Release Date:April 2007
Tagline: It's like World of Warcraft, only newer!
Genre Keywords: Fantasy, Massive, Multiplayer, Online, MMORPG, Progress Quest
Ok, so that's not really the tagline, nor does it deserve to be. However, it is the first thing that ex-WoW players (and let's face it, with eight hojillion players and growing, it most likely is the game most people are coming from) will think of and, well, they may very well be right.
Disclaimer: A lot has changed since my various disclaimers on the World of Warcraft write-up. I made it to level 40 in that game, did a few of the early instances, quit and resubscribed to the game multiple times - there's a certain addictive quality to that game. However, I'm still low on patience when it comes to repetitive content and still don't believe that you should have to work to get to the "good stuff".
What this means for you is that once again I will concern myself only with the low levels of gameplay, as well as the perspective of a player who would like to log in, accomplish something in an hour or less, and log out - that mythical "casual gamer" is what I'm still aiming for.
The beta for Lord of the Rings Online made me a little uneasy. This was the first MMO for me that actually touched on a subject matter that I felt an odd sense of ownership about: namely, the saga that serves as the basis, or the primary inspiration for almost all high fantasy created today. Even if you call your elves Dragaerans or Tiste Andii, your hobbits halflings and you spell ork with a k, most of your audience's impressions will still be vaguely formed based on Tolkien's epic. Playing a game that rips everything off while having its own conventions is one thing, but actually having the gall to create that very world in digital form - well, it felt vaguely blasphemous. Yes, I'm a dork (but not a full-fledged Tolkienite purist). Moving along.
So first of all, the setting. Unlike Knights of the Old Republic which took a familiar setting and simply moved the dateline back a few thousand years to avoid dealing with any issues of timing, repeated content, famous personages and locations, Shadows of Angmar takes place during the events of the Lord of the Rings. This was a very controversial decision because MMOs are static - the book has a definite beginning, middle, and ending. How to reconcile this?
The solution is innovative but not really what I would call good. Essentially, every character has a set of linear and (mostly) unique quests, such as may be found in a single player RPG. These can be accomplished at anytime and any level, some alone and some with friends, but they all must be accomplished in order, and can only be accomplished once (although once completed, you can replay them through a device called a Mirror Pool on others' behalf) per character. These roughly follow the hobbits' flight from the Shire and into Bree, to the Lone Lands, the fateful night at Weathertop and beyond - although you'll easily spend days in each of these locations performing "filler" quests; this is an MMO after all. So while in theory that would work, in practice you'll never be so well synchronized with your friends to play through the unique content just once - so you'll meet Tom Bombadil for the first time numerous times, you'll fight and defeat a tragically nazghulified (nazghulated?) Ranger numerous times, you'll receive the same set of orders from Strider repeatedly, and you'll be smitten by the beauty of Goldberry's spring ... over and over again.
Still, at least they tried. And in many other ways, the story-based focus succeeded rather well. A lot of the side quests (everything that's not the main quest) interlinks and overlaps with each other, and often makes sense in the larger context of The Enemy preparing for war all over Middle Earth. You and the other players serve as the faceless minions of the Rangers' tireless efforts to stem the dark tide encroaching all over the land, and as you rise in level you are tasked with more and more crucial and demanding quests in the more threatened regions. As a single player game the progression is quite clever; it's just that it's a bit stretched around the seams when it comes to playing the game with thousands of other people doing the same thing. If it wasn't Lord of the Rings but any other MUD then these fairly standard MMO shortcomings might be overlooked, but lore this rich and beloved (see, dork again) deserves better treatment than just "standard".
You start the game in a little mini-instance of your own; each race gets its own introduction to the story with no other human players around. You get introduced to the basics of combat, loot, enemies and quests, and then it's time to head out into the "real" world. Thing is, it isn't real quite yet. You will progress through more introductory quests for about 6-7 more levels and then enjoy another brief story-based instance which will set the stage for your entrance into the full-on, contiguous real world. The rest of the unique, "Book" quests proceed like this - a bit of chasing people down, a bit of questing, an instance, and repeat. In between Book quests you can do filler quests for anyone around, or travel to entirely another starting area to do the ones present there. As of this writing, the Shire and Bree areas are probably the best populated with varied, entertaining quests while Celondim (elf starting area) and Thorin's Gate (dwarven starting area, both in Ered Luin) are a bit sparse and repetitive.
Combat, loot mechanisms and grouping are all very similar to World of Warcraft, so I won't spend too much time here. The world you're in is very nicely rendered and the engine well-optimized with a wide variety of settings for all ranges of PCs. Distant ruins, hulking trees and vast grasslands and mountains impart a nicely deceptive sense of scale; in actuality you can run to most visible locations in less than 10 minutes. The fauna does contain a lot of the standard wolves, bears and boars which suffer a bit in the art department, but once you get to the quite disturbing undead with their varied and powerful attacks, the foes begin to look a little better. Still, the animators could certainly benefit from lessons in how to portray natural humanoid motion and the costume designers really need to read up on their haberdashery; the hats range from ludicrous to silly, with no middle ground. Fortunately there is an option to turn helmet-rendering off.
There are some major gameplay differences that should be briefly covered. First of all, LOTRO isn't very loot-centric. Many of the pieces of loot aren't particularly extravagant, and are often identical. Good loot doesn't drop very often in the world, and quest rewards are usually the best way to enhance your inventory. Experience, likewise, is far easier obtained via questing than grinding - this is made even more attractive by quest "hubs" - locations where many quests are given out at once that just happen to take place in the same locations. Each hub will have around it a bad guy focus, like a ruin, camp, or forest that will contain the bad guys and items for multiple quests at once - this neatly gives the game a sort of "dungeon hack" or "diablo-esque" quality since you're either "in town" or "questing in the dungeon", a mechanism that separates the gameplay into manageable chunks.
Since loot isn't really the focus of the advancement game, what is? Well, that would be Deeds, mechanisms that give your character's statistics boosts depending on what s/he did in the world. These can come from ridding locations of certain pesky inhabitants, exploring certain sets of locations, finding specific items, or even completing sets of quests or mini-quests. There are even a few hidden ones, for which you have to visit a specific location at a specific time, or locate an event that only takes place when certain conditions are met. The dev team boasts that this makes every character unique, but we all know that's bunk - still, it's a Pavlovian trick which hasn't been used in MMOs before, and it's a welcome addition. The removal of loot as a focus also means that LOTRO is missing that addictive WoW-quality of constant minuscule stat improvement via better equipment.
Finally, there is Player vs. Player. It is possibly the only area where Turbine did something different than the norm, but it will take a while for it to take off properly. Here's why. PvP is between Sauron's army and the free world humanoids - but the catch is that only the the free world people (henceforth freeps) are created via normal MMO-like progress. On the monster side, any player that has a freep level 10 or higher can instantly make a level 50 monster and go wreak havoc in a certain zone of the world (The Ettenmoors, and presumably more to come later in the game's life). This level 50 monster cannot be leveled past level 50, but by completing Quests and accomplishing Deeds (much like the freeps except the monsters can't leave the Ettenmoors) it can be tweaked with various stat boosts and special abilities. This lets most of the playerbase enjoy their PvE (Player vs. Environment) gameplay without interruption, but it also makes the game uninteresting to those seeking combat with fellow humans. One would think that allowing players to play as monsters openly in the world would be an interesting, and novel proposition but that's a discussion for another node (which I might yet author). As it is, there is simply no room for griefing in this game, which is great for those of us who prefer to play in peace.
And that's about it! Apart from the fact it's a little less loot-centric and more quest- and exploration- centric and from some improvements in quests mechanisms and quest variety (no small feats these in a stale genre!), the game plays pretty much like every other MMO out there. You go forth, you commit mass murder on a nearly genocidal scale of critters that are deemed "evil", and you obtain better gear and stats so you can do it again tomorrow. If you need a break from whatever your MMO-du-jour is, I can recommend LOTRO as a low-impact alternative without hesitation. If you've already played any fantasy-themed MMO, you should probably give this one a miss - unless you really want to see what Rivendell looks like in digital form.