Reviewed: May 22, 2007
Released: April 24, 2007
Subscription fee required for online play
The cultural importance of J.R.R. Tolkien's seminal fantasy epic, The Lord of the Rings, cannot be overvalued. The massive book--so big it is usually published in the trilogy format most readers know--almost single-handedly created a huge appetite for high fantasy books during the 1960s; which, though perhaps not as artistically valuable as literary fiction, have probably had more popular impact over the last forty or so years than most pantheons of modern literature.
Without the meticulously imagined world of Arda, and the continent of Middle-Earth with all its hobbits and palantirs and lost kingdoms, people living in the Vietnam era would have had to find somewhere else to look for solace from the terrible realities around them; the songs All Along the Watchtower, The Battle of Evermore and even Stairway to Heaven might not ever have been written. There would most likely be no Dungeons and Dragons, no Harry Potter and no Magic: The Gathering, all franchises that have grossed millions of dollars for their creators and garnered legions of loyal followers.
And few such franchises owe as much to The Lord of the Rings, and as obviously, as Blizzard's Warcraft series of games. So how interesting it is indeed that a little more than two years after World of Warcraft became the five hundred pound gorilla of the MMORPG world, Turbine finally releases their own competing MMO based on Tolkien's world, The Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar. In Middle-Earth it might almost be seen as a fated battle: the vigorous apprentice versus the elderly master.
LotRO, as it is usually called in the short form, places players in the shoes (or hairy feet) of one of the four principal "good" races of Middle-Earth (dwarves, elves, hobbits and men) just after Frodo has departed the Shire to make his way towards Rivendell with the One Ring. Angmar, the leader of the Nine and formerly the terrifying Witch-King of the north, is marshaling forces at his ancient stronghold in support of his master Sauron's impending invasion of the last free lands of Middle-Earth. It is up to players, as heroes of Middle-Earth, to become strong and help curb Angmar's menace in order to buy time for the Ring to reach its destination.
Previously, I compared LotRO to World of Warcraft. This is not without reason, and not just because both games are MMORPGs. LotRO, in an ironic twist, owes as much of a debt gameplay-wise to WoW, as WoW owes to the novel The Lord of the Rings content-wise. This is not a fault, really: World of Warcraft must be doing something right to boast over eight million subscriptions, right? Any fan of that game will find themselves immediately at home with The Lord of the Rings Online. Items and commands can be placed into quick bars with ease. Left-clicking a target selects it, while right-clicking is used for interaction. Even some of the initial key mapping is identical (push C for a character info sheet or M for an area map).
The similarities between these two games are not limited just to user interface, though. As in WoW, the focus is on building a maximally effective ability rotation during combat, based on cool down timers. The battles aren't particularly strategic. Terrain types don't alter advantages or disadvantages, and most enemies don't have any clever trick to defeating them, unless you call beating the stuffing out of them with a pair of iron clubs clever.
So the question isn't whether or not LotRO lifts a lot from WoW--it does. The question is, is it a cheap rip-off or a system of valuable and well-tuned mechanics? The answer is most definitely the latter. Where LotRO copies WoW, it does so because WoW is excellently designed in that aspect. Where LotRO improves upon WoW, the results are amazing.
As in any MMO, the basic goal isn't to beat the game, but to experience the world and interact with other real people playing as characters within it. Where WoW has gone the compact, streamlined route of dumping players into the world and not really caring whether they read the quest texts or even do the quests at all, LotRO is much more concerned with telling a story, whether the CS kiddies like it or not. This can be seen as both a strength and a weakness, but considering the source material it is a fitting decision. The way Turbine has gone about implementing their plan to make players a part of the story is as cool as it is simple: they use instances. A lot. In fact, for a typical character's first six levels (out of a current cap of fifty), that character will spend roughly half of their time instanced (that is to say, within a copy of the game world only they have access to), allowing a level of cinematic storytelling I don't believe I've ever seen in an online-only game.
Imagine starting a new character and, instead of waiting for the enemy du jour to respawn so you can kill six of them to finish your first quest, immediately being called upon by Gimli to help round up some mining dwarves for a ceremony, while Gandalf converses with Gloin in the background. Now imagine that instead of seeing "Dwarves Collected 4/4" on your quest log and finishing up like that, one of the dwarves stubbornly refuses to leave until he breaks through an ancient retaining wall and releases a hideous cave-troll that knocks him unconscious with a single blow. You run to help Gimli, who is taunting the creature away from the fallen miner, when Gandalf arrives in the nick of time and breaks a hole in the cave ceiling, casting a beam of sunlight on the troll and turning it to stone.
It's all instanced, so you won't have to deal with watching the action from a distance and waiting for the quest giver to return so you can have a go at it. Although the game world at large is not instanced in such a way, a special line of quests that continues throughout a character's leveling (called the Epic quest line) tells that character's own personal saga through the continued use of such one-player and small-group instances. No matter how far you go in Lord of the Rings Online, the feeling that a legend is unfolding before your eyes never quite leaves you, thanks to this system.
Even with all of this cinematic story-telling going on all the time, the bulk of the game is spent in a large, persistent world (in this case, Middle-Earth) completing mundane quests and interacting with other players. This is where the game is most similar to World of Warcraft in many respects, but it still manages to be fresh and entertaining thanks to a number of factors. First and foremost, LotRO is played out across a much more expansive world than that of World of Warcraft. It isn't unbelievably huge or anything, but there is plenty of open space throughout Eriador that serves no direct questing or grinding purpose. Just getting lost in the vastness of Middle-Earth is one of the most enjoyable aspects of this game, and for some people that will probably prove to be reason enough to buy it alone.
The quests available for characters are almost innumerable, and most fall within the normal range of fetch quests, escort quests and kill quests. Due to the sheer number of quests it is possible to undertake in any given zone, the game's quest log has a staggering 40 slots. Some of the quests have been spiced up to make them feel a bit fresher for veteran gamers, though. There are quests that require action to be taken either during the day or at night, and so Turbine have made LotRO cycle between day and night on an hourly schedule, rather than a real-world one.
This also creates some great opportunities for stopping to watch the sun rise over the Blue Mountains or the Greenfields in the northern reaches of the Shire. This sort of synergy between interesting gameplay and opportunities for escapism really sets LotRO apart from the pack. Little details like being able to type /smoke to make a character puff thoughtfully on a carved pipe add a lot to the authenticity of the game. Smoking might not be a politically correct thing to allow players to do in a game, but this isn't politically correct--it's Tolkien's Middle-Earth.
Speaking of the idea of "Tolkien's Middle-Earth," one of the more interesting new toys that LotRO brings to the MMO round table is its hope and dread system. The basics are simple: being in good, wholesome places (such as the Shire), or chancing upon NPC friends and allies, raises a character's "hope." Alternately, spending time in blighted lands and/or being defeated or cowed by fearsome enemies lowers "hope." When a character's hope rating is below zero, it is called a dread rating instead. The range is from -10 (10 dread) to +10 (10 hope). Having a positive hope rating increases the effectiveness of heals on a character, as well as increasing damage mitigation and damage dealt. Each point adds 1% of effectiveness. Dread, naturally, does the exact opposite.
The development team at Turbine is very excited about this aspect of the game, and has written at some length about how they have tried to capture Tolkien's effective use of foreboding versus hopeful feelings in the book, and distill it into game form. So far I haven't had too much trouble with dread overload, but it's interesting to note that when a character dies in Middle-Earth, instead of taking resurrection sickness or any of the usual sorts of MMO punishments for dying, that character suffers a temporary increase in dread that scales as the character dies more. At first, the effect is minimal--only one dread--but continued failure results in more severe penalties. It's an interesting idea, and even a difference of a few points is noticeable, but so far the hope and dread system seems to not have a terribly large effect on gameplay. It remains to be seen what interesting tricks the developers will be able to pull with this unique system.
Auction and trade skill systems will be familiar to players of most recent MMOs, though in an interesting twist, LotRO's profession system allows three professions at once, while limiting which three professions are chosen to a handful of pre-set options known as careers. For instance, a character can be an Armoursmith, whose skills are Prospecting for ore, Tailoring cloth and leather armors, and Metalsmithing heavy armor and shields. However that character cannot skip Tailoring and pick up, say, farming instead. This also allows the game's design to force players to rely on each other, as nearly every career has to rely at least sometimes on professions outside of that career's scope. With the weak game world economies of relatively new servers, it remains to be seen how well all this forced interconnectivity will work out in the long run, but it's a fun idea, and one that promotes socializing with other players more often than some players might otherwise do.
A huge number of quests throughout the game require, or at least strongly recommend, grouping with other players to complete. Groups are called "Fellowships" in LotRO, and the interface for finding and working with group members is pretty slick. Players can post what quests they are working on in a menu and connect that way, but a player who is using the LFF (Looking For Fellowship) feature is also flagged visibly as such to anyone who clicks on that player. If you run into someone in the field who's doing the same quest you are, you can tell if they want to group up just by looking at them. Once in a fellowship, a button next to each group member's health bar allows a player to instantly assist that person by clicking it. One-button assists come in very handy in the more difficult dungeons.
One of the most entertaining aspects of all is the deep Deed system built into LotRO. Deeds are basically tasks that are discovered by doing all sorts of things--killing a certain type of enemy, visiting a certain location, completing a certain quest, and so on. Once unlocked, Deeds are kept track of in a menu, where players can see both the conditions for completing that Deed, and the reward available for doing so. For instance, killing a goblin might unlock a Goblin-slayer Deed. Checking the Deed log reveals that thirty goblins must be slain within a certain zone to complete the Deed, and that upon completion, you will receive the Title of "Defender of the Shire." What does that mean? Just what it sounds like. If your character was named Frodo (don't bet on being able to name anything that, by the way), he could then be known as Frodo, Defender of the Shire. If the title is made active it appears just like that over the character's head, for everyone to see. Completing such basic tasks also often unlocks more advanced levels of the same type of Deed--in this example, the next level asks players to kill sixty goblins instead.
As deeds become more difficult to complete, they offer Traits as a reward more and more. Traits are permanent buffs based on your achievements, class and race, and more. They are generally slow to unlock, and they must be attached at a specialized NPC called a Bard, who charges a fee for the service. The system is similar to World of Warcraft's talent point system, but it is much more modular, and therefore very flexible. As with talents, certain types of Trait cannot be equipped until level requirements are met, and some (such as Legendary Traits) have a low limit on how many can ever be equipped at once, regardless of level. Unlike talent points, though, Traits can be offered as quest or Deed rewards, making the motivation to actually play along with the game's story that much more compelling.
Many of the very best Traits can only be acquired through quest chains. Traits (especially generic Deed-based Traits) can also often be stacked on top of each other to produce stronger and stronger effects. For example, a Trait that causes 1.1% additional damage mitigation and adds 2 to Shadow resistance might not be very impressive at level 30, but by stacking more of the same Trait on top of it, the effect can be increased sizably, so that the Trait stays effective and useful.
So is there anything wrong with this game? There are still bugs being hammered out, but so far the only drastic thing is the inability of the game to run properly while Norton AntiVirus is installed on a player's computer. You read that right--not "active," just "installed." I had to switch to Avast AntiVirus before I could play longer than five minutes without my avatar freezing in place. It is a known issue and will hopefully be fixed soon. The system requirements aren't particularly high for a 2007 release, but the lag in heavily populated areas such as Bree-town is extremely punishing to many players who have lower-than-recommended RAM, or bare bones CPU/GPU speeds. There is also a marked lack of solo quests for characters in their mid-30s, making grinding a necessity currently. Fortunately, Turbine has promised an entire zone of new level-appropriate content in its free June content update, so stay tuned.
Aside from the technical issues, there is also the problem of PvP. Player versus player combat is virtually nonexistent in LotRO, though players can still spar (duel) with each other on friendly terms. Instead of full-on PvP, the game allows players to take control of a secondary monster character and roam certain controlled areas battling hero characters, once a simple condition is met. This monster versus hero combat can actually be hilariously fun for a while, but after a time, the fact that your monster can't run dungeons to loot high-quality equipment (or even really change the equipment it has at will) makes the experience of playing a monster feel like a dull, two-dimensional level grind.
The final verdict in regard to LotRO's PvP (or lack thereof) really lies in the minds of the individual players. I for one don't miss PvP one bit. I usually play my MMOs with full-on PvP, but in this game's case, it just doesn't make sense story-wise--and it'd be a tragedy to sacrifice such a wonderful story-telling game for the sake of a few extra thrills. The lack of true PvP combat also has allowed Turbine to go a little crazy handing out class abilities.
Take the Champion class, for instance. The Champion is the consummate melee DPS class in LotRO, but can wear heavy armor after a time just as the tank-specialized Guardian can. In effect, they have great defense and incredible offense. They also get several AoE (area of effect) skills, some of which are truly devastating. By level 10, a Champion has the ability to raise their damage output by 15%, raise their melee attack speed by 15%, dual wield weapons, automatically counterattack every time it takes damage, and more. By level 10, the only good excuse for a Champion dying is the presence of four or more enemies at once, and even then defeat is not guaranteed.
In a PvP-heavy game such as WoW, being able to counterattack everything and practically do double damage more than half the time would have to be offset by 20 or 30 minute cooldown timers (as with the warrior class's auto-counter ability). The lack of PvP basically allows players to feel like history-making heroes, and not just well balanced foot soldiers. Although it is an inescapable fact that PvP represents a crucial element of gameplay to many MMO gamers, and LotRO must be handicapped as such, the omission of PvP combat in this case was an excellent choice.
The graphics in Lord of the Rings Online are very nice, not so much because of their technical splendor, but because they feel like a proper fit for the fantasy world Tolkien created back in the mid-20th century. Gear is rarely outlandish. Character models for each of the four races are constructed carefully from physical descriptions offered by Tolkien himself in his works.
For the curious, no, the look of the game is not based on the hit movies, but rather on the book upon which the movies were also based. In some cases, as with Gandalf's character model, a character's appearance will be very close to that of its film equivalent--these are usually cases in which Tolkien's description of that character was highly detailed. Hobbits in particular look a fair bit different from their movie counterparts (while still obviously being hobbits). Many of the enemies, especially goblins and trolls, owe a more obvious debt to the films. But all character and NPC designs are excellent, and contribute to the player's suspension of disbelief. In a game so concerned with spinning a memorable tale for the player, this is a great achievement.
The landscapes are almost always exactly like what most Tolkien fans imagined they'd look like as well. Playing a dwarf in the rugged Blue Mountains (or Ered Luin, to the elves who reside nearby) will afford stunning vistas of ancient dwarf handiwork wrought into the sides of the snow-capped peaks. As a hobbit in the Shire, gentle, rolling hills dotted with orderly fields and the occasional lazy bend of the river are the order of the day. The race of men begins in Bree-land, which successfully brings to life the feeling of an encroaching frontier with its crumbling ruins and thick forests.
And everywhere in the game, details abound. A watch-post or armory building is just as likely to simply be there for the sake of being there, as it is to serve some utilitarian quest-related purpose. And as previously mentioned, the non-real-time sunrise and sunset cycles give players plenty of chances to watch the stars come out or see the moon set slowly on the horizon--just the thing to keep a sense of wonder about this version of Middle-Earth.
It is also worth noting that night is really night in LotRO; players will not be able to see much without using a key command to light a lantern, which basically causes a local light source to be cast around their character until they toggle it off. The difference is striking: during the day, distant friends and enemies alike are clearly visible, while at night, things seem to move around the edges of your lantern-light with a shadowy uncertainty. Even more than the game's hope/dread system, the excellent use of lighting in this game lends a feeling of good versus evil to the world. Nights are claustrophobic, and when the dawn comes I often find myself breathing an audible sigh of relief at my computer desk as I tell my character to put away his lantern at last.
The only real problem with this game's graphics is that, even though they scale down decently well, they really only look good with a fairly powerful GPU. The difference between the game's highest and lowest graphics settings is astounding, but most people will not be able to see the full effect of this game's graphics for some time yet, unless server lag and jerky movement is their cup of tea. As technology advances, the requirements to hit the graphics sweet spot in LotRO will become more reasonable; it's just too bad that the game's full visual potential is out of reach of most casual gamers at this time.
Is the music good in Lord of the Rings Online? Sure, it's great. A lot of the music is sweeping, epic fantasy stuff, but a surprising amount is also simple one-instrument folk tunes, especially in rustic places such as Bree and the Shire. There's a lot of music, too: Tom Bombadil's house even has its own theme. And the title theme (the song that plays on the character selection and creation screens) is instantly memorable, sounding as though it was written for the movies but never used for some reason. And yes, the sound effects are good, too, although female NPCs of the race of men sometimes sound a bit more turned on than they probably should be when struck by a mighty blow. But none of that is what really sets LotRO apart sound-wise. The real silver bullet this game is packing is its player-created music system!
That's right: starting at level five, characters can purchase instrument proficiencies from a trainer, and buy musical instruments either from the local Bard, or at auction. From there, the awesomeness begins. As an amateur musician myself, I found this system to be a total delight. A small array of instruments ranging from lutes and harps to flutes and clarinets are available; the Minstrel class can play anything, while other classes are relegated to a maximum of two instrument proficiencies each. Once all the hoops have been jumped through, playing music is a simple matter of typing /music into the chat box, which changes the key mapping to a music-specific configuration, fully alterable by the user. Two octaves' worth of notes can be played, complete with half-tones courtesy of a function key.
So far the system is very basic--only eighth-notes can be played, and there are no percussion instruments to speak of--but the entertainment value of being able to stand outside the Inn of the Prancing Pony in Bree and play jigs on a flute cannot be denied. Best of all, Turbine has apparently been pleasantly surprised with the huge fan response to their music system, and have agreed to make some important changes in the next content update, including the ability to sustain notes on brass and woodwind instruments, the addition of percussion instruments, the addition of a third octave and more convenient default key mapping for all three octaves, and even a system for playing pre-written macros of music for the less keyboard-inclined (don't worry purists, you'll be able to tell live players apart by their playing animations). How cool is that? Your dreams of triumphantly playing "Mary Had a Little Lamb" before a crowd of dozens of vaguely interested onlookers will probably never be within closer reach than when playing this game. As the music system evolves, it promises to keep getting better. Check back for an update soon.
As with any MMORPG, the replay value of Lord of the Rings online can only really be measured by the amount of time a player has to put into it. The unusually high amount of quests to complete and Deeds to unlock means that most players will not experience everything this game has to offer even after playing all seven classes up to level fifty.
However, what really sets LotRO apart in this category is how faithfully it reproduces the feeling of imagining what Middle-Earth would be like. Yes, there are mundane, repetitive quests at times, but there are also amazing vistas to take in, memorable sights to see. Visiting Bag End for the first time, and sitting in Bilbo's drawing room across from the cheery fireplace into which the One Ring was once cast, is a real experience for a fan of the books. The game also takes such pains to keep each and every player feeling as though they are at the center of the story unfolding around them, that LotRO ends up feeling quite unlike any other MMO on the market today.
This game is anything but a run-of-the-mill copycat MMO. Even though it is impossible not to draw parallels between it and World of Warcraft, the similarities are almost all positive. LotRO stands in its own right, not only as a game based on a great story, but as a great game regardless. A great game that happens to be an MMO is the formula for practically infinite entertainment value. Lord of the Rings Online is highly recommended for anyone who never wanted the original book to end.
In today's saturated fantasy market, it's easy to glance at something full of dwarves and halflings and magic rings and shrug it off as another pastiche. Even more than fifty years since the original publication of The Lord of the Rings, its repercussions upon the high fantasy genre can be strongly felt. The staggering amount of back history and culture that J.R.R. Tolkien created for his magnum opus has lent it an enduring believability that the average "prince(ess) in exile" fairy-pulp still lacks to this day. There is a good reason why The Lord of the Rings is considered first, foremost and final in the fantasy genre. The Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar is an attempt to faithfully distill the essence of Tolkien's creation into a game that will flesh out everything that could have been going on behind the scenes of Frodo and company's grand adventure. It succeeds admirably.
Reasonable minimum system requirements and decent graphic scaling make this an adventure that a lot of people can enjoy (though the effect of a high-level GPU cannot be undervalued). Music, which played such an important role in cultivating happiness in Tolkien's books, has been given the attention it deserves with a fledgling user-created music system that promises to only get better with time. New systems such as Deeds, Traits and hope versus dread not only add to the gameplay experience, but to the synergy between gameplay and the "flavor" of Middle-Earth as well.
And all of the old stuff MMO players are used to, such as auction houses, group questing, assisting other players and the basics of combat itself, is implemented with ease of use and unobtrusiveness in mind. The whole package promises to be an enduring good value, and doubly so for fans of Tolkien's creations. Like the book it was based on, The Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar is poised to become an enduring classic in its own right.