With quite a few high-profile MMORPGs coming out this year, Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar had almost slipped off my radar until the stress test was announced. I decided to add to the stress by downloading the client and giving it a try for a couple days. Although I expect stress tests to be frustrating and laggy at times, it went very well and turned out to be an enjoyable experience.
Can I Be Gandalf?
No, you cannot be Gandalf, but you can count on running into him a few times on your journey. Playable races include Human, Dwarf, Hobbit and Elf. Dwarves have the distinction of being male only, and Humans can play as a greater variety of classes than the other races. The available classes are Minstrel, Captain, Guardian, Hunter, Lore-master, Burglar, and Champion. Some of these classes, like Minstrels and Guardians, will perform the standard roles of healer and tank, but others have been approached differently. For example, Lore-masters, the only real spell-casting class, are more about pets and crowd control than they about dealing damage. In fact, magic is toned down considerably from the norm in fantasy games these days.
I'm sure some fans will lament the inability to join the dark forces of Sauron, except for limited periods in a PvP scenario. Perhaps we'll see more of Sauron's army in a future expansion, but until then you'll be one of the good guys.
I settled on a Dwarf Hunter, which is a class that specializes in ranged combat. My bow turned out to be more effective in groups, where I could keep a distance from the enemy, than it was solo, where enemies would typically run up to me after the first hit and force me to melee them down. Oddly enough, some of special bow skills worked at point blank range, although I'm not sure if this was intended. I was able to queue several skills at a time on my shortcut bar, which changes the combat dynamic a little.
Graphics and Interface
There are plenty of impressive views in LotRO, and it's a plausible rendition of Middle-earth. Turbine has struck a nice balance between high-end graphics features and options that will give you decent performance on modest hardware. The game would get choppy when I ran into a large group of players, but it was a stress test, and that sort of lag is typical of MMORPGs.
LotRO does have quite a few seams; when you enter a building, major city, or dungeon you frequently get a loading screen. The engine allows you to jump, fall, and move around zones very freely. I didn't come across much water, but when I did I was surprised that I could only swim on the surface, there was no way to dive underneath.
The interface is almost everything it should be, which is to say that it's practically identical to the World of Warcraft interface, right down to the "dressing room" where you can see items on your character without equipping them. Keyboard movement and mouse camera controls will be readily familiar to MMORPG veterans, and easy to learn for newcomers to the genre.
The Epic Story
Turbine has inserted elements of the story behind Lord of the Rings using instances (play areas that are spawned exclusively for you or your party). This allows you to spend a lot of time questing in persistent zones, periodically bringing you back to the story with an instanced quest, which often entails helping the heroes from the book. Your character is immersed in the story with just such an instance first thing, and it's an effective way of bringing the story to life for each player at their own pace, even in a massively multiplayer world.
There is an emphasis on questing in LotRO, and many of the quests are of the usual MMORPG varieties. Progress comes very easily in the early levels, which fly past in mere hours. You certainly won't find yourself standing in one place grinding mobs for any length of time. It seems very friendly to solo and casual players, but of course, I've only seen a small fraction of what the game has to offer.
Player vs. Player Monster
Given that creating a character in Sauron's army isn't an option, Turbine has taken an innovative approach to PvP that allows players to temporarily become monsters. This is only possible in one zone so far, and it's not accessible until level 40. From what I understand it's similar to WoW's Alterac Valley battleground, involving a large number of players and various intermediate objectives. If it turns out to be a popular feature I can imagine Turbine expanding on it in the future.
I'm not sure why, but I had low expectations when I was loading up LotRO for the first time. MMORPGs based on big movie franchises haven't proven to be that engaging in the past, but I think a lot of people are going to like where Turbine is going with this. Rather that reinvent the genre, they've taken many of the best elements of existing MMORPGs and blended them into Tolkien's world with just enough instancing to keep the rich storyline intact. While there's not much here for PvP fans, the PvE side of the game seems pretty solid, and I suspect there will be a big increase in the number hobbits and elves running through virtual reality when this game launches in April.