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.
Character Creation - The Weakest Link
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.
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
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.