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Role Playing (Games) Lord of the Rings Media Movies

Lord of the Rings Online Review 351

Posted by Zonk
from the you-got-your-hobbit-in-my-mmog dept.
The circle is now complete. With Turbine's release of Lord of the Rings Online: The Shadows of Angmar (LOTRO), the Massively Mutliplayer game figuratively eats the tail of its originator in ouroboros-like fashion. Tolkien's work begat Dungeons and Dragons, the PC gaming market, CRPGs, and finally Massive games, and last month's release of LOTRO beautifully reconnects the future with the past. Replacing dice-wielding friends around a table has even, wonder of wonders, been done well. Polished gameplay and cutting-edge graphics abound; In direct contrast to the lackluster response to Turbine's other MMOG, Dungeons and Dragons Online, Lord of the Rings Online has had an overwhelmingly positive reaction from fans. Read on for my notes from the experience of trying on Hobbit feet for a month, and a few words about why LOTRO's quality is notable and highly encouraging.
  • Title: Lord of the Rings Online: The Shadows of Angmar
  • Publisher: Midway
  • Developer: Turbine Inc.
  • System: PC
  • Genre: Massively Multiplayer Online Game
  • Score: 4/5 - This game is above average, and excels in the genre it supports. A classic for the genre, likely to be a part of a genre fan's collection, and well worth a look for every gamer.
It may seem derogatory to open a review by comparison to another game, but in this case the comparison is a positive one; it's worth saying up front: Lord of the Rings Online stacks up very well compared to the king of the genre, World of Warcraft (WoW). When WoW dropped on an unsuspecting PC market a little over two years ago, it changed the Massively Multiplayer industry forever. As a result, WoW has been an incredibly hard act to follow.

It's telling, and more than a little disconcerting, to note that every Massively Multiplayer game launched since WoW has had a very hard time garnering attention from traditional Massive gamers. Some expansions have worked out well, of course, and Guild Wars has succeeded by dodging the barrier of a monthly fee completely. New AAA MMOGs, though, have been grimly received. Some of the biggest games launched since WoW include: The Matrix Online, ArchLord, Dungeons and Dragons Online, Auto Assault, and Vanguard. Though each of these titles offers some interesting gameplay elements, none of them have managed to capture even a noticeable percentage of the WoW-playing audience.

The simple fact, then, that Lord of the Rings Online is a polished, competently executed, and genuinely fun Massively Multiplayer experience is not to be taken lightly. Adequacy should not be confused with disappointment. LOTRO is, literally, the first brand-new MMOG worth playing since World of Warcraft. As depressing as that is to contemplate, LOTRO's success is great news for fans of the books and movies; no one is turning in their grave as a result of this game's launch.

In the broadest sense, LOTRO compares favorably to World of Warcraft because it borrowed many components from the current king of the genre. LOTRO has adapted the general 'feel' of WoW's gameplay to a wholly new setting and experience. The result is a MMOG that will be extremely intuitive to anyone who has played other Massive games. Characters are chosen from a selection of classes and races, spend most of their time completing quests, fight opponents by selecting class abilities from a hotbar, and can band together with other players to take on challenges too dangerous to solo. The game can primarily be played by yourself, but common chat channels called Fellowships ensure that players looking for more long-term social commitments can achieve their goals. It's a sign of the times that WoW's success almost seems to demand some level of imitation from other products to be competitive. It should be stressed, though, that LOTRO is not just a poor man's WoW. This is no cheap knock-off, and the game is categorically not trying to be World of Warcraft. It would be more accurate to say that Turbine has recognized quality, and attempted to ensure that their own product lives up to expectations.

What separates LOTRO from the crowd, the thing that Turbine has sharpened and honed to cut players (at least temporarily) away from other games, is the Middle Earth license. The extraordinary care that the designers have taken to place players into Middle Earth is apparent in every aspect of the game. As in other titles set during the Rings trilogy, Turbine has wisely kept you fairly well removed from the main plot of the books. By following quests scattered throughout the world, your character dances around and through the journey of the One Ring. Though you can speak with every member of the Fellowship at some point in your travels, you are not asked to shoulder Frodo's burden. Instead, your character is woven deeply efforts of the free peoples to aid the ring-bearer and repel the forces of Mordor. The usual kill-it and fed-ex quests dot the land, and wouldn't look out of place in any other game. The sharp difference is that Turbine has leveraged Tolkien's amazing world-building efforts to make you actually care about what you're doing. Ranging from the practical (slaying goblins to keep the townspeople safe) to the ridiculous (running pies across the shire to spoil the Sackville-Baggins' party), quest text is remarkably well written. If you read and enjoyed the books, you're going to quickly find yourself pausing to read the tales these quests tell.

This pause, the interest in the lives of the NPCs, results in a different pace than you might be used to in other Massive games. It's, of course, an intrinsic part of the gameplay that you can set your own pace in a Massively Multiplayer game. That said many games compel you to rush everywhere, getting as much done as quickly as possible, playing for long stretches at a time to grind to the higher levels. LOTRO just doesn't have that vibe. Certainly, you can churn through the content as fast or slow as you'd like. There were max-level characters on the game servers within a week or two of the game's launch. For those with more appetite for story, or those grown tired of that pace in other online games, the breathtaking graphics and well-told tales encourage stopping to smell the roses. There's also just no compelling reason to grind your way to max-level in this game. Right now a big chunk of highest-level content is still in development, and for a Massively Multiplayer game LOTRO is quite reasonably priced. Anecdotal evidence from my own experiences and the experiences of other players indicates that Lord of the Rings Online is the kind of game that is most fun to play in fits and spurts. A few hours one day, a few hours the next ... it's so much fun running around the Shire, it's easy to see why a player would be in no rush to leave the lower levels.

Another element that encourages lingering rather that rushing, and can help assuage the hardcore players that might otherwise grumble, are the deeds. Deeds are a unique element to Lord of the Rings Online, a kind of achievement system somewhat reminiscent of those earned on the Xbox 360. They're discovered by doing the act the deed requires for the first time; for example, many require a certain number of monsters to be slain. The first time you kill a wolf in the Shire, your UI notes that you've begun work on the 'Wolf Slayer' deed. This can just be a blind grind-fest, if you're so inclined, but players have found that most deeds can be accomplished simply by going about their normal business of questing and traveling. Killing wolves as you encounter them in your travels eventually results in the completion of that deed, without needing to ruin your play experience with senseless repetition. Instead of Xbox Live gamerpoints, deeds earn your character two things: titles and virtues. Titles are simply that, strings that can be added on to your name. Completing the Wolf Slayer deed, for example, nets you the 'Fur Cutter' title. It's a simple customization, but the large number of deeds in the game allows for players to represent themselves in a myriad of different ways.

Virtues are much more important. Each completed deed gives you access to a virtue, an insubstantial descriptor that modifies your character's game statistics. As an example, completion of the Wolf Slayer deed earns the 'Discipline' virtue. Discipline increases melee damage and your character's resistance to injury. Each virtue modifies different character abilities and statistics, and are useful in different situations. A character's functionality can be changed dramatically just by swapping out what virtues they have slotted. It encourages differentiation between members of the same class, and a few wisely-chosen virtues can make the difference between victory and defeat.

Deeds aren't the only unique element LOTRO offers. The game's character classes are a nice tweak on the normal 'tank/mage/cleric' trinity that have been the standard in fantasy MMOs since EverQuest. While the basic party roles are all there, their Middle Earth wrapping pleasantly muddies the waters. The main Damage Per Second (DPS) class in the game, for example, is the Burglar, a rogue-type character. The character you'd expect to be most like the blaster/mage is the Loremaster, but he fulfills more of a crowd control role. He also has some healing skills, as do several other classes. The Minstrel is the primary healing class, but with multiple classes having the ability to heal it's not critical to ensure a Minstrel is in every party. This 'spreading the load' approach also allows Minstrels themselves to be a more front-line combatant than any priest or healer is in other games Their songs do damage to enemies, as well as providing short-term buffs for team-mates. Though for the most part these are all familiar roles in new packages, they 'feel' differently enough to provide a sense of novelty for veterans and new players alike.

Crafting within the game is well done, but simply doesn't feel as though it was made huge priority. You're forced to choose from one of three crafting classes, separate from your combat class. Each class has three vocations it covers, allowing for slightly more variety than in other games. While most of these crafts are par for the course, there are a few vocations that tweak things a bit. Farming, for example, is an actual crafting element in the game. You plant seeds, harvest crops, and sell them to other players; in Beta it was the best way to make money, and resulted in more than a few obvious jokes. There is also a Scholar vocation that has players collecting pieces of ancient wisdom together to make scrolls and potions. For the most part, though, crafting in Lord of the Rings Online is 'merely' competently executed. New players aren't introduced to the fundamentals of crafting explicitly enough before they're forced to make a choice, and after a choice is made quest support for crafting-friendly players can be a bit slack at low levels.

Merely 'okay' crafting, aside, the game world really does have an overall very high level of quality. Just the same, Lord of the Rings Online is not perfect. At launch, there are a number of complaints that users have grappled with. The single most disappointing game element has to be the game's UI. Though it is functional, that's about the only thing that can be said in its favour. LOTRO's UI features dull, uninformative icons and a general lack of polish. It may seem like a minor quibble but set against the general high level of quality throughout the rest of the game, and compared (as always) to WoW, it's quite a glaring oversight.

Early in the launch window as we are, there have been numerous complaints by players about the balance of the game's economy. While items seem well powered for their levels, and obtaining gear is a fairly well-tuned process, the costs associated with purchasing new abilities is astronomical. It's not out of the ordinary for a single new ability (obtainable from a trainer at a newly-achieved level) to cost half or more of the coin you have on-hand. Mileage will vary from player to player, of course, as some people place a higher emphasis on crafting and selling than others. The general consensus, just the same, seems to be that ability costs could use a revisit.

Given the respect for the setting it's another minor quibble, but the lack of any sort of tie-in to the Peter Jackson helmed movies is, in my mind, a lapse. Obviously, the license for that content is separate from the license that Turbine is working off of, and as such there's no reason to expect Elijah Woods or Hugo Weaving to make an appearance in the gameworld. Just the same, it's hard to listen to the kinda-generic fantasy music that greets you at login and not yearn for Howard Shore's stirring theme. Perhaps this might be a possibility in the future; that's one of the many beautiful things about the Massive genre - things are always changing.

One thing that doesn't need changing, though, are Lord of the Rings Online's simply stunning graphics. Years from now the choice to go photo-realistic will make the game look horribly dated, all while World of Warcraft's stylized vision remains fresh and crisp. In the meantime, LOTRO offers a simply jaw-droppingly beautiful online experience. EverQuest 2's attempt at realistic graphics in an online game have resulted in goofily appealing characters, but they don't quite capture what I think the game was going for. Middle Earth, on the other hand, is insanely beautiful. The first time you reach a high point in the Shire it is completely worth it to stop, turn your settings all the way up, and just stare across the fields. While the story wraps you into the gameworld intellectually, LOTRO's graphical presentation brings that world to life on a visceral level; New Zealand has nothing on that place.

For the Massive gamer tired of endlessly played options, or the Tolkien fan disappointed with the lore content in Battle For Middle Earth II, Lord of the Rings Online is the perfect balm. While it doesn't try to move the genre forward in any readily appreciable ways, LOTRO is such a well-crafted experience that it's hard not to enjoy yourself. For some, their time in Middle Earth will be just a vacation from other online worlds. For others, though, this may just be the game you've been waiting for. A slower pace, a beautiful presentation, and a gripping story are all readied and waiting just a bit down the road.
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Lord of the Rings Online Review

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  • Re:Sucks (Score:5, Informative)

    by XxtraLarGe (551297) on Friday June 01, 2007 @02:12PM (#19354917) Journal

    it actually has a window that says things like "You hit the wolf for two points of damage". It felt like going back in time to the 80's.
    Just like World of Warcraft. Just open the combat panel to see all of the hits & affects.

    And then the graphics might be pretty, but there is not physics system, or, believe it or not, collision detection. You can actually walk through people, even when you are fighting them.
    Just like World of Warcraft. Often times, I'll be fighting something, and it will walk right through me, and I'll get the retarded "You're facing the wrong way" message.

    Despite all of these problems, I'm still pretty partial to WoW, so I'll be sticking with it instead of LOTRO. Plus the fact that WoW has a Mac OS X client is pretty important for us G4/G5 owning Mac users :-)
  • Re:Sucks (Score:5, Informative)

    by Tridus (79566) on Friday June 01, 2007 @02:23PM (#19355063) Homepage
    While I think sucks is a bit harsh, "polished" is the last word I'd use to describe this game. Where's the UI scaling option (its way too small on my monitor)? Hell, how do I get a clock on screen? Why do I have to change tools every time I switch between mining copper and chopping wood? I mean really, can't the game figure out that obviously I want to use the axe in my bag to chop wood?

    Why does somebody with a really long name and title make it harder to right click on anything around them? Why does right clicking on them by accident (while trying to reach the mailbox their enormous name is in front of) cause a "General Error"? Why do quests tell me to go in the exact opposite direction of where I need to go, to fight Boars 12 levels below the quest level and thus not give XP?

    Hell, why does a base stat (Fate) not work? Hello reviewer, a BASE STAT doesn't work! Thats not polished!

    Why do I have a deed to kill 60 things in a swamp in the Lone Lands (followed by another deed to kill 120 of them if the pattern holds) when there are only seven spawns in the entire zone? The numbers worked fine for bandits (which there are lots of), but 180 kills with seven spawns? Even if there was no competition (and said mobs are a quest target too, so there is a lot of competition) that'd still take hours. Why does fast travel between zones have a level requirement, and normal horse travel take so bloody long?

    Seriously folks. There is a lot of things to like in this game, but its certainly not "polished" yet. It could be a decent diversion if you're bored from WoW, but I think the reviewer was too busy drooling over the graphics to notice some major problems. (God forbid if he tries to level up Scholar, he'll have to spend days at a time camping low level ruins fighting bandits to search old pots, because you can't find the items you need anywhere else.)
  • Re:Sucks (Score:2, Informative)

    by Drey (1420) on Friday June 01, 2007 @02:28PM (#19355177) Homepage
    > it actually has a window that says things like "You hit the wolf for two points of damage"

    Just like most MMOs. WoW, for instance, hides that text on the Combat Log but you can still view it if you choose.

    > there is not physics system, or, believe it or not, collision detection.

    Just like most MMOs. Collision detection in an MMO would be a horrible drain on the server, especially as dozens of new players begin spawning in at the same spot. Yes, collision detection would have to be done at the server or people would employ all sorts of client-side hacks to cheat.

    > Spending half an hour searching for wild flowers is not my idea of fun.

    Just like most MMOs.

    > ...you can't open doors unless they are part of the plot, you can't smash crates or barrels...

    Just like most MMOs.

    Hmm, I'm seeing a trend here. MMOs may not be right for you.
  • Re:Sucks (Score:3, Informative)

    by Fizzol (598030) on Friday June 01, 2007 @02:28PM (#19355179)
    Okay, you were probably trying to attack someone's sheep in town then. If they have a bright yellow name they're treated like NPCs and you can't attack them.
  • by Knara (9377) on Friday June 01, 2007 @02:31PM (#19355229)
    Just FYI the extended edition DVDs have Wormtongue killing Saruman. Not at the Scouring, but nonetheless.
  • by ShamusYoung (528944) on Friday June 01, 2007 @02:31PM (#19355231) Homepage
    I would be remiss if I did not point out that LOTR as D&D campaign has already been done [shamusyoung.com].
  • by Knara (9377) on Friday June 01, 2007 @02:51PM (#19355575)
    The Extended Editions are, all around, vastly superior to the theatrical versions. There's still things missing / re-arranged (obviously, otherwise the movies would clock in at around 50 hours and watch similarly to how the Simarillion reads), but a fair amount of things that boil down to background/lore references (i.e a scene where Aragorn is on watch at night and singing a ballad of beren and luthien to himself, explaining the story to one of the hobbits) are included that would frankly have been lost on the theatrical mainstream viewer.
  • Re:No support for me (Score:1, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday June 01, 2007 @03:36PM (#19356343)
    OSX, yes, but WoW doesn't have Linux support either. It's great that it works well under WINE, but that's completely unsupported.
  • by Sinister Stairs (25573) on Friday June 01, 2007 @03:39PM (#19356375)
    Several inaccuracies in the review. Off the top of my head:

    * Chat channels are not called Fellowships, your team/group is
    * Burglars are not main the DSP class, hunters and champions are
    * As others have pointed out, deeds/virtues are not unique to LotRO
    * The explanation of the crafting system was all wrong

    But otherwise I agree with his assessment of the game.
  • I own it (Score:2, Informative)

    by Wiarumas (919682) on Friday June 01, 2007 @05:56PM (#19358329)
    I own it. I love it. It's your typical MMORPG set in the Lord of the Rings universe. If that sounds enticing enough, it should be sufficient to hold your attention. Honestly, there's nothing too new and/or exciting to take your breathe away, but overall a very solid game. Oh, and did I mention you can rock out on Lutes?
  • Re:Sucks (Score:4, Informative)

    by vux984 (928602) on Friday June 01, 2007 @06:54PM (#19358921)
    shoot a furry animal and the system does not let me, then make the arrow pass straight through it

    Ok, let me get this straight... a message telling you the bunny isn't a valid target is unacceptable, and show lack of polish. While having arrows sail right through it, (which looks like a BUG) is ok? Seems pretty arbitrary to me. Personally I'd rather be told why my arrows are continuously missing.

    You should be able to attack NPC but be aware that there are consequences. The system should handle situations like that gracefully. For example if an important merchant NPC in a city gets attacked, let the city guards show up to arrest the character. And if the merchant dies anyway, let it re-spawn. Make the stupid action that the character want to do available but make it not worthwhile.

    "worthwhile" is an useless word. If people *can* do something, people will do something, even if its not 'worthwhile'. In EQ for example, for a long time you could kill the merchants and other NPCs. Its pretty annoying if you head to the bank or baker or quest giver and find he's not there because someones killing him / killed him.

    Consequences? Let the city gaurds show up? Well, then we'll just kill them TOO. If we can raid a dragon-god-lava-monster with legendary artifact weapons I'm pretty sure a few gaurds who haven't stepped out of their village shouldn't be an obstacle.

    EQ1 had a social aggro system... if you attacked an NPC nearby gaurds would attempt to kill you in response. So players just banded together and killed the gaurds too. The merchants didn't drop anything, gave practically no experience. Bored players killed them. Jerks who wanted to interfere with other players killed them. Eventually players complained because they couldn't finish quests and what not, and a lot of npcs couldn't be attacked, and even some entire areas became combat-free.

    That would be my expectations and I think that they are both reasonable and realistic since even Ultima 6 had smart solutions for situations like that (I think it was released 1990 - that's 17 years ago).

    ultima 6 was single player. quite frankly, yes, a lot of things had to take a gaint step BACKWARDS in order to accomodate keeping a few thousand players in any sort of reasonable sync.
  • by FormulaTroll (983794) on Friday June 01, 2007 @10:18PM (#19360309) Homepage
    I believe the circle he refers to is more along the lines of Lord of the Rings was the impetus for tabletop RPGs which begat CRPGs which evolved into MMORPGs and now goes back to Lord of the Rings. Convoluted, perhaps, but not as nonsensical as you suggest.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday June 01, 2007 @11:55PM (#19360719)

    Everything you mention is true. Absolutly and 100%. And still LOTRO is the MOST polished MMORPG game out there. The trick is in the word MOST.

    It is just in comparison with the turds that are its competition that LOTRO looks so shining. You mention manually having to switch between tools (wich for harvesting only affects explorers), try vanguard, you have to switch blind between bags that might or might not contain the tool you need.

    You mention quest of the kill X type, ever played WoW and its infernal kill X to drop Y and Y just doesn't fucking drop? Oh LOTRO gets that too especially in later quests (early on everything just drops as expected, all wolfs got wolf pelts) but it still isn't anywhere as bad as in the other two big ones Everquest and WoW.

    Just one stat does not work properly. Read the patch list of any other MMO and be dazzled by all the things that didn't work. Yes fate is a pity (most important effect is that it controls regeneration and at the moment it is simply to weak to make a difference) but by MMO standards LOTRO has few bugs.

    It is not that LOTRO is perfect, it just is the most finished MMORPG ever launched. If we do a 100 meter sprint and I finish in 3 hours I am still the winner if everyone else takes several days.

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