The world that launched every fantasy novel, every MMORPG, and every fantasy roleplaying game the world has known since then is the invention of an Oxford professor named John Ronald (great middle name, truly a mark of genius) Reuel Tolkien.
Originally springing forth from a tale intended to entertain his children, Tolkien’s world of Middle Earth inspired generations of geeks and literati to create their own fantasy worlds inhabited by elves, ogres, and other mythological beasties and human off-shoots. Everything basically written since the books were published is either inspired by or directly ripping off Tolkien’s works, so it’s not surprising that in the wake of the insane success of the Lord of the Rings trilogy of films that someone would be wise enough to make a MMORPG set in the fantasy world that launched a thousand other fantasy worlds.
The game, Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar just celebrated its one year anniversary, much to the delight of parent company Turbine. You’ll recognize the name as the people who are also behind Dungeons & Dragons Online and Asheron’s Call. MMORPGs are all they do, so the game is pretty well designed all in all, but there are definitely problems. I’ll get to those in a moment, but first I’ll tell you what I liked about my experience in Middle Earth.
Graphically, the game is stunning. I mean absolutely beautiful. The environments look amazing on a high-end computer, and the environment is incredible. The characters look relatively realistic, especially by MMORPG standards, and there’s a ton of detail in every building texture and lots of lighting effects. It’s not something I would recommend even trying to run on an older computer, unlike World of Warcraft.
Another big complaint among MMO players that LotR Online addresses is the awful clown suit. If you’re in end-game content, or even just leveling up, to maximize your positive stats you’re stuck wearing a garish mishmash of crap-looking gear. For example, in WoW, my level 70 blood elf paladin is a healer and as such, he’s wearing a mix of leather, plate, cloth, and mail. Every piece is a different color (gold belt, black boots, purple robes, urine-yellow cloak, purplish gloves, and baby blue shoulders) but because it helps boost my healing abilities, I grit my teeth and live with looking like a magical healing clown, but worse. At least clowns can mix and match their colors and have some sense of uniformity with their ridiculous outfits. Lord of the Rings, in what is quickly becoming the standard for newer MMOs, allows you to hide your gear behind clothing options and paint jobs. It makes brag-worthy gear harder to see and show off, but it prevents the average player from looking like the victim of a fabric store explosion.
There are a lot of player titles to choose from. If you kill a bunch of spiders, you become Soandso, The Spider Slayer. Every series of deeds opens up new titles to show off how epic you are in a way that also doesn’t require you to wear some horrible gear combinations, unlike certain other games who I’ll constantly compare LotRO to (namely WoW) where there are very few if any player titles and those that you can unlock are incredibly hard to get. It’s a nice bit of color in a universe where every other character has a fancy title or nickname.
The game is easy to play if you know how to click the mouse, and there’s a lot of class options you can play that are explained helpfully by the loading screen so you won’t accidentally role a class you hate like I did with my first character in World of Warcraft. You know what you’re getting into, which is crucial to keeping players happy. Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of happy players for a few reasons.
The game’s opening stages feel incredibly rushed. There’s a constant pressure to advance, advance, advance through the stages. Get through the first stage, move on forward. Repeat until you reach the end game content. There’s not much time to stop and smell the roses, or there wasn’t for me. In World of Warcraft, I was able to putz around as much as I wanted to, to really explore the world areas for my various levels. I can navigate the first two human levels in WoW blindfolded, because when I went through on my warrior, I went through every inch of the place, but with LotRO I was pushed onward pretty forcefully and the areas were pretty tightly definied.
Once you get to the end game, there’s a lot of great stuff to do, right? That’s why the game is pushing you to advance, so you can enjoy all the cool stuff to do. Well, uh… no. There’s really nothing to do once you get through the game’s early levels except grind the same mobs over and over again until you get whatever of your classes legendary skills you’re looking for via book drops or page drops for said books. Repeat as necessary until utterly bored. Sure, WoW has daily quests for reputation and gold, but at least most of those WoW quests are built for unlocking content at the new Sunwell Plateau, or raising various reputations for goods. It’s still grinding, but it’s pretty easy grinding and it’s something you can just… not do.
At least there’s PVP right? Well, yes. If you’re on a computer that can cheerful slaughter Crysis, then you can PVP in LotR Online, but other than that? Forget it. I love to PVP most of the time, but when I tried to PVP in LotRO my computer absolutely got brutalized by lag. There was nothing I could do because thanks to the masses of characters in the open-environment PVP, my FPS reduced to like 3 and I was an easy kill for any number of elite-geared Elves.
That was another complaint. Unlike WoW (again with the WoW), there’s only one side of the conflict you can play in traditional MMO format. You play a heroic character by default, fighting against the forces of darkness. Once you advance to level 10, you can roll a PVP character of one type or another from the ranks of Sauron’s evil minions. Creating a baddie was pretty fun, and there are many interesting options for rolling a monster, but aside from the creation the PVP difficulties I had just made the whole thing suck on toast.
The game should’ve been a lot better. With that license and that world, Lord of the Rings Online should’ve been the game to beat, or at least compete with World of Warcraft. Unfortunately, the game’s many deep flaws and the inability to get your hands on your very own Ring of Power (you can only protect Frodo, which is lame) kind of ruin what is otherwise a great gaming universe and a visually stunning game. Like all other Turbine games, the miracle patch is right around the corner that’ll make game awesome. And monkeys might fly out of my butt.