The Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar is the fourth MMO to come out from the folks at Turbine, and one of the most-anticipated MMOs since World of Warcraft reared its head a few years back.  Turbine got its start with Asheron’s Call back in 1999, with Asheron’s Call 2 following in 2002, and Dungeons and Dragons Online last year. 


Success has been mixed for Turbine, with Asheron’s Call having solid numbers, and while Asheron’s Call 2 started strong, it didn’t last, and was closed in 2005.  D&D Online was Turbine’s first attempt at a major licensed property.  While the launch did not do much for the title, Turbine has kept at it with their traditional standards of delivering patches and regular content updates.


Even as big as D&D is in the gaming world, it holds a pale candle to the juggernaut that is Lord of the Rings, especially after the huge movies over the past few years.  Starting life as Middle Earth Online, Turbine has spent the past four years refining and developing a game which will either be one of the biggest MMOs since World of Warcraft, or another also-ran.  The question now is, which will it be?


(This review is based on much time spent in both closed and open beta, and is run on the following system:  Athlon 2400+, 1 GB Ram, Radeon 9800 128 MB video card, Windows XP Professional SP2.  The game is run windowed, with AA disabled, and most settings at low or medium.  Screenshots were taken with all settings at maxium for visual effect.)

One of the first things that’s readily apparent in LOTRO is that the graphics are neither the ultra-realistic ones featured in MMOs such as Everquest 2, nor the cartoon-like ones in World of Warcraft.  Instead, the graphics seem to take a slight turn from the realistic, modeled somewhat from the images brought to us from the Lord of the Rings movies. 


While the graphics can be turned down to help lower level systems (such as mine) process the game and make it quite playable, when you turn everything up, the results are quite amazing (as seen in the screenshots to the right, all of which are in-game, taken on April 23, 2007).  At night, one can see constellations in the sky, and even see the reflections of the stars in the water below.  Trees looke very realistic, and fields of grass and plants look very appealing.  Creatures and monsters also look very true to the ‘feel’ of Tolkien’s Middle Earth, especially when you look at the movies to compare.


If there’s any major graphic issue, it’s in the character customization.  There simply aren’t enough options to choose from to differentiate your character from others, especially in the starting areas where everyone tends to be the same race.  For example, there is no way to make your character shorter or taller than the average, thus everyone tends to look the same.  Hopefully the character creation system can be modified in the future, but for now this can possibly turn some players off.


One thing to note about the graphics.  The demo, unless installed with a pre-order disc, does not include the final graphics for the game, instead having low-resolution ones in place.  The final game will look better than the screenshots I took in-game.  Just a note if you’re really into the graphics.

First off, anyone expecting the music from the Lord of the Rings movies to be blaring across their PC is going to be sorely disappointed.  While the opening theme is reminiscent of the movies, the music for the game is all completely new, for obvious reasons.  The music for the game tends not only to fit the area that you’re travelling through, with the dwarven and elvish regions of Erid Luin sounding rather different from the Shire, as does various areas in Bree-Land.  You also get appropirately-themed music when you’re in battles, and even some of the instances have speicalized music for them.


The voices are … more hit and miss than anything else.  It seems that a number of the hobbit NPCs are more rude or snotty than friendly, and a number of the Elvish ones are … almost depressing.  I mean, yes, your city is in ruins, and everyone’s preparing to leave Middle-Earth…but this is the same race that Gandalf berated in the Hobbit for being too merry.  Someone get these elves some ‘special’ pipeweed, stat!  Outside of the generalizations, the voice acting itself is quite good, within the bounds of the game’s writing. 


One of the best additions to LOTRO, and something that as far as I can remember has never been in another MMO, is the in-game music system.  Everyone, at level five, can learn how to play an instrument.  By typing /music, you replace your hotkeys with musical keys, allowing anyone to make music in-game.  Not only that, but a group of players can work together to have a concert, and it’s quite often while running through town that you hear the notes of a lute or clarinet float through your speakers, rising and falling as you approach the next group of minstrels.  While the music system is somewhat limited at this time, plans are afoot to expand it as early as the first major update in June.

By this time, just about every MMO worth its name has a pretty standardized control-set, and LOTRO is really no different.  If you’ve played EQ2, World of Warcraft or Vanguard, or even City of Heroes or SWG, you pretty much can determine how to control your character and get into a fight pretty quickly here. 


Pretty much everything is mappable, as well, which lets you set up your own preferred playing style, which honestly is pretty much a must anymore.  While this is all well and good, I can’t escape the impression that it feels almost unfinished in a number of ways.  For example, while there’s a ‘loot all’ button, and by shifting when you loot you can auto-loot to inventory, there’s no option to automatically do this, as has been seen before.  Granted, when you’re in a Fellowship, you want to make sure you don’t accidently loot something you shouldn’t, but when you’re soloing, you shouldn’t have to hold shift down every time you kill something to clean its corpse out.  Honestly, it’s not like we’re going to leave something behind


The other issue is a combination of the control and the camera system.  While you can drag the camera around you with the left mouse button, if you move with the right mouse button after, you suddenly turn in the direction the camera is facing, instead of the camera snapping back into position behind you, or your character moving in relation.  This can be frustrating, especially if you’re running away from something significantly nasty, and have the camera turned to see how far away you’ve gotten.

Again, if you’ve played any other MMO in the past, you pretty much have an idea of what to do in LOTRO.  After you choose your server and create your character from one of the four races and seven classes, you’ll begin as all good stories do:  in the prologue.  For example, the Elvish prologue takes place hundreds if not thousands of years before the books, and involves the fall of Edhelion as well as a young Elrond.  The human prologue involves saving a pair of hobbits from one of the Black Riders, and witnessing another person being stabbed by one (which, through quests, ends up turning into one, and you having to kill him later!).  The hobbit opening involves actually seeing the Black Rider who is hunting for Frodo, and then going on to the same intro as the human one.


Once the prologue is over, you move to an instanced starting area, with humans and hobbits sharing one while elves and dwarves sharing another.  Once done, each race then seperates, although elves and dwarves still share Erud Luin, while Hobbits return to the Shire and Humans populate Bree-land.  After that point, it’s all about questing, which is where some of the game breaks down, early on.  For one thing, it’s quite obvious that the Shire was the first area worked on by the developers, as it has the most polish, and by far the most number of quests.  For example:  The hobbits have a mail-delivery quest as well as a pie-delivery one.  If you do nothing but those two quests (possible even starting at level 2), you can easily get over level 10, if not close to level 15, without ever fighting a single monster or doing another quest.  No other race gets this benefit.  Also, Erud Luin has very few mining opportunities for young elves and dwarves, and no farming abilities at all, while the Shire has more mining and a huge amount of farming.  It just feels like Turbine wanted to get the Shire feeling just right (and they did!) before moving on to anything else, and then couldn’t get over their own preference for the Hobbits in the process.  Hopefully over the first few months of the game this will be rectified so that all classes have a good number of quests to start with.  Luckily, you can always travel to the other areas and do quests there at any time, so it’s more of the level of minor annoyance than serious issue.


One thing that fans of other fantasy MMOs should be warned about is that LOTRO has very little in the way of magic.  Granted, this is by design as Middle-Earth was not very magical.  There were only five wizards, the elves were falling out of power and the Third Age is known as the Age of Man.  With that in mind, most of the magic in the game is a result of nature-lore and learning from the past, as well as item-based magic.  There’s only one class in the game that can seriously heal and resurrect (the minstrel), and while other classes have buffs and pets and such, there are non-magical explanations for all of it, be it music, distraction, woods-lore, or what have you.   For the most part, the Theme rules everything, and it helps to make the game quite immersive. 


The game is very heavily quest-biased, to the point where just about the only way to level effectively is to quest.  A light-blue monster at level 15 will only give you about 30-40 xp, while a quest that’s light blue will give 300-400.  It’s presumed that this will continue at the higher levels, which hopeuflly will cut down on the grind as well as on farming. 


One of the interesting things about LOTRO is that the game uses a system of Titles, Achievements and Traits to flush out your character.  As you explore the world, kill monsters and do quests, you’ll unlock various Achievements which cover your race, your class, and each area in the game.  Each Achievement will reward you with either an in-game Title, which you can change on the fly or a Trait, while a few will also give your character racial or class skills.


Traits modify your character in a number of ways, giving bonuses to stats or perchantage increases to various skills or your Morale (health) and Power (mana).  These traits can be accessed via a number of Bards, which allow you to slot the traits as you wish.  There’s a monetary cost for adjusting your traits, and you cannot add them until level 10, and you only get so many slots as you level up.  Still, you get special trait slots for Racial, Class-based, and Legendary Traits that open up later, and each trait can be levelled up through various Achievements.


Crafting in LOTRO is very dependant upon other players, and right now is a mixed bag.  When you reach your first major town, you’ll find a Mistress of Apprentices, which allows you to choose a Vocation.  There are seven vocations in all, and each vocation contains three tradeskills from a total pool of ten.  The vocations are meant to be reliant upon other players, as for the most part, no vocation can create everything by themselves, requiring parts from other players.  This works best in the Kinship (guild) situation, as it’s hard to do trades with random players for tradeskill items often. 


For example:  An armourer has the tradeskills for metalsmith (which allows them to create armor), prospector (which allows them to mine the metal), and tailor (which allows for cloth armor creation).  However, in order to make cloth armor and most metal armors, you need various hides and leather, which are only created by the forester tradeskill.  Likewise, while a tinker can cook, and a historian and woodsman can farm, only a yeoman is able to do both. 


There are issues with crafting right now as well, especially with tailoring and farming.  Farming, as it stands now, is a huge money sink, as it’s cheaper for cooks to buy ingredents from NPC merchants than it is to either farm it themselves or buy it from PC farmers.  This means that no one is farming anything but pipeweed, and many people are avoiding cooking in general other than for roleplay reasons.  Tailoring is its own special issue, as armor which people can wear starting at level 10 requires medium hides, which are only lootable from level 14 and up monsters.  The problem escalates when you get to the third tier, which starts with armor at level 20, but requires loot from level 25-30 monsters.  This causes the problem of people crafting, not for themselves and their friends, but for their twinks and newbies, which really means that people aren’t going to be crafting very much at all until they hit the higher levels, when they can sink the money into making the (supposedly) really good stuff.


As far as quests go, there are three major types of quests.  You have your standard quest, which you can do alone or in a group (or Fellowship, as they’re called in LOTRO) which are visible as a simple gold ring over the Questgiver’s head.  Then there are Fellowship Quests, which look the same, but pretty much require a group to complete, and usually involve an instance.  Finally, there are the Epic quests, which are shown by the image of the One Ring over the Questgiver’s head.  These tie into the overall storyline, starting with each race and ending up in the main storyline for the game.  Most of your quests will be standard ones, with a few Fellowship quests thrown in for good measure, while in most likelihood the end-game and Raid quests will be of the Epic variety.  Hopefully this won’t create too much of a bottleneck in the game, as people are stuck waiting on each other to do a quest so that they can get their turn in.


While the game has no PVP at all, it does offer players the ability to go off and kill players if they want, in something called Monster Play.  At level 10, you have the ability to create a monster (out of five total types:  Uruk Warleader, Orc Ravager, Uruk Blackarrow, Warg Stalker, and Spider Weaver), and then use that monster to do quests and kill players.  The monsters are tuned as such to where you’ll be facing level 40-50 players, and the quests that you do allow you to increase your monster’s abilities and stats.  Also, the game gives you Destiny Points as you level, which can not only be used to buy temporary boosts for your character, but can also be used to modify your Monster character.  So while LOTRO doesn’t include PvP, it does include PvMP.  The game also keeps track of statistics and the like with leaderboards, to let people know who the baddest monster of them all are.

To be honest, if you’re like most MMO players, there’s more than enough content available in LOTRO at launch to keep you busy for the next couple months, when the first major content update takes place.  For the hardcore “gotta-be-level-50″ next week folks, well, we all know you’ll be level 50 by the end of next week, if not sooner, and be complaining by then…but you’ll still pay your subscriptions. 


There’s a lot of quests in the game.  A lot.  In the first ten to fifteen levels alone, you’re likely to do 50-100 quests, if not much more.  While the game seems to have only a small number of areas available at launch, each area is quite large, and there’s a fair amount to do in each area as you progress to level 50.  If Turbine brings in new content as they have in the past (and it looks like they are, with Shores of Everdim announced for June), there will be more than enough to do as long as this game is around.

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