In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.
I played Lord of the Rings Online at launch and thought it was fantastic. Eventually I moved on to other games, but it’s always held a special place in my gaming heart as an MMO with an amazing community and world. With the transition to free to play, graphical updates and a new expansion pack, I thought it was time to go back to the game and see what it’s like. SPOILERS – it’s really good. Through this series we’re going to chronicle our experiences playing the game from the beginning of a new character, and try to look at all of the game mechanics and free to play system as we go.
Setting up the client is a breeze now, but does involve a few lengthy downloads. Even after downloading the client through Steam, patching seems to be working through the game launcher, so once you launch the game you still need to wait a while for it to sort itself out. Thankfully once you’re in creating an account and setting up your configuration is as easy as any single-player game. You don’t need a credit card to make an account, and so far I’ve never been asked for one.
As a free player you’ve still got a wealth of options at the character creation screen, which is without a doubt my favourite part of any RPG. You choose whichever server you want (and there’s a range of well populated ones wherever you live) and then you’re thrown into a familiar customisation interface. You get to choose your race from Hobbits, Men, Dwarves and Elves, and your class from a broad selection, with only two options greyed out at the moment that you would need to pay for. So far it’s so every other MMO, but here’s where you start to see the first signs of a good use of an excellent licence. With most races you can choose your gender too, but if you select Dwarves it loads a new screen with no gender choice, because male and female dwarves look the same. This is a small lore point, perhaps a joke even, but it shows that Turbine have paid attention and it brought a smile to my face when I was looking around. In honour of the recent film, and since I’ve never played one before I picked a Hobbit, and chose the Minstrel class.
After your initial selections you get taken to a second screen with the more cosmetic choices. Rather than just giving you a bunch of different numbered pre-set choices, LOTRO gives you a few different backgrounds for your specific race. Hobbits from different places look slightly different and have different naming conventions, so you get a few different choices and some advice (that you could completely ignore) on what sort of name they would usually have. Speaking as an English teacher, they’ve really gone to town on these descriptions, not just giving you examples, but some information and history on how those names are created and where their roots lie. Another bit of fanboy service perhaps, but a welcome bit of flavour to what can sometimes be a very sterile process. So we’ve ended up with our brand new character, Teepard on the Dwarrodelf server.
The game’s opening takes you through a brief semi-interactive cut scene to explain what’s happening. Don’t read on if you don’t want any story section spoilt for you, but then perhaps don’t read articles titled ‘Playing Lord of the Rings Online’.
Straight away we found ourself in the Shire, along a familiar-looking road. Asked to walk up and talk to another hobbit, you get introduced to all of the basic controls. Being used to MMO I was a little impatient with this, just running through and grabbing a starting weapon. Soon enough, some more hobbits appeared, with the nametags ‘Frodo Baggins, Samwise Gamgee and Peregrin Took’. Like DC Universe, Lord of the Rings Online isn’t afraid of using major characters in the story, and to open your hobbity tale seeing a Nazgul attacking the heroes of the story instantly makes your character feel like part of the lore.
What follows is a simple run through a back road as you try to escape the rider and have to fight a few weak spiders to get you used to your attacks. As a minstrel you can do a little bit of stabbing, but the majority of your attacks come from playing a Lute, which is awesome. Nothing like facing down a spider and rocking a powerchord to melt its face off. Each attack plays a little tune, and has an effect, then once you have three built up, you can play a finisher, which is a little flourish that has a slightly more powerful effect, a decent heal to begin with. The gameplay is very much like most MMOs, but playing some music is much more interesting than casting a generic healing spell, and you can almost get carried away with making little tunes as you’re fighting. The Minstrel is ostensibly a healing class, and so making healers’ lives more interesting by allowing them to provide music as they fight is definitely a noble goal. Eventually you meet up with Strider and get taken to a town called Archet, where you story intertwines with that of the players who have picked humans.
Archet is a small village/ town that opens up to a large ruin next to a lake and a forest. Considering the age of the game, the environment can really look stunning, and DirectX 11 water effects and reflections create a world you actually want to spend time in. I spent a while just running around in the flowers and watching people come and go on the road, playing my lute for them as they passed. The lute doesn’t have to just be used as a weapon, you can equip it at any time and use the number keys to play different notes, like a real instrument, and since all the notes are just taken from a scale, whatever you do sounds alright. Things like this are immersive and can lead to spontaneous community interactions as others come to rest a while and listen to your play.
The opening zone is fairly standard for MMOs, albeit with a pretty good story of betrayal and small-town naivety. You meet some interesting characters and lose some along the way too. The area was well populated while I was there (a Saturday lunchtime) and other players aren’t shouting at your for being a noob, or complaining about this or that. I even noticed some light role-playing when I grouped up with a randomer to clear out a bandit den.
The number of little gameplay additions that make things better for you as a player is simply astounding. You don’t have to click on bodies to pick up loot, it picks it up automatically and saves it in a little icon at the side of your screen, for you to shift through when you want as long as it’s within an hour, this helps the flow of the game and stops every encounter from turning into a chore as you pick through loot bags and worry about missing anything. You get experience for helping someone else kill a monster, regeneration is speedy so you don’t have to have too much downtime, and there is a titles and deeds system that rewards you for some of the grindier objectives by giving you special bonuses if you manage to complete them. When I hit level 5 I got a new title for not dying up until then, I imagine when I do finally die I’m going to kick myself because it’s close me out of the other titles forever on this character, but I’ll deserve that, and will no longer deserve the title.
The free to play features are a little invasive, there’s even a quest early on that gives you some points to spend so you can finish that same quest, to show you how it works and gives you a little taste, but the game is fully featured at this level without paying for anything. Yes you can buy boosts etc, yes sometimes you see things that remind you to go to the store to access them (usually quests) but as long as you come into it knowing that you’re going to ignore them or are prepared to pay a little for them, then it’s fine and not really invasive. All of the items on the store I’ve seen so far are reasonably priced, and none have really fallen into the play-to-win category, you can easily get through the quests without the bonuses, they’ll just make it go quicker and you’ll look like a badass doing it.
The introductory area ends with a fairly spectacular mini- instance where you fight your way through a burning village. I was genuinely hooked on the story and reading every little bit of text ( which is unusual for me in MMOs). There are bits of voice acting, but not all the way through so they can slip your character name into what the characters say. In the first couple of hours of the game I’ve met four of the major characters from the books, got up to level 7 and sort of saved a village from destruction. Most importantly I had a load of fun and my partner even came and sat down to watch, that’s how compelling this game is, I can’t wait to continue.
Read the second part where we look at the Shire, questing and crafting here.