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The Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar

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June 13 2007

Hairy feet? Check. Beer belly? Check. Pipe weed? Check. I felt fully prepared to begin my adventures as a Hobbit in The Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar. Turbine has adapted Tolkien's famous Middle-earth into a massively multiplayer online game, which is a fairly risky proposition considering how some people feel about Tolkien.

Perhaps I should point out that I'm not the biggest Tolkien fan - I don't think I ever finished the books. I saw the movies, but I sure wasn't that guy who had to point out every detail in them that deviated slightly from the original works. When I play a game based on Tolkien, the accuracy of minor bits of lore doesn't concern me as much as engaging combat and an immersive world. That same guy who quibbled about details in the movies will no doubt find lots to quibble about in the game as well.

Graphics and Interface
As I mentioned in my beta impressions, there are plenty of impressive views in LotRO, and it's a plausible rendition of Middle-earth. The foilage, textures, and lighting on high settings is quite spectacular, and it all scales down nicely for slower machines. The world does have a lot of seams compared to some other games of this kind. Entering a small house just to talk to an NPC and leave almost always means loading screens.

You have considerable freedom of movement, including being able to jump and fall, but you can't swim underwater. I guess it's not really required for any of the major events in the story.

Movement and camera controls are exactly where you'd expect to find them, so it's a very easy transition from EverQuest 2 or World of Warcraft. The GUI is good, but there is room for improvement. Why aren't we shown the level of a monster when we mouse over it the way we are for other players? Should I really have to open my bag and switch crafting tools when I go from harvesting wood to harvesting ore, or could the game just as well handle that automatically? There have been a few complaints about the GUI, and an overhaul is planned for an upcoming patch.

Classes
While the familiar tank/healer/damage-dealer dynamic is still largely intact, LotRO takes noticeably different approach to classes than games that have come before it. Loremaster, the primary casting class, is more about crowd control than inflicting damage, and magic in general is low-key compared to the typical fantasy setting these days. Minstrels are the best healers, but other classes have healing skills that will do in a pinch. I rolled a Minstrel and I still find it peculiar to be doing damage by playing a lute at the enemy, although I guess I've seen stranger things in fantasy games. Overall it's a fairly novel class system that fits Tolkien reasonably well, even if it's a little contrived in places.

Quests
As you would expect, questing is a central part of LotRO. Once again, similarities with other games abound: quest givers are clearly marked, questing is a quicker way to gain experience than grinding mobs, and you have convenient quest logs and trackers to keep you up to date on your progress.

LotRO has several categories of quests, the most important of which are epic quests. The epic quest line is clearly noted in your journal, and it intertwines with the famous story through the use of instances. Some of these quests can be soloed, but others require a Fellowship, which is LotRO's version of a group. While there is a good system in place for finding groups, it seems under-used by players. A Kinship (the equvalent of a guild), is still the way to go if you want to get good groups together quickly.

The game already has a respectable amount of solo content, especially at the lower levels, but that hasn't stopped players from asking for more. And they got more in the first major content patch, which went live on the same day I finished this review.

What I've seen of the epic quests have been put together with care and they do a nice job of including the heroes from the books. The bulk of non-epic quests are a real mixed bag. A good number of them are mundane deliveries or orders to go talk to NPC so-and-so. Of course, the "kill 20 wolves" and "collect 20 goblin ears" sort of quests are also common. Some of these could be a little more polished. It's rather frustrating to be asked to kill 24 wolves in an area that only has 4 or 5 wolf spawns. Fortunately, there are a lot to choose from, so you can usually find a quest that suits you.

Deeds and Titles
There are rewards to be had in LotRO outside of questing and leveling. Each of the game's regions has an extensive list of Deeds associated with it. Deeds are discovered inadvertently as you go about your business in Middle-earth. When you complete the first task in a Deed, the details and rewards you will get for completing it appear in your Deed Log. For example, if you kill a snake, you may find that there is a Deed that can be acquired by hunting down 20 snakes of that kind. The game has Exploration, Lore, Reputation, and Slayer Deeds, frequently granting you an increase to one of your base stats. Coupled with Titles that can be appended to your name, it's a nice implementation of this concept.

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