Lord of the Rings Online – Review
It’s almost impossible to approach a MMORPG Game bearing the name of the most popular Tolkien creation with an open, unbiased mind and without a set of preconceived ideas and high expectations. On one hand you are prepared to constantly and scrupulously compare every single game detail with what you consider to be the standard as imposed by countless artistic manifestations based or derived from the rich lore of Lord of the Rings. From colorful comics to spectacular movies, from classic tabletops to the popular Online MMO Games – they all influence your judgment as you tend to forget that they are not born directly from the original mind-spark of the creator and are only mere interpretations and eventually the polished result of our collective mind. On the other hand it’s only natural to look for novelty and innovation in a game developed under a powerful and popular intellectual property (IP) such as this. I’m sorry! The point of this gibberish is to make sure that before we move on to the actual review of this fantasy MMORPG developed by Turbine we are all on the same page: fully aware of the colossal proportions of the expectations that plague any product with the Lord of the Rings name on it, expectations which the developers had to meet and even surpass in order to deliver a publicly acclaimed MMO.
With that in mind, Lord of the Rings Online (LOTRO) starts off on the wrong foot and my first impressions were accompanied by a shower of mixed feelings. From a graphic perspective the character creation tool is poor, limited and extremely disappointing. From the four available races (humans, dwarfs, hobbits and elves) I chose a female elf – just to make sure I play the same gender-race combination as 80% of the server population. Unfortunately, no matter how hard I tried to rearrange and customize its features, all I managed to do is create a wide-jawed bleached humanoid of obscure sexuality. When it came to picking a career however, my interest was suddenly aroused as the wide variety of choices I was presented with stepped away from your regular MMORPG canons and hinted towards a more original class approach. As the names of these classes told little or absolutely nothing about future abilities and play styles I was pleasantly surprised and actually relieved to discover that each and every one of them has a short and helpful video presentation.
I eventually settled for a lore-master whose impressive bundle of traits and abilities (ranged magic DPS, controls pets, powerful crowd control and debuffs) made it impossible to ignore it and it turned out to be a good choice as the class was fun and challenging to play with. If the lore-master doesn’t appeal to you, I am certain that LOTRO’s rich class system has the ability to provide you with choices that even though they will not be on par with your most extravagant tastes, they will certainly match and in some case even surpass what other fantasy online mmo games have to offer.
As you have probably noticed I did not mention factions and this because LOTRO doesn’t have your regular faction system and the automated conflict naturally generated by it. All the initial four races available to player at the start of the game are rallied under the same banner and follow a loosely defined common goal: deliver Middle-Earth from evil. This immediately triggered a question related to the PVP content the game has to offer, a question that did not find its answer sooner than level ten. When you reach this level a new game feature called Monster Play is unlocked and with it the ability to create a new character, already at maximum level (current game cap is 65), and this one is part of the Dark Lord’s army. “Create” is a lofty way to describe the whole process since all you are allowed to do is pick a class and a name, but I guess one born out of darkness with the sole goal of serving the needs of a blood and power thirsty god-like creature shouldn’t care too much about esthetics. However, certain layers of visual customization can be applied to this secondary character as they result from the loot tables.
PVP is limited to The Ettenmoors zone and The Ettenmoors is limited to high level characters. If you are new to the game then for a few weeks the monster will be your only link to PVP, so by the time your main character will meet the level requirements for this area your secondary one will have had its fair share of blood baths. Random player encounters that turn into hectic button mashing sessions in which you try to smash the opposing player character’s head in, are an easy and accessible source of fun. A more organized approach that involves more players and usually leads to stronghold captures is equally rewarding. But for the MMORPG PVP enthusiast these will be insufficient and the whole PVP experience will feel shallow and meaningless after a few battles.
Luckily the PVE content of the game fully makes up for the PVP shortcomings. It starts shy with a rather unimpressive tutorial area and walks you through the basics of questing and character development. But once you are done with that and you are prepared to face more advanced challenges, the game never stops to amaze you. With detailed descriptions supported by background stories, fully developed and really helpful trackers, and an impressively fluid progression, questing has never been easier and more fun. The experience accumulated by performing such activities is more than enough to get you from one level to another, so the whole grindish feeling that is commonly associated with the PVE experience in other MMORPG Games is nowhere to be found throughout LOTRO.
To makes matter even more interesting the game introduces a system of achievements called deeds. These usually unlock when entering an area or when killing a certain type of mob for the first time and require for completion exploring other similar areas or killing a sufficient amount of monsters fitting the category targeted by the deed. At first this may sound as something with a high potential of breaking the flow of the PVE experience by refocusing the player’s attention on time consuming and irrelevant tasks. Surprisingly the deed system is so well integrated into the game that it does no such thing, on the contrary: it makes the whole gameplay feel more meaningful and gives cohesion to otherwise completely separate and independent elements. Many deeds will not require special attention as they will target NPCs, monsters or zones already targeted by quests and so you can seamlessly unlock and complete them while performing other regular tasks.
Deeds and the whole system that supports them tend to become a bit more complicated when it comes to rewards. At first when completing a deed’s requirements you will probably unlock a title or some other low value prize. However, as the game progresses so will the deeds and while new levels of previously completed ones become available, more appealing rewards, such as permanent character traits, offer the necessary incentive to search for them and complete them. In the long run hunting for traits might become a bit tedious, but at least the rewards are valuable from a character development perspective and not just a silly title to place under your character’s name – as it happens in other popular online mmorpg games.
A combination of nicely designed quests coupled with the deed system explained above will keep you galloping through the game’s content until you reach level 30 when a new interesting game feature unlocks: The Skirmishes. Introduced in the latest LOTRO expansion – Siege of Mirkwood, the Skirmishes are repeatable combat instances that scale in direct proportion with the number of players that access them in the same time. You can tackle these challenges while part of a fellowship (the fancy LOTRO way of saying “group”), but also alone. Related to Skirmishes is the Minion system which allows every player to summon an AI controlled soldier to his aid, after he had previously trained and prepared it for battle. The minion is in fact designed as a group-player substitute as it can provide tanking, healing or dps support depending on the role assigned to it. Perfectly integrated in the LOTRO lore and with a sufficient number of random elements taken into the equation upon instance generation, Skirmishes are a great source of fun and can also be an alternative PVE route.
Skirmishes only come to complement the old dungeon system which pits groups of players aka fellowships against challenging mobs and bosses which upon death drop the most appealing items the game has to offer. Provided that you have with whom to play with, the dungeons will gradually challenge your skills as they become more and more complex and demanding as you advance through the game’s tiers. They are beautifully designed and again perfectly intertwined with the game’s lore, so again another element to add to the already impressive panoply of PVE features LOTRO has to offer.
Not so impressive is the crafting system, although it does try something new by combining professions into sets of three and allowing players to choose only one these sets. Because of these predefined sets you end up practicing professions that sometimes have absolutely no connection with each other. In general any profession set will contain one entirely useful for your class while the other two will generate consumable resources for other professions. While I understand and support the need to give players the incentive to trade resources in order to facilitate player interaction and also build an animated crafting system, there are certainly more simple and intuitive ways of doing it as proven by other MMO Games. As always there are two types of professions, gathering and crafting, and the profession sets are constructed around the idea of having at least one for each category. You level up professions by using recipes to create and transform items and thus unlock new and more powerful recipes to create new and more powerful items etc. etc. – it’s been done and it’s been done too many times before.
Combat in Lord of the Rings comes with its own share of surprises, not all pleasant. For starters I was impressed by the fact that you can chain skills in a combat sequence even when the skill you want to use is still on a cool down or while casting another one. This way when the second skills becomes available, meaning you have finished casting the first skill or its cool down has expired, it will trigger instantly with no additional player input. I found this idea to brilliantly combine simplicity and effectiveness in a small combat system tweak that removes the need to bash a button in a desperate attempt to perfectly chain a second skill as soon as the cast bar for the first one fills up. Another cool combat feature is the conjunction attacks which can be triggered only if part of a fellowship. During combat and after stunning an enemy, players are prompted to choose from four different colors. Depending on the cumulated choices and the order of the color selections, special attacks can be triggered coupled with astonishing visual effects. Unfortunately that’s the only combat eye-candy the game has to offer as the rest of the spell effects look underdeveloped while combat animations are sluggish and in some case not representative for the used skills. As a result the on-screen visual representation of battle is sometimes providing insufficient feedback to the player, thus making it hard to keep track of used and available skills without constantly checking the bars.
Animations are also the only negative aspect of the LOTRO graphics, both for PCs and NPCs. With them out of the equation Lord of the Rings Online looks almost perfect. Worm colors blend together to create landscapes of astonishing beauty, smooth shapes define the towns’ silhouettes and tasteful, detailed clothing compensates for lack of character creation depth. It’s a breathtaking yet non-aggressive visual experience. Considering the age of the graphic engine on which it was built and the high fps rate at which almost anyone can play it, LOTRO’s wrapping is even more impressive.
Currently LOTRO is F2P (free to play) so everyone can download the client, create an account and log into the game at no fee – if you haven’t played the game I suggest you try it out. Much of the game content, and by this I mean entire zones and the related dungeons, will be locked and can only be unlocked through use of points. These points can be purchased from the game store or earned in-game by completing deeds (see description above). The store features other interesting items also, from potions and temporary character stat boosts to rested experience that allows you to gain double exp. from killing monsters. Although I’m sure you will find many of these items tempting as you are leveling up, keep in mind that the amount of points you can earn from deeds is limited and spending them on perishable items will eventually force you to spend real money on actual game content. In all fairness the game is worth every penny, but everyone should be aware of these things so just be careful how you spend those points.
In over three years of existence and with two solid expansion packs to support the original effort, LOTRO has reached a level of polish other MMORPGs can hardly match. However it isn’t an innovating game, it doesn’t set new standards and it certainly doesn’t push the boundaries of the genre – it just reuses old ideas in a different light. For fans of Tolkien’s work, Lord of the Rings Online can be a rich, memorable and highly entertaining experience, but for everybody else it isn’t anything more than your regular, polished, decent MMORPG. Turbine’s creation is not a game that will shine in the first hours of gameplay, but it has the power to turn you into one of its fans provided that you are equipped with enough patience to let it unfold before your eyes and slowly pull you into its mesmerizing fantasy world.
By Seth Lex