The Lord of the Rings Online is an MMORPG which has been running for around 4 years now. For those of you who don’t know what an “MMORPG” game is, it’s pretty essential you understand what it is before reading this review – so I’ll take a little time out to explain the concept. MMORPG means Massively Multi-player Online, Role Playing Game; this is a game which is set in an online universe which sets is central crux around being an RPG. Possibly the most widely known MMORPG (which you may have heard about) is World of.. Nope I can’t say it.
So, now you get an idea on what I’ll be talking about for the next.. 3hours of your life? No seriously, I’ll try not to make it that long… I promise.
For those of you who haven’t heard of The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R Tolkien – please hit the back button on your browser, this game probably isn’t for you. No. Seriously. Please just go. Read another review – I hear Sannas’ Portal 2 review is now live, you may enjoy reading that one. The Lord of the Rings IP is massive, Tolkien created an immersive large world of fantasy which readers can slip easily into while reading the books and to an extent watching the films. What Turbine aimed to do with The Lord of the Rings Online is create this expansive universe and translate the Tolkien story onto an online Middle-Earth playing field.
The way Turbine approaches story in LotRO is by leading your character down an “epic main-story” arc. Like other MMO’s currently on the market, LotRO has other “world quests” which are divergent from the epic quest line. These world-quests keep your XP bar flowing and make the leveling process a swift and easy process; these quests can fall under the “kill X amount of enemies, pick up Y amount of goblin spears and return Z amount of grass blades to me”, to the more immersive story arcs which generally accumulate in an instance- a phased area of the online world which you can enter solo, part of a duo team (2), in teams of six (6), twelve (12) or twenty-four (24).
The main epic story arc tends to signify which region you should be questing within, as it leads you through the parts of Middle-Earth accessible to your character and tends to halt at parts where your’ character would need to gain more XP before continuing on. When LotRO was first released the main epic story arc consisted of around eleven (11) books, each book can range from having around 7-18chapters in it, in an attempt to make the books expansive in the content you will see while following them through. What Turbine does well is capture Tolkien’s lore and appetite for story in these epic “book” quests, they capture the essence of the books very well- pinging your character from one recognizable Lord of the Rings character to another, in ways which lore nerds are unable to contend to not fit in with current LotR lore.
At least, thats what happened at the launch of the game. Unfortunately since the first paid for expansion (and maybe a little bit before that) “The Mines of Moria” the story started to curveball off into directions you wouldn’t quite expect. Due to the licensing agreement Turbine has with the IP, they are able to expand on areas only previously mentioned in LotR lore by a minuscule amount. While this could be construed as a good thing, my experience in-game has taught me otherwise. Whereas its very nice at the time, for the developers to release these epic “book” expansions with new areas for your characters to explore- these areas quickly become overcome with bored players picking flowers and singing to trees.
Quite honestly, my main gripe with the route the story has been taken since launch is that the story doesn’t seem to be following the natural progression already set out by Tolkien. In my view the story seems to be stalling and Turbine are looking for ways out of potentially lore-breaking situations in which they seem to be too incompetent to handle. Our characters need to be heading towards Gondor/Rohan or even Mordor. To put it simply, I’m a Lord of the Rings fan. I’ve read the book(s). I know where the story goes and I now feel like a naughty child in the back of the car saying “when are we going to get there?” and my parents turning around and replying “soon son, we’re just taking a quick detour to Forochel and then maybe a quick look around Mirkwood.. but we’ll get their soon.. at some point..”
To cover the sound or music in any MMO game would normally be a vast undertaking, due to the world being much larger than the majority of single-player and co-op games currently on the market for fans of this particular IP. But I feel that with Lord of the Rings, we already have a benchmark. I would guess the majority of people looking to play this particular MMO due to it’s IP, would have watched Peter Jacksons film adaptation of the novels. From these films we can already grasp a sense of scale within the music and sound. The films had been released before the game was launched therefore the fans coming to play LotRO due to its IP could be quite well expecting the same amount of quality from the game that they got from the films.
Saying this, do I think they managed to meet the films on that particular level? Probably not. But they’ve got as close as they can within the confines of a PC game. The diversity in the music really lends itself to the differing personalities of the various regions you can now visit while ingame. Visiting “The Shire” brings a very different “music mood” to what you would get while delving into “The Mines of Moria” or searching out Galadriel in “Lothlorien.” There are different music moods from when you’re in a crafting area to when you’re stood talking to Barliman Butterbur in the Prancing Pony. This really helps delve you into the immersive Lord of the Rings experience. This also helps to identify what sort of area you are in, by just hearing the familiar tune of the crafting area, as the sound and music you hear when you’re within a crafting area tends to be similar throughout the game.
In addition to the overarching music, we have a minimal amount of voice-over on some of the “book” characters. Throughout the epic book quests, there are times where your character will complete an instance or a mission and the game will then cut to a short cut-scene in which you’ll be shown a quick video, usually with Gandalf narrating it and telling you the state of affairs currently within Middle-Earth. This is good quality VO, I do however wish they had involved more of this VO within other quests as currently there is a very limited amount of VO ingame. As well as the narration by Gandalf we have the repeated VO on some of the NPC characters, which your character will interact with – IE. “How can I help you today” these once again are well done but very limited and particularly annoying when every NPC you click on says it too you.
I could go on and on about how visually stunning, I think Lord of the Rings Online is. However that would make for a particularly long and boring read, so lets start with what I think Turbine are doing correct, with the graphics in LotRO. I’ve seen this game in low graphics all the way up to extreme high graphics- due to different computer specs I’ve had since the game launched- and at both points I’ve continued wanting to play the game, so even though I think the graphics are stunning in LotRO, I do not think they’re a game breaker/ maker, at least for me they’re not.
I’ve been impressed with Turbines relentless need to continually upgrade the graphics each year with a new release of DirectX- the game was released when DirextX 9.0 was what we were all using and now four (4) years on the game is compatible with DX 9/10&11.
As mentioned in the story section, Turbine have had a fantastically vast license to delve into areas previously unknown to the fans. Due to this, Turbine developers have really had the chance to put their own mark on Tolkien’s Middle-Earth. From the recognizable Bag End to the relatively unknown plains of the North Downs, the developers have had a fantastically deep amount of lore and art to draw upon while creating these areas. I think the films having been out a few years earlier, really helped with the release of this particular MMO. Peter Jacksons films managed to visualize the book(s) onto the big screen, where people were able to see the books they had been imagining in reality. The game moves that feeling on, you’re now in that world which you’ve imagined and then seen in the films and you can walk around, explore the towers of Rivendell, walk through Hobbiton and scale the Misty Mountains. One of the first things I did with in game with a fellow Hunter (I’ve played a Captain since launch) is run through the entire game, see all the sights, do the exploring which the game naturally presents you with.
The reason we did this, is because we HAD read the books, we HAD watched the films and we really wanted to see Turbines view on these iconic locations. Turbine has really managed to toe the line, of keeping in line with the lore and artwork already set out and putting their own graphical and artistic stamp onto the franchise. Alongside all of the environmental graphics, Turbine has put a lot of effort into the armor and weapons you can equip to you character. On ultra-high graphics you can pretty much see every stitch in your tailor made armor, your weapon could have an “un-earthly” glow to it, the color dictating the weapons “type.” Although they’ve put a great deal of thought and effort into the armor/weapons I can’t help but think they’ve skimped out on the character creation. Unfortunately it isn’t an uncommon feature within the game to find someone who has the same exact character features as you do- which is particularly frustrating in a game of this scope and especially considering the wide variety of sources that characters could have descended from within the Tolkien universe. A larger and more robust character creator would really lend itself well to the world already created.
I can’t help but think that the reason their isn’t a more robust character creator is down to the the hardware Turbine has in place. But I’ll get to that in due time.
For the majority of my gameplay experience my character has been a Captain. The Captain class is very much a “hybrid buffer” class, for those of you not used to general MMO conventions this means that just by being in the fellowship (or group) the Captain will significantly increase your groups overall damage and healing as well as filling the slot as a secondary healer or tank. Unless you’ve played a Captain throughout the game; and experienced every aspect the game has to offer then unfortunately I would say to you that you do not understand how to play the Captain class.
The gameplay for a Captain can start off rather slow. As a Captain you are pigeonholed into choosing either a female or male human race; due to the fact that the Elves, Dwarves and Hobbits are unable to be a Captain. This has an impact on where you start in the game, as a Human you start in the small town of Archet, which is east of the well known town of Bree. The reason I say the Captain starts quite slowly is due to the amount and type of skills given to you at the beginning of the game- you will be waiting on your skill cooldowns if solo’ing through the starting area and if you join a DPS class you’ll be unlikely to get more than one of you skills off before an enemy is dead. This can lead to a boring beginning to a good game – something I’ve seen turn people off from playing through the rest of this intrepid MMO quite a few times. I will say though, that Turbine have gone back (since I played through with my Captain, many many moons ago) and re-addressed the starting area for all classes and added a lot more content and generally made the content flow together a lot quicker. This leads to shorter downtimes and quicker leveling through that first set of levels.
It’s around level ten (10) that your character and indeed any character will start to make headway with your skills and epic quests. Unlike other popular MMO’s, The Lord of the Rings Online doesn’t really offer much variance in a characters skill tree. If you want to be the classic “bow & arrow” character your only choice is to play a Hunter, if you want to be a lore-breaking magician with a satchel full of tricks you’ll need to play a Runekeeper (something you can’t do unless you purchase the “Mines of Moria” expansion) and if you fancy running into a fight beard first with a large shield in front of you, your’ only real choice is the Guardian. There is very little hybridization within the classes themselves and this leads to multiple run throughs of the game and people becoming “Alt-a-holics” just so they have one (1) of each class at max level. However with the story exactly the same on each run through, it can quickly become a tedious and boring “min-maxing” experience.
The captains combat is mainly based on two (2) handed weapons with the possibility of using a one handed weapon and a small shield. These two options lend themselves to two (2) different unique gameplay options, while playing this class. Unfortunately for Turbine one (1) quite obviously works much better than the other, if you want to off-tank as a Captain it would be ideal to use the second of the two options however impractical due to the lack of “force-taunt” abilities. Meaning as a Captain you need a two-handed (more DPS) weapon to help grab and continually hold the agro of the enemies. Saying this, a Captain makes for an excellent “kite tank” and if you particularly enjoy that sort of class you may enjoy the captain. The captain also has the option to use “standards” or a “herald” for extra buffs, whereas the standard costs allot to replace on the battlefield, it is stuck in one place (until you move it) and cannot be killed. A herald is a pet-class which will move and fight with your character, unless instructed not too.
I find the Captain gameplay mechanics enjoyable if a little limited and I can see that an outsider may see the Captain as a slow and boring class throughout the game.
Immersion breaking gameplay mechanics include small nitty gritty things such as a Hunter’s arrow following a target, when in Tolkien’s world its unlikely that they would do so- unless they were the work of a Wizard. Such things like this seem a little silly and genuinely immersion breaking while playing the game in a group. I won’t even mention why the Runekeeper breaks Lord of the Rings lore and therefore breaks the immersion while in game, I’ll leave that one for you to find out yourselves. 😉
I mentioned earlier in the graphics section of this review (if you skipped over it, just jump back up and read it, I’ll wait for you to finish before continuing….) that I felt the character creator was probably limited by Turbines technology and hardware it has at it’s disposal. I’ll expand on this point a little more, if you look around the online Middle-Earth, you’ll find very little fights which include more than say twenty plus (20+) enemies you will need to fight at once. This is due to the fact that on a “regular joe” computer, the gameplay just cant handle more than that without starting to lag out. The servers that they have (in my opinion) just cannot handle the stress of large scale battles. Now, saying this, I believe that the reason they’ve kept the character creator AS limited as it has become is due to trying to keep server stress as low as they can by not having to render a large amount of different faces when your character moves around the online world. It is also my belief that this is why Turbine have continually stalled the story in places which have little relevance to the Lord of the Rings experience until they have the correct resources to push the story forward into these large “epic” encounters, such as Helms Deep and Minis Tirith.
But I still hold out hope for a better character creator in the future; as just recently EVE Online released a new content update entitled “EVE: Incursion” which brought with it an entirely new character creator, where you got to go entirely over your characters features! So I’ll keep my fingers crossed and pray to The Valar that it get’s included soon!
Content in this game is vast, large and sometimes particularly monotonous. Although I’m sure I could say that about a large amount of the MMO’s currently in today’s market. The one thing I believe keeps LotRO afloat currently is the IP and the fact that the game seems to have revived itself from the bottom of the endless stair to the top of the Isengard tower by releasing its Free-to-Play functions. This means that players can now create an account, download the client and play through the first fifty (50) levels of The Lord of the Rings Online completely FREE. Or so Turbine says. I wouldn’t say it’s completely free, unless you genuinely want to grind mobs for fifty (50) levels, you will probably need to purchase the quest and area packs from the new Turbine ingame store.
For me the best content within LotRO is the community driven content. I certainly wouldn’t have played Lord of the Rings Online as long as I have, if I hadn’t have found the correct kinship (guild) at the correct time. A few months in after the initial launch of the game, my interest was flagging and realistically looking back the only reason I was still playing was due to my apt purchase of the “Lifetime Sub” meaning I wasn’t paying monthly subscriptions that I could cancel. At this point I joined a kinship which has kept me interested in the game for far longer than is healthy! Getting to endgame at level fifty (50) had so many interesting challenges such as fun and complex raids, a great economy fueled by a good crafting system, a reasonably good (but rather boring) deed log and some smaller but interesting area expansions in addition to a small but fun PvMP (Player Vs Monster Player) area. Sadly this seemed to disappear with the launch of the first paid for expansion “The Mines of Moria”.
As you may have guessed from the title of the expansion, Turbine introduced us to a new large region within the Mines of Moria (you know.. that dark place in the films which the fellowship encounters “CAVE TROLL.”) With this update they released a gating system for raids, which I can now report they’ve admitted was a mistake and taken back and made the crafting systems almost completely useless. They also provided us with some uninteresting and “must-farm” instances, so that the community could access some unchallenging and uninteresting raids; which you could only do if your character had certain pieces of gear. This update signaled the fall from grace for this particular MMO. The content they started releasing was lousy and seemed like they’d spent as little as much time creating it. Subs began to fall and people genuinely lost interest in playing The Lord of the Rings Online.
With the utter failure of the second paid for release in which Turbine opened up the Mirkwood area for characters to explore; they seem to have turned it around. Implementing the new F2P aspect and now realizing that they need to move the story forward and reinvent some of the content they had in originally, they seem to be moving forward to the next update which is set to be based in and around the Isengard area. Finally some action! The possibility of combat and finally bringing some of the story back into the game seems to have some fans in a frenzy and I for one cannot wait to see what content they release with this next update.
Another gameplay feature which I haven’t touched on yet is the newly improved Legendary Weapon system, which Turbine introduced with the Mines of Moria update. I am not and haven’t been a fan of this system since it was introduced. It has made it almost impossible to have the best weapons/gear in game unless you are able to competitively raid with a fixed group of people week in and week out. The early game has now been made so easy that you are almost incensed to solo your way through to max level, however once you hit the max level you then need to play group work if you want to have a chance at being half-decent with your character. Due to them messing the crafting system up there is no other way of getting the best armor in the game other than by participating in the raids. The legendary weapons have the same problem, the items you need to craft these weapons can realistically only by achieved through group work aswell. The Lord of the Rings Online has gone from being a casual and hardcore friendly game to being a very much hardcore specific endgame. Sorry casual fans, but you may get bored of the endgame very quickly.
Even with all of the bad aspects which I have pointed out, I still enjoy my fleeting moments in game. The Lord of the Rings IP has me hooked into the MMO which I don’t really enjoy anymore. I do feel that Turbine are switching it back around and now with the focus on moving the story forward into regions the players actually want to see and the fact that they’ve ungated the raids, brought in the Skirmish ability and hopefully will return crafting to its previous glory!
The game is by no means an AAA MMO such as other well known MMO’s, but under new leadership Turbine seems to be slowly realizing its mistakes and moving forward in an admirable fashion to where I feel it should be; and lets face it they’ve got the IP licensing rights until 2017, so they’ve got plenty of time to get the game up to standard. I just hope it comes a little faster than that!
Even though I’ve scored each individual section relatively low, my overall score is going to be quite high. This is due to the fact that I do enjoy the game and I feel they are now going in the correct direction. Hopefully this high score will incense you into playing the game and seeing what you think of it yourself. If you do, play a Captain. They’re awesome!