Is it fair to call Lord of the Rings generic fantasy? JRR Tolkien is basically the father of what we now refer to as the fantasy genre, i.e elves, dwarves, spells and dragons. The generally accepted rule that Elves are nature-loving spellcasters that use bows and arrows originated in his work, as did the idea of bearded mountain-dwelling dwarves that love treasure and are good at metalwork.
So, this said, can it possibly be fair for me to think less of Lord of the Rings Online simply because I’ve seen it done so many times before?
As with most MMO’s, you start out constructing your character. First you choose between an Elf, Dwarf, Man or Hobbit. Each of these have their own bonuses and drawbacks, for example Hobbits receive a -7 to might because they aren’t as physically capable as the other races, but +15 to vitality because they tend to be durable little guys.
From there you pick your class. Two are unavailable for free players, which annoyed me greatly because I had head great things about the Runekeeper class, but it was locked off along with the Warden class. The classes available for free players are: Captain (two handed swords and lots of buffs), Champion (a sword in each hand and a superiority complex), Guardian (the basic tank), Hunter (uses bows and gets a free teleport), Lore-Master (mage/wizard/spellcaster), Minstrel (Uses songs to damage/buff/heal) and Burglar (rogue). I ended up playing as an Elvish Minstrel, because I liked the idea of using music to defeat my foes.
Each of the races has different introductory quests, rather like Dragon Age. These quests take place before the main period of the game. The Elf starting quest takes place several hundred years before the main game, and shows Elves fighting Dwarfs and the Dwarf King being killed. The Hobbit starting quest is interesting because it shows Frodo, Sam and Peregrin on their way out of the shire, being chased by a Nazgul. The Man questline has you help Strider rescue two hobbits from some bandits. Finally the Dwarf starting quests take place before The Hobbit, and you get to meet the various dwarves before they leave for the Lonely Mountain.
You may have guessed LOTRO’s main gimmick at this point, intermingling characters from the books into its quests. The effect of this is two-fold: Fans of the series will most likely love the nigh-constant name drops and references. Indeed this may help keep them engaged over a long period of time, which is always the biggest challenge when it comes to making an MMO, aside from getting a publisher that’s willing to compete with World of Warcraft. On the other hand, anyone who doesn’t know, care or (more likely) cannot remember the various names and places is going to be put off.
Aside from the people and places involved, quests are standard. They come in the “Kill X” “Collect Y” “Protect Z” and “Go here” varieties. Each one starts with a good two or three paragraphs of text which I quickly grew tired of reading, by level 5 I was just agreeing to every quest automatically without bothering with context. Many times I was halfway to the quest destination before I realised I didn’t know what to do when I got there. Although for many there isn’t any need to check, the map screen highlights areas for different quests in different colours, and mousing over an enemy or item will tell you if it’s involved in any quest you currently have.
Whenever I completed a quest, I instinctually looked to my minimap to see where to hand it in. This was not a good idea. It seems that the minimap is one of the things that the designers skimped on, because the symbol for a quest that you can hand in and the symbol for a quest that you haven’t taken yet are exactly the same. This left me extremely confused for the first few levels, and even afterwards I ended up running around a town looking for the one guy that would give me my reward.
Of course the second part of any MMORPG is the group dungeons. As a Minstrel, I was expected to sit at the back of the group and administer heading songs as needed. This was easy enough, although I never quite felt needed. Unlike in most MMO’s you don’t need the tank, healer and 3 dps to get through a dungeon. I was in more than one group that couldn’t find a tank and weren’t hindered. I’m not entirely sure if the game gets less forgiving at higher levels, but it’s a lot better than trying desperately to get that illusive healer for the Deadmines.
Outside of dungeons I found that the Minstrel might be one of the best classes for solo play. I couldn’t deal a lot of damage, but by level 9 I had three healing spells and could take on small groups without too much difficulty. I ended up getting bored in areas designed for characters of my level and started charging into higher-level areas. Even with monsters four or five levels above me I wasn’t overwhelmed unless I fought more than two at once.
There’s a PVP element in LOTRO, but it’s quite different than with most MMOs. When you get a character to level 10, you can create a monster character, although only one monster class is available to free players. Your monster starts at level 75 (max level) and you’re stuck inside a large PVP area to fight over land, or just for the sake of fighting. I don’t think it’s used much though, I created an orc and ran around the area for about three hours without finding a single enemy player. In fact I only saw one other player at all, and he was a newly-created orc just like me.
Lord of the Rings Online looks fairly boring. The world is made from flat surfaces, it looks as if the textures are trying to give the illusion that the surface is more than coloured paper, but it fails. The environments themselves are surprisingly similar. Most areas were just variants on the theme of forests and woodlands, the only major alteration to this was a large desert area that I ran to when I got bored of lower-level areas.
The in-game shop is rather well implemented. The designers don’t separate free and paying players, instead they sell convenience and extras. For example, the taxi service can take several minutes to take you from one area to another, but you can purchase the ability to instantly travel via the taxi service. You can also buy extra bags, extra player slots and the two locked classes.
So in the end, can I recommend Lord of the Rings Online? Only if you really like the Lord of the Rings story. If you want to immerse yourself in the Lord of the Rings universe and become part of the story then I’m sure you’ll enjoy this. If you aren’t particularly interested in Lord of the Rings then you’ll find that most of what the game does has been done better elsewhere. Removing the brand name and established story leaves you with a game that’s generic and bland in every way possible.