Turbine doesn’t tease with the main characters, unlike, say, the Star Wars MMO, where you can play for a month before even seeing the likes of Darth Vader. You’ll start off bumping into Gandalf within seconds of logging in, and do quests with main figures from the novels (at least, from The Hobbit), and visit at least semi-familiar folk on a regular basis. While fun, it also emphasizes the relative smallness of the game world – you can walk across all the dwarven lands in around ten minutes, and the same for the Shire and other places.
The graphics are solid, with occasional flourishes into “very nice.” Being able to see into the far distance (as well as walk there) is quite a plus, especially when looking for towns and fortresses. The music is acceptable, although the theme music for the “monster” side gets a little heavy at times but is, of course, easy enough to turn off. Overall, they’ve captured the look of Middle Earth well, although, at times, it might have been nicer to follow more the look of the films, which looked stunning.
There are four races (hobbit, elf, dwarf, and man) and seven classes in the game, and this is where you’ll see the difference between Middle Earth and your usual fantasy game world. While there are plenty of warrior type classes (archery-favoring Rangers, mass combat-loving Champions, leadership-loving Captains), magic is extra lean, with only two classes, the Lore-Master and the Minstrel, having anything remotely next to magical power. You can forget about fireballing and teleporting around the map. That is also the case with magic items; generally such effects aren’t presented as magical. For example, the “home map” item naturally teleports you safely home, and you’re told that taking such paths is very wearying and can’t be done often (i.e., use of such a map has a long re-set time). Use of special character abilities doesn’t use “mana,” but instead, “power.”
What about healing and resurrections? In combat-heavy MMOs, fast medical care is necessary, as characters take heavy wounds from ever-more-imposing monsters. In LotRO, characters don’t actually take damage, but when hit in combat, they lose morale. Enough such hits can lead to “defeat,” causing a spawn (hmm, isn’t that sort of magical?) at a hopefully nearby really point. The Minstrel, with inspiring music, thereby serves as the healer class in the game. It works well enough, but combat moves like Throat Rip sound like they do a bit more than just give your opponent a case of depression.
Eh, all this is just a rose by any other name; the important point is that the system works well, and there’s nothing about it that a veteran online gamer won’t pick up in moments.
"...the important point is that the system works well..."
With so much about the game being familiar, Turbine did an impressive job of developing the ideas around character advancement. Yes, you get experience and go up levels, but, in addition, your character can get bonus abilities based on traits, deeds, race, and legendary accomplishments. Your character isn’t so much on a level treadmill as he is attempting to perform various deeds, to get extra bonuses. Granted, some deeds are critical to the game (such as performing enough quests to get maps), but others, like “Quick to Anger” (only accomplished after making a thousand or so Quick Strike combat moves) grant bonuses that only some players will have the dedication or interest to accomplish.
Even with this trait/deed/race system, experience is still necessary and fairly easy to get. There’s a whole campaign of quests to follow, all the way up to level 50. While some might complain this makes the game too linear, this is the first time I’ve really felt, in an MMO, like I had an actual game master running the game, pushing me along to greatness. It’s a nice feeling, although it does cut into the replay value a bit for those that like to play more than one character; the fastest way to gain experience is by doing those very same quests performed the first time around.
Player-versus-player (PvP) combat is also handled in a unique way, albeit less successfully. Once a player character reaches level 10, he can go to a special place and try his hand at being a monster, getting a choice of 5 different level 50 beasts to play, from orc to spider to warg. Naturally, at this level, gaining experience is irrelevant, but players also acquire deed points, which can be used to purchase special abilities for the player’s character or monster (and, yes, deed points gained as a monster – the easy way, although characters can get them as well – can be spent on the character and vice versa). Thus, your evil monster runs around solving quests for points. While quite a few of these quests are vile, such as collecting hobbit legs and elf ears, it’s a bit odd, as a warg, to carve out chunks of petrified trolls or gather food rations for the army, although at least now I know how orcs built all those stone fortresses. Additionally, the monsters hunt down player characters foolish enough to venture into the PvP area, and here’s where the idea goes awry.
The flaw with the system is that everyone can be a level 50 monster after only 10 character levels, whereas working a character up to level 50 is quite a bit more time-consuming. Thus, heroic characters, at least at this stage of the game, are vastly outnumbered, and this is made worse by it being very easy for all the monster players to form a so-called raid group, coordinating attacks on players foolish enough to show up, especially those without some sort of stealth ability. “Find the Freep” (a “freep” is a Free People’s person, i.e., a player character) is the game all monsters play while running around doing side quests for the Dark Lord’s forces.
The Free People can form Fellowships (i.e., parties) and raid as well, but it’s always going to be a small subset of Free People versus all the monster players – and the area is also stocked with high-level AI-controlled monsters, many of which are stronger than the level 50 player monsters. Fellowships get special fellowship maneuvers, scoring loads of extra damage when pulled off right (much as in, say, Final Fantasy XI: Online). This is fun stuff, but so far not enough to challenge the monster players.
There’s also a crafting system in the game (for Free People only, although some craft items do appear as loot for monster players to pick up). It seems to work well enough, although so far nothing players make is critical to the game, beyond what is needed to make to finish various crafting quests. With seven vocations, each with three of ten different professions, I have to concede I haven’t spent nearly enough time in the game to see how it all works in detail, although it does seem it takes a diligent and dedicated player to craft the (so far, rare if not non-existent) high-level and useful items. Besides, who read The Return of the King and thought to themselves, “Wow, I really would like to have made Aragorn’s boots!”?
All in all, LotRO is a fine product, unmarred by the bugs and glitches that gamers have come to associate with MMO launches. It’s a solid and even polished game, and while it’s quite possible the small world and limited scope of the quests won’t give it much staying power, the strength of Tolkien’s world should keep a steady stream of players coming in, to at least spend four months or so enjoying this version of Middle Earth. Then again, Turbine is famous for adding new content on a monthly basis, so the game might grow longer legs than it has now. In any event, a gamer won’t begrudge the monthly fee, at least until he’s seen quite a bit of what Turbine has to offer.
"It’s a solid and even polished game..."
+ Middle Earth experience.
+ Bug-free gaming.
+ Monster play.
– One-sided PvP.
– Minimal magic.
– Relatively small world.
(Value score - eye of the beholder on this one, some folks like redoing quests)