Although I haven’t played The Lord of the Rings Online since about the Siege of Mirkwood / Rise of Isengard era, there was a time when it was my go-to MMORPG regardless of what else I was playing. I’ve spent countless hours in Turbine’s representation of Middle-earth, and find that I still measure other MMOs up against the quality of LOTRO..
There are several things that LOTRO does right, with not a few features that are either outdated or in need of revision. I don’t think anyone would argue that the game’s graphics look their age, or that its traditional combat system feels particularly old hat next to other more modern MMOs in the genre. Yet, LOTRO’s strengths outweigh any weaknesses by far, and the Tolkien-inspired MMORPG can serve as a model for any game in a number of ways. Here are three of them!
Epic Story Content
Few games can hold a candle to LOTRO’s Epic Quests, and even though they have the most foundational of source material to rely upon, Turbine’s team does a consistently stellar job mining the riches of Tolkien’s work while also adding their own narratives. When LOTRO’s launch was still a glimmer on the horizon, I remember wondering how there could possibly be room in the established Middle-earth timeline for any stories to be told outside of that of the Fellowship. I hadn’t considered the potential for player character stories alongside of or tangential to the main narrative of the fiction.
Not all of the Epic Quest books have the most compelling activities, but they do provide an overall structure for LOTRO’s main narrative and content. They’re also character-driven and meticulously realized by a development team that is obviously enthusiastic about the source fiction, and their passion comes through clearly in the gameplay.
There is perhaps no better example of the potential for roleplaying in an MMORPG than Weatherstock, an in-game concert made possible by LOTRO’s elaborate player music system, developer support, and community engagement. It’s crazy in size and scope, while also being an interesting marriage of in-character roleplaying with out-of-character popular culture.
I have the good fortune of having rolled my characters on the “Roleplay-Supported” Landroval server when it was only known as being the “unofficial roleplay server,” and while I don’t actively roleplay in MMOs, I can certainly appreciate the space for doing so. At least on Landroval, it’s perfectly commonplace to see people roleplaying in the Prancing Pony at all hours of the day, as well as elsewhere in the open world. Moreover, LOTRO ticks most all of the boxes that are normatively associated with roleplaying systems. These features range from the game’s extensive player housing, to the above mentioned music system, and a whole lot of dev-run festivals and events. LOTRO even has fun non-combat skills that add to its roleplaying as a category, such as the Burglar’s Practical Joke, which makes everyone around them sneeze, or the Minstrel’s Irresistible Melody, which makes everybody dance.
Thematic World Building
I’ll never forget showing up at Tom Bombadil’s house for the first time after becoming hopelessly lost in the Old Forest. The quaint little dwelling with its delightful pipe music was a welcome and unexpected respite from the forest’s warren of dangers (I think the area has been streamlined a bit since then), and is one of the best video game adaptations I’ve seen produced from an existing piece of source fiction.
LOTRO has countless other examples of beautifully crafted regions that are inventive while still feeling thematically true to the original books, including the lights of Rivendell, the polished corridors of Thorin’s Hall, and the golden boughs of Lothlorien. Even Moria, which was admittedly a mess of a maze to get through when it first launched, is an amazingly detailed realization of the oppressive depths of Khazad-dûm. Turbine’s skill at world building within LOTRO sets a very high bar that few other MMOs are able to match.
There are several other things that LOTRO does very well, including its careful treatment of beloved NPCs and willingness to try out new systems, like mounted combat. The game also appears to attempt its very best with other older conventions, including quest hubs, hotbar combat, and traditional crafting. Furthermore, even though there are several systems that need work and streamlining - Legendaries, Traits, and the million different currencies come to mind - it’s clear that the developers are deeply invested in making a game that feels true to the stories that have inspired it.
Perhaps LOTRO’s greatest strength is its ability to balance its adherence to the source fiction while providing an experience that feels innovative and personal. On the one hand, the established setting can be seen as a boon, giving the developers a wealth of lore and background with which to create their ever-expanding world. On the other, it poses a particular challenge, as fans of the genre are always ready to critique anything that seems incongruous or anachronistic (for the record, I like Rune-keepers just fine). Turbine walks the line of tradition and innovation exceptionally well, and while I’d very much like to see an update to the game’s systems and visuals, I don’t think anyone can criticize the devs for how much they’re doing with tech that’s over eight years old.
What are some of your favorite things about LOTRO?