Imagine for a minute that, upon the December launch of Siege of Mirkwood, Turbine had come to you and confided that LOTRO was going to close. Now, Turbine wanted you to tell them how to spend their last months of development on one final swan song patch.
The recently released Volume 3, Book 1 patch would have been precisely the patch I would have asked for under those sad circumstances. Lacking the time to properly explore the lands of Rohan, Gondor, and Mordor, the best that a player could hope for would be a patch that cleans up lingering issues with the game, opens up as much existing content as possible to players who have not had the chance to see it, and offers a farewell tour of sorts through the game's content.
In reality, there is no evidence that Turbine plans to pull an Asheron's Call 2 (the studio holds the dubious distinction of having conducted probably the shortest window between "pay us for a new expansion box" and "sorry, game's closing" in a major MMORPG) on LOTRO. Even so, this patch has an inexplicable feel of farewell nostalgia.
The Farewell Tour
The Volume 3 patch is fundamentally about getting additional mileage out of existing content.
- A newly expanded "inspired greatness" buff is designed to allow players to solo previously group-only content from the original game. For me personally, this has meant a chance to see content that I just wasn't able to find groups for back in the day. I've completed Books 4, 5, and 8 of Volume 1 so far, and there's a fair amount of that story remaining that might as well not have been in the game, given how hard it was to find groups to access it.
(In an ironic twist, one questline has the player traveling to Rivendell to forge a named sword for a Ranger. He does not immediately turn around and have a relic master break it down for relics - perhaps he wanted to get some item levels first, to improve the components he would get back in the process?)
- Several existing skirmishes have been opened up to additional group sizes. The bigger news in this department, though, is that all skirmishes are now available for two players. Apparently 40% of all 3-player skirmishes that anyone was trying prior to this patch were being attempted by a duo. When I mentioned this addition to my wife, she was shocked that it hadn't occurred to Turbine that players would need a duo feature before pushing the system live without one.
- With Aragorn off to Rohan, someone has to go round up the Rangers. That someone would be you, the player, in the one new quest chain of the patch. Basically, this entails traveling to every zone in the game where there was a ranger handing out quests, and running some minor errand locally to convince that ranger that it is safe for them to depart.
(Elrond tells the player that only they can make the journey fast enough to reach all the rangers - given the lack of magical travel in Middle Earth, there's a valid question of whether it would even be possible for a single character to have done all of this in the time that the lore allows.)
Make no mistake, this story involves more time in transit than dialog or combat. However, it gets by anyway on sheer nostalgia value - I remember clearing each of these zones back in the day (often with fewer swift travel options than the present game offers), and I'm fine with a nostalgia tour as long as it's so readily obvious that this is what we're up to.
In a bit of an insult to the player's intelligence, each stage of the quest offers a choice between a single use teleport to the next NPC - often only one or two jumps away via swift travel - or a valuable scroll that would otherwise cost 25+ dungeon tokens.
What isn't here
At the same time, this patch is most notable for what isn't here. If you were hoping for a second single-group dungeon or a second raid (yes, the current level cap offers just one of each, though some players are still running stuff from the previous expansion), you're out of luck. New areas to explore (i.e. the long awaited expansion to Rohan)? Nope. Changes to the grindy legendary item and radiance gear mechanics? Not this patch.
For what it is - a filler patch designed to occupy time while Turbine saves the real content meat for the next paid expansion - the Volume 3 patch offers LOTRO's usual excellent quality. As always, though, the quantity comes up a bit shy. Improvements to crafting and content access are great as part of a patch, but here they make up basically the entire patch. If this is all that Turbine is prepared to add the game on a once every three months basis between paid content updates, one has to wonder whether that will hurt subscriber retention in the long run.
In the end, long months with mere morsels of content will be forgiven if Turbine can deliver Rohan, in a state that meets the bar they set with Moria, this year. In story terms, that shift may partially explain the farewell atmosphere of the current patch. The gathering of the Grey Company is really the last point in the story at which it makes sense for characters to still be running around Eriador.
The current landmass of the game will remain relevant for tourism - holiday festivals and whatnot - but the real meat of the story ahead lies in content that players have not yet seen. More than any content to date, Rohan needs to stand on its own. As much as us players may be nostalgic for the days of Eriador, one wonders if Turbine will miss the crutch of being able to throw together a patch like this one without the ability to lean on three years of existing content.