There is going to be a long and a short explanation to this. It helps to have some understanding of Tolkien’s “Middle Earth” mythology, namely the “Lord of the Rings” tales as indicated by the title of the game, but the game developers were granted possibly the most expansive rights of any Tolkien franchised media yet and allowed to venture into aspects of the lore barely mentioned in the book (a single line can become a playable area, which gives the game developers much scope for invention). All in all this means that to get the most from this game, at least in terms of story, it helps to go off and read more of Tolkien’s work (the encyclopedia’ish Silmarillion, is a tough read at first, but really does expand the world and characters you’ll be involved with in this game).
The short: You are one of many “Free Peoples” of Middle Earth following in the wake of “The Fellowship” as they set off from “The House of Elrond” to destroy “The One Ring” which was forged by “Sauron” in the fires of “Mount Doom” in “Mordor”.
The long: Although the above is ‘generically’ the case, your own adventure will take you to regions of the world barely touched by the Fellowship (if at all) and as such there is much more story than I’ll go into. As this is an MMO, each mission (or Quest) has it’s own story. These are presented in game as pop-up dialog boxes when talking to the relevant NPC and are generally well written, if sometimes a little bland.
There is a main adventure, but obviously with this being an MMO and the need to gain experience to Level Up great, there are hundreds (more likely thousands) of side-quests leading you off in all directions doing many things that are often unrelated to the greater scheme of things. The developers have also played with our flow of time and included Festival periods for Easter and Christmas and so on, all of which have their feet firmly planted within the Tolkien Lore.
Now, all this said, there are some REAL lore breaking aspects of the game, many of which are hugely debated topics on the official game forums and as such I’ll try not to go into them too much, however it’s worth mentioning here as if you’re a religiously dedicated Tolkienite, you may well take some grievance. If you’ve no idea of who Tolkien is, and most of the above reads as jargon to you, you’re going to have to do a lot of reading in this game in order to understand just who you are and what you’re doing. Therefore, those who will get the most from this game are going to be mid-to-serious fans of Tolkien’s stories, who will allow for the odd “twisting” of rules (RuneKeepers, I’m looking at you!) while enjoying the many references and call-backs to the original stories.
With all this said, the game is also littered with a great many Easter Eggs, we of DHG are known in game by another guise, you may have seen our Guild Banner flashing away at the head of the main page on this website (taking you to a wonderful forum that we’d expect you all to join!). Anyhow, I mention this as on our recent adventures we stumbled into a cave littered with blood pools and skeletons, which was home to a single white bunny. Those of you who recognise this call back can go and fetch the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch. Those who don’t should go and watch some Monty Python.
Unfortunately, because this game is an MMO, and they’re planning on dragging the story out in order to release multiple expansions, the story is progressing very slowly with an end nowhere in sight. There are quest-arcs that come to an end, but it’s pretty disappointing to be dragging our feet so slowly, trudging around at a terrible pace after the “real” fellowship. Especially when we all know the set-piece battles coming up, Helm’s Deep should, fingers crossed, be the new content some time soon… although likely there will be a lot of flower picking in Rohan before that.
Score: 7/10 – The interpretation of Tolkien’s work scores this highly, however the pace at which the story is being revealed is keeping the points low.
There is a really good feel to the sound in this game, packed full of atmospherics as well as mood-setting music. There is also the option for any character to purchase an instrument from a bard and make some player music of their own (and an option to turn off “player-music” in settings, so no worry about griefers!). This player made music can also be loaded up from a playlist, so if you’ve no musical talent, you can simply download the score from the web and be the musician you’ve always dreamed of being (although I don’t know that Middle Earth’s lute-guitarists would be considered “rock stars”). The player attacks and skills (special moves to non-MMO’ers) will usually have a sound associated to them, be it the grunt and swish of a sword, or the whistle for a horse mount (which until recently was kept in your magical satchel, which is capable of holding a limited number of goods, irrespective of size or quantity, while you’d think removing a horse [or goat] from your satchel would free up some space for some food and potions and the like, unfortunately not… the horse occupied exactly the space given over to just ONE type of food, or ONE type of potion. This has since been rectified [by making the “call mount” a skill instead of an item] the magical bag still can’t differentiate size from quantity. While this isn’t really a game-breaking issue, just a personal annoyance, it certainly doesn’t belong in the sound section of the review, and so I’ll stop talking about it now!)
As is expected with MMO’s, there is an in game voice communication system, however this could really use some work as I’ve always found both my transmit and incoming sound using this method is of poor quality in comparison to better, free external VOIP programs.
Also, the game could benefit greatly from the addition of voice-acting. Every so often an instance (this is a section of the game world cut off from the rest via a loading sequence, many “epic” storyline quests take place in such settings) will have a cool little voice introduction, delivered by Gandalf or Galadriel, which add to the immersion level. It’s almost a “must” to enable floating text (which act like speech bubbles, without the bubble, when a character talks) or else you can miss some quirky one-liners or even some interesting story events. This flaw is especially noticeable during a few quests when your main function is to bear witness to a conversation, all the while reading backwards and forwards between two characters and twiddling your thumbs. It can all get a bit boring.
Score: 7/10 – What there is, is done well, but there really should be much more in support of the story.
This game is, to steal a quote from Sannas, “One of the best looking MMOs out there, in my opinion”. Well, mine too actually Sannas.
The game environments are pretty ranging, there is the recognisable hills and hobbit-holes in the Shire, the ne’er-before seen ice tundras of Forochel, the deep, dank pits of Moria (an expansion unto itself, with varied landscapes within that ‘underground’ setting) and the woodland paradise that’s home to Galadriel’s elven kingdom. With other bits and pieces. All rendered highly and beautifully drawn.
As already mentioned, the game benefits from being able to draw on many influences for it’s artwork, a simple call back to the books or movies for inspiration.
There are some very recognisable faces, which make for some of the most anticipated boss fights (like battling a Balrog beneath the Rift in Angmar) and easily recognisable “big bits” (or small, like exploring the basement tunnels of Bilbo’s home in the Shire)
Character animations tend to be smooth and interesting, with some very neat graphical effects (RuneKeepers seem to be mentioned a fair bit, but check out some of those fire flares and ice blasts , and the LoreMasters lightning strike has a wonderful “white out” effect, not so good when ‘raiding’ but cool none-the-less).
Add to that a huge amount of choices in the player create screens, as well as the ability to visit a barber in game to change some of those looks, a long list of emotes, changeable pet skins, changeable soldier armour, cosmetic clothing and much, much more. This game is packed to the brim with cool graphics, so much so in fact that I’ve upgraded my PC twice in order to get the best out of this game, and I’m still not cut out for full whack!
One thing that would be nice to see would be within the Legendary Weapon system (which I’ll come to later), these weapons level up based on your dedication and usage of them. Why not have the graphical effects represent this. At present the weapons will glow with different colours depending on the damge type used, but the skin/texture is applied when the weapon is acquired and doesn’t change. A truly legendary weapon (something which plays a big part in Tolkien lore) should show it’s age, worn in scratches and nooks, even the greatest sword known to the Men of the North became nothing more than a shattered hilt. So what about it turbine, if I kill 10,000 orcs with my “legendary” hammer, can’t it have a bloodstain or two? If I’ve slotted “epic” relics into my greatsword, can’t they glitter and glimmer in the hilt or blade.
The only real issue I have in this section, holding it back from the 10/10 score, is the lack of cut scenes. Now, I know this isn’t usually an issue in a game like this, but there are some highly questionable choices made by the developers, possibly to “maintain immersion” but when the immersion is so skewed by the already poor sound (lack of voices) I don’t know why they choose to keep so many dialog section “in game” instead of jazzing them up a little with some decent visuals. The big thing here is the trailers for the game, many of which show great battle/fighting sequences, are nowhere to be seen in game. There is additional expense obviously, but for the big raid wins, or epic quest line… it’s my opinion that it’s something they should be investing in.
Score: 9/10 – Pretty much solid all round, but with a little more effort paid to the bigger sequences, this game could be a real show-stopper.
Gameplay really doesn’t break the mould, if you’ve played an RPG game before, you’ll know what’s going on here. If you’ve played any other MMO, you won’t find much surprising; except maybe the renaming of “groups” to “fellowships” and “guilds” become “kinships” in keeping with Tolkien Lore.
There are a couple of differences that mark this game out. Many quests (missions) take place in instances, which I’ve already touched upon. These can be “public” or “private” events, sometimes for a group, sometimes a raid, but what it means is the world around you can change. The most evident of this is the starter regions for men (and to a lesser effect elves and dwarves). Basically, because you start the game in an instance (a public one, in which you share your experience with other noobs) the world is presented to you in a certain way. Once you reach the end of the quest arch you go into an instance, but when you return you’re in the “real” world-map and the town you’d gotten used to in the introduction has been burned down. This is, however, the only occurrence I can recall that they’ve fully taken advantage of the instancing in such a way.
So, what of the actual playing of the game? Well, it’s your basic click here, press skill, do skill, kill mob, gain xp, loot, sell loot, buy armour… etc. It’s a proven formula and it is executed well, however the pacing of the story and content (which I’ll get to) do limit the possibilities of finding greater enjoyment in these activities.
There have been multiple tweaks to the game, depending on which version of our podcast and whether we can edit out the rage-feud, you’ll probably hear us talking about these. The developers can’t seem to help themselves; and there have been all in kinds of reasons given. In the name of balance, or playability, or usefulness, difficulty, enjoyment, “something we’ve always meant to change”… the list goes on. But it seems nothing is holy. Just when you get used to a new skill, possibly one that had only recently been added to the game, the developers will release a patch that changes the usefulness or power of the skill and you have to learn it all again. For those who read my “pre-review” rant, I mentioned I’ve not spent much time in the game recently, I also have six (I think it’s six) classes at max level. Since I’ve been gone, most if not all of those classes have had an overhaul, at least 3 or 4 of them have had a near complete makeover, changing pretty much all the skills in some way or another. I dread going back because I’m going to have to relearn my characters, and I’ve been playing for four years. These constant tweaks can really get in the way as they cause confusion for even the most seasoned players, it’s not a good way to keep a fanbase!
Now, I know I said the game didn’t break the mould of other MMOs, there are a few unique (at least I think they’re unique) features. The “skirmish” model allows solo or groups (of varying sizes) to jump into special instances from anywhere in the world. This is a great little system to break the monotony of awaiting late comers when pre-arranged quests or raids aren’t going ahead. However, because there is no “save” function in these instances, you can’t jump back in to the point you’d achieved, so if your absent friend does turn up to go raiding, you’re then forced to abandon the skirmish; the systems not perfect. But it does give some nice rewards and offers an alternative way of levelling your player. You also have a “soldier” for use in these skirmishes, and the only way to level the little guy (or gal) is to play the skirmishes. The more you do them, the tougher the guy gets. Unfortunately, the AI controlled soldiers are pretty dumb! I play a guardian, he’s the big heavy tank type, so as a soldier I took a healer. The issue is he start throwing out heals the second I go into combat and will use all his power (mana, spell-casting requirement) regardless of the difficulty of the fight. They have “power regen” skills, but even these they can’t use correctly. I’ve honestly seen the little moron use that as his first skill, when he has full power. It’s the kind of thing that makes your want to pound your mouse into the monitor. If they’re introducing a system like this, they either have to give you more control (like the dragon age combat techniques) or provide AI intelligent enough to cope with this type of game.
The other (main) reason to play these skirmishes are for the upgrades you can purchase for legendary weapons. I may have touched on these briefly (when discussing graphics) but they’re supposedly a big part of the game now. You acquire them at about the former level cap of 50 (although you can actually get your first one sooner than that if you pick up the quest at the minimum level requirement) and then gather “item xp” points on them from that point forward. You can only carry a limited number of these weapons and so you have to think carefully about which ones you want to level. They have specialised skills that buff your player/skill abilities in some way and some of these buffs are highly sought after. As I’ve already alluded to, I do like it as a system and it is wonderfully tied into the Tolkien lore, however there is something somewhat unwholesome about the whole thing. They are (in their lesser forms at least) easily obtainable, yet the likelihood to get one with all the “good” skills is pretty low, each skill on the weapon/item is then tiered (the lower the tier, the more xp points are needed to upgrade the associated buff). All in all, it’s pretty much a cheap way to get you to keep playing, to keep searching for that elusive “perfect” weapon. The trouble is when you do find it, chances are the developers will come in and tweak the abilities anyway, rendering all those days, weeks or months (and remember, I’m talking actual in game time) of hard work and searching worthless. Again; this kind of rage-inducing behaviour by the development team needs to stop, when there are so many other choices of game out there, they’re only pushing their audience towards those alternatives.
So, what of the End-Game content? Well, here’s the thing. I’m a big raid fan. I really do enjoy getting together with a group of friends and getting down to some really challenging content. What I don’t enjoy is grinding over and over again to acquire the components needed to get into these raids. I don’t enjoy having to spend months fighting the lesser bosses to kit out the entire raid group so that the final boss fight is possible. Sure, kit out the team to make the final fight “easier” or “more-achievable” but actually locking out players for that period of time… Here’s just one example, there is a raid boss that takes place in an instance (this instance is actually just the one final boss fight). The longer you take, the more “acid damage” over time is done. The only way to counter this is to have enough “acid resistance” to stand against that damage for long enough to get the thing killed. So you have to grind the lesser bosses over and over again, kitting out the raid group so EVERYONE has enough resistance. That’s 12 people, requiring at least 4 items of armour each. That’s at least 48 turns at those lesser bosses. This example isn’t actually the most time consuming either, in other cases the instance in which the “necessary” drops occur are locked down so it can only be done once per week; that’s 48weeks of grinding to achieve the “ability” to take on a final boss. That is assuming the group you take doesn’t change over that period.
Now, I know this is a general tactic used in MMOs to keep their player base playing, but seriously; we’re a little bit past these tactics 4 years into a game aren’t we? The player base is established, they’re not going anywhere, unless these tactics push them away, and the new “free to play” players aren’t going to be impressed with such a grind.
Well, that was quite a rant. So, what does this game do correctly?
I’m going to go over a couple of these points, and be as brief as I can, not because I don’t want to be positive, but because this review is clearly long enough!
The non-combat stuff in this game is executed pretty well. Seasonal events (those tying in to real life annual celebrations) offer some great alternatives to the regular “kill and collect” quests; horse races and scavenger hunts and such. Some of the rewards are cosmetic costumes, and this leads us on to the next thing the game does well. Clothing can be worn that doesn’t impact on your armour or statistics at all; this is done through the use of “outfits” and so the amount of character customisation goes on after the initial creation screen. Oh, and there is a barber in game so some other aspects of your character (hair, freckles, scars etc) can be amended after that initial screen (although it’s probably best not to ask why barbers in middle earth are able to perform restorative cosmetic surgery to remove old battle scars).
Those of you wanting to read something about the PvMP (that’s the player versus player mode) are going to want to keep reading into the content section.
Score: 8/10 – Regardless of the multiple complaints I’ve made, the game is very enjoyable and does get a lot right. Until you’ve played through a couple of times, many of the complaints won’t be noticeable and many other complaints are more to do with the MMORPG genre than “this game” in particular.
If you’ve read this far, you’ll have noticed I’ve mentioned the fact that the developers seem to be dragging their feet with the pacing of the story. With that said, they are pretty consistent with content releases and tweaks (although more recently the content has lacked in quality). Obviously, this game has been going for quite some years now, so a new comer is going to find a hell of a lot to do. So much so in fact that I personally have maxed out my character slots playing through “newbie” characters just to enjoy the wonderfully crafted early content. That leaves something to be said for the end-game stuff. Until very recently, the end-game had become a grind of repetitive completions of the same instances in order to gain tokens to purchase armour needed (and this is ‘needed’ in the utmost, meaning it was impossible without these armour pieces, not merely that it was tougher) for the opportunity to enter other repetitive raid instances. It was a gating system in the worst possible sense, slowing the progress of even the most dedicated gamers to a crawl. That said, it was an improvement on the former system, which didn’t have the generic tokens for all who took part, but a single token for one person, and in an unorganised group, there was nothing stopping somebody who already had the associated armour piece from acquiring the token again.
Now, there does seem to to have been some recent changes to remove this end game repetition, but there is still a major bone of contention when it comes to content and that word, dreaded and feared by even the hardest MMO fans, “the grind”. Something I (should have) touched upon in the gameplay aspect was the legendary weapon system, a wonderful idea, however just another way to grind, gaining XP for your weapon once you’ve already gained it for your character.
When the game was originally released, it had real, actual, playable and enjoyable content to last at least a year, and that was pretty much before you began playing through as a second character and experiencing an entirely new approach to the game (the difference between healer and soldier, tank and sneak, melee and ranged was vast). However as time has gone on the “difficulty curve” has been refocused, possibly due to the dwindling player numbers, most if not all of the early game can now be played purely as a solo experience. While this is good for those unable to find a party for that instance they’ve been waiting on, it doesn’t do much for the idea of a massively MULTIPLAYER game. And worryingly it seems to have had a knock on effect on the kind of player the game has. Previously there was such an emphasis on group play that a “tank” type was forced to know how to hold the aggro of a boss, or defend the squisher player type, the healer forced to know how to control his threat-generation. Now with this solo-player making his way through the game unaware of the true role of their character within a group, you have a new wave of elitism. Not only by those who think their character is awesome in and unto themselves (like me) but those who feel superior in their understanding of the game mechanics of a whole (like me). That and the elitism of the player who has achieved so much themselves “I’ve gotten this far without anyone telling me how to play my character, I don’t need advice now” can make for some ugly confrontations which were, until recently, relatively unheard of outside of PuG groupings.
Speaking of elitism, it’s probably time for me to talk about the PvP in this game. Well, there isn’t any; there is instead something called PvMP. Because the only way to play through the main game is as a “hero” or good-guy, there can only be spars between such player types. So when it comes to real player versus player action there is an opportunity to take on the role of a “Monster” and all this action is limited to one specialised region of the world. This means PvP and PvE will never really interact, which is of great relief to those who’ve experienced getting killed by a high-leveller when first starting out in some of those other games, and of great disappointment to those who find nothing as enjoyable as doing that kind of thing!
The PvMP system has great potential, players rank up and while this is just a title (and bragging rights) for the “hero” players, ranking up is how Monster players unlock their more powerful skills. Problematically though, this means Monster players are terribly under-skilled when they start out; to the dismay of many (the DHG team included) the solution to this was to take away the effectiveness of non-monster players, however many of these “nerfs” crossed over into the “actual” game. This is another one of those things that the “new” developments are trying to address. Let’s hope they get it right.
Score: 6/10 - This relatively low score is based on the schedule of content release and then the size of such releases, rather than the content that is currently in game. In my opinion it’s almost impossible to rate the current game content because you’re never quite sure when the developers will be in to change it!
Okay, I’m going to try to keep this brief, because, if you’ve read this much, I shouldn’t really have much more to say… wrong! I’ve said the important bits, though.
So, while this hasn’t been an overly praising report on the game, I do truly recommend it, especially since it has gone free to play now, there really is no excuse for any fan of RPGs, MMOs or Lord of the Rings not to give this game a try.
It has its flaws, but overall Lord of the Rings Online provides a generally pleasant and enjoyable experience, thoroughly absorbing it is easy to whittle away a few hundred hours with this game and still things to do within this depiction of Middle Earth.
Ry’s LotRO Score: 70%
Sannas’ LotRO Score: 76%