LOTRO: One Year Later
Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar started life over six years ago as Middle-Earth Online. Since then the MMO world has seen the likes of City of Heroes, EVE Online and, of course, the mighty World of Warcraft. How much of a chance for success does a game based on the grandfather of high fantasy have in the same marketplace as EVE, EverQuest 2 and WoW? Well, it turns out that it has a very good chance, especially considering the giant gleaming pile of awards it has earned since its release last year. Are they well deserved? Is this the one MMO to rule them all? (Oh, now you knew that was coming!)
The Story Thus Far
I’ll spare you a butchered version of J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic saga. If you haven’t read The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy you owe it to yourself to run out and grab yourself a copy. At least go see the movies. I’ll wait. Are you done yet? Excellent. So, the back story of the Lord of the Rings Online is that while the Fellowship is assembling and heading to Rivendell, there is a growing evil in Angmar which has greatly concerned Gandalf. If this evil is allowed to persist, the Fellowship will be destroyed before it even has a chance. Angmar was the kingdom of the Witch-King, the leader of Sauron’s nine Nazgul. Long before the events in the Lord of the Rings, the Witch-King was banished from Angmar by a combined army of Elves and Men. Angmar fell to ruin but remained a stronghold of evil and someone has started rebuilding its armies to conquer the northern part of Middle-Earth. This is actually hinted at in the Appendices of the Lord of the Rings books which Turbine has rights to use as source material. The premise is that the reason Angmar was never an issue in the main Lord of the Rings story was because YOU took care of it.
Each of the four races in the game (Dwarf, Elf, Man and Hobbit) has their own introductory story which eventually weaves its way into the main storyline. For example, as a dwarf, your character actually gets to see Gandalf, Thorin and the other dwarves off as they head to the Shire to pick up their Burglar before assaulting Smaug at the Lonely Mountain. Dwarves and elves begin their careers, after time fast-forwards to the present, combating a group of traitorous dwarves who are under the influence of the Witch-King and rise to power after Thorin leaves. Hobbits begin their story shortly after the Nazgul raid the Shire looking for the Ring. They soon team up with the humans to work with a Ranger who is trying to defend one of their settlements from a band of brigands who are also under the influence of the Witch-King. Eventually all four races head to Bree to meet Strider (Aragorn).
The stories continue to evolve and converge through general questing but Turbine has also included epic quests, divided up into Books, which move their storyline forward. This is where the timeline might get a little confusing. Do the first Epic Book and you’ll meet Strider at the Prancing Pony in Bree who is waiting for two Hobbits. Go to Rivendell and you’ll see the entire fellowship waiting to set off for Mordor. However, if you follow the Epic Books in order, the transition is a lot smoother. You can also just not worry about the discrepancy and that works just fine, too.
There are seven character classes in LoTRO to choose from: Burglar, Captain, Champion, Guardian, Hunter, Loremaster and Minstrel. Some races are limited to a smaller selection of classes. For example, it wouldn’t do to have an Elf Burglar and a Dwarf Burglar would just be too noisy. Each of the seven classes have their own roles but many share functionality with other classes, though they play completely differently. The Minstrel is the main healer but the Captain and Loremaster have some weaker healing abilities. The Guardian is the main tank but Champions, Captains and even Burglars can fill the role in a pinch. Magic in Middle-Earth is reserved for Wizards and there are only a handful in existence so the Loremaster is the next best thing. They hurl flaming acorns, command the power of nature and talk with animals. Hunters are good for tracking targets, are absolutely deadly with a bow and can travel around Middle-Earth in the blink of an eye. Burglars use their stealth to get to places undetected by the enemy and can initiate powerful group attacks. You’ll quickly find that five character slots just aren’t enough.
Deeds, Traits and Virtues
In each area of the game there are a certain set of monsters to kill, places to explore and goals to achieve that will earn you rewards in the form of titles and virtues (such as Determination, Loyalty, Honesty, and Idealism). Each character can equip up to five of these virtues that give you buffs to some of your characters attributes. The virtues come in levels so they can become more and more powerful as your game progresses. Some virtues are more useful to certain classes than others. Some of the better virtues require you to kill a massive amount of monsters in order to complete the deed.
Your character will also unlock racial and class-specific traits to equip. Again, five is the maximum you can have equipped at one time, except for legendary traits which has a maximum of two. These traits can be unlocked by killing monsters, through quests, and by collecting pages to skill books (in the case of the legendary traits). Both the trait and virtue system give each character some customizability as you can have a room full of the same class and none of them will agree on the best build.
The crafting system in LoTRO is more complex than WoW and simpler than EQ2. There are nine crafting professions: Cook, Farmer, Forrester, Metalsmith, Prospector, Scholar, Tailor, Woodworker, and Weaponsmith. They are divided into vocations which are comprised of three professions. For example, the Explorer vocation is made up of Forrester, Prospector and Tailor. Each character can choose one vocation which promotes cooperation and trade...or alts. There are hundreds of items to craft ranging from furniture to weapons to bowls of porridge for the Loremaster’s pet. At higher levels, the crafted weapons, armor and jewelery are relatively good in comparason to quest rewards, especially if a critical success occurs resulting in a much improved item. Quest rewards still have the edge, though. There will be much more to say about crafting once it evolves in the Mines of Moria expansion.
There are two levels of houses available to players, simple and deluxe. Deluxe houses are bigger but cost more to purchase and maintain. Kinships can also purchase a hall for a large sum of gold. Houses are found in instanced neighborhoods in four racial-specific areas. Each neighborhood is made up of a specific number of simple, deluxe and kinship houses. They look and feel very much like neighborhoods. The dwarf housing is located in a large cavern that is appropriately dark and atmospheric. The Hobbit neighborhood, in contrast, is open and picturesque with a pond and streams running through it. Each character gets two skills to take them directly to their personal house and kinship house once an hour. There is only one house per account allowed at this time, kinship house not included. Your house is a great place to show off trophies and other rewards and Turbine is adding more and more goodies as the game goes on.
LoTRO’s take on PvP is a little different than you’ve probably encountered before. Turbine wanted PvP to be accessible but not forced on the player so they created Monster Play. As soon as any character on your account reaches level 10 the ability to create a playable monster is unlocked. Monsters characters (Creeps) inhabit an area of the game called the Ettinmoors which is only accessible by player characters (Freeps, for “Free Peoples") after they reach level 40. The monster classes available are Blackarrow Orcs (archers), Orc Reavers (tank), Uruk-Hai Warleaders (healers, buffers), Warg Stalkers (stealth), and Spider Weavers (crowd control) and the new Orc Defiler (healing). You can have one of each class and they are persistant from session to session. Creeps start out automatically at level 50 and don’t have any equipment per se. They have a series of upgradable skills and traits that can be assigned to make them more powerful.
In contention is a series of keeps that can be captured by either side. The side that controls the majority of keeps gains access to a new area of the Ettinmoors called the Delving of Fror. The Delving contains powerful enemies (to both sides) and some very attractive rewards. What happens if you lose your keeps while you are inside the Delving of Fror? You better watch your back because the other side is about to come pouring in behind you. But fear not, the penalty for dying in PvP is very minor. You are sent back to the closest rez circle but don’t incur the normal penalties of wear and tear that you would when fighting NPCs. PvMP is so attractive that many players never venture outside the Ettinmoors when they can help it.
Another aspect of PvMP is the ability to shelf your character for a short time and play as either a Troll or a Ranger. These two characters are VERY powerful and, because of that, they are limited to two trolls/rangers on the map if your side is losing and one if your side is winning. It is very intimidating as a Freep to see a troll lumbering towards you, club swinging, knocking over your allies like bowling pins. Rangers have the advantage of stealth and can pick off Creeps one at a time with relative ease. Many complaints about PvMP stem from balancing these two powerful entities.
The bulk of the complaints about PvMP are about balance in general. At the beginning, the philosophy was that Creeps will never be as powerful as Freeps in a 1-on-1 fight. As the game went on, they’ve abandoned that tenet to some degree and as a result there is a percieved imbalance that favors the Creeps. It all depends on who you talk to though. The Creeps control the map most of the time when I check out the Ettinmoors and when the Freeps take over its never for very long. Much of it could be owed to the fact that we have a VERY organized core of Creeps on Elendilmir, the server that US/Oceanic TOG plays on. Either way, I usually have fun when I join in.
I can almost sense all of the WoW players cringing as they read that but raiding in LoTRO is fun. Yes it can be long but the beauty of it is that its completely optional and there are checkpoints that save your progress so you can call it a night and start fresh the next day. You can get similar rewards from PvMP in the Delving of Fror so you are not compelled to raid if that’s not your thing. You can craft some really nice items, too. Not as good as the rewards from raiding or PvMP but if you don’t want to do either of those then you really don’t need that uber set of armor, do you? There are two major raids in LoTRO at the moment. The first is an area called Helegrod in the Misty Mountains, requiring a full 24 person group. The second is a place called The Rift, which only requires half that. There are also a number of 6-person “end-game” instances which can sometimes last so long that you feel that you might as well have been raiding. Each area has an intriguing story line and the bosses are challenging which keeps you motivated...even after your 10th run.
Middle-Earth Turns One-ish
Starting a few months after LoTRO went live, Turbine released its first free content update. The first update consisted of a major new play area and a continuation of the Epic story. Future updates were released at the rate of about once a quarter. Turbine gave us new zones, new armor sets, updates to character classes, and chickens. Yes, I said chickens! After doing some basic quests in the Shire, players have the opportunity to actually run around as a chicken and do quests while evading pretty much everything in the world. Much like the PvMP element of the game evolved from giving the developers some freedom to invent, Chicken Play has become the basis for playable trolls and rangers in the Ettinmoors, some unique missions in the Epic quest line, as well as other surprises we will see in the near future.
The most recent content update has just been released and it contains yet more new gameplay elements. Turbine has hinted through Town Criers in the major cities that the main baddie from the Shadows of Angmar portion of the game will be sending out random attacks against the towns in a last-ditch effort to seize control of the region. They’ve also introduce daily repeatable quests which asks players to collect and turn in relics and will have some bearing on what players will experience on each server leading up to the expansion this fall. Turbine has been very mysterious about this.
Tubine has added seasonal festivals which offer fun and prizes. For example, you can join the Inn League and go on a pub crawl that has you travelling to each of the taverns in the Shire to drink ale and return to Bag End before time runs out. The drunk effects in the game are very dramatic so by the end your screen will be fuzzy and the landscape will pitch and yaw making it difficult to run in a straight line. The Spring Festival had a quest earlier this year that asked you to drink then run on top of a crooked fence and reach the other side in a very short time period. The reward was a keg for your house that, after partaking of it, you pass out and awaken in one of a number of random locations in the game world. Its not all about the ale though...there are dance competitions, horse races and other fun events.
“The board is set, the pieces are moving”
The first paid expansion will be the Mines of Moria and it will be arriving this fall. Here’s what we know so far:
* Three new regions: Eregion, Moria, and Lothlorien
* Level cap increase to 60
* Legendary weapons which can be enchanted and will generate quests to make them even more powerful
* New classes: Warden and Runekeeper
* A brand new epic story arc
Eregion is doorstep to Moria and it also contains the legendary Ring Forges where the rings that the elves, dwarves and human-turned-Ringwraiths wear were forged. Moria will be a very large area contained entirely underground. Since we’re usually one step behind the story, the Balrog has been defeated and it has created a vacuum of power with the forces of good and evil struggling to retake the valuable real estate. Lothlorien is, of course, the elf stronghold where Galadriel lives.
The level cap will be increasing by 10 and we will supposedly be seeing new skills, and possibly traits, to compensate. Also, monster player levels will be unlocked up to 60 as well. Since monster players begin the game at the level cap, there will be a whole new experience dynamic added to get them to the new ceiling. Turbine has also hinted at some big changes coming to the Ettinmoors to enhance the PvMP portion of the game.
One of the coolest-sounding features is the addition of Legendary Weapons. Players will be able to wield weapons similar to Sting and Narsil from the novels which have a history and a…presence… They will be able to be slotted in order to enhance their power. Turbine has also said that they will act as quest hubs and you will be able to run quests that affect the weapon somehow.
We will be receiving two new character classes when the Mines of Moria goes live. The Warden is supposed to be patterned after the elves that live in Lothlorien and guard its borders. They will be an agility-based fighter with the ability to chain skills together for greater effect. The Runekeeper is a bit of an enigma. Tolkien has left magic in the hands of evil sorcerers and beings that live beyond the mortal plain. However, Turbine has hinted that the Runekeeper will be a type of magic user so it will be interesting to see how that gets justified in the lore. The Runekeeper’s focus will be on secondary healing and magic that causes stackable damage over time effects.
Finally, there will be an all new epic story arc focusing, presumably, around the Mines of Moria. That’s just a guess on my part but it should be a semi-educated one considering the name of the expansion. There were a host of other tweaks and enhancements announced with the expansion, including a final free content update to wrap up the Shadows of Angmar story that will drop simultaneously with the expansion’s release.
Lord of the Rings Online is, by far, my favorite game to date. I say that having played countless other “classic” titles out there. It has so much to offer for every kind of player. However, I do have to say that if you are a hardcore Tolkien lore fan you will have a tough time playing if you can’t see past some of the changes that had to be made in order to make the game fun. Also, if you have no interest in Tolkien lore then there might not be enough there to distinguish this game from other high-fantasy settings. I fall under neither of those categories which is why I am a lifetime subscriber and will be there long after I turn in the quest to drop that Ring into the volcano.