When this preview began, the closed beta testers were still under a non-disclosure aggreement (NDA). So, at that time the only things we knew about the game were the scant details that the staff of Turbine released. As of February 12, 2007 the NDA was lifted. With that lift, this preview should be a far more accurate reflection of the game.
Finally a product of The Lord of the Rings franchise is adhering more to Tolkien's world than selling its creator short and giving in to the Hollywood mentality. Executive Producer Jeffrey Steefel, in talking about his team's representation of Middle Earth has been quoted as saying: "When you enter the game, we want you to feel like you are really there." While many Tolkien fanatics may be disappointed by the fact that it doesn't take you an in-game month to walk from Bree to Rivendale, the general consensus from beta players is that the world truly does feel like Middle Earth. There is currently a heated debate on the official forums concerning the size of the world. At launch, the game will be 50,000,000 square meters (approximately 19.7 miles). While to some that may sound small, keep in mind that is roughly 60% of World of Warcraft's game word (prior to Burning Crusade). If this were all of the sprawling Middle Earth from literature, many might be heartbroken, but remember the launching area is only one part of the game's world (Eriador is the launch area, which is approximately 1/4 of Middle Earth -- if that).
"It's touches like this that make the player feel that he or she is actually in Middle Earth."
As for the gameplay, which is the meat and potatoes of any MMORPG, the responses have been mixed, yet leaning towards favorable, from beta testers. Some say it is too "simplistic." Others have said it is "solid and engaging, yet not extremely difficult." Whether that is a good thing or a bad thing depends on an individual's play style and what one is looking for in an online game. Many want a game that isn't about the mindless slaying of thousands of beasts to gain a level or two. While entertaining for a while, the "grind" quickly grows mind-numbing after the player has killed the three-hundredth monster for no other reason than for experience points. Similar to a single player RPG, an MMORPG needs a reason for you to go kill monsters, bandits, or animals other than just because the player has to to advance his or her skills. From what's been heard from numerous beta testers, Lord of the Rings: Shadows of Angmar does just that. There are numerous quests. Granted most are talk to person A, kill X number of Y things, escort NPC to X location, or defend NPC/town/group/self against a swarm of monsters; this sounds just like any other MMORPG in that regard. However, from the vast majority of beta testers' feedback, the quests seem to have a rich story surrounding them. Unlike some MMORPGs where the player does X or Y because NPC A told them to (often without giving sensible reasons for doing so), the NPCs actually have a motivation for what they are asking the player to do. Further, the player has story reasons for wanting to complete these quests. Rather than just doing X number of mundane tasks to level, the player actually has a personal story that developes further with each step of the quest they complete.
The deed system is another unique feature. In every area of the game, there are deeds that the player can do that affect his or her character in different ways. From beta tester reports, there seems to be a bar that fills up while doing a certain task in an area. For instance, in the Shire, there is a deed to have the player kill wolves harrassing the Shire. After the player kills said wolves, the player's hobbit will now have the title "Fur-cutter" available. It's touches like this that make the player feel that he or she is actually in Middle Earth. Also, there are achievements. Say that the player kills 50 spiders. He or she then becomes known as a spider slayer and get a bonus to his or her might (which is helpful being a hobbit, as their small size gives them a minus to their might). The player can not equip all of his or her deeds or achievements at one time. The player must choose among a limited number of slots to determine the ones that he or she prefers. Hopefully, this will lead to a level of customization and differentiation between characters. As of the time of this writing, the verdict is still somewhat out on this subject.
Another issue that's been a heated debate on the message forums is player versus player (PvP) combat. Sticking to the literature (which Turbine is seeming to do well according to beta testers), the free people of Middle Earth engaging in direct combat would make no sense, and would -- in many ways -- destroy the illusion of being in Middle Earth. Turbine has developed a solution that most beta players seem to be satisfied with, and that is player versus monster player combat (PvMP). Starting at level 10, players can assume the role of level 50 monsters that can only engage other players in the area they are confined to. The monster can be named by its player, do monster based quests (that affect the monster, but not the player's "good" character), and engage the free people of Middle Earth who come into the monster's area (at level 40 through 50). Most beta testers agree, it is a system which allows the PvP players their fix (through PvMP), while still maintaining the feeling Tolkien established in his works.
Bottom line, Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar, is looking like it is shaping up well. The graphics, as one can see from our screenshot section, are beautiful. From what beta testers have said, the quests sound intriguing, are well written, and are satisfying to complete. Will this be proven true when the game launches? Will the game have enough to differentiate it from the vast ocean of MMORPG titles out there, or will it be just another experience, with the players left feeling deja vu? Will the world truly feel like JRR Tolkien's Middle Earth? Will the game be fun? The signs are all pointing to the positive side of the scale, but time will tell the truth of it. An open beta is coming on March 30, so keep watching RPGamer for our impression.