Lord of the Rings Online Preview

By John "Methost" Irwin

[email protected]


The story of Turbine’s upcoming title, Lord of the Rings Online:
The Shadows of Angmar
,
is really more of a saga. This game has been in some form of
development for nearly a decade. In 1998 Sierra On-Line first announced
the development of a licensed, Middle-earth MMORPG. While few details
of the project were ever released, Sierra’s parent company, Vivendi
Universal Games, continued to assure fans that the game was
progressing. Then in May of 2003, Vivendi surprised Tolkien supporters
by announcing that Turbine Inc., would be taking over development
duties for the project. Dubbed Middle-earth Online, the new
game was to be released sometime the following year. Days after this
announcement, MeoSource.com opened its doors to fans and I began to
cover this game. In the summer of 2003, Vivendi showed off their vision
in Indianapolis at GenCon. This was my first contact with Turbine and
their virtual Middle-earth. Little did I know that this game and this
company would occupy nearly every spare moment of my life for the next
four years.



2004 came and went with little or no information on
the endeavor being released even though it was “shown” at TurbineNation
that year. Fans flocked to Providence to see a game that was already
being revamped without their knowledge. Then, in the spring of 2005,
Turbine acquired sole rights to MEO from Vivendi, promptly changed it’s
working title to The Lord of the Rings Online: The Shadows of Angmar
and pushed the release date to winter 2006 (since changed to Q1 2007).



Fast forward to November 2006. Thousands of beta testers now find
themselves existing in Middle-earth. By most accounts, Turbine has a
hit on their hands. My own experiences in their world have been very
positive for the most part and I am in San Francisco to see how the
game is progressing. The following review/preview is based on the
version of the game that was shown to us last week at the press event.



Turbine
and Midway went to great expense to hold a press event in San Francisco
last week. Ten screaming fast NVIDIA machines with 32” flat panel
monitors sat in a dimly lit, well decorated room just waiting for eager
reporters to get down “work”. I quickly grabbed a machine and entered
Middle-earth.





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alt="">Character Creation – I am still deeply
disappointed in Turbine’s offering in this area. One would expect
something more advanced for a game title based on the works of an
author who filled hundreds of pages with even the minutest details. The
player can only choose from a dozen or so hair styles, noses and facial
features. Most of this wont matter once a character dons a helm or a
hood, but players will still want more. Want to customize your avatars
height? You can’t do that either. Turbine doesn’t want any Hobbits to
be taller than any Dwarves as it just wouldn’t be appropriate in this
setting. Having said all that, I realize that once the actual creation
is done with, the most players see of each other is armor and weapons
and facial features are hardly noticed. I guess given the choice, I
would have spent funds on other areas of development as well. I do hope
this whole system gets some love before release next year but I don’t
expect it will. I quickly roll up a Human Captain and click ‘Enter
Middle-earth’.





Tutorial – The tutorial accomplishes
two things. It teaches the new player basic MMO mechanics and it lays
the groundwork for an epic tale that will carry the player through his
(or her) entire life in Middle-earth. Within moments I was immersed in
the story that Turbine was telling and much to my delight, the story
featured ME!





I awake to find myself locked in a pen with
another fellow called Amdir. He seems pleased that I have awakened and
beckons me to him.
Pop-ups plague me every time I do something
for the first time. I assume there is a way to turn these off. These
will be helpful to the first time MMO player and annoying to everyone
else. Double clicking on Amdir opens a text box that gives me the start
of my story.


‘Good, you are awake. The Blackwolds gave you quite a knock on the head, and I
feared you would not awaken soon enough. There is little time to talk,
but I will tell you what I may.’



‘I am what some in Bree call a Ranger. I have come here to learn what connection the men have with a Black Rider I was tracking from the Shire. However the situation has
worsened. I learned from Jon Brakenbrook, a hunter in Archet, that a
guard from his fathers garrison – Calder Cob by name – is working for
the Blackwolds and captured two visiting Hobbits. Indeed I have seen
them here. I will need your help if I am to free the Hobbits.’



‘First I must free you from this pen. When you are free, search the crate just
outside the fence for a weapon. Speak with me again when you are armed.
Quietly now! We must await the right moment … ‘





This
little piece of the story does many things. It introduces you to key
locations and non-player characters that are going to play very
important rolls in your early life in Middle-earth.
Amdir hides
behind a bush and quickly dispatches a guard who makes the mistake of
opening the cell to check on me. Following the Ranger through the gate,
I do as instructed and search a nearby crate and as predicted, find a
sword. Speaking to Amdir again progresses the adventure. It is
explained that Celandine Brandybuck and Mundo Sacville-Baggins are the
Hobbits that are being held captive. I am to free them and catch up
with Amdir when I finish. The quest itself is to kill four of their
captors.
Combat is pretty straight forward as far as MMOs go.
You use auto-attack and sprinkle in some special attacks here and
there. If twitch combat is your style, you won’t like this one bit. I
found enough in the special attacks to keep me interested in the fight.
Special abilities (moves, attacks heals, buffs, de-buffs. Etc) are
awarded to the character as he advances in this level based system.
Every couple levels, the player heads off to his class trainer to train
a new skill.
I quickly take out the Hobbit’s guards, robbing
their bodies of items and coins and rush to Celandine as instructed. It
seems Mundo has been moved and save him as well. She then offers to
create a distraction while I search for the little guy. It turns out
that she burns down a building to accomplish this. It’s a bit of
overkill IMHO but produces its intended result. As most of Mundo’s
guards hurry away to put out the fire, I kill the one that remains.
Mundo curses me for taking my time and urges us to meet up with Amdir.
Turning the corner I come across a sight that stops me cold. Standing
there over my rescuer is a Black Rider. Even when confined to an LCD
screen these creatures strike fear in to our hearts. The dark figure
exchanges un-pleasantries with Amdir, stabs him and rides away.
Speaking
to a distressed Celandine brings the Tutorial to an end and moves the
new player on to the next level of the instance.






The early levels
– The next step of level progression takes the player to a group
instance designed to further teach one the mechanics of the game. This
area contains many new players between the levels of 2 and 7. Here you
will master the quest systems, learn to group with other players and
develop more of your own story in Middle-earth. Turbine leads you
through quest after quest so effortlessly that you don’t even realize
how fast you are leveling. I played through this part of the game
several times and it seems that LOTRO was designed with the quest
seeker in mind. Grinding away on one group of mobs to gain levels is
not needed here. There are enough quests and they are rewarding enough,
that the fastest way to advance is to do as many as you can. At least
this is true up through the early levels. I suspect they stay true to
this formula throughout the game.





Levels 8 through 12
– More quests than one could ever hope for await. Turbine’s
Middle-earth flows very smoothly. Along with your characters main story
arc, the quests around you are all aimed at your level and the level of
the tasks in the area to be completed. Finishing these quests opens
more quests that gradually get harder as your character progresses in
level. Eventually, you will be given a task that will lead you to
another area of the map where you will find many more quests, now
geared for your higher level and the level of the new area. This method
of progression is repeated over and over in the game.





Level
12 was as high as I could get in the time I was given. The fact that
seven hours felt like one is a testament to how much fun this game is.
Fans of Tolkien’s works should find many aspects of the main story arc
intriguing as they brush upon the edges of Frodo’s quest. Main
characters are where they should be at the times they should be there.
If Tolkien had a Black Rider in the Shire, Turbine does as well. And
you even bump in to Aragorn at the Prancing Pony while he waits for the
Hobbits to arrive. It’s this kind of detail that enables one to get
lost in Lord of the Rings Online.



Special mention should also be
given to the artwork on this game. The stunning visuals had me stopping
mid-quest more than once, just to look around. The ground foliage sways
in the breeze and the lakes cast lifelike reflections. Leaves flutter
from trees and stars twinkle in the night’s sky. Turbine uses the word
“polish” when it talks about delays in development. This is what they
mean. The end result is eye-popping.



As with most games, there
are a few things I found disappointing. Character creation is flat. I
can live with it as is. Many players will not be so forgiving. I’m not
super excited about their classes either. I had a chance to play each
class and found that most of them felt … blurred … around the edges.
Meaning that each class seemed to encroach a bit on what another class
may have been designed to do. I assume this was done to satisfy the
solo player and to not force grouping on the masses. The result was
that I found myself unsure about what my role in a group might be. I
tend to play classes that are clear cut in their group roles and with
few exceptions, could not satisfy this preference.



I talked to
a few other press members that were seeing the game for the very first
time. I wanted an unbiased opinion from people who had not followed the
development as closely as I had. The overwhelming consensus was that
the game as it stands is going to be a hit. It may not be the World of
Warcraft killer that some had hoped for, but it’s sure to come close.
LOTRO sinks its teeth in to the player within the first moments of the
game and never looses its grip. Stunning visuals and a deep, rich and
layered story line put this game in a class of its own. After nearly a
decade in development expectations for this game are impossibly high
but Turbine meets these in most places and exceeds them in a few as
well.


To read the latest guides, news, and features you can visit our Lord of the Rings Online Game Page.

Last Updated: Mar 13, 2016

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