When you first enter Moria, the famous dwarven depths, an imposing stairway of 1,001 rocky steps greets you. It's an indelible moment for Tolkien fans, but more importantly, it sets the stage for this curiously murky, moody expansion pack to last year's massively multiplayer The Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar. With Mines of Moria, developer Turbine pulls off quite a feat: they make the tight labyrinths and cavernous halls of the mithril mines even more compelling to explore than the rolling hills of Middle-earth. Aside from a couple of new character classes, there's very little incentive for newcomers to join in, particularly given the thin population of the original environs. But for veterans, this is a treasure trove of rewarding questing and clever storytelling, and a must-buy for anyone with a character approaching level 50.
The mines aren't the only new area; you'll spend some time (perhaps a little too much during the slow-starting introductory story quest) in Eregion, and later in Lothlorien. Yet even in light of Lothlorien's glowing green spaces, Khazad-Dum is the most incredible region to behold, far surpassing what you would expect from what amounts to a gigantic underground dungeon. The environmental design is absolutely meticulous, and the corridors and hidden alcoves are at once ominous and inviting. You don't know what monster, what goblin encampment, what magnificent statue may be waiting around the bend, and it's this sense of unsettled wonder that will keep you peering around corners. However, the bleak sights don't just unfold in front of you, but also above and beneath you. One misstep may mean a heartrending plunge into a dark abyss or an inadvertent descent into an undiscovered area. Glance above for a look at impressive formations (natural and dwarven alike) that make for vistas that are at once spacious and eerily claustrophobic. The effective soundtrack ranges from the dramatic to the melancholy, dutifully enhancing the atmosphere.
You never know what dangers are lurking within Khazad-Dum.
These environs aren't just for show. The complex design of these areas also means you need to give thought to how you travel and how you fight. With the threat of a 300-foot plunge lingering a few footsteps away, root and fear abilities are as important as ever. And though there is a smattering of dwarven guides to help point you to nearby areas of interest, one of the greatest challenges is to figure out how to get from point A to point B alive. You may see your destination hovering above, but getting there might require fighting through glass spiders with your party or fending off orcs and their flaming arrows. Ensuing encounters are simply a lot of fun, even with just another player or two, thanks to thoughtful enemy placement and varied attack types. Even differing AI behaviors mix up the pace, with some creatures giving you a warning grunt before attacking you outright.
It's a wonderful marriage of content and art design that further strengthens the developer's knack for storytelling, a floundering art in most MMOGs, yet a triumph in Mines of Moria. Although some of the story chapters lack cleverness (gredbyg killing is better left to the nonessential questing), many of them shed light not only on the dwarves' attempt to reclaim their rightful territory, but also the origins of their plight. For example, in an early quest, you teleport to the past and watch the dwarves inadvertently release the fiery Balrog, and destroy a tenuous pact between themselves and the elves in the process. Its cinematic presentation and sense of real danger is a treat, and though much of the questing boils down to the usual fare, these special moments, and fantastic quest writing, will keep you emotionally involved.
Although there are some solo-focused quests like the one noted above, you'll want to grab a buddy or three and drag them along. The shadowed crevasses don't just look dangerous--they are dangerous, and general exploration has been clearly geared toward small fellowships. This was a smart choice; the small-party camaraderie fits well thematically, conjuring images of humans and hobbits huddled together for warmth as they eke their way to glory. But this focus on small groups also wisely pays heed to the diminished population of the game in general. Experienced adventurers looking to reach the new level cap of 60 will find plenty of questing partners during peak hours, but the original areas of the game are sparsely populated; if you're new to the game, or decide to roll a new character, you could play three or four hours before you run into other players, depending on your chosen race and profession.