This is the third week of my MMOs Worth Playing series, and at some point I am probably going to stop doing this introduction. My focus on the games I pick is to try and choose some of the awesome titles out there that may or may not be getting as much love as I think they deserve. No one needs to do a post on the reasons why you should be playing World of Warcraft, because there are tons of sites currently covering WoW. However there are a bunch of games that slip under the radar for one reason or another, and my goal is to pick some of those and talk about the things that interest me about the game. So far I have covered The Secret World and Rift, and this week I am digging up a title that I have not spent nearly as much time as I would have liked playing. I feel like I missed the boat with this title, and at this point there is just too much content for me to ever hope to catch up. I am talking about Lord of the Rings Online, which honestly is a quiet juggernaut of available content and things to do.
Shortly after posting my last write-up, someone asked me what the hook for Lord of the Rings Online was… and honestly if that title does not inspire magical tingly feelings down your spine then more than likely this is not a game for you. The hook of this game is and will always be that you get to wander around in the Middle Earth Setting from the Tolkien novels. That is perhaps the first distinction I should make. While this game draws some on the visual styling of the movies… it is very much a product of the literary source. As a result you are going to see more of the world than you ever saw in the movies. For example the movies cut out the entire Tom Bombadil/Barrow Downs section of the books… and here you get to experience them in all their glory. The Barrow Downs area was seriously one of my favorite parts of the early game, and exploring the tombs felt just like reading about the Barrow Wights for the first time. Rolling up on Weather Top, or Rivendell is just amazing… because here is this thing that you already know so much about… that you are seeing fleshed out and made far more real.
The biggest take away from the setting that I can give you is that it is huge, and feels more like a real world than most MMOs do. There are all sorts of little things that draw you into the world. When you ride past this or that stand of trees… it might scare a flock of birds to take to the air.. making it feel like this living breathing world that you get to explore. Travel is one of the frustrations most people have with this game, in that the it requires you to memorize a series of routes that remind me quite a bit of the way travel in Dark Age of Camelot felt. That said this also makes the world feel like something that actual people are living in… because people are messy and chaotic and pretty much buck order. Think of your own surroundings… is it actually laid out in a manner that is consistent from town to town? The amount of distance that you have to cross ends up slowing your gameplay down, and putting you in a mode where you are really enjoying the setting as much as you are the game. There are so many little nuggets of detail scattered through the land that you can only see if you are not passing over them at irrational speeds.
In many ways this game was doomed at launch by being thrown in a bucket of “WoW Clones” because honestly… the interface does feel extremely similar to the World of Warcraft standard. However the game has always felt like a bit of a throwback to an earlier time, and a much less arcade gameplay experience. The game has one of the more intricate and rewarding crafting systems, and I found wandering the countryside looking for nodes to harvest a pretty enjoyable use of an afternoon. Where the game gets really intricate however is the “Deed” system, which I realize is a proper use of the word… but for some reason I always think of housing. Essentially every action that you can take in the game more than likely has some sort of a deed associated with it. These deeds however are largely invisible to the user until they go to a specific area or do a specific thing. From there it starts a completion bar explaining what you need to do to complete the deed which then appears in your log.
What makes this system interesting is that they are for all sorts of tasks. They might involve you exploring an area and finding specific landmarks on the map and clicking on each of them, or they might involve you doing specific combat attacks a number of times. Some of them involve you taking down a fixed number of mobs of a specific type. Equally varied are the rewards. This game is huge on handing out titles for damned near everything, which makes it really interesting as you roam the country side. There are far fewer “Hand of Adal” type titles, and more intimate and custom ones. I for example tend to rock the “Enemy of the Dead” title gained from slaying members of “The Dead” type… namely undead, wights and the sort which are one of the ancestral enemies of “man”. The important bit from deeds is the ones that unlock your Class Traits.
This game is full of systems within systems, and the Traits are a talent point type system that falls into three categories: Class, Racial and Virtues. Class traits tend to increase the effectiveness of your class abilities. Virtues are pure stat increases, and the type of stats increased vary based on the virtue you are choosing. Finally the Racial traits are this odd mix of abilities and stat boosts that are designed to take the place of “racial bonuses” in most other games. The end result makes them feel far more fleshed out, and gives every race in the game a specific flavor other than their visual characteristics. The gotcha here is that in order to progress you really need to be paying attention to your deeds, because these traits end up giving you a huge boost to your effectiveness. In theory you could probably level through the game without doing any… but it would be highly unlikely that you could actually complete any of the end game or likely even dungeon content without some focusing through these abilities.
The Pricing Model
Turbine with Lord of the Rings was one of the very first successful and even viable free to play pricing models. It is a mixture of stick and carrot that no other game seems to have completely replicated. Completely free to play characters are extremely limited in what they can do. They are limited in their chat functionality, and the amount of money they can earn… and most importantly for me the number of bag slots they have access to. All of the rich systems in the game are essentially on an adhoc basis forcing you to purchase wardrobe access, auction slots, and individual trait slots. One of the interesting things about this system is that you transition from free to play status to “premium” the moment you purchase anything from the turbine store. This unlocks a bunch of things including increasing your bag slots to five, and this essentially stays unlocked for the life of your account. This means that once you have actually bought any of the unlocks it greatly upgrades your account making it pretty damned playable. Granted when I have played this game actively I usually subscribe, but over the last few weeks I have been poking my head in to take screenshots and found the game play pretty viable in freemium mode.
The downside however is that I consider the Turbine store to be one of the more expensive to actually purchase anything on. Horses are essentially $20 regardless of how you chop it by the time you factor in the mount and the actual riding skill. Compare this to Rift where you can pick up a basic mount for only a few dollars worth of in store currency. This was one of the first, but unfortunately it has not really taken into account the fact that other models are out there and are more equitable to the player. They do however run a lot of store sales, and unlike most games you can actually earn turbine points by completing content in game. Granted you are awarded them five to ten at a time.. and you need 2000 or so to unlock most of the things people would be interested in like new classes. It does however give players the option to grind out content to earn cash shop currency to purchase things like trait unlocks and extra inventory and vault storage. I file this system in the realm of not optimal but not nearly as “anti player” as the SWTOR free to play model.
The game is extremely rich and interesting… but in truth you are not going to be playing Lord of the Rings Online for the game itself. You are going to be playing this game for the amazing story that allows you to play a character in the background of this world as you mirror the events of the Fellowship. It is like playing Star Wars but playing Wedge Antilles instead of Luke Skywalker. You are doing super important things, but you aren’t ever going to get the kind of broad credit and fame that the stars of the show are getting. This ends up making the quests feel all the more rich because you know a bit of back story already, and they are filling in details of the setting and giving you insider information on the world. Even more importantly than this however… is that you will be playing Lord of the Rings online for the community. Now I am a huge fan of communities that are active and vibrant and I tend to be drawn towards role-playing environments… even though I am not myself much of a role-player. I currently play on the Landroval server and I have to say it is pretty amazing.
This game has spent so much time on providing settings for the players to interact and mingle, and has quite possibly one of the coolest sub systems I have seen in any system. There are instruments in game that can actually be played by the characters, or you can read in midi sequences from text files that then get interpreted with the in game instruments. This allows the players to do really interesting things… like hold concerts and places like the Prancing Pony Inn in Bree are a hotbed of folks showing off. I rolled in last night and saw the band from the first image above performing in a corner of the Inn. Outside there is a full concert stage, and normally there is another group set up there playing songs for the passers by. There is never a moment in any of the hubs where there is not some role-playing going on, and people have always been super open to answering questions from new comers. In terms of friendliness I would put Landroval up there with Antonia Bayle in EQ2 and Entity in Wildstar, and that is saying a lot. I have also heard that the Windfola server was pretty amazing… but unfortunately I believe it was a casualty of the server merges. It seems like about half of the people I knew from Windfola are now on Landroval… and another batch ended up moving to Arkenstone. I have a feeling that honestly whatever server you end up on, is going to be a great place to land. The game is well worth a download and giving it some time to explore. The biggest word of advice I will give you however is to take it slow. This game is a much more gradual game than players are used to these days, and if given the proper amount of time to allow yourself to wander and inhabit the world… I have a feeling you will greatly enjoy your experience.