Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar, or LOTRO for short, is the first massively multiplayer online RPG set in the Lord of the Rings universe. As such, it has a high level to rise to, if it wishes to keep both MMO players and fans of the series interested in it. Furthermore, does it stand against the giants in the market?
For those that are familiar with the Lord of the Rings setting, there is little new here. The story itself follows the events that occur during the books, but the player does not play a member of the Fellowship of the Ring. Rather, the player is a soldier in the War of the Ring and aids the Fellowship from time to time.
The story is told through a series of books, each with a set of chapters. Every chapter is a simple quest or instance that the player must overcome to continue the storyline. The instanced missions can be very interesting and challenging, with cut scenes throughout. This is one area that LOTRO excels in--the telling of the story is very reminiscent of the style used in Final Fantasy XI, but just doesn't contain the same level of challenge. The efforts of the developers to keep the storyline in line with Tolkein's original body of work is very well appreciated.
When not progressing in the storyline, the player can do many things to pass the time and improve on their skills, such as fetch and kill quests, crafting and harvesting for materials, or participating in monster play, PVP, or even chicken play. The fetch and kill quests are a staple of the genre, and LOTRO has a lot of them. The player should expect a system similar to the one found in World of Warcraft, where NPCs will alert the player to the presence of quests through symbols floating above their heads. Questing gets to be rather uninteresting later in the game, as there is very little variety in goals.
Throughout the lands of Middle-Earth there are many different kinds of materials to gather. There are five ranks of materials, each of which can be found in various portions of the world. Any character can choose a profession that gives them three pre-determined crafts to use these materials. Crafts are also split between five different tiers. Completing one leads to unlocking the next, which might possibly require the completion of a quest. Progressing in a craft is a simple endeavor, as it uses World of Warcraft's system of automatic leveling (every craft of the same level as the crafter earns skill points). Equipment in the form of weapons and armor, as well as consumables (food, scrolls and potions), can be produced. The best part of the crafting system is the addition of mastery. Once a new rank is unlocked, the player is free to master the previous rank by continuing to craft the items of that tier. Mastery leads to a distinct advantage--the chance to create a truly exceptional item. This chance can be increased by wearing certain pieces of equipment or expending a consumable item. Master craft items are very valuable and much better than regular items. Crafting a masterwork version of a rare and powerful recipe is even better.
Crafted, harvested, and looted items can be sold on the auction houses available in every major city. A careful player can make a lot of money through the auction houses by watching the prices in several areas at once. A lot of players deal solely in harvested materials to make the money to purchase crafted equipment from those who choose to use their time to craft.
Monster play and PVP go hand-in-hand. LOTRO takes place alongside the War of the Ring, and the player can join either side in the conflict. Each account has an associated monster character that the player can play as during a PVP session. PVP is limited to minimum level 40 characters, and monsters start at level 50. Each can be further customized to perform better in PVP.
Chicken play is the first of many weird updates that the developer added to the game. In it, the player explores the world of Middle-Earth from the perspective of a chicken--with the advantages of being a bird. A bloodthirsty goblin might not just be too suspicious of a little chicken walking through his lair... unless he's hungry. Through special tasks like this, a chicken can earn various rewards that aid the player's main character. This is an interesting and enjoyable diversion.
One day, this will all be mine.
The single biggest problem with LOTRO is the number of classes. There are only seven of them with none being particularly interesting. Customizability seen in other MMOs is not available here. All characters grow the same way, and the only difference between them tends to be the skill level and personal choices of the players behind them. The only real choices the player has is the choice of which traits to equip and the choice of skills they choose to use in battle.
There are four races in LOTRO: Men, Elves, Dwarves, and Hobbits. Each of them has access to a limited number of classes according to the history of their race. Guardians are the game's tanks, and Champions are dual-wielding, pure damage dealers. Hunters are the game's nukers, as even the character creation information screen says. Lore-masters are a pretty weird class for a primary spellcaster--instead of damage spells, they use crowd control, minor nukes, and a pet bird. Burglars are stealthy and excel in creating openings to start Fellowship combos, while Minstrels are the only decent healers. The only really unique class is the Captain, which only Men can become. They are average melee fighters with the ability to both buff their allies and debuff their enemies with various war cries. Unfortunately, the two most popular classes are omitted at this point: the Wizard and Ranger.
Traits are earned by completing quests and deeds. A deed can be a goal to accomplish in the various areas in the game, or something that is race or class specific. For example, a player may need to kill 30 slugs, visit five famous landmarks, or use a skill a certain number of times to complete a deed. Most deeds will give personality traits whose power can be improved by completing other deeds with the same reward. Furthermore, skill-based deeds give skill-empowering traits. A character can have a certain number of traits equipped from each category according to level. Traits are split between personality, class, race and legendary traits.
Battles are the standard MMO fare and share the common combat dynamics. Guardians, the tank class, keep the attention of the enemy while everyone else pounds it into the ground. Strategy only differs when the fellowship is fighting multiple or elite monsters. Generally, a single player fighting even-leveled monsters will never have a problem. They might not even have a challenge, provided that they are adequately equipped. LOTRO has a Fellowship Combo system that is triggered by the use of certain skills in battle. These are similar to the weapon skill chains in FFXI, but anyone can do them. When triggered, a set of symbols appear on screen, and the party members can hit them to create a combo. Each combo does something different and requires experimentation and timing.
The interface is rather well done. There is a single skill bar at the bottom of the screen that can be expanded by adding visible or invisible secondary and tertiary bars (and more) above it. These can be used to bind skills, macros, or items to hotkeys and buttons.
The graphics in the game are visually appealing but have none of the intricacies of more ambitious titles, such as Vanguard: Saga of Heroes. Still, the look is pleasing with a world that is rich in detail. Monsters are easily identified and well designed, as are the regular NPCs. One problem with the graphical presentation is a good portion of armor, especially helmets, look absolutely strange and may cause the player to just switch them off. Of course, because high-quality textures are used instead of fancy lighting and other memory-draining effects, LOTRO can run well even on low-end machines, which is a definite plus.
The in-game music is well composed and sounds similar to the music found in the movies. Dialogue, when spoken, is generally very well delivered, and the sound effects also well done. The real bonus is the built-in voice chat that allows players to chat through headsets instead of typing anything. Furthermore, the player does not need to worry about it being difficult to set up, as the process is simple and painless.
Eat steel, evildoer!
LOTRO will appeal to fans of the series or MMO players that have grown disenchanted with past games. It is easy to play and has a very low learning curve. In many situations, it is considerably easier than its counterparts and has a lower penalty for failure. The deed system gives the player incentive to explore, something completionists will love. For those that are not attracted to the idea of grinding for hours, slaying countless monsters for common and rare drops, this game is definitely not for them. The leveling curve is not very steep, but the monsters just don't reward the player with an adequate amount of experience points to make grinding worthwhile. This leads to the next level seeming to take much longer to attain than the level before, even when completing quests.
All-in-all, LOTRO is a WoW clone that improves on a few of the giant's qualities. It has an added storyline to draw players in, quirky extra modes, and a revamped crafting system with an enjoyable twist. But is it as good as WoW? It is hard to say before it undertakes the test of time.