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Hands On: First 10 Levels

Dana Massey Posted:
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Innovative? Not really... Immersive? Yes... Fun? Definitely.

Turbine demonstrated complete confidence in the quality of their product when they hosted a press event in San Francisco, CA last week. Typically, companies invite the gaming press by for a speech, a disk full of assets, a round of interviews and a few brief minutes playing the game. Turbine cast off that trend when they simply opened a room full of terminals in the downtown Metreon and let us play as long as we wished. I spent seven hours in Middle-Earth with my Hobbit Burglar and began to get an idea of what the latest launch from Turbine is all about.

For all the criticisms and accolades to come, the bottom line is that when playing Lord of the Rings Online I lost all track of time, food and my notebook. The experience is immersive, polished and compelling. That is not to say everything was positive, but only that this game has the makings of a highly addictive product.

Character Creation - The Weakest Link
Things did not get off to a good start. Character creation didn't impress me at all. The graphics are very beautiful, but for a AAA title, the characters themselves seemed like they were a generation behind. There were no morphing (sliders that allow you to change the size and shape of different body parts and facial features) options in the version we played and according to Turbine CEO Jeff Anderson, they will not be adding them, save a slider for the character's girth. This means that the character's face will be done Mr. Potato Head style. Players chose from a predefined set of nose, eyes, hair styles, etc. Even for these, they still head a long way to go - at least on my Hobbit - since the options were lacking or yet to be implemented.

The hair also immediately turned me off. Compared to the use of cloth in EverQuest II, these were nothing. They were flat, wooden and uninteresting. I made my Hobbit bald and luckily players will typically be wearing helmets.

On the plus side, character creation modified the look of the character based on which part of the Shire I said he was from. For each character, there is a drop down of regions to pick. Most games have this, but rarely is this more than a neat ripple. In LotRO the choice visibly changes the look of the character's face.

Visually Impressive
Graphically, Lord of the Rings Online is like EverQuest II with a hefty dose of art direction. The characters are the same polygon laden fare and clearly, Turbine slanted a bit towards realism over fantasy. Yet, for all its polygons, SOE never captured people's hearts with EQII. It looked like plastic Barbie dolls in a fantasy theme park. Turbine did a much better job, despite the weakness of character creation, and definitely made me believe I was in Middle-Earth. The environments were believable and occasionally breathtaking.

More impressively, Turbine had to run a balance between recreating the books and not ripping off the movies, to which they do not hold a license. They succeeded in every way. Lord of the Rings Online looks something like what I saw in my head when I read the novels and is close enough to the vision presented in the movies that those who never read the books will feel equally at home. A perfect example is their Gandalf avatar. No one can say that he looks just like Ian McKellan. He looks like Gandalf and I expect that will be true of those who read the books, watched the movies or did both.

Another neat trick is the concept of Dread. This is a negative area-effect debuff that hits player characters when they're in close quarters with great evil (dark riders, nazguls, etc.). In the tutorial, my character was accosted by a dark rider and not only did it hurt his skills, it also transformed the screen. The fringes turned red, the vision hazy and sound changed. They did a good job of representing fear without making me dizzy.

The world is not without artistic flaws. As mentioned, the player characters need some work and the world does have a host of bugs and errors as would be expected in any beta, but these are things I can overlook if they get the feeling right. Turbine has.

Early Game and Quests - Getting my feet wet
Harbor no illusions. Lord of the Rings Online is not an exercise in innovation. It's a game designed to be immediately familiar to those who play MMORPGs like World of Warcraft and honestly, the experience at low levels did not seem immediately dissimilar to that game. The user interface, for example, is definitely a cousin of what Blizzard did. The upside is that in Lord of the Rings Online, MMOG fans should instantly know what to do, while fans of the films or books should not have much trouble picking it up. Turbine hopes that the differentiation comes from their setting and a few choice features along the way.

The tutorials screamed Lord of the Rings, but may also have been the weakest part of the gameplay experience. Turbine knew that most people would understand how to play the game and made their tutorials more about reminding the player that they're in Middle-Earth. As a Hobbit, I got to see a dark rider searching the Shire for someone with some tiny fugitive (I wonder who that could be?) and immediately ran against some evil. However, it never really told me what to do. They gave me a knife to fight with, but didn't show me how to equip it and I ended up unsure whether it was even in my hand before Anderson finally showed me how to get the knife in my hand. In the Dwarf tutorial I did later, I never even found my newbie weapon. That is a bad sign since I imagine most new players won't have the CEO seated beside them.

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Dana Massey