I remember my first journey to Middle Earth as if it was yesterday. At the age of twelve, still full of imagination and new to the mysteries of life, the universe and everything. I happily packed my bags and let J.R.R Tolkien take me on a journey through the most fabulous world I had ever seen.
I was there as Bilbo magically disappeared from in front of his startled party guests! I was there when Gandalf confronted him in his Hobbit-hole and made him give up the ring. I watched as Frodo and his friends made their way from the Shire to Rivendell. We were chased by horrifying men in black cloaks riding terrifying steeds, almost killed by a tree in a strange, scary old forest and rescued not once, but twice by a weird guy in a yellow hat and yellow shoes who danced and sang a lot.
I devoured the three Lord of the Rings books eagerly and could hardly wait to turn the page to see how this rag-tag band of brave heroes could possibly overcome the odds stacked against them. I felt it keenly when Gandalf met his end in Moria, selflessly sacrificing himself for his friends. His death affected me so much that when, years later, I saw my girlfriend burst into tears when watching that same event at the cinema, I understood why she was crying and felt those old pains again.
For me, those books werent just a great way to pass a few hours, for that boy they were so much more. They were a way for me to leave whatever pre-teen troubles I may have had and journey in a mythical world of magic and mystery. They made a fan out of me, not just for Tolkien and his work but for the whole fantasy genre. Then of course, as we all must do, I grew up, and Frodo and his impossible quest faded from my mind. My life went on, straying only now and then into the realm of fantasy, a dabble with table top fantasy RPGs here and a play on a fantasy MMORPG there, but nothing could measure up to those magical moments of my youth, striding across the amazingly described countryside of Middle-Earth.
So this brings us to April 2007, I am one of the lucky ones who gets a place on the beta for what I hoped was going to be an amazing game. I eagerly set up my account, downloaded the client and installed the game. I was never under any illusions that LOTRO was based on the films, and was aware that it was based on the books, and I was eager to explore and see if it could take me back to my youth to those awe filled days of adventure.
I created my character, a Captain from Rohan (I always felt a certain kinship with the Rohirrim, Im not sure why) and I punched the Enter Middle-Earth button. I was dropped into a prison cell in the Chetwood, my horse dead (a tragedy in itself for a man of Rohan!), my possessions taken from me. I was about to be murdered by bandits, but a Ranger named Amdir aided in my escape. Most of you know the rest!
What struck me for my first two hours of play was how much it felt like I was there; I was actually in Middle-Earth! I saw a Black Rider and it was every bit as scary as I had imagined! I was involved, like it or not, with the search for a hobbit named Baggins. As soon as I entered the part of the game I affectionately call The Crèche, I was a part of Middle-Earth. I was in Archet, I remembered it as the place the company headed towards to fool the Bree folk. I fought for it, watched it burn and helped the folk start to rebuild. I never stopped smiling that whole day.
As Ive progressed through the world, that feeling of complete immersion has never gone away, even those players running around with silly, inappropriate names cannot take it away from me. I felt as I did at the age of twelve again, and it was great! I remember my first steps into the Old Forest, the haunting music kicked in and the sky was darkened. Suddenly I knew even better than I did as a child, why the hobbits were so fearful of that place. The atmosphere is just right; it grabs you and pulls you in, demanding that you immerse yourself fully. The first time I saw a tree move in there I just ran away in fear, laughing as I did so.
Im having so much fun in this world and its purely because of its power to drop me into Middle Earth, to make me feel like Im in the Third Age and that I am making a difference, a small one to be sure, but a difference towards the effort to send that ring to its doom! LOTRO is not about the grind. Sure, you can grind away all day, max your character to level 50 and feel uber but for me, thats robbing yourself of the experience. LOTROs strength comes from its confidence, and that confidence comes from knowing that it has so much incredible detail to fall back on, so many more places to explore than any other gaming world. At the moment, Eriador feels like a small place but it really is just a tiny part of a much bigger world. A world Ive always wanted to explore, and now can. Wont you join me? After all, the road leads ever on and on!
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