A Look at the Looks of LotRO
The term "graphics" has been widely identified with a number of aspects of a game's engine and game play since the creation of the first coin-operated arcade machines. In the 21st century, the era of MMOs, we can identify some specific traits which correspond to a concise definition of what makes a game look good.
Modelling is the first step of creation and that leads to the general sculpted shape of sets, characters and weapons. The rigging and texturing allows for the characters to have a "skeleton" and a skin through which they can be manipulated into moving. Finally, the animation allows the movement, fighting and interacting between players and makes the game immersive. It is necessary for a development team to master all of these steps in order to make a game aesthetically pleasing to the public and, so far, LOTRO has done a tremendous job at keeping Tolkien's legacy not just in the storyline but also in mood and visual impact.
To be able to look at LOTRO as objectively as possible and be able to appreciate its graphical features, you must take yourself back to the first hours of interaction with the game. Yes, the game has improved since then, yet that first impression is the one that I regard as most genuine and true to what originally appealed to you.
The modeling itself must have been arduous work, yet you can appreciate the care and detail portrayed not only in the characters but also in the environment in which you play. All MMOs deal with factions, and each faction is unique in its look, feel and actions. Hence proportions had to be established and many races, such as hobbits, require adjustments made not only in housing and infrastructure but also in regards of weapons and clothing. If I were to choose the best-sculpted scene in the game it would have to be Bree Town, and it is not only for its size and busy mood but also for the tiny details in archways, décor, guild spaces and interior architecture. The only critique I would make so far is the rigid edges kept in some of the clothing, lamps and fountains especially. It is important to allow for some smoothness as light and texture seams will clearly show later on in the development process.
Now the texturing and lighting process is of the utmost importance to creating a realistic set up of whatever you are attempting to simulate. In the case of Tolkien's novel, the battle between the Dark Lord Sauron and the inhabitants of Middle Earth was purposefully contrasted in symbolic imagery in both the aura of the characters but also in the battlefields and the homes of the people involved. LotRO, in my opinion, has done the best job in keeping that emotion and tension throughout the game and engaging the players to recognize and sense land that is "safe" and land that is "hostile". The flickering candle lit interiors offer another great view of the simple rigging that allowed such an authentic feeling and how it directly affects the appreciation one gives to these places.
A suggested improvement would be directed more into the technical application of texturing and the use of "bump mapping". A bump map is an image the same size as your root texture file which tells how "deep" the shadows should be in the texture. The light is used therefore to create a sense of depth and grain on a certain object without modifying its actual geometric structure. The bump map contains black and white areas, black for "going in" and white for "going out". Going back to LotRO, we see many cases where bump maps could be used to enrich the architecture as well as some of the clothing. Bricks, wooden poles, roofs and walls are just some of the areas that can be given a bit of touch, especially with such good lighting going around.
And lastly, we have the animation practice which is the most complex and elongating of them all. From the very start the characters themselves showed quite a bit of personality, especially in their walks, and allowed for some good contact with the environment. I have played recent MMOs that have depended on their gameplay so much they forgot about putting some consistent effort into making these aspects work. For example, in one of these games, after gaining a helmet that I had been waiting for, it appeared that the character's hair would go through the model of the helmet and create this intertwining mess of geometry, as if the back of the helmet was going in my head. Of course I wrote a bug report and nothing got fixed, not a surprise, yet the animation field had some issues too. Shooting arrows was sometimes misleading as they would freeze in the air while being shot and sometimes late even with the damage reports on the hits.
On the other hand LotRO for me has been the most visually complex fantasy MMO I have ever played, with an abundance of benefices. Clothing follows movement on characters, the mounts have well founded offset motions, weapon actions are fairly varied and with no flaws or glitches and there is a great attention to detail such as the interaction of clothing to wind as well as the constantly moving sky. There is also a harmony in the synchronization of the sound with all sorts of actions from pure city life noise to a substantial battle depiction.
I have to say that having all of these layers upon layers of simulations works great in the context of this game. Even if you are walking alone in a city you still get a sense of action, of people chatting to each other and always up and about. It is as if no one ever sleeps, and it keeps you going. There are numerous aesthetic freedoms given to the player too, from selecting your own costumes and clothing to choosing a house and decorating it as you please. The artistic side adds complexity, but also flexibility and choice. It allows each of us to differentiate each other even more and create unique identities in this world where appearances can sometimes go unnoticed.