I haven’t played Rift yet. I mean to at some point, as it has one of those endless free trial type deals, I just haven’t had the time. What appeals to me about Rift is not the “souls” aspect which allows you to basically swap classes at any point, nor the character design (which I’m not crazy about, honestly), but the main selling point: rifts. These planar rifts provide, I’m told, waves of bad NPCs to enter into the game world proper, at random intervals, and attempt to take over the world. This is very cool because it puts some element of dynamism into the game: you don’t know where the bad guys are going to be at any point in time, it’s always different, always creating new challenges.
LOTRO had a chance at this kind of exciting content. The first reason is obvious: in the Middle-earth of the books, Orcs and other baddies are constantly and consistently trying to ruin the civilization of Free People in the world. The great task of the Rangers for centuries was tending to the bounds of the free lands of Bree and the Shire which, as Strider said of Barliman Butterbur of the Prancing Pony, “live within a day’s march of foes that would freeze his heart, or lay his little town in ruin, if he were not guarded ceaselessly”. I doubt very much that these forces spent their time standing in place, babbling at each other, instead of actively pursuing the deaths of their sworn enemies.
In occupied territory (such as Angmar, Dunland, Moria, Mirkwood and the like) it is hard to imagine there not being patrol groups roving around, looking for all these adventurers who are out causing trouble. But, no, they’re just kind of sitting around, with a few exceptions.
Besides all of this, it appears Turbine attempted to add some dynamic moments to the landscape in past updates. First, there is the example of the Ranger in the North Downs, just south of Esteldin on the Rhunenlad side, who seems to be injured. He yells at you to “Stay away! Stay away!” but of course you go to help the poor soul, only to be ambushed by Earth-kin giants. It’s an unexpected encounter and one, I think, that’s fairly unique within LOTRO. In Forochel and Annuminas there are ‘Battlegrounds’, small bits of the landscape that can be taken from the enemy, similar to control points, like Keeps, in the Ettenmoors. Once you clear out all of the enemies the icon the map turns blue and friendly NPCs come out and give you quests. It’s nice but far from essential; there is no motivation to free the area save for a little extra experience and minor quest rewards. Oh, and if Annuminas is free then players across the Evendim zone get some kind of experience booster, which is nice. Still, there is the thrill of battle and conquest but it seems most of us players don’t see the need to go out of our way for this, unless it moves our XP bar. Understandably so.
What if this was expanded? What if actual quest hubs and other areas could be captured and occupied by the Enemy, forcing players to work together to expel the ever-present darkness that seeks to consume our Middle-earth? Imagine, if left undefended for a good while, a place like the Chamber of the Crossroads, or Adso’s Camp in Bree-land or Echad Eregion being overrun by Orcs and Wild Men, with a level 75 elite boss there overseeing it all? High level players would have to swoop in and save the day so the rest of us could go on questing; it would inspire greater movement and interaction amongst players, create some potential high level reward opportunities or a new game system in-and-of itself (remember Bounties?). All it would take is an expansion of the current system that is in Forochel and Evendim. Put it on the landscape, randomize the attack times, allow it to get progressively more severe when left unchecked by the playerbase. Of course, keeping it level-appropriate would be agreeable too; think of level 15-ish players banding together to retake the Old Greenway Fort.
Now, why will we not get this? Why not have such dynamic and lore appropriate encounters? Because that’s just not the kind of game LOTRO is. Much of the more dangerous aspects of LOTRO have been muted since the initial release of Shadows of Angmar. Think of the fate of the Old Forest and much of the group content of the Lone-lands; the ‘soloification’ of the epic books and Legendary Trait quests; and multiple other examples. LOTRO has, largely to appease its fan base, become a very easy and solo friendly game. Is there anything intrinsically wrong with this? Of course not. Many people who come to LOTRO, like myself, simply want to experience Middle-earth and that is a fine thing. We don’t often have time to really sink our teeth into lengthy quests and instances, so it is a boon to be able to pop in, say “Hullo” to Middle-earth, and log out.
But how many opportunities have been sacrificed on the altar of friendly gameplay, making a very dangerous world into a mildly challenging one? An interruption to the questing process and casual play for casual players by dynamic orc raids would go far in upsetting an excitable community. There will be those who laud it, but exponentially more people will find it irritating at best. To those people, I would say think of the adventure! How much more exciting would our play sessions be, to log in and not know what new developments have happened with the war? The current state of these types of battles is piteous: Fearn, that large hill in southern Dunland, for example, is apparently where a large battle between the Rohirrim and Dunlendings is taking place. But this “battle” has been reduced to little more than a few NPCs whacking one another with swords. We need an injection of something new into the fearsome places of Middle-earth, even it means the creation of a new server type (unlikely).
There has been some speculation that we will see dynamic encounters in Rohan with the implementation of mounted combat. It was said in an interview that a player can expect to be out riding on the vast green plains and see smoke on the horizon. Lo, a settlement of Rohirrim is under attack by warg riders! And off we go to stop the fiends. How dynamic this will be remains to be seen but it is a promising notion and one that will hopefully be put into other parts of Middle-earth.