It must be in equal measure exhilarating, and terrifying, to create a game such as Lord of the Rings Online: The Shadows of Angmar. On one hand you have the opportunity to work with one of the most beloved classics of modern literature, arguably the wellspring of nearly all contemporary fantasy. On the other hand, the fans of the books are legion and often very exacting: get the details wrong and be prepared for a savaging by the devout. To release an MMORPG in 2007 means that the developers can draw on the success and failures of hundreds of games and take advantage of advanced graphics and other technologies to make the gameworld immersive and the gameplay fun and accessible. On the other hand, there's World of Warcraft, and millions of players who have come to expect an easy experience, fast progress towards advancement, and gameplay mechanics that are polished and nearly perfect. And on the other, other hand, there are those players who are so tired of kill quests, FedEx missions, grinding, and a world populated by orcs and elves that they won't even consider firing up another MMO. Ever.
Given all the baggage of expectation, a nearly decade-long period of development, and the wealth of opportunity, LOTRO could have easily been a disappointment. Instead, it is a brilliant and thoroughly enjoyable game that easily rises to the head of the MMO class. It is perhaps the most fully realized version of any fantasy world and actually amplifies and complements the experience of reading the books. LOTRO does little to totally redefine the MMO genre for a "third generation," but it does effortlessly fold the most successful and satisfying elements from its predecessors into a game that is accessible, well-paced, and nearly bug-free. The launch of LOTRO was perhaps the smoothest of any MMO.
Story and Gameplay
As most gamers are aware, LOTR: The Shadows of Angmar is based not on the trilogy of films, but on the books themselves, including some oversight by the Tolkien estate. While players cannot assume the identities of any of the well-known heroes of the books, they can and do encounter them, Zelig fashion, en route to completing quests or fighting along side them as they help to play out a pivotal scene from the story. In addition to teaming up with Strider or Legolas, bumping into Gandalf in the Prancing Pony, or collecting fireworks for Bilbo's birthday bash, visiting locations from the novel is eerily like exploring historical landmarks. "Oh, that must be the mantle where Bilbo left the ring," you think, exploring Bag End, piled high with boxes and stacks of books.
Since the game tries, as faithfully as possible, to inhabit the world of the novel, race and class choices are somewhat more proscribed than in other fantasy MMOs. Players can be Human, Elf, Dwarf, or Hobbit, and begin the march to level 50 (the current cap) as a Champion, Burglar, Lore-Master, Hunter, Minstrel, Captain, or Guardian. While there are no pure spell casters the professions are varied and each has a lot of choice when it comes to character development, although initial character creation options are a bit limited. While most of the classes can be effective soloers, at least in the early game, starting at level 12 the advantages of forming a Fellowship become clear, as there are combos available to groups that solo characters simply can't access.
All characters begin in the midst of an action-filled scene from the novel which ups the immersion factor significantly. After that, players are dropped into the newbie area to begin a series of quests that will take them through the early levels and eventually, outside the starting town environment. While, in theory, the entire map is available to all players from the get-go, the starter areas and quests are a little disappointing, with the cliche wolf and spider killing missions all too abundant.
There are many, many quests in LOTRO (a character can take on up to 40 at a time) and even at the early levels, several are multi-stage affairs that encourage players to learn the lay of the land and explore, and quests take various forms--solo assignments, group instances, and solo player instances. While most quests are engaging there are a few of those infuriating, illogical "deliver this message to the guy ten yards away" missions. There are also a great many kill and collection quests, though most of the time, these are well integrated with the story and at least seem somewhat relevant to unfolding events. Tracking quests is easy, thanks to a well designed journal, mini-map, and many options.
For good or ill, creature and enemy AI seem par for the MMO course: enter the aggro zone and trigger the attack. Mobs don't use tactics, seek cover, or exhibit any kind of reasoning. LOTRO's mobs are no worse in this respect but I would love to see an MMO where the AI was a little more nuanced.
As in most MMOs, players can learn a variety of crafting skills, and these are done well--not so complex as to become a chore (hear that, Vanguard?) but enjoyably interesting, and useful to both the player and the game's economy. I wish that players could learn more than one crafting specialty at a time, however. There is a well-managed auction house system for players to exchange goods. A side note: I appreciate that mobs drop appropriate items when dispatched. There are no armor-dropping spiders in LOTR and swamp midges are not carrying coin.
Graphics, Design, and Sound
LOTRO looks incredible. Faithful to the novels to the smallest detail, environments and architecture obviously borrow from all of the source material that that has been created in the past half century, including illustrations and maps from Tolkien himself. I play on relatively old machine with a midrange video card and even with everything maxed out, the game runs pretty smoothly, even in crowded areas. Never a fan of WoW's cartoon style, I really appreciate the rich realism of LOTRO. It seems like around every corner there is another screenshot-worthy scene. Creature and character design is well done also and everything is animated beautifully, though I sometimes wish there was a bit more variety to creature deaths. Creatures are logically placed in the environment and there is a very large assortment of mobs and NPCs, even at the lower levels of the game.
The nine regions of LOTRO are huge and there is always someplace new to discover. The amount and level of detail is amazing, from the stonework of the bridges to the birds taking flight across the dawn sky. It really feels like a living world, though there are some flaws. Animals rarely, if ever, interact with each other, and while there is a lengthy day and night cycle (complete with accurate starfields in the sky), these seem to have little impact on anything. Shouldn't NPCs sleep? If I want to visit the bank, or a crafter, or a merchant, shouldn't I have to time my visit to make sure they are available? There are some quests that are keyed to times of day.
Music and sound are as effective and polished as the visuals. The music score is subtle and has a Celtic/Renaissance flavor that fits the story; the ominous music that accompanies visits to the Barrow Downs (for example) is perfectly tuned to the scene as well. Ambient sounds are excellent and musical instruments are actually playable via key assignments. In theory, competent lute, wind, and harp players could create some real ensemble music, though in practice I have yet to hear anyone do much but dink around. Still, what a cool idea!
Groups (here called Fellowships) and Guilds (called Kinships) are easy to create and in my experience so far, a pretty positive aspect of the game. Although Voice over IP is supported, some other common group-oriented elements--such as player or guild housing--are not, at least yet. Occasionally, role-players will take their experience in Middle Earth a little too seriously and their chat will reflect a bit too much earnest desire to inhabit their characters, but compared to the near constant and profane spamming that characterizes some other MMOs, this is hardly a problem. Nearly all general chat seems to point to a community that is polite and helpful.
Although LOTR is primarily a PvE game, there is a PvP element called Monster Play. By interacting with a Scrying Pool players are transported to a special area and become instant level 50 monsters (which can be buffed and developed through the application of Destiny Points) and battle other players. However, there is no gain of XP back in the main game. Still, this is an interesting way of satisfying the needs of players who insist on a PvP element in their MMO.
Having played both closed and open betas, and now the retail release of the game, I am quite impressed with LOTRO. From the lush visuals and sound, to the solid, stable gameplay mechanics, to the way in which Tolkien's world was so faithfully and respectfully brought to the PC, this is a quality experience. I cannot speak to the high-level game, or large group raids, or indeed whether this game will hold my interest and monthly subscription fee for months or years to come, but nearly every aspect of my time in Middle Earth so far has been a positive one. The game's launch was smooth, the game itself is polished and stable, and there are small innovations and tweaks to the MMO formula that make playing LOTRO a pleasure.