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'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.
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.
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.
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.