The Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar (PC) (PC)
If you're going up against World of Warcraft, you better have an ace up your sleeve. And what better trump card than the father of modern fantasy, J.R.R. Tolkien? The developers at Turbine have plenty of experience making MMOs, and this time, they've got the definitive license to back their efforts. While Lord of the Rings Online may not be a WoW-killer, it's the closest anyone has come.
It's actually to the game's advantage that the license is for the books instead of the movies. Peter Jackson's interpretation had a distinct visual style, and the actors put their own indelible stamp on the characters. But the books rely on imagination alone, allowing plenty of room for visual interpretation. Turbine does a great job realizing their own Middle Earth, from the merry Shire to the glum Fields of Fornost, from the blackened expanse of Angmar to the beauty of Rivendell, from the haunted Barrow Downs to the majesty of Weathertop.
Shire sweet Shire
The Shire is Turbine at its best. This serves not just as the starting area for hobbits (players can choose hobbits, dwarves, elves or human characters), but a great way for any character to work his or her way through early levels. Its idyllic burrows and farms are carefully crisscrossed with quests befitting a halfling. You'll work for sheriffs, deliver pies, deal with errant chickens, and gather fireworks, all while the storyline emerges and you get glimpses of the darker times ahead, looming like the tall trees of the Old Forest behind those tall manicured hedges. Here, more than anywhere else, Turbine brings the books to life.
The graphics engine is a huge help, allowing for generous amounts of detail and long viewing distances, graced with lovely sunsets and weather effects. The character models look great, although they could have used a bit more variety. Some players might be disappointed that Turbine relies so heavily on the usual suspects like bears, boars, spiders, orcs and goblins. But it's worth noting that this virtual world has a real sense of ecology. It's carefully crafted so that barrow wrights, drakes and orcs don't just wander Middle-earth willy-nilly.
A storyline gives you a sense of progression in relation to the events of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Early on, each race has its own introductory quests, which end up with a ranger named Strider in the Prancing Pony. From here, there are a series of quests organized into "books." These follow the events of Frodo taking the Ring from the Shire, and they give Lord of the Rings Online a powerful narrative arc missing from most MMOs. You'll meet all the main characters, and your quests will have their place alongside the story.
For the most part, Lord of the Rings Online is a conventional MMO. You level up; you get new skills; you get better loot. Repeat. The classes are nothing you haven't seen, but Turbine takes special care not to break the mythos. After all, it wouldn't be Middle-earth if there were a thousand Gandalfs running around Bree shooting lightning from their fingertips.
For instance, there are no gods and no resurrection in Middle Earth, so instead of hit points, your character has morale. When you run out, you don't die, but you get demoralized, which is the same as dying, except for not being called dying. Instead of a priest or cleric, the healer is a minstrel whose music restores morale. The magic-user class is called a lore-master, and instead of flinging fireballs, he pulls a pinecone out of a pouch and sets it on fire. There are occasional super-attacks that can be pulled off by groups, but even these are built around the lore: Eagles arrive to restore morale, spiders poison the enemy, or treants deliver a mighty stomp.
Combat is largely conventional, with the usual trappings: tanks, aggro, healing, DPS and so on. However, the super-attacks, called conjunctions, are a big part of grouping and they're unique to Lord of the Rings Online. There will be times that someone scores a critical hit, which briefly pauses combat and gives everyone the opportunity to select a color. Your party can score straights, full houses, four of a kind and so on, each with powerful effects. They don't require any character-based skills and they're a huge factor in more advanced battles. Since burglars are the only class that can invoke conjunctions at will, they're nearly as valuable as healers.
The character issue
Lord of the Rings Online has some of the best character development of any MMO. There are basically four types of advancement, each related but distinct. The first is your typical questing for experience points and gear. The quests are the usual stuff, but many of them do a good job of guiding you through the world and relating to the lore, often with cool scripted sequences. There are also instanced adventures, some very long and involved. Most of your character's experience will come from quest rewards, but it's worth noting that Lord of the Rings Online leans heavily on group play, particularly at higher levels.
The second type of character advancement is built around "deeds." These are achievements, almost like you'd find on Xbox Live. They often involve killing a certain number of a particular creature, or perhaps using a skill a certain number of times -- "grinding," as it were. However, many of them are built around exploration, such as finding particular farms in the Shire or certain ruins in the Lone-Lands. The rewards for completed deeds are "traits," which can be stacked for improved bonuses to your character. For instance, the charity trait improves your mana regeneration, while loyalty trait gives you an armor bonus. You can accumulate these traits and arrange them to tweak your character build. There are even unique racial and class traits that give you new skills and abilities.
The third type of character advancement is crafting. This is also pretty conventional, allowing your character to make increasingly powerful armor, weapons, potions and so forth. But the crafting skills are divided into "professions," each with a skill dependent on other characters. For instance, a tinker can extract metal to make jewelry, but he's also got cooking skills that he can't use without the help of a farmer's crops. The economy in Lord of the Rings Online has had some rough times, but as a form of character advancement, it offers yet another nice alternative to the typical questing. It's also worth noting this is one of the few MMOs with actual bona fide farming. There's something relaxing about growing and harvesting crops.
The final type of character advancement is the most controversial. The core gameplay in Lord of the Rings Online has no player vs. player (PvP) combat. The internal fiction simply doesn't support elves at war with hobbits, and furthermore, everyone's supposed role is to help Frodo deliver the Ring to Mount Doom. But Turbine has created the Ettenmoors as a dedicated PvP area. Once your character reaches level 40 (the current cap is level 50), he can enter the Ettenmoors to face player-controlled monsters. These wargs, orcs and spiders are like separate character slots for each player, and they have their own form of advancement based on destiny points, which are earned in the Ettenmoors' PvP gameplay. These destiny points can also be used by your main character to buy temporary perks that will help you get through tough situations.
It's easy enough to see where Lord of the Rings Online is like many other MMOs, including Turbine's Asheron's Call games and the phenomenally successful World of Warcraft, but it has enough unique selling points to stand on its own. Most importantly, it's carefully built around Tolkien's lore by a developer who knows it well and has an obvious affection for it. If J.R.R. Tolkien played MMOs, it's a safe bet that this is the one he'd be playing.
This review is based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.