Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.
If new MMORPGs were baby seals emerging from shelter and into the sunlight for the first time, World of Warcraft would be the hunter clubbing them as they took their first tentative sniff. On a planet where the Star Wars license could fail to gain a large audience, it's easy to imagine that Lord of the Rings could crash before it ever got off the ground. Sierra's first attempt certainly did; Middle Earth Online promised permanent death and other risky features before getting the axe in back in 1999.
Turbine, the developer of Lord of the Rings Online, has a turbulent history of its own. After the moderate success of the Microsoft-published Asheron's Call was followed with a failed sequel, Microsoft cut Turbine loose. Left to their own devices, Turbine launched D&D Online and turned out a solid, if forgettable, group-focused MMORPG based in the Ebberon universe. Some gamers in the Turbine forums complain that the company diverted too many resources to the development of LOTRO, leaving D&D Online under-supported. Maybe that's true; Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows Of Angmar has obviously been given a lot of love and attention. It surprises with interesting, well written quests and an affection for the mythos created by Tolkien.
It's important to note that LOTRO is based on the book license and Turbine's own ideas rather than those found in the Peter Jackson movies, meaning that Strider will not look like the Viggo Mortensen we saw on the big screen. Turbine has gone with a more classical rendition of the world and its characters, giving them a less gritty, more jovial feel. That's not to say the mood cannot be downright sinister at times, the dark riders themselves are just as shrouded in darkness and evil as you might expect.
When you create your avatar, you can choose from Elves, Dwarves, Hobbits and Men. Each have their own choice of origin, which affects their looks slightly but does not have much impact on your place in the world. Every race starts in a pre-determined area, regardless of what you may choose. Among the usual archetypes we find two slightly different classes. Champions are all about quick melee damage and a few area of effect moves, dual wielding anything they can get their hands on right from level one. Captains act as the jack of all trades, offering both group benefits and some minor healing to go along with combat skills. The "pet" that can accompany the Captain is a man who follows him around holding a banner and lending his blade to the fight. If he clopped together two coconut halves and sang songs of false praise instead, it would make the lack of real mounts more funny than disappointing.
When you enter the game you get a quick taste of the kind of story instances you can expect throughout the "Epic" quest line. As an Elf, you begin hundreds of years in the past, defending a small Elvish outpost against an army made up of greedy Dwarves and Trolls. As you finish the instance and complete the tutorial (which ends with Elrond himself taking down a Troll and saving your butt), you load into the main world where other players reside. It's hundreds of years after the events you just experienced and you start in the same area, which has since become decrepit and old, with vines overgrowing the buildings and cracks in the stonework. It may not sound like much, but for a Lord of the Rings fan, it satisfies a deep, dorky urge to experience more directly the world Tolkien made. Each race gets their own starting instance and a different peek into the history of Middle Earth and the beginning of Frodo and Bilbo's journey.
Unlike D&D Online, there is a non-instanced world to explore filled with interesting quests, strong writing and familiar places to discover. Because Turbine had such a rich and well-established context to work with, they can make some of the more mundane "kill 10 boars" quests more interesting and entertaining for the player. Playing Vanguard I realize how important this is as a player, killing crows on behalf of "Kehlaral" from "Quart'olzek" isn't nearly as compelling as killing crows on behalf of Strider because he fears they're spying on his four mysterious charges, trying to locate the ring. Since I already care of these characters and this world, half their job is done for them. Obviously, if you're not into Lord of the Rings or detest the genre, this isn't going to do anything to change your mind.
The graphics engine seems to be the same used for D&D Online, only more refined and expansive. It looks wonderful and runs incredibly well, scaling right up to all kinds of bells and whistles high-end system owners will appreciate, while remaining accessible for players with slower systems. I wouldn't say the game is quite at Oblivion levels of detail, but given the genre and expanse to explore, it's a near thing in some spots. Sadly, the character models and faces are lacking in both customization options and originality so far. The world of Middle Earth is a classic fantasy setting, but the characters feel watered down compared to some of the excellent art done for the books and the movies.
One major gripe I have so far is how ugly most of the armor and clothing is. Even at high levels players are walking around in garish, clashing cloaks and bright blue pants coupled with bright red tops. No one looks all that cool, even in heavy armor. More readily available dye for armor and more class-specific sets would go a long way toward improving things. I have yet to see a set of armor I think looks like something a normal person would be caught dead wearing in Bree. Dwarves seem to have the best outfits, fitting into the world without looking like they just stumbled out of a disaster at a primary paints factory.
The bland armor is made worse by the fact that everyone is wearing practically the same thing. The light armor doesn't look much different than the medium, leaving very few distinctions between classes and races. With just seven classes and four races to choose from, the game is teetering on the edge of not having enough variety to appease hardcore players looking for more depth and customization. At a glance, a Minstrel, Champion or Hunter don't look at that different, even at later levels.
Quests are where the game really shines. It may be the most quest-heavy game on the market at launch, leaving players with plenty of solo and group quests to choose from. The Epic Quest line is where the meat of the story is, giving you a story arc that runs along side the journey of the One Ring to Mordor. You obviously won't be the one saving the world, but they do a good job of telling the rest of the story while Frodo and the Fellowship are off trying to get the job done.
There is a growing segment of gamers like myself who are burned out on the genre, but always interested in seeing what the next game is bringing to the table. LOTRO is giving me enough story and short, fun, scripted instances sprinkled among the usual questing that I don't notice much grinding. Even the urge to level up is trumped by the desire to push the story along, making the experience you gather less of a focus and more incidental.
There's still lots to talk about in regards to crafting, which offers the usual sword and armor creation along with more unique approaches like he path of a Historian, gleaning information from old tablets and creating scrolls to help your party. Fellowship conjunctions also add a layer to group play, giving everyone a chance to chain special class skills together in the middle of combat. We'll explore those aspects and the monster play PVP system as the game gets closer to release.
Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows Of Angmar does not redefine the genre, but it raises the bar for what we should expect from MMORPG storytelling. If you love Tolkien, and you don't mind that Strider is in Bree a little longer than he should be, I recommend getting your hands on the open beta and giving it a chance. Sometimes a game just needs to do a lot of things well, and a few things exceptionally. Story is king in Tolkien's world, and that's where the hook in Shadows of Angmar lies.
- Shawn "Certis" Andrich