Tolkien’s world of hobbits, elves and wizards garners the kind of fervour and fanaticism seldom seen elsewhere except Star Wars conventions and Neelix appreciation protesters. The creation of Middle Earth has shaped all our lives. As gamers we are forever doomed to choose between the races of man, orc, elf and dwarf. We are also committed to the career choices of ranger, wizard and archer, armed with magic swords and mithril chain mail shirts.
What would the world of MMOGs have been without Tolkien’s influence? Would EverQuest and DnD online ever have seen the light of day? Almost certainly not in the guise we know it. With so much gaming lore to live up to, never mind the weirdy beardy fanaticism the books garner, Lord of the Rings Online needs to be the one game to rule them all just to prevent a flaming like we’ve never witnessed since Star Wars Galaxies fell into the Sarlacc’s pit of bad favour.
The good news is it sure has a purdy mouth. LOTR online goes to 11 when it comes to eye candy, drawing upon the original source material, rather than the movies to flesh out every fantasy fans favourite universe. Hobbiton looks suitably homely, ruddy-cheeked and just all round cute and peasanty. Bree takes on a more worn around the edges shambling atmosphere, with a bustling square and cobbled streets. The graphics just leave players spoilt for sight-seeing possibilities during their tour of Middle Earth and knocks spots off the rest of the MMOG field without requiring a NASA space station to run it.
The character generation is adequate, but not quite up to City of Heroes standards, but then nothing is. This is one area where Turbine could have spent more time and effort, allowing players to individualise their characters. However, items do change your appearance once equipped, but you soon start recognising which items come from which quest. It would have been nice to be able to step into the world feeling like your own character rather than another MMOG drone.
Players can choose from four main races – Man, Elf, Dwarf and Hobbit with seven different classes including Guardian (tank), Minstrel (healer), Hunter and Lore-Master. Turbine did one thing right and that was omitting the mage, wizard, magic guy class. How many versions of Gandalf, Goondelf, Garndolf with pointy hat and beard could we bear?
The most beard tugging excitement came when as a Dwarf Guardian I ran into Gimli and Gandalf – like whoa! This was the moment that brought me crashing out of the real world and into the heart of Middle Earth. Suddenly, I realised I was part of the epic story I knew so well, rather than just trundling along in my only little world killing rats and finding toadstools.
Turbine has mined the depths of Tolkein’s books, bringing the lore to life and making it an integral part of the quests and every detail of the world. For instance, as a Hobbit Minstrel charged with delivering pie in the Shire, I had to avoid hungry hobbits who would snaffle my hot pastry parcel. Little touches like these bring the world to life.
When it comes to the quests, they are weighted in favour of fellowships (or groups), once again sticking closely to the text. However, there’s still lots of fun to be for solo players. The quests are involved and deep. Despite the game being on the MMOG/WoW end of the scale, the quests don’t spoon feed you. No way markers are given, so players have to think a little, rather than just turning to the map and charging from one location to the next without really knowing why.
As we all know, every MMOG is a grind in one way, shape or form, but LOTR online does its best to disguise it as something novel called er"fun. Little side missions bring forth rewards such as titles which range from the earnest and referential to humorous asides to fellow players. All these little things take the toil out of levelling up by focusing you on getting a swanky new hat or a new title to your name.
Combat is pretty standard fare, however players do have the ability to create combos by linking attacks. Perform one part of the chain correctly and new attacks open up to be used as a follow-up before being greyed out again until the next time. This makes mid-battle action a little more engaging than the usual hot-key fest.
As a nod to the books, you can’t ever die in LOTR. If you are overwhelmed by a monster group, you simply retreat. In fact, you don’t even have hit points, just a morale score. When your morale drops to zero, you run away. This makes LOTR even a step easier than WoW because with no death at all, there is no death penalty. Considering nobody in the book series (except for perhaps Gandalf) ever died and came back, they really could not have people resurrecting every five minutes in the online game.
Crafting too is on the easy end of the spectrum. If you have a recipe and the right equipment and skill, you can pretty much make anything. There are no explosions or equipment malfunctions to deal with when making objects. This really opens up the crafting occupations to everyone.
But the big questions are, is it better than WoW and is it worth buying? LOTR online obviously has a readymade audience keen to don their cloaks and nibble on lembas bread and diehard WoW players may not find enough here to lure them away. However, role-players, if you’re not jacked-in already, then do so now. Fans of the movies, fans of the books – buy it now! Nuff said.