First Look Preview: Lord of the Rings Online
News Editor Garrett Fuller pens this first look preview of Turbine's Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar.
Any time a game company deals with a major IP it can be a rocky road. Turbine has two major IPs in the fantasy genre, Dungeons & Dragons Online and, more importantly, Lord of the Rings Online. While many people feel that these worlds can transfer into the MMO medium very easily, they forget the expectations that fans have from such high profile worlds.
Lord of the Rings has a rich history in our culture. Written back in the 1950s, the books became very popular in the 1960s and 70s. Not only were they hailed as the beginning of our modern outlook on Fantasy, but they won over critics with their nature vs. industry themes and the triumph of ordinary people (or hobbits) thrust into extraordinary circumstances. Needless to say, in the last eight years, the movies gave the series an enormous boost back into the public eye. With the resurface of fantasy as a viable genre to tell stories in, Lord of the Rings was back on the map as the leader in fantasy storytelling. So how does this translate into an MMO world where you can become part of the story?
In playing the Lord of the Rings Online Beta, I tried very hard not to have any expectations. I had read the books, seen the cartoons (yes you can still find them), watched the movies and now I was set to play the game. Turbine continues its tradition of having a short film about each class and the features that come with them while you are creating your character. I think this is great because it shows you the role that you will play and how your character will fit into the world. The races were straight out of Middle Earth: Dwarf, Race of Men, Elf, and Hobbit. While I haven’t had the chance to try it yet myself, there is also a Monster Play system in place that allows players to inhabit some of Middle Earth’s evil races as well. Back to the idea of classes, I chose something out of the ordinary, a Hobbit Minstrel. Mostly because it was LOTR and I wanted to try something new.
The main classes are Guardian (your tank), Minstrel (healer), Hunter (ranged), Lore-Master (kind of a caster, remember Middle-Earth only had a few wizards), Burglar (stealth), Champion (DPS fighter/light tank), and a Captain (think of a leader type). I was able to play as a Minstrel and a Hunter for a while in the game. I am not used to playing a healer and the idea of a dwarf hunter seemed very different so I gave it a try.
My Hobbit Minstrel really became my main character as I traveled through the lands of Middle Earth playing songs to heal the Morale of my fellow party members as well as fighting and doing damage through my shouts. What is Morale, you ask? It is your health bar, plain and simple. In a fight, if you do poorly, you lose Morale (a good take on Tolkien’s theme). A Minstrel has the ability to boost Morale, thus healing players.
Right from the beginning players are thrust into the storyline of Middle Earth. As a Hobbit, I ran into a Nazgul very early on and realized it was part of a small story that was playing out. I was part of the story and came face to face with Gildor and his elves. This was a good start toward helping players feel as though they are part of the epic saga that is Lord of the Rings. These types of story arcs, or Dramatic Sequences as they are called, come up while you are leveling your character. It adds to the feel of being part of Middle Earth and fighting against the forces of Mordor and Isengard. In the dwarf zone, I was able to meet Gandalf the Grey and run some quests for him. These story lines spice up the grind that many MMOs offer as content. Written with the player in mind, it adds to the experience Turbine is trying to give players in Middle Earth.
The quest system in LOTRO is pretty standard. However, there are instanced quests at the end of certain zones which you can play solo, or as part of a group. I really enjoyed these because there was also a story arc tied into them. As my Minstrel became stronger, I was able to join groups and be part of the storylines which moved us forward through the zones.
One area that was great to explore was the Shire. They definitely did everything to get this section of the game right. From delivering pies to various baker NPCs, to fighting off goblins and spiders that came too close to the farms, the Shire had a lot to offer a fan of Tolkien’s work.
While some of the quests offered diversity to game play. The standard MMO mechanics still linger in the background. I will say this, because the game has the story integrated into its design, leveling did not seem like a grind. I often found that I had gained a level without realizing it. Not so much because of the game play, but because finding the conclusion to the story was more interesting than pushing to gain the next level. Players will find that just going out to kill monsters as a form of leveling will get old real quickly (like in many MMOs). The real gem of LOTRO is that the story plays a big part and taking joining that makes the game play feel like it is running smoothly.
Working in groups can be fun too. Every class has a specific role to fill in their Fellowship and players really get the chance to work together. The Conjunction system is great to watch. Basically, a Conjunction is an attack that a group of players can do together. Another good feature is that if an NPC gives you a group quest to do, he will tell you to gather your friends. For those who like to play characters with a specific role in mind, this group dynamics work very well.
One of the things that works well in Lord of the Rings Online is the crafting and loot system. Players have the ability to craft a large variety of items as well as become experts in different types of lore. This all comes into play at higher levels, which unfortunately I did not get to see much of. However, in crafting, the ingredients were plentiful and the process was not as painful as it can be in other MMOs. So making your own items in game really worked well.
The graphics in the game are great to look at and the landscapes of Middle Earth are realized vividly. They seem to run on the same level as Dungeons & Dragons Online. Even though DDO may fall short for some as an MMO, the graphics in the game are really nice. LOTRO does keep to the common look and feel of Middle Earth that we have become used to: Rangers in green and brown, Dwarves in some heavy armor and Hobbits with their hats and vests.
The big question with LOTRO is in where the game falls short. I can honestly say that the time I was playing, the story line kept me going. It made game play easier to deal with and cut down on the grind factor. I do not know if these story arcs would be enough to carry me all the way through to level fifty.
With the storyline of Lord of the Rings and some interesting new features in game play, this game is still an MMO as we have come to know them. Quests and groups have some new editions, but they are still similar in style to many other MMOs out there. That being said, I do believe that LOTRO will appeal very much to a role-player type of gamer. You are really thrust into the world of Middle Earth right from the beginning and the game does a great job of making you feel like a part of the epic story. Also, while instances are used in some places, there is still a lot of open world to explore. I firmly believe that keeping the open world element makes for a better MMO experience. The biggest problem with Dungeons & Dragons Online was the fact that everything was instanced. LOTRO offers players the chance to solo or group through many open world encounters. Instanced dungeons are not the mainstay of this game.
I must confess that I did not get to use the Monster Play feature in the game. I do believe it is an interesting twist, again I do not know how often players will want to use it. Perhaps when the review comes out we can cover the Monster Play feature more in depth.
Overall, for me, Lord of the Rings Online is a big step up from Dungeons & Dragons Online for Turbine. It is a much more polished game and has a better open world for players to explore. If you are a fan of Tolkien, there is plenty in the game that remains true to the stories and really makes the player feel like a part of them. I was very impressed with the content, especially the dramatic sequences that you become a part of. My only issue with LOTRO is that it falls prey to many of the standard MMO practices we have become used to over the last few years. Despite suffering from some of the standard MMO traits, I do look forward to the launch of Lord of the Rings Online and believe that it will have a solid fan base with the role-player type community. In the end, Lord of the Rings was a great story, and the game responds to that element very well.