Basing an MMOG on an already successful franchise can be a risky
proposition. On one hand you have a built in core fan base that will
stick with you through thick and thin, see Star Wars Galaxies
as an example. On the other hand you risk alienating a large section of
the general gaming public who may not feel immersed enough in the I.P.
to want to invest their time or their money. There is arguably no
franchise with greater sway in the world of high fantasy than Tolkien’s
epic saga about a rag tag band of heroes charged with nothing less than
saving the world. It has sold millions of books, videos, graphic novels
and filled hundreds of thousands of theaters to capacity all around the
world. Commonly referred to as LotRO, the massively multiplayer version
of this tale has seen its ups and downs, but by realistic expectations
it has mostly been a success.
After Turbine saw an amazing uptick in the popularity of their other
game based on a popular fantasy franchise, Dungeons and Dragons Online,
it was only a matter of time before the lands of Middle-earth were
liberated from their monthly entrance fee and opened up to the masses.
Since almost all change is met with some resistance, many long time
players and lifetime subscribers were very vocal about their
displeasure with the move. Several months have passed since the switch
was made and the game has seen its fair share of changes during that
time span. With so many new eyes being laid upon the game, we thought
it was high time that we returned to the land of Elves, Ring Wraiths
and nasty Hobbitsses to see how things were shaping up.
Hacking, slashing and unrealistically propertied female chests not
withstanding, the only real caution to The Lord of the Rings Online
is the standard MMOG disclaimer of gameplay experience may change over
Gameplay87Very GoodThe Lord of the Rings
is a quest driven game that takes place within the
same timeline as the Fellowship’s epic journey. It features 9 classes
and players are restricted to the four “good” races of; Dwarfs, Elves,
Man and Hobbits. At first launch the game was strictly a PvE affair,
but since then a form of PvP known as Monster Play has been introduced
– see the value section of the review for more on that however.
Beyond just being quest-centric, LotRO is episodic in nature, meaning
the story unfolds before you much like the chapters of a book. Players
also can complete Deeds, special tasks which often reward a title or
character upgrade. While you are free to explore to your heart’s
content, the central theme is always underlying and moving you along.
LotRO has a bit more grind factor to it than a lot of North American
2nd generation MMOGs do, but it is cleverly disguised with skirmishes
and other diversionary tactics that are engaging, accessible and most
importantly – fun.
Experienced and novice MMOG players will feel equally at home with the
UI and gameplay mechanics employed in LotRO. Combat is straightforward
and everything is laid out clearly and cleanly. The only hitch in a
smooth leveling experience that I found was in navigating the game
world. There were several points along the way where I felt a little
out of my element in moving to the next quest hub area, or travelling
between areas. In many cases I simply needed to grind out the end of
the level to move into the next range of quests and storyline. I did
find myself wishing that there were more players to group with, explore
with, or just ask questions of while I was in the lower level ranges.
By removing the subscription barrier Turbine has partially addressed my
concern of having people to commiserate and battle side by side with.
Dropping the entrance fee wasn’t the only improvement made to the game;
they also reduced the level requirement for Skirmishes from 30 to 20,
streamlined leveling and added several menus and information screens to
help guide neophytes. Continuing improvements have also been made by
granting access to various game areas to free-to-players, such as the
Lone-lands which were recently opened up – giving access to some more
iconic locations from the novels as well as a ton of quests and
The most striking element of LotRO is how it can be all things to
virtually every type of player, if you have the patience to find what
you are looking for. Much like Shrek’s rant about onions, LotRO is full
of layers that have to slowly be peeled back and discovered (yeah, I
know, I like parfaits better too, Donkey). Player housing, crafting,
PvP, exploration, questing, raids, dungeon crawls and gear hording are
all prominent aspects of LotRO – in fact few games that I have played
have had as much itemization as this. I still think the current crop of
gamers will be just a bit short of attention span to fully realize all
that LotRO has going for it, but with no cost factor arbitrarily
pushing you to “enjoy it in 30 days or else”, there may yet be hope.
Modern MMOGs usually fall into one of two camps: those with bleeding
edge graphics that have their players longing for a nicer system, or
those that render their world with highly stylized graphics that give
them a unique flair. LotRO is one of the few titles that successfully
straddles the middle ground. Mixing stylized avatars with intricately
detailed environments gives it a unique look that is often times
strikingly beautiful. I found myself the victim of several untimely
demises due to galloping over a cliff or falling off of a bridge
because I had become distracted by my surroundings. The real beauty of
the look of LotRO is how well things flow together to create such a
vibrant world, a world that can easily exist almost unnoticed in the
background or just as easily captivate your eyes if you allow it to.
One of the most important elements when it comes to game immersion is
one of the easiest to overlook. Luckily Turbine didn’t drop the ball
when they added a soundscape to Middle-earth. Sharing the same striking
yet subtle flair that defines the games visuals, the audio portion of
the game exists just outside the realm of active listening until it’s
called upon to drive home a point. This is without a doubt a function
of being the bi-product of not only novels but also some amazing
feature films. Several of the more central NPCs, ones often overlooked
in the film, are even given their own soundtracks – which allows the
game to not simply help tell the tale, but to enhance it.