Hands-on with Lord of the Rings Online's new mounted combat system

"Now for wrath! Now for ruin! And the red dawn!" The words of King Théoden spurred me on this week when I got a chance to take the reigns of LotRO's mounted combat system, coming in the Riders of Rohan expansion on September 5th. You may have caught the video we posted lasted week showcasing the new mechanics. Read on to find out how it feels in action.

The thing about LotRO's mounted combat (unlocked at level 75) that impressed me immediately is that it's the first time I can think of that riding a horse in an MMO actually feels like riding a horse. You build speed gradually from a dead stop, going from walk, to canter, to gallop. You can't strafe side-to-side, nor can you turn on a dime, with your turn radius based on your current speed. In the current beta, pressing W increases your speed, S slows you down, and the mouse is used for turning. There is also a very useful hotkey that, when pressed before one of your hotbar abilities, will automatically execute a turn and put you on a direct charge to your targeted enemy.

You still execute attacks and other abilities in typical tab-target MMO fashion, but movement is much more important as both you and your enemies are constantly in motion, and you have to be pretty close to execute most attacks. This creates a joust-like dynamic that encourages riding away, making a sharp turn, and charging in for another few blows, before repeating it all again. Maintaining maximum speed builds Fury, a mounted combat-specific resource used in some of your more powerful attacks. In addition to Fury and your normal class resource, you also have an Endurance bar for your mount. If depleted, you are dismounted, which the devs describe as "very bad" when facing mounted opponents. A new remote looting system ensures that you won't have to go back and find the corpse of that goblin you skewered half a league back.

Your mounted skills are fewer in number than the array open to you on foot (which I think is a wise choice, considering the added complexity of speed and positioning you're having to worry about), and are "inspired by" your base class. In addition, each player has access to three stances while mounted--Red Dawn for DPS, Rohirrim for survivability, and Riddermark for utility--that add unique secondary effects to your mounted abilities, allowing you to fill flexible roles in the new system regardless of class.

On top of all of that, you can choose to specialize in one of three types of steeds: the durable but sluggish Heavy, balanced, Medium, or swift but fragile Light. This, the devs say, will have more of an impact on your combat role than your base class. For example, a fragile Loremaster mounted on a Heavy steed will be able to tank, a feat that would be folly on foot. Likewise, a tanky Guardian can choose a Light steed and focus on DPS, though their threat-generating abilities will be somewhat wasted. Each warsteed levels up and can specialize in one of three trait trees (equivalent to the stances mentioned earlier: Red Dawn, Rohirrim, and Riddermark.) You will be able to purchase and save multiple trait "specs" for your steed. Warsteeds also have several dyeable gear slots--Head, Body, Legs, Tail, Saddle, and Armor--but they are all purely cosmetic.

Riders of Rohan is an ambitious thing for an established MMO to attempt, but that's exactly why I like it. In addition to mounted combat, Turbine is adding an area about three times the size of the Mines of Moria expansion that includes Eastern Rohan (no Helm's Deep yet, unfortunately) and parts of Fangorn Forest. Possibly the most intriguing new quest is one that allows you to gather resources from across Rohan to rebuild a ravaged city, phased to each individual player, and reap the rewards once it's restored. You can leap into the saddle yourself on September 5th.