioned a deep quest line that involved meeting up with Gandalf and Treebeard at some point during your adventure. There's a lot of exploring to do in Rohan; just make sure you don't miss anything.
Riders of Rohan is more focused on the single-player MMO experience than typical group combat. This is Turbine's fourth expansion and they decided solo players deserved content tailored to them for once. There are no instances or raids in the initial release of Riders of Rohan, but those will come out some time later. Instead, the top level loot is earned through rebuilding a part of one of that towns that has caught fire and burned to the ground. Through a series of daily quests, the player will rebuild homes for people in the town and be rewarded with great loot for being such a good Samaritan. This is the first time I've heard of an MMO expansion focusing on a solo experience, and it’s refreshing to see such a large shift in focus.
While there isn't any new content for low-level players in the expansion, Turbine always keeps an eye on the lower levels and re-balances them via patches whenever things feel out of whack. New players willing to try out Lord of the Rings Online can expect a strong MMO experience drenched in Tolkien lore, free of charge. Even parts of the Rohan expansion, such as the mounted combat and storyline quests, are still available to free-to-play gamers. If you have even the slightest interest in trying out the Lord of the Rings MMO experience, there's nothing stopping you.
I still feel a little bad knowing so little Lord of the Rings lore. It's a rich, vibrant world that I ought to dive into it at some point. Turbine has submerged themselves in Tolkien imagery for the past five years and their dedication and knowledge shined through during my demo. They know what they're talking about, and they love being able to do it. I may not know a lot about Lord of the Rings, but maybe Lord of the Rings Online could change that.