As a pretty experienced player of Massive Multiplayer Online games, I was shocked when I realised LOTRO had slipped under my radar. After the bitter disappointment of Age of Conan, I found myself looking for another game and - finding the game at a knock-down price - decided to give it a go.
Fans of the genre will be very impressed with LOTRO. Developers Turbine have learnt from World of Warcraft's accessibility and quick-fix play but have not forgotten that a game also needs depth AND breadth.
What you have here is a game that gives players the opportunity to have their hack and slash fun but also backs it up with a strong community spirit, namely with a whole host of "trivial stuff" to entertain players. In what seems a throwback to older games, for example, players may own houses, something the WoW team looked at but dismissed. This may seem like a pointless exercise but here Turbine have gone back to the MMO roots and realised that for some people, Status Items are a big draw. Similarly, the title/deeds system - which is effectively LOTRO's take on Xbox Achievements - gives a further opportunity for bragging rights.
There's also an element of intelligence required in quests. Unlike other MMOs where quests involve going from one blip to another on your map, LOTRO leaves it up to the player to figure out the finite details. Don't worry if that sounds sloppy - it's not. It simply means that the game requires you to give consideration to your quests and effectively turns them from simple blip-chasing karaoke into something that actually engages you.
Then there's the Epic Quest line. Very cleverly the developers have integrated the events of the books into the storyline, with the player assisting the journey of the Ring and the defence against the Enemy, but in a very subtle manner that compliments the original in a well thought-out manner.
As for gameplay, it's pretty much as you'd expect - combat is based around auto attacks with a queued special move system, loot can be taken from creatures and used/sold and various characters give you quests to complete. There's nothing particularly revolutionary there but that's not a negative comment, as what is there is done very well.
Quests are well thought-out, interesting and suited to the setting. For example, a frontiersman may ask you to defend his homestead against attacking bandits, whereas a Hobbit farmer may ask you to help him woo his neighbour. Although these quests are really only based around a few basic concepts - kill X number of creatures, collect X number of items, go talk to X - the difference in LOTRO compared to other games is that they're very well-balanced.
Unlike many games, playing isn't a chore and you don't feel yourself battling constantly to advance. Instead, the quests are pitched just at that right level of being challenging but not impossible (I find the comments about "forced grouping" to be rather strange here, as that's not my experience of the game at all...) Visually, the game is very impressive and the engine rattles along at a cracking pace. There's very little slowdown and the game looks great, even on the lower settings. Not that you'll need to lower them (unless your PC is really out of date) as the engine is capable of rendering multiple characters without any slowdown (unlike some other MMOs I could mention) and even the massive task of drawing the cities barely causes the engine to sweat. It's a great achievement.
Sound-wise the game also excels, with great ambient audio. The only downside is that the ambient music is VERY ambient, being little more than a slow guitar strumming or low -rumble. It works, but it lacks the oomph of World of Warcraft's or Age of Conan's choral pieces.
Overall, LOTRO delivers on what it promises: great visuals, fun gameplay, depth and a lot of systems in place to keep you playing for a long time. It's also one of the most polished, professional MMOs yet.
And if you want proof of how good this game is, I've cancelled my World of Warcraft account! Yes, it's THAT good.
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