The Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar
To many people, Lord of the Rings: Shadows of Angmar may seem like just another flavor of fantasy MMO, but in some ways, it's the flavor. Everyone knows it--it's unavoidable, especially considering the franchise's current status in mainstream pop culture.
- Excellent depth and atmosphere, solid gameplay in almost every area.
- You only get to be the 'good guys' -- boo!
If you are into LOTR, you'll probably find this a more engaging experience than other fantasy MMOs because of the meatiness of Tolkien's Middle Earth. As an MMORPG, it's pretty hard to fault.
Price$ 89.95 (AUD)
This game does a terrific job of steeping players in series lore, and the more time I spend in it, the more I want to go back and finish reading the books to learn more back-story and see which NPCs were taken straight from the novels. This is possibly the biggest advantage that LOTR Online has over the current 800-pound gorilla of the MMO space, World of Warcraft; the source material is far richer and there are few games who can claim such a prestigious heritage.
The Forging of a Hero
Depending on whether you roll a Man, Dwarf, Elf, or Hobbit (not all races are suited for all roles--nix on the Hobbit Champions, for example) there are a variety of class choices to accommodate any play style: Burglars to debuff, Minstrels to sing sweet healing ballads, tanking Guardians, and Hunters for ranged attacks. I ended up going with a Man Champion and named him Hesfrid, choosing from the suggested pre/suffixes for my chosen land of origin, Rohan.
With character created, the action-packed prologue begins. As of launch, the game covers much of the first book of the trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring. The main plot concerning Frodo and friends is elaborated upon in cut scenes when you finish epic quest chapters. Comparing your game map of Eriador to the map drawn in the book reveals the pains the dev team has taken in creating the world. The characters and locations have been carefully emulated, with Tom Bombadil's house in the forest and Thorin ensconced at Thorin's Gate.
Each race has its own opening set of missions, but they all eventually lead to Book 1 Chapter 1 at the Prancing Pony in Bree. This incidentally ends in a big dose of Dread, an atmospheric effect caused by scary things that makes the screen blur a bit, some stats debuff, and your character cower. At first, Dread is a bit disorienting, but it ends up kicking the tension up a notch in a way that's different from other MMOs. It also acts as a reason to Fellowship up and go after Dreadful things together and overcome your character's fear.
Outside the epic quest are your standard array of more mundane tasks: hunting boars, spiders, etc. or the type I like to call "Hobbit Crossing" for their resemblance to errand running for your animal neighbors in a certain Nintendo game. These latter, especially, can be frustrating as hell, but there are so many quests that if keeping the mail safe from Nosy Hobbits is proving too tedious a task, it won't hurt to move on.
Most MMOs these days come with a crafting system, although this one nearly didn't until one of the developers convinced the team with the analogy that the entire story of the Ring was just a botched crafting mission. In LOTRO you choose a vocation, which is a bundle of three professions. I made Hesfrid a Historian, which encompasses farming, scholarship, and weaponsmithing-- just my cup of tea. Most vocations feature excellent balance; you can't just pick two complementary skills like you can in WoW, and if you work with someone with corresponding skills, you can provide each other with materials and products. Or I could just skip the whole thing, though there are some excellent rewards if you put in the time.
There are various Deeds to collect by killing a lot of a certain regional enemy, visiting landmarks, or using certain class skills. All of them carry rewards, whether it is a new title ("Goblin-Hewer") to tack on to the end of your name or a stat boosting Trait. Tweaking these traits is how you will end up diversifying yourself. While some may be disappointed to find there aren't different "builds" to experiment with outside of these Traits, others will be relieved that they don't have to dig through a FAQ to avoid dumping weeks of their life into a character that ends up sub-par.
As a Players vs. Player solution, the developers came up with Monster Play--we obviously couldn't have the hero races fighting amongst themselves when there is evil to thwart. Once your regular character is level 10 you can use a Fell Scrying Pool to create one of five types of level 50 monsters (including Orcs and Spiders.) In other words, you don't pick a faction like you would in WoW, you automatically have the opportunity to play both sides. Monster characters hang out in the Ettenmoors, powering up by using Destiny points, waiting for regular characters level 40 and higher to come dispute territory. It's been tough to get a good feel for what fighting player vs. monster player feels like because there aren't too many high level characters around yet.
What's surprising, though, is the amount of depth on the monster side. It's really almost like another game. Monsters have their own quests and raids to go on, and their own skills to acquire. While you can use the Destiny points earned by your hero or monster to further either one's ends, it's a much better deal to spend them on your monster for actual upgrades, since regular characters can only buy temporary powers. That and it's just fun to be a big ugly monster hunting for Hobbit toes. It's easy to imagine someone spending nearly all their time in this mode, especially once the war starts raging with the high level heroes.
Hitting the Hardware Hard
Graphics-wise it helps to have a PC that can handle the higher settings. There are some really beautiful viewpoints that aren't quite as breath-taking without them. The overall look is more realistic than WoW, but less than that of, say, the LOTR films. The music (notably the festive acoustic Bree Town theme, cozy whistle tunes for the Shire, and threatening drums and horns in the Old Forest) adds a lot to the atmosphere without becoming annoying.
As for my own play experience, I took Hesfrid from start to part way through level 18 so far. Men start in the town of Archet, and Bree-Land plays out pretty similarly to the book as I quote here, "Besides Bree itself, there was Staddle on the other side of the hill, Combe in a deep valley a little further eastward, and Archet on the edge of the Chetwood." All of these locations became very familiar to me as I set about helping the residents of Archet after a brigand attack. The prologue segues seamlessly into the main epic quest in Bree where everyone meets up with Strider. I ended up putting off the epic stuff until I was more leveled from delivering groceries, collecting bear pelts, and defeating brigands, and then easily completed through Chapter 10 with a pick-up Fellowship in one go. Having the storyline is great motivation to do even the most typical quests.
There's no real end-game as of yet because, well, the story isn't anywhere near over. The first free content update is set for next month, covering the reforging of Aragorn's sword with 60 new quests in a new area. The plot will continue to unfold via expansions in Rhovanion, Rohan, Gondor and Mordor in the future, so the game is definitely going to be the type of long term commitment that MMO addicts appreciate.
Despite playing similarly, LOTRO is not WoW, and that's perfectly fine. If you are into LOTR, you'll probably find this a more engaging experience than other fantasy MMOs because of the meatiness of Tolkien's Middle Earth. Also keep in mind that even if you didn't pre-order to take advantage of the life-long subscription for $200, the ten dollars a month is still cheaper than WoW's fifteen. If Hobbits and Rings aren't your thing, there are plenty of players in chat who will tell you to go crying back to whatever game you defected from. Hesfrid, however, feels right at home.
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