For many significant events in my life, I remember when they occurred by where my family was living at the time. We were in an un-air-conditioned house in Phoenix, Arizona in the summer I first read the Lord of the Rings. I clearly recall both the library and the corner I'd sit in at home while I read it. I devoured the whole trilogy in a couple of days and I remember that it as a friend in an area where I had none.
It'll come as no surprise, then, that I jumped at the chance to play the new MMOG, The Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar. I have to say, Turbine has done an incredible job bringing Middle-Earth alive.
There's a lot of good things in this game. Turbine learned a lot from their predecessors and have implemented many of the things that keep a game from sucking.
Stealing From World of Warcraft
First off, LotRO lifted some of the best ideas from WoW. Bonus XP from time spent offline, an easy death penalty, blanketing the world in quests, mailboxes, global auction houses, and easy point-to-point transportation all found their way into the game. Essentially, all of those things that make it easy for casual players to feel welcome for the half-hour chunks of time they can afford to spend in a game.
This is a noticeable difference from the attitude of Vanguard where the harder-core you are the better they like it.
I would think this would be a given in new MMOGs, but apparently it isn't so I'll just state here that there is no wanton killing of innocent wildlife required in LotRO. There are not only plenty of quests of your level to ensure that you never have to wander aimlessly killing stuff to make that next level, but your quests are easy to find because your mini-map has markers for quest-givers. I had no idea how much of a pain it is having to search for people who have a quest for you or what a difference it makes that people with something for you to do are clearly marked on the overhead map.
Even boring whack-a-mole quests are few and far between. This isn't an accident. I played a week or two in beta around Christmas last year. One of the things that struck me then was how solid the game was so far from release. More interesting was that completing quests often popped up a questionnaire asking how fun that quest was with both a 1-5 scale and a place for comments. What a concept! I've played other betas and can't recall ever seeing anything like it. The fruits are obvious, but only in contrast from having played both then and now. They seem to have spent a not insignificant amount of time fine-tuning the fun. This is a good idea that I hope it gets copied.
In addition to the tried-and-true, LotRO does some interesting new things.
The Bunny Slope
The most notable is the use of separate spaces in the beginning game. Your first quest is entirely solo and gets you into the story based on your beginning race. After that first quest, you enter a noob area for characters levels 1-6(ish). There are actually two of these staging areas, one for dwarves and elves and one for the hobbits and humans. After you finish this area, you hit another solo quest. It's only after this second solo quest that you end up in your race-segregated "global" starting area.
Cutting up your experience in this way would feel arbitrary if it weren't for what Turbine does with the story. The troll frozen by Gandalf in your first solo adventure is a statue when you later explore that cave on a quest. The village you only just managed to save (but not before it was almost destroyed by bandits) is a shadow of its former self later as it rebuilds. One of the farmers you warned to enter the safety of the city walls is being mourned by his comrades.
It's not a truly dynamic world, but it's light-years more dynamic than other MMOGs. This story-based growth makes you feel like a part of the history of the world in a remarkable way.
The other thing LotRO does well is mess around with some of what we've come to expect from class build-out. Healing, tanking, and blasting are pretty well split up among the classes in a way that is internally consistent but that doesn't follow the pattern other games use to force certain roles on grouping. What this means is that you don't have people looking for a healer or a tank, they're just looking for others to fill out their group.
This is a good thing.
Best Use of Licensed Content
By far Turbine's greatest success is in their use of the license, though. This is most noticeable if you play a hobbit, but all of the races do an excellent job with their quests lending to what you'd expect if you were to step into the books. The elves are full of existential ennui, the dwarves with active distrust of all things non-dwarfish, the humans with restless energy, and the hobbits with home, hearth, and village.
In addition, the writing is good. Good intentions aren't always assumed nor are successful quest results un-alloyed or cloying—sometimes the widow has to be told that her son really did run off to become a bandit.
Also, how cool is it to hang with Aragorn?
No game is going to be an unmitigated success—not to a reviewer at any rate. LotRO is no exception.
A License Cuts Two Ways
If you don't like the books, then this game isn't for you. Further, if the traits of a specific race annoy you, don't, under any circumstances, play that race. If you don't want to deal with petty jealousies, self-important trivialities, and a preoccupation with food, don't play a hobbit. I enjoyed it, but that's because the writing was so evocative of the settings in the books and the quests were extremely creative. Meeting Lobelia Sackville-Baggins is not a treat. Samwise's Gaffer is kind of a pathetic whiner. Delivering mail on a deadline while dodging nosey hobbits is a new kind of quest, but one not everyone is going to enjoy (it was my favorite, though).
Inconsistently Inconvenient Commodities
Many of the things you want in the game are spread out in non-obvious places. Trainers are clustered in one village which can be inconvenient when all your quests are a village or two away. Auction houses are hard to find for any race over 5 feet tall as are banking facilities. I hate looking like a noob and having to ask if anyone can point me to a convenient resource.
Crafting is Half-baked
I can see that they were trying to be original like they were with classes, but their changes are a humongous PITA for crafters. Bundling crafts in groups of three is only charming in the first minute or two. Particularly when you discover that your bundle doesn't include the ability to gather the resources one of your crafts needs. Add the difficulty in finding an auction house and you have a recipe for frustration.
Also, my favorite craft had beginning items that you can't use until level 15. You start crafting around level 7.
White Guys Can't Jump
I've seen people trash the graphics in the game, but I think they're actually just fine (and in places magnificent). What sucks, though, is the animations. Your feet don't seem to quite touch the ground. Running seems uncannily, uh, smooth. I actively avoid paying attention any time my character has to jump because it just looks so awkward. It's an unfortunate contrast to go from playing my Tauren Hunter in WoW to a dwarf in LotRO. The Tauren just seems to have such weight.
I'll keep this subscription until I get tired of it—aka the foreseeable future. What I'm looking for more than anything else is how it progresses from here. How often are updates? How comprehensive? Will they improve the crafting (please)? There's a lot I still want to explore. I haven't played any character past level 11 and I haven't done a lot of grouping (because pick-up groups suck and I haven't found a guild/kinship yet). There are some interesting kinks with traits, deeds and kinships I want to explore as well.
I'd definitely put it on the recommend list.