That includes two new entry-level zones that serve as alternative leveling paths, an endgame Delving dungeon system akin to Mythic+ from World of Warcraft, and a Defense Skirmish and 6-man instance (coming a bit later) geared toward level 20-140 characters. With class trait points now granted from leveling instead of quests/deeds and players being able to choose their preferred tutorial experience, Before the Shadow primarily aims to hook in longtime fans to enjoy LotRO in refreshing ways.
Swanfleet and Cardolan
From our preview meeting with Standing Stone Games, the developers often reiterated their priority on "flexibility" and "accessibility" for the Before the Shadow mini-expansion. To meet that commitment in the early game, they decided to experiment and pivot development to create unique leveling regions targeted at their low-leveled player base.
These vast maps would also flesh out Tolkien's world better and provide access to other areas - like the Shire - where players can start different questlines and return when they decide. As premature narratives to the overarching epic storyline, the new zones merely support the novel-like foundation of the game. This way, players won't feel pressured into needing to complete them, instead offering further context and entertainment for anyone curious.
The two regions, Swanfleet and Cardolan, will have 200 quests from levels 1-32, 40 bite-sized missions across six areas for the Delving system, and a Defense Skirmish - followed by a scaling 6-man instance releasing a few weeks after the patch. Both landscapes are "bigger than other zones" that Standing Stone has done previously. The set of stories available within them will run alongside the "Shadow of Angmar" questline. After both storylines resolve, all players will align onto the questing path for the overarching narrative in LotRO when reaching The Council of Elrond.
In Swanfleet, newly-made characters will begin Before the Shadow in the Mossawar area. The Swanfleet region was once home to the Elf-realm of Eregion, described as a "seat of power" now reduced to ruins. Eventually, it became a frontier homeland for a few races after Sauron's scathing wars. Players will stumble across Urk warriors, Orcs, and other evil creatures seeking powerful items in Swanfleet. Along the way, Boromir will join players on their journey through Minas Tirith, Rohan, and Isengard areas.
The events after Swanfleet will send players into Cardolan, quickly coming across the ghostly ruins of Tharbad. Orcs have made the ruins a base of operations as they scour its ancient rubble for items of power. A ways away will be the town of Herne, where the residents are afraid of the evil spirits appearing and causing problems in the wake of the dark energies rising from the Black Riders heading to the Shire.
While players can experience Before the Shadow chronologically, the developers have made it easy to bounce back and forth between the original and new LotRO stories. Newcomers will likely stick to the story in front of them, but longtime fans invested in particular storylines and wanting to know what Before the Shadow offers will have plenty of choices. That same amount of flexibility also comes across in the new endgame system.
The Delving System
Delving dares to reinvent the endgame and reward players with raid-level gear for overcoming increasing challenges. As mentioned, the system seems to be modeled after Mythic+ scaling seen in WoW, urging level 140 characters to test their skills by optionally bumping up the difficulty across ten tiers. The 40 new missions accessible within Swanfleet and Cardolan will be available for levels 20-140, but within them will be unique missions for capped characters across all servers for Delving.
Players at max level that enter the Before the Shadow mini-expansion areas will receive a Delving Zircon through the in-game mail that begins the quest for the system. The quest instructions will lead players to mission givers as part of the expansion and will provide authentic Delving Zircons. Taking those items into one of the 40 missions in Before the Shadow will prompt players to affix them, causing them to break and spread malice through the environment.
Monsters inside the mission space will have new effects, abilities, and skills reflective of the malice difficulty from the broken Delving Zircon. Players that overcome the challenge will gain the next Delving Zircon tier, Writs of Delving used to barter for Delving items and gear enhancements, and rewards based on difficulty. For example, starting at tier seven, players will earn equipment equivalent to raid gear to face future raids.
Standing Stone currently has plans to expand the system "forward and backward" across the game. That includes bringing the mechanic to 3-man instances like The Library at Tham Mírdain and others similar in popularity.
At the tail end of our discussion with Standing Stone Games, we decided to ask if new entry-level progressions zones would appear in the future for LotRO. Standing Stone replied that there might be future zones like Swanfleet and Cardolan, but it seems that would only happen if new zones bridge the gap between others for accessibility and add more flavor to Tolkien's world.
They understand that many of their players love to "slowly move through the game," so Swanfleet and Cardolan aim to offer a fresh take for fans who enjoy the leveling experience and Delving for those looking for a challenge. Overall, both ends of LotRO in Before the Shadow rejuvenate integral elements of the MMORPG journey and will likely see more significant changes in the future.
If you're interested in playing the Before the Shadow mini-expansion, you can order one of the three editions for access. Depending on the version you buy, you will get unique cosmetics, additional character/storage slots, a pet, and other rewards for investing more.
You can read the patch notes for specific details on Before the Shadow.
About the Author
Anthony Jones is a gaming journalist and late 90s kid in love with retro games and the evolution of modern gaming. He started at Mega Visions as a news reporter covering the latest announcements, rumors, and fan-made projects. FFXIV has his heart in the MMORPGs scene, but he's always excited to analyze and lose hours to ambitious and ambiguous MMOs that gamers follow.
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