Much of the talk surrounding The Lord of the Rings the past two weeks has to do with the announcement that Amazon Game Studios will be working on the upcoming Middle-earth based MMO that was announced. For many this is exciting - finally a way to explore Middle-earth in a modern game. Because let’s face it: The Lord of the Rings Online is old. Having just celebrated its 12th birthday, Standing Stone Games’ epic MMORPG feels like its winding now as it makes way for a new contender on the scene. But don’t sleep on LOTRO just yet. In fact, if you’ve never played or merely only dabbled in LOTRO in the past, it might just be worth stepping back into Middle-earth for another adventure.
As a massive Lord of the Rings buff (my Twitter handle is LotRLore for a reason), LOTRO has always held a special place in my heart. I’ve played it since it launched and from 2007 through 2011 it was basically the only game I played. Sure, I dabbled in sports games, some Call of Duty with my brothers, but if I was playing something, chances are I was romping through what was, and still technically is, the most realized digital visualization of Middle-earth.
At the time The Lord of the Rings Online wasn’t the most visually appealing game on the market - let alone MMO. World of Warcraft still dominated the MMO scene and every single game in the genre tried to replicate that success from the ground up. LOTRO is no exception. The gameplay, skill and quest progression and more felt ripped right out of Azeroth at times.
Yet, what really made LOTRO compelling then as it still is today is the setting: Middle-earth.
Tolkien’s world is one of the most detailed sub-created universes in all of literature. The depths that the Professor dug as he mapped out his vision for his world was deeper than Durin’s folk in Khazad-Dum. Letters have been published, The Silmariillion was only the tip of the iceberg as Tolkien’s son, Christopher, has overseen the publication of the History of Middle-earth series, The Children of Hurin, The Fall of Gondolin, Beren and Luthien, and many more. This is a world so many of us have visited in our imagination - and then again thanks to Peter Jackson’s amazing trilogy.
SSG (at the time Turbine) had the daunting task of recreating the Middle-earth from the books, not the movies, and make it instantly identifiable.
There is something magical about running around The Shire as a Hobbit, escaping the your nosy neighbors as you deliver postage. Watching the sun set in the Elvish glade overlooking Woodhall only to see the Swordsman of the Sky, Menelvagor, appear bright over the edge of the world, his “belt shining bright” as Tolkien wrote in The Fellowship of the Ring, is an awesome experience as someone who loves those little details.
Indeed, that’s one of the major reasons to still explore LOTRO’s vision of Middle-earth - while the engine might be dated and the gameplay lacking compared to MMOs such as Final Fantasy XIV: Stormbringers or The Elder Scrolls Online, there is something still magical exploring all the nooks and crannies of Tolkien’s world.
And even though it’s visually dated, there is still some charm to the look of The Lord of the Rings Online. Standing in the field just outside of Bree, watching the flowers sway back and forth is calming, especially compared to the hectic battle camps nearby Orthanc later on in the main questline. Navigating the Paths of the Dead only to emerge on the southern slopes of the White Mountains, the Stone of Erech glistening in the distance is such a treat.
Indeed, there are areas we never heard of in the movies but avid book lovers will instantly recognize, such as the realm of Prince Imrahil, Dol Amroth - the Swan motifs near the Bay of Belfalas evoking the Teleri boats which were the finest before Arda was bent and Valinor hidden away.
Taking part in the massive battles of both Helm’s Deep and the Pelennor Fields is frustrating as you’re battling both enemy monsters as well as the game’s engine at times - something hopefully a switch to a 64-bit client fully rectifies in the coming months as that’s tweaked and iterated on. But battles of that scale, especially with the glistening Tower of Ecthelion beaming overhead is something I’ve always wanted to experience in a game. Also the outer wall of Minas Tirith is made with the correct material in LOTRO, something I’m sure the team went back and forth about given how iconic the fully white marble walls of Peter Jackson’s version are.
Players have been able to explore so many areas of Middle-earth throughout the last twelve years - form the frozen north of Forochel to the ashen wastes on the slopes of Orodruin. There is a ton to experience. The Lord of the Rings Online’s main story line deftly takes you to many of the iconic locations the Fellowship pass through - one of the most awe-inspiring early on was coming upon the broken Bridge of Khazad-Dum in the First Hall of Moria. I remember standing on the edge, looking down and seeing darkness, and then looking up and seeing nothingness and realizing at that moment how vast and empty the great Dwarrowdelf truly was. No other cave in any other game has been able to evoke this moment from me.
Wandering the Golden Wood of Lorien for the first time, recreating the meeting of Aragorn and Arwen, seeing the Mirror of Galadriel felt like a dream back when the heart of Elvendom on Earth was added to LOTRO. Venture down the Anduin and see the towering Argonath, standing vigil on the border of Gondor, their hands raised in defiance of the Enemy and it can evoke the same awe that was felt when Aragorn points them out to Frodo and Sam in the movies.
The Lord of the Rings Online is full of these moments, worth exploring every one. It’s been a game that has brought intimate stories with other parts of Middle-earth that have been lesser explored in media such as King Arvedui’s story in Forochel, or diving deeper into the story of the other Rangers who help Aragorn as he journeys south to war.
If you’ve never played The Lord of the Rings Online and are eagerly awaiting more information about Amazon’s series and game, LOTRO might just be the thing that soothes that Middle-earth itch in the interim. Until the new Lord of the Rings game comes out, LOTRO is by far the most realized version of Middle-earth in gaming - and well worth your time to explore if you’re looking to dive headlong into Tolkien’s Legendarium while you wait. What is your favorite spot in Middle-earth? How do you feel about SSG’s interpretation of Tolkien’s world? Let us know in the comments below!