The beta test for The Lord of the Rings Online has been taking up most of my time lately, so the lifting up of its NDA is one mega-fucking-weight off the old ginger shoulders let me tell ya. Spending so much time with this damn thing yet not being able to mutter a single word has been like getting to bang a porn star, providing you don't cum.
|The MMO we all forgot about has been progressing pleasingly behind closed doors. Far from a hardcore game, with a similar ease of use and pick up 'n' play feel to that found in - you guessed it - World of Warcraft, I've been putting it through its paces in beta form these past few weeks|
The game's still a few months out at this point - the release date currently stands at April 24th I believe - but smack bang here in the middle of February it's surprisingly stable and polished I must say. The occasional crash aside, it feels pretty damn releasable actually, and in my experience many an MMO has launched officially in far worse a state than this. Whether you take my scribbles as a full-blown review or not then, is your prerogative, but I personally can't imagine a whole lot changing within the next two months.
Here we are anyway. After a decade of your Meridian 59s, your Everquests and your World of Warcrafts, the one license to rule them all now has its own official massively multiplayer tie-in. I think it's fair to say that pretty much every single fantasy MMORPG - scratch that...fantasy game, period - has essentially ripped off the Lord of the Rings series in some form or fashion at some point, so as a result, yet another
game choc-full of goblins, dwarves and big fuckin' castles may not feel particularly fresh or original...but hey! At least it ain't shamelessly derivate for once.
What Star Wars is to sci-fi, Lord of the Rings will forever be to the fantasy genre one could say, so an MMO built from the ground up around this most enduring of licenses certainly has a fair amount to live up to though. To cut straight to the chase, developers Turbine play it safe as a result; rather than strive for originality, innovation, and cutting-edge concepts never before seen in the massively multiplayer online space...they've essentially just given us World of Warcraft - The Tolkien Remix.
I mean that quite literally. Pretty much every single facet of this game - whether it be the questing system, the controls, hell, even the graphics - is rather shamelessly, and cohesively, nabbed straight outta WoW. On first booting the sucker up in fact, you'll be hard-pressed to tell 'em apart. It really does feel like the damn thing was separated at birth from Blizzard's all-powerful money spewer, only with a fresh lick of Lord of the Rings paint slapped straight on top. Is that such a bad thing though?
No, as it turns out.
License to Thrill
Before you get too sticky in the crotchal region, there is one minor catch. LOTR Online is the official tie-in of the original Tolkien books
, not the recent Peter Jackson movies. If like me, the flicks are what made you a fan of this series - not reading humungous bibles of text about pipe-weed - this is worth noting, as the sights and sounds on offer in LOTR Online aren't plucked directly outta the films like you'd expect. This is a bit of a blessing in disguise however, as with EA currently holding all rights to the films in video game form, we may well have escaped a fate worse than The Sims Online by leaving them outta the equation.
To be honest, Peter Jackson did such an admirable and faithful job adapting them books to the big screen anyway, LOTR Online still bears more than a passing resemblance to the flicks regardless. Sights like Rivendell, the Shire, Bree and their many friends, may not be carbon copies of those we saw at the cinema, but their essence and style certainly shines through still.
|A huge part of this game are its instances. Many are totally solo-able - which makes for a nice change - with AI characters tagging along to help you out. Like this guy. Who err, looks a little familiar. What say you, Turbine lawyers?|
Developers Turbine are even a little cheeky on this front, arguably crossing the copyright line here and there as well, with famous characters looking almost identical to their film-like counterparts, and even the odd somewhat hilarious steal in the combat animations too. My elven archer for instance, has a special move in which he whips out an arrow from his quiver, physically stabs an enemy in the face with it, then fires it from his bow into their head. Legolas, much?
Which leads us onto arguably one of LOTR Online's greatest accomplishments...just how sodding well it utilizes this license. Unlike say, Star Wars Galaxies - which kinda see-sawed from doing absolutely fuck all with the Star Wars universe, to leaning stupidly heavy on Jedi lore to a humungous fault - LOTR Online is far more effortless and stylish with its subject matter. This is
Middle-Earth, from the rolling hills of The Shire, to the deep, dark mining quarries of the dwarves, to the beautiful yet crazy Elven architecture of Ered Luin. Turbine have clearly scoured every passage and every footnote of every Tolkien book in alarming detail, 'cos not only are all the big places from the flicks present and correct, but entire outposts, villages, hell, even bridges mentioned only in passing all appear too.
Geographically, it's all a little streamlined of course. Treks that took weeks in the books and flicks are do-able in simple 10 minute long auto-runs while you pop off for a piss here - but as a game world, it's so ludicrously fleshed out and detailed, you feel like you could live in the fuckin' place.
The original title of this game - Middle-Earth Online - would have been a far more appropriate one with that in mind. This thing really is about far more than just that fuckin' ring...it's Middle-Earth itself, and it's just as you always imagined it.
You Shall Not Passssss!
|Middle-Earth is more than done justice here, with huge, explorable areas, and beautifully rendered views straight outta the books|
Well, almost. The game as it stands now - as solid and polished as it is - is hardly one of the biggest MMOs around. Pulling up your world map, you're initially floored at the immense size and scale of the thing...until you realise only the single region of Eriador is actually playable out of the box. Encompassing the Shire, the Misty Mountains, Rivendell and a whole lot more, Eriador is no slouch in terms of content, but the likes of Rohan, Minas Tirith, and even big bad Mordor itself aren't available for launch. Such areas are promised as later additions in the form of updates (and good old money grabbing expansion packs), and the game does feel very modular and expandable in that regard. Don't get me wrong either, there's plenty in the way of deep, dark goblin-infested nastiness to explore and hack your way through too, but I do kinda wish I could set off on an epic trek to the Black Gates themselves...if only for fun. Not so however. Not yet, anyway.
Enough about what's not there though, as what is
there more than makes up for it. In terms of raw size, LOTRO may encompass barely half the land mass World of Warcraft launched with for example, but when you consider LOTRO has no evil Horde-like faction hogging up precious territory that you'll never see, and that far more importantly it's just been crammed full with so
much more fucking detail, it still feels pleasingly gargantuan as an MMO world.
|LOTRO's fab engine looks the shit, yet still pumps out mammoth views that stretch out for literally miles. Performance is seldom a problem, even with settings ramped up|
The Shire for instance, is far from the small collection of fields and houses seen in Fellowship, this bleedin' place is enormous, with massive, multiple regions, entire quest lines and stories for each town and village, and huge cross-country hikes required to ferry yourself around from each outpost to the next. I dunno how those Hobbits stay so fuckin' fat.
As these screenshots possibly hint at, Turbine follow Blizzard's fine example of going the more simplistic and cartoony route in the visuals, as opposed to a more realistic and system taxing one. While this results in a slightly more stylised take on LOTR than you perhaps expected, the simplicity of the graphics engine does - just like WoW - open up huge opportunities for Turbine to really push the size and scope of these locations to humungous effect.
Villages and towns are positively packed
with NPCs, there's jaw-droppingly epic view distances, and just the wealth of sheer shit packed onto your screen at any one time - from buildings and fellow players to wildlife and massive forests - is really rather amazing. Don't make the mistake of thinking LOTRO is some silly kiddy looking game either, as even in spite of its cartoony leanings, Turbine still pack so much beauty and sheer detail in that vistas can just as often drift into Oblivion territory as they do WoW.
It really does strike a fab balance between great tech and pure artistry I must say, and goes down as one of the better looking MMOs currently on the market.
|LOTRO is one of the few MMOs out there to use proper storytelling to full effect, with a central, linear tale running through the entirety of the game that you can dip in and out of at will|
Races, classes and even character customisation prove somewhat limited in their choices next to more recent MMOs - namely your Vanguards - but this unfortunately comes with the territory when working with an established license with very specific rules and boundaries. You can pick between Men, Elves, Dwarves and Hobbits, all of which come with a choice of male or female counterparts, except for the poor old Dwarves. Apparently, Middle-Earthen Dwarves are misogynistic wife beaters who never let their women leave the house you see. As a result the bearded loons have to make do with forbidden man love when out on the road.
These races come with a selection of seven somewhat interestingly named classes between 'em, but on further examination it becomes humorously clear that these classes are, once again, simply redressed remixes of WoWs. The Burglar for instance, is a simple Rogue, the Hunter doesn't even disguise itself with a different name, and although Wizards are supposed to be rare as rocking horse shit at this point in the LOTR timeline, the more scaled back "Lore Master" is essentially just this game's answer to a Mage. They're joined by the Captain, the Minstrel, the Champion and the Guardian. You can play join the dots if you want and match each to their WoW counterpart.
|While many of the typical MMO-esque quests crop up as you'd expect, more adventurous and interesting stuff also makes an appearance. Here I'm putting out a fire by ferrying buckets of water back and forth while persuing an enemy|
Naturally, questing takes up the bulk of your time in LOTRO, but before you get to all that, a more heavily scripted and fleshed-out introduction eases you into things somewhat. It's the one scarce area where it and WoW start to differentiate themselves from one another in fact, with LOTR providing a far better first impression than Blizzard's aging masterpiece ever did. The game really gets off to a rollickingly good start the second you fire it up in fact, with you smack bang in the middle of a full-on Lord of the Rings set-piece that feels like some kinda long-lost passage from one of the books.
The Hobbit intro for instance, kicks off in the middle of the night with you chillin' out along the border of the Shire. Word has spread of "dark riders" around these parts though - Ringwraiths looking for Frodo, one presumes - and as you run around a little, getting to grips with the controls (not hard...thanks WoW), you suddenly find yourself catching brief glimpses of the suckers off in the distance. For the first time, an MMO actually feels a little...exciting.
Shortly after, you stumble across one such Wraith terrorising a fellow Hobbit, angrily clawing for answers as to the whereabouts of "Baggins". It all hints back hugely to an early sequence seen in The Fellowship of the Ring, and just like that, you're in
the Lord of the Rings. You're interacting with AI characters, your controlling Tolkien archetypes, and here's you playing a wee little Hobbit - one used to no more than stuffing his face and getting high every day - going face to face with Sauron's most elite. This
is how all MMOs should feel.
It ain't exclusive to the Hobbits either; playing as an Elf, you'll be battling a friggin' Cave Troll alongside Elrond in the first five minutes alone.
It Comes in Pints? I'm Getting One!
|A little more cartoony than you might have expected, LOTRO's still pretty as balls|
Of course, this isn't the game proper. It's just an instance. A heavily scripted tutorial if you will, and little more than a prologue. A few twists here, some shocking turns there, and you sure enough reach its end then, waking up the next day in a small Shire village more akin to your standard MMO location. Vendors. Quest givers. Other players. You know the drill. It's actually a little disappointing to be honest, going from beautifully crafted interactive sequences like the aforementioned Wraith showdown, to the same old "kill 10 badgers" bollocks we all love to hate in this genre. But fear not dear grinder, as all is not lost...
LOTRO you see, realises how great its introductory storyline was, and keeps it going. Characters you met at the beginning stick around, sending you off on other jobs, adding a great sense of persistence to your first batch of quests. A ranger buddy who popped up to save my arse against that Wraith in fact, was unfortunately stabbed with a Mordor blade in the fight. Initial jobs then, involved me having to scour the Shire for ingredients for an antidote, quick, before poor old homeboy perished, and/or turned into one of 'em.
Following this pleasingly interesting quest on to its eventual conclusion lead me in turn to even more epic, fully scripted instances a little further down the line though - ones much like the intro in fact - until eventually it started to become crystal clear; this entire game
has a storyline. An MMO? With a plot? What is the world coming too...
|Of course, more...umm, "traditional" MMORPG content rears its ugly head too. Murdering an endless stream of Middle-Earthen wildlife, for example|
This proves the greatest and most original new addition LOTRO adds to the now age-old genre I'd have to say though, in that while it may look like WoW, play like WoW, and indeed be
WoW for the most part, it does feel a fair bit more structured in the plot department, and hence, a little more worthy of the Tolkien name.
Sure, you can ignore all that, grab the more mundane quests you're used to, and kill as many rats as you want. There's even separate class-specific quest-lines that prove fab and original in their own right too. Personally though? I just love how the next chapter of your own personal on-going Rings saga is always there in the background at all times. As you follow the game's central plot from beginning to end, it'll take you through huge dollops of awesome instances, great interactive story moments, and a ton of fab group quests to boot, all giving humungous focus to the entire LOTRO experience as a whole. You feel like a beautiful adventure is forever waging on behind the scenes of this game...and for once, you're actually a part of it. I dig that a lot.
While these plots and storylines are indeed brand new tales developed specifically for this game, you'll occasionally interact with key characters from the books too though, even performing "off screen" acts related to Frodo's quest on occasion, as and when his tale intertwines with yours. This is all done in a manner that never feels forced and shoe-horned in as it did in, say, The Third Age
though. God, that was bad...
...this however, is ace.
|Along with the typical "dark" fantasy quests like this, LOTRO also boasts some fun and harmless ones too. There's even a Hobbit quest where you have to ferry pies across town stealthily while evading hungry Hobbits, like some kinda fat, furry Sam Fisher|
Awesome quests and persistent storylines aside, there are one or two other minor additions LOTRO adds to the WoW formula worthy of a mention. For one, the combat has a little more depth and, well, interest to it than most. I don't find myself just hammering the same old specials over and over here for instance, LOTR does a far better job of flavoring your toon with a wide range of (useful) special moves you see, each different and unique enough as to prove perfect in specific situations.
What's great is how these abilities work in tandem with each other to form powerful combos. My hunter's got a damage-over-time attack which temporarily bleeds enemies dry by wounding them for example, yet with it in effect, I can run up and slash 'em with a melee special in which he ploughs a dagger deep into that same wound for a huge damage bonus.
Similarly, by landing certain strings of moves in a row, he can build up a multiplier that opens up even more super powered special moves not normally accessible too, providing a whole host of additional damage dealing and crowd control capabilities. There are even certain combos and specials that work in tandem with other players, allowing groups to work together to rain down MASSIVE DAMAGE
on bigger and badder beasties when needed.
|There be a lot o' walking to contend with in Middle-Earth, but horse routes provide a faster, albeit more costly mode of public transport. You can hop off 'em at will, and eventually buy your own|
Such small additions and slightly more interesting fighting mechanics just give you a little more to think about mid-battle I find, where utilising your specials correctly and skillfully will see dudes dropping two or three times quicker than they would if you simply spammed "1" repeatedly. Solo play feels much more like a skill in this game as a result, as you can quite conceivably juggle three enemies simultaneously if you're on the ball and know what you're doing. Shit takes practice, though.
The other addition I'm a huge fan of are the "accomplishments". Essentially LOTRO's answer to the Xbox Live Achievement system, these are oh so small rewards for pulling off certain feats in-game. They can be nabbed by doing everything from killing your first goblin, to not dying once in your first five levels, but there's absolutely fucking hundreds of 'em to work your way through and it's a great wee touch.
By completing large wads of the suckers in fact - such as discovering a long list of hidden treasures in a dungeon - or visiting a variety of famous landmarks in a specific town - you're awarded minor stat bonuses too, along with other additional niceties like new emotes and character titles to display above your avatar. It's a great way to not only give you a whole fuck load more to do when questing gets you down, but also provides a pleasing incentive to go and really explore every nook and cranny of this immaculately detailed universe while you play. Very cool.
Holding a Toon
|Death is handled a little more conservatively than by most. On resurrecting, you'll suffer temporary "dread", which doesn't amount to much, with the biggest downside being simply the visual disturbance your screen suffers for the next 10 minutes (pictured). Even this has been drastically toned down in recent beta builds|
Do I have complaints with Lord of the Rings? Other than the slightly disappointing size of the world, my biggest concern right now is actually the music. To be blunt, it's dull as dishwater. One key area where Turbine specifically avoid any and all similarities to the flicks is in the soundtrack, and it makes a hell of an unfortunate difference to the overall atmosphere of this thing. Running across sun-bathed hills and snow-capped mountains just doesn't get the Rings vibe piling in that you'd expect when you ain't got Howard Shore's brilliance blaring out of the speakers back at you though. LOTR's built-in tunes are minimal, bland and rather joyless by comparison...when what it really needs is a proper, big fuck-off orchestral score bringing it all to life. In fact, I err, "borrowed" a selection of MP3s from the various LOTR film soundtracks just to whack on in the background for that exact reason, and was surprised to see just how freakin' better it all came together in comparison. At least it's fixable, I guess.
This negativity surrounding the sound extends to the voices, which prove amateurish, lacking and almost sorta embarrassing. When I think back to how expertly Everquest II used in-game voice acting for pretty much every single quest in the entire game, it pains me not to see similar effort put into its many superior peers...in particular more cinematic titles like this that arguably need it a whole lot more. When you're sent in to assassinate a rogue Dwarf in a deep, dark mine...only to confront him in its gripping climax before battling him to the death? It doesn't quite work so well when harsh exchanged words are simple written text that you have to squint to read.
The End of All Things
You can't experience all an MMO has to offer in a year, let alone a handful of weeks, so I can't proclaim much of a score, or even any final judgment at all upon LOTR Online right now...other than the fact it's just damn fuckin' fun. Unlike Everquest II, D&D Online, Eve or any other number of MMOs I've dabbled in briefly before moving on from boredom, this one did most definitely snare my attention for the duration though...so much so that when my level 17 beta toon was recently wiped as part of a server-wide upgrade, I felt slightly heartbroken. That's when it hit me just how much I'd gotten into this game without realising it. I'm sorta in love.
|Remember the Entertainer profession from Star Wars Galaxies? LOTRO has music playing too...but far more impressively, lets you actually "jam out" by tapping out melodies on your keyboard!|
How the crafting system handles, how the classes balance out, how the guilds work and how the ultimate end-game plays, I have no idea. Despite the lack of a full-on Mordor faction, there is indeed PvP that I've yet to dive into as well, albeit in more of a spruced up side-game titled "Monster Play". Having now rerolled a new toon well on his way back up that leveling ladder, I'm still a while off exploring such shit too, but I guess the most important thing I can say right now is...I just can't fucking wait to find out.
Some'll fault LOTR for its shameless WoW aping; perhaps such a mammoth license deserved something more original, inventive and off the beaten path after all. Turbine sorta pussied out in a way though, and that's a fair complaint I think. The LOTR license goes a hell
of a long way, sure, and it truly is a wondrous feeling to be questing out in remote mountains and fields only to stumble across famous sites from the books like Weathertop, or to see hints of Rivendell poking out in the distance for the first time. As fab as all that is though, LOTRO is just so safe, it's bound to prove disappointing to some.
I guess the old "ain't broke, don't fix it" mantra rings true however, 'cos what you're ultimately left with is so damn tight and polished regardless, it almost doesn't matter. The game is gold, it's that simple.
Much like WoW.