Tolkien is arguably the father of the High Fantasy genre, which nearly all MMORPG Games draw their inspiration from. So it was inevitable that a Developer would make an MMORPG based on his best known work. That fell to Turbine (Asheron's Call, D&D Online) who in 2007 released Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar to critical acclaim. Two expansions later and Lord of the Rings Online has brought in a Free to Play business model along side their normal monthly subscription model and its from this point in the games life I'll be basing my review.
To begin with, you obviously can't have everyone running around being Frodo or Aragorn. So Turbine developed a side plot that runs parallel to the main storyline of the books, which has you helping the Fellowship's struggle in other ways and sometimes crossing paths with famous characters from the books. It works rather well and each expansion or volume adds to this ongoing “side saga”.
So you begin the game by choosing from one of the four free peoples of Middle-Earth, Man, Elf, Dwarf and everyone's hairy foot favourites the Hobbits. You get to choose from 9 classes each one the usual variant of Tank, Damage, Ranged, Healer, etc. After this you choose where to begin your journey, which is limited in part by race choice and then off you go. In my adventure as a Dwarf Champion i began in a Dwarf stronghold nestled in snowy mountains. A nice little intro tutorial establishes the beginning of my adventure. I get to witness Gimli being saved from a Cave Troll by Gandalf, who then proceeds to send me on further quests. I also got I got to meet the dwarves of The Hobbit book fame.
In general Lord of the Rings Online follows the standard template of other fantasy online MMORPG games, the character system and combat mechanics are of the traditional variety. Everything has a Tolkien-esque feel or name to it, for instance quests are broken down into Chapters and Books with the expansions completing the naming convention with being called Volumes. In a similar vein magic was limited to 5 wizards in the books. So traditional RPG magic has been replaced with active skills that require “power” and certain items are used to create the effects magic would in other RPGs. In a way Turbine have done a good job of trying to shoe-horn Tolkien into a World of Warcraft style RPG.
PvP is handled a bit differently then in other MMORPGs as well. Since the free peoples of Middle-Earth tend not to casually slay each other, Turbine created the Monster Play feature. When the player's character reaches level 10 they unlock the ability to play as a level 65 monster. These monster players have access to their own skill sets, items and quests. The main point though is to battle the Heroes (other free people players of level 40+) over control of five outposts in the Ettenmoors area. When a side controls two or more outposts they gain access to the Delving of Frór dungeon beneath the Ettenmoors, which gives you access to loot laden quests. Fighting well in Monster Play earns you ranks, which lets you obtain high-grade equipment for your characters. A unique take on PvP and something that fits in well with Lord of the Rings lore game-play wise but I feel PvP is done better in other games more geared towards that side of the MMORPG Games market.
One of the nice features is the music system where you can learn to play the lute at level 5 and even more instruments if you chose minstrel class. Using macros, the instrument can be played in real time using abc notation, with the music broadcast to nearby players. You can turn this off though so you don't have to endure people who sound like they're murdering a cat rather than playing the lute. Clans are called Fellowship's and give the ability to perform Conjunctions when in groups. Conjunctions are group combat moves performed by multiple members of the Fellowship, this allows for some nice group tactics. Another mention goes into player housing where you too can own a nice piece of Middle-Earth real estate and furnish it with the loot from your travels.
Graphically the game is beautiful and really brings to life the landscapes of Middle-Earth, helped in part by DX10. This added with an amazing soundtrack really does give this sense of being in a larger than life world, which goes a long way to help feeling immersed as you go about your adventure. For a game that's now 3 years old the graphics keep it looking like a fresh release.
Since its one of the points of the review I'll talk about how Free to Play works in Lord of the Rings Online. You can now earn ingame or pay money for Turbine points (TP), which are spent using the ingame store. The store features the usual stuff like consumables and cosmetic only items such as clothes. There isn't any high grade gear instead they sell you the games quest content instead. So if you want uber weapons/armour you buy a quest pack and go grind for them instead of outright buying them. A more rewarding and fair approach I feel.
Accounts are divided into Free, Premium and VIP. Free as you might expect has a lot of limitations, like buy only in auctions, max gold and chat channels, but you can buy limit removals and quests using earned TP, though this is a very slow way of playing. Premium is like Free except without as many restrictions and is achieved by completing a real money transaction at any point with Lord of the Rings Online, such as buying an expansion or paying for TP. Then you have VIP, which gives you access to everything minus expansions and a 500 TP stipend a month for a monthly subscription fee. Depending how long you play and what you buy, Premium may be better value for money than say VIP. It may seem a bit complicated at first but its definitely one of the better done Free to Play/Monthly subscription hybrid MMORPG Games out there.
As a whole, Lord of the Rings Online sucked me into its world and it hasn't quite loosened its grip yet. It should be just another MMORPG but somehow I felt so deeply immersed by the game that even the kill 10 rabbits type quests didn't feel stale. Overall content seemed rather big if you take into account the expansions, but it seemed that long time subscribers were finding it lacking after 3 years, same with PvP. But then this game is for the immersion seeker and the Lord of the Rings fan, who definitely get more mileage out of the experience.
Zac DaiLord of the Rings Online - F2P Review,