Abandon all spare time ye who enter here.
*Stops playing Lord of the Rings Online*
*Starts writing a review*
Welcome to Middle Earth!
*Stops writing, resumes playing*
*Stops playing, pees, resumes playing*
*Boss looks in, angrily*
Ahem, yes. The Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar is the solid new MMORPG from Turbine that blends the lore of Middle Earth (Third Age, nerds) with mostly familiar MMORPG conventions. But before you don a cloak and head down to your local video game retailer, know this: Lord of the Rings Online isn’t good because it accurately and carefully portrays places and heroes from the books and movies. It’s just a good game.
That’s because it was made by the veterans at Turbine, the same guys who made the Asheron’s Call games. If you never played either of them, then take my word for it, these dudes know how to make you forget to eat, sleep, drink and pee. Using World of Warcraft as their model (the controls, heads-up display and several other features are identical), they’ve scaled back the PvP, replaced Talents with Traits, and added a few nifty quirks that make Lord of the Rings Online feel much more original than it is.
Before I go on, allow me to make a small disclaimer: I’ve played about thirteen hours of Lord of the Rings Online, and have seen only just beyond the starting areas of each race.
*Takes a short break, plays some Lord of the Rings Online.*
As I was saying, I’ve only played the game for about sixteen hours. That’s kind of like visiting Abilene, Texas for a week and then trying to pass judgment on the entire United States [Editors Note: That might actually work, have you checked out the government lately?]. And since this is an online game, much of what I’m about to laud or lament will undoubtedly change in future patches.
Nonetheless, I’ve seen enough to be terrified by the amount of time I might spend playing Lord of the Rings Online just in the course of writing its review. A big part of that is the Deed system, an insidious little invention that allows you to relinquish possession of your soul at your own pace.
Here’s how it works. Deeds are akin to quests, and they all come with rewards – either Traits or Titles. Traits enhance your attributes, and Titles are nifty little epithets that follow your character’s name. For example, the first Deed you complete is simply the act of choosing a starting location for your character, and the reward is a Title. Since my character, Drunk, started in the Blue Mountains, he became Drunk of the Blue Mountains. Though you can collect many titles for completing various deeds, only one may be active at a time. So no, I could never be “Drunk of the Blue Mountains Who Tames Wolves, Rescues Kittens, and Loves Cheese.” Though I could probably be “Drunk Who Rescues Kittens.” My life’s dream come true!
Nearly every realm in Middle Earth, power in your skill list, and monster in the game has a Deed associated with it. By simply using your powers and traveling through the game, you are bound to unlock a slew of them. This is a compelling system because of the way it frequently and unexpectedly rewards you. On the other hand, if you actually like grinding, you’ll also have plenty to do.
Whichever approach you take, you’ll get Traits. These usually have names like “Charity” and “Zeal,” but more importantly, they each contain attribute bonuses. You can only equip a few at a time, though, and this is primarily how, say, one minstrel is distinguished from another.
Speaking of minstrels, they’re awesome. I expected a pansy buffer/healer class that would be worthless by itself (like those damn bards), but minstrels are loaded with instant-cast direct-damage spells that simultaneously buff the entire party and r0xx0r enemy b0xx0rs. They can cast on the run, have virtually no cooldowns (they don’t have to wait between spell casts), and they can heal. Hmmm, something doesn’t sound right there.
*Two hours of in-game “Fact checking” later…*
Nope. All pretty accurate. Though the minstrel packs a wallop (have those words ever been written before?), the other classes do too. You’d never know this, though, just from reading the class descriptions. For example, the manual claims the Burglar class is primarily a “Debuffer.” If by Debuffer they mean “One who repeatedly stabs people in the back” then yeah, I guess that description works.
And even though the game tries to tie its class roles to Tolkien’s lore, it doesn’t do a good job. Fittingly, the best example of this is the Lore Master class. In any other game, the Lore Master would be called a Wizard, Mage, or Warlock. It’s a pet class (has an animal minion that does its bidding) that shoots fireballs. The game tries to call them “Hot Embers,” we call them Hadoukens.
Leaping lore aside, the classes seem reasonably self reliant and balanced. But the races… well the races are as unbalanced as you might think, but in ways you could never imagine. Okay, so the Hobbits are the least “Mighty” of the bunch, meaning they don’t hit hard. That makes sense, but get this - even they are sturdier than Elves. Elves have the fewest hitpoints of any class in the game, so right off the bat they’re at a slight disadvantage in PvP. Even worse, they regenerate mana and hitpoints more slowly than any other race, making them the worst spell casters in the game.
If you’ve read any Tolkien or seen the movies, you know this is sacrilege. Elves are not pansies, they’re demigods. They regularly fight Balrogs barehanded and swipe jewels from the crown of the God of Evil. Yet, Elves are not even eligible for the Burglar class. Talk about stabbed in the back. If anything they should be overpowered! Sigh, I’ll just go ahead and give myself a wedgie now.
*Puts off wedgie, dinner, bill payments, breakfast, plays more Lord of the Rings Online*
Though Elves are the worst race for player versus player combat, Lord of the Rings Online isn’t much of a PvP game. When your main character reaches level 10, you can create up to five monster characters. These characters start at level 50, the level cap for the game, and are restricted to a zone known as the Ettenmoors. While they can never level up, they gain Destiny Points for killing NPCs, completing quests, and slaying players which can be spent on all sorts of skills and traits.
Don’t get me wrong, there is PvP, and you can spend hours making your monster character nice and tough. But as far as recent MMORPGs go, this is some of the most limited PvP content you can find outside of The Sims Online.
Not to mention the fact that there’s only one faction in the game. Sure, playing a level 50 Warg Stalker is kind of fun, but what about levels 1-49? Is a level 1 Stalker a puppy? I guess we’ll find out in the inexorable expansion.
The mediocre graphics, though, you can have right away. Actually, the graphics are more mixed than mediocre. The settings look great, with all sorts of cool castles, caves and trees. But the player animations are wooden and blocky, and the game itself doesn’t have the same pervasive sense of style found in either the books or the films.
The music is generally pretty good – I can whistle the main theme off the top of my head, but some of the sound effects are pretty questionable, especially when you’re fighting human female enemies. Let me put it this way - it doesn’t sound like you’re fighting them. But that’s not a big deal. What is a big deal is the fact that you can buy a musical instrument, type /music, and then play it with the 1 through 8 keys for everyone to hear. It’s even cooler than it sounds. After just a couple minutes I was playing The Flintstones. I definitely had a dabba doo time.
But it didn’t start or stop with the song. The Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar isn’t the best MMORPG I’ve ever played, but I’ve played that one to death. With strong classes, tons of content, and some imaginative little features, this game is worth a trip to Mount Doom. Or at least the toy store.
*Resumes playing Lord of the Rings Online*