In the wake of Lord of the Rings Online’s latest expansion, Rise of Isengard, we decided it was high time to take another look at this popular free-to-play (F2P)/subscription hybrid MMO. While many folks seemed hesitant to give this one a try prior to the F2P conversion, the ability to enjoy 65 levels without ever paying a subscription cost means there’s little reason not to sample the familiar and rather beautiful world from the Lord of the Rings book series (and eventual movie franchise). And no, this one isn’t just for folks obsessed with the novels.
Without a doubt, LOTRO is one of the most visually appealing MMOs I have played in the last few years. While the character creation options are classic Turbine and highly reminiscent of Dungeons & Dragons Online (DDO), the world itself goes leaps and bounds beyond most F2P MMO options—including DDO, itself. The costumes here are more vivid and detailed, even if the character models and their customization isn’t quite as polished or as broad in options as the world might indicate at first glance. Not only are the cities for each of the four primary races of Middle Earth vastly different and intricately designed, but the quest lines and cinema events inspired by the series are unique and work to create a vivid glimpse of the storyline from character creation.
The human lands are a combination of rustic lodges and rolling hills or farmlands, whereas the dwarf areas feature snow-capped mountains and frozen lakes. The Shire has the classic circle doors which are a hallmark of the Lord of the Rings world, and the elven cities are ornate and beautiful while still looking timeless and one with nature. Obviously, the game designers took care to pay tribute to the details of this vast, familiar world not only for the sake of the Lord of the Rings fans who might try the game, but also players unfamiliar with the novels who still crave detailed, immersing environments. The soundtrack, sound effects, and voice acting within LOTRO aren’t the most impressive I’ve encountered, but they do enough justice to this visually appealing world to create an enjoyable package. You will encounter characters from the books and movie franchise, and the adaptation of those actors’ visage onto the characters within the game itself is done well considering the limitations imposed by the models.
LOTRO plays-out like most of the popular MMOs on the market: Lots of questing at the lower levels, followed by some epic raid options as you hit the end-game levels and plenty of ways to spend your time working on things like crafting, fun PvP and even player housing. But what really stands out with LOTRO is how much content to have access to without subscribing to the monthly “VIP” subscription service, at least for the first 20-30 levels of the game—not bad for a “free trial” worth of content. Your first purchase of Turbine Points grants you a Premium Account, just like with DDO, and two extra character slots. You also gain Turbine Points while leveling-up (albeit slowly, I grant you); though this ends up being something of a tease when you realize that 100 Turbine Points won’t buy you much in the store, it does add up over time.
One great feature which mixes-up things a bit is the implementation of the choreographed, cinematic scenes and missions. These transport you into the action or locations from the series, allowing you to interact with Gandalf or Strider among others. While this formulaic system might sound entirely unimpressive to non-fans of the series, the game is surprisingly engaging while questing thanks to the vivid, well developed storyline based on the franchise. I’ll admit, for years I incorrectly assumed the bulk of LOTRO players were just fans of the Lord of the Rings world who enjoyed being immersed in the culture, landscape and realms described within the books; imagine my surprise to realize the appeal of the game stems well beyond its famous origins, offering quite a bit to players who have never even seen or read the Lord of the Rings.
I would say that one area of LOTRO which shines above many similar systems out there are some of the bonus, optional and often overlooked elements: The crafting system, and even the player housing system, for example. There are seven crafting vocations, and each as three professions within that vocation, so there is plenty of opportunities to spend your time and hard-earned coin leveling up as a jeweler, tailor, cook, woodworker and more. As far as housing, it’s easy to navigate, customizable without being a maddening process, and the housing areas match the LOTRO world beautifully. This feature is optional of course, but it is a quaint, enjoyable element you can choose to enjoy or not. Additional storage makes it more functional than simply cosmetic, and it’s certainly a better feature within LOTRO than many rival F2P titles.
Monster Play came to F2P with the Rise of Isengard expansion, though you’ve only got one race to play with unless you hit the Turbine Store. Orc Reavers are certainly enough to give this version of PvP a try though, especially if you’re itching to slay fellow players. Monsters begin play at level 75, but you’ve got to gain Infamy (or Renown as the Free Peoples) to increase in Rank and thereby skills and overall effectiveness. I’ll admit there’s something terribly satisfying about wandering around as a Warg looking for Free People to tear apart. If PvP isn’t your thing, you never have to touch the “PvMP” (player versus monster player) system, but it’s a great way to break the monotony of quest grinding.
Unfortunately, LOTRO isn’t overwhelmingly innovative or revolutionary even with the application of the famous setting for the game. That isn’t to say the game designers aren’t keeping players on their toes, or continuing to produce stellar content; quite the opposite really, and the success of the Rise of Isengard expansion is proof of that. Still, while the aesthetics are very nice all around, questing to level-up is repetitious by its very nature, and LOTRO is pretty standard when it comes to the level grind. One thing which is a welcome change from questing is the Skirmish system option in which you are transported into an instanced battlefield to face waves of foes while claiming control points. While you can solo in this mode, it is one feature which is much more fun in a larger group.
As far as the classes available, the options in LOTRO are varied and specialized enough to be enjoyable, without really standing out much in the sea of options elsewhere in the MMO world. Each race receives special benefits or weaknesses, but honestly I would have enjoyed more customization in each specific class, especially towards the level 65 F2P cap, though the increase to 75 has introduced quite a few more options to players. With Rise of Isengard, a new 24-player raid was introduced along with the other new perks, but honestly while it’s new to LOTRO it isn’t new in the MMO scene.
When it comes to Polish, I have certainly encountered far worse than LOTRO. The interface is rather user-friendly and easy to understand and navigate, and naturally the Turbine Store is highly accessible. I found that interaction with NPCs was highly responsive, and in combat monsters reacted the way I would have expected—no problematic delay, few line-of-sight issues, and good reaction time for my button mashing. Like DDO, LOTRO does allow for quite a bit of tactical combat especially within a group, and even more so in the latter raiding levels. The map is great for locating quest givers, recipients and objectives, though I found it to be fairly useless long-range despite the zoom in/out feature; you might actually have to read the quest objectives on this one to figure out exactly where that far arrow is indicating.
LOTRO has already seen three major expansions and the 4-year anniversary of the original launch, plus a successful conversion from pay-to-play (P2P) to a F2P version with a subscription option. Not bad, considering this MMO has something of a mixed reputation within the gamer community. According to a statement from Turbine, Rise of Isengard is the most successful expansion for LOTRO to date, which seems to indicate interest in this F2P/P2P combination is only increasing with time. The forums are highly active, and there are plenty of websites full of information on quests, crafting, raid tactics and more. If an active, growing community is a sure sign of an MMO’s longevity, LOTRO is definitely on the safer side of the spectrum. As long as Turbine keeps the quality expansions and new content coming, I don’t foresee LOTRO disappearing from the MMO map anytime soon.
If you’re familiar with the Lord of the Rings world, you probably won’t be surprised to know that LOTRO is a rather social game. Kinships—the in-game Guild system—are taken pretty seriously, and the community seems to take a lot of pride in their guilds. That same community is very active on both the official LOTRO forums and various unofficial networks, so there are plenty of opportunities to find a Kinship or simply an assortment of in-game allies without dragging real-life friends onto the game. However, I have to admit there are a whole lot of reasons to do so, especially since LOTRO gives you plenty of free content to experience at least the basic features of the game, and volumes more if you decide to subscribe or purchase individual upgrades.
As far as free content goes, LOTRO offers a fair amount compared to other F2P titles out there—and it comes with nice graphics, a highly popular world inspired by an epic franchise, and the option to pay-as-you-go rather than only a flat-rate subscription fee. More than a few players opt to buffet-table their Turbine Point purchases, rather than to go VIP indefinitely, which is great for customizing your experience to fit your budget. Don’t want to spend a dime? Then don’t—the free level cap of 65 is pretty generous in terms of content and play-time available before you have to even consider grabbing your credit card.
If you do decide to subscribe to VIP, then LOTRO unlocks to a vast, complex and very satisfying amount of options. You gain two additional class options, scores of quests, the level 75 cap and more. The Rise of Isengard expansion also comes with some fun bonus freebies, three new areas to explore, and enough content to provide quite a few more hours of activity if you’ve previously seen or done everything. The mail system and auction house become entirely available, rather than the limited versions for free and premium accounts, plus you land 500 bonus Turbine Points a month for your shopping pleasure.
The Road Goes Ever On and On…
My journey into Middle Earth via LOTRO was a pleasant one, and I am still surprised by how much this MMO impressed me and captured my attention. Taking a look back at other F2P titles I have devoted hours on over the past year, I feel silly for not giving LOTRO a try sooner; this is definitely one worth taking a closer look at, especially if you want all the bells and whistles with a subscription and a visually appealing world to go along with them.
The addition of the new realms with the Rise of Isengard expansion, additional instances, plus the 24-man raid and the addition of Monster Play to the F2P roster really upped the overall value for LOTRO for both subscribers and free players, and I feel the expansion is well worth picking up in any of the three packages available. Enjoyment of this MMO certainly isn’t limited to ravenous fans of the franchise, table-top gamers, and other classic gamer “nerds”. I dare say, there’s a little something for most of us with in this virtual Middle Earth.