Saturday, February 28, 2015

The Lord of the Rings Online

A dwarven minstrel breathing out a smoking dragon

Developer: Turbine Inc.
Release Date: April 24, 2007
Genre: F2P, MMO, RPG

One Sentence Review:
An MMO that lives on Lord of the Rings and very little else.

It's hard to explain to someone who hasn't touched base with the depths of J.R.R Tolkien's lore and come out craving the entire story. How can I explain why I thought this MMO would be different from all the others? How can I describe what came over me when I saw the list of potential character races and classes? I was offered the ability to play as a Dwarven Minstrel. Yeah that pretty much covers it.

Controls

Starting on the technical side, the controls are exactly what you'd expect them to be if you play way too much World of Warcraft. Everything is assigned to a hotkey and the man or woman with the best hotkey assignment wins! Those who choose the wrong hotkey assignment, or forget their keybindings, will fall into despair as they are shamed by their colleagues and ridiculed in-game until everyone remembers that nobody cares.

Jokes aside, if you've played World of Warcraft or any other MMO in the planet then you know how the controls work.

Genre Mechanics

When I walk into a free to play massive multiplayer online roleplaying game, I expect a lot of grind. Well I'll be damned if Lord of the Rings Online doesn't deliver! The entire game is grind-tastic! Everything is repetitive and mindless to the point that I almost forgot to breath at some point.

On the upside the game does do something I rarely see these days. Whereas other games like Guild Wars 2 would try and hide their grindy nature, treating it as a horror that would damage our tiny minds should we encounter it, LoTRO owns the grind. They make the grind their dog. Translated into human terms, they accept that the grind exists and give you a decent variety for it. Not only can you play as a Dwarven Minstrel but you can also farm and harvest tobacco. This actually makes it somewhat more enjoyable, though I wish they added more to it.

Storyline

The story to this game follows ye' old aftermath road. In other words, all the interesting stuff is happening up ahead so hurry up and you might catch a glimpse of some iconic characters doing their iconic things. So the storyline is one big joke and the punchline is that you matter about as much to it as one of the potatoes you just harvested.

The story does have some interesting moments where it blends your contributions with the story of the books and movies fairly well, but these are rare and far outweighed by the times you mean less than nothing.

Quests

In the world of roleplaying games there is something known as the Unholy Pentagram of Quests. I made the name up. They consist of fetch quests, kill quests, walking quests, fetch-kill quests, and escort missions. Now I'll give you three guesses as to why I bring this up and whack you with a cardboard tube every single time you guess wrong.

The answer to your obvious question is no, there is no deviation. The only deviation are the missions and even those devolve into the Unholy Pentagram of Quests.

Dialogue

The dialogue is surprisingly well written in this game, and I'm not just talking about the lines ripped verbatim from the books and the movie! I'm not that much of a sarcastic jerk you know.

The characters will generally explain their motivations for doing whatever they're doing and usually what they're doing makes some logical sense. Nobody's being evil for evil's sake or good for goodness' sake and there are some truly likable characters with some really funny and interesting quests. The dialogue lacks something though, something I like to call relevance.

Yes, it's all well written and you could spend a while getting to know each and every character but there's no reward for doing so. In fact it's actually more rewarding to simply skip all the dialogue and cutscenes so you can go complete the dark quests of fetch and kill. You could argue that this is just giving people a chance to play the game without having to read everything, but it takes away all the weight from what is otherwise competently written dialogue.

A dwarven farmer taking a break with some tobacco

World Design

Another good point! I must be getting soft. The world is competently put together. It fits in nicely with the canonical maps of Lord of the Rings and fills in the blanks fairly well. It doesn't offend the hardcore fans and makes newcomers interested in the subject matter. More importantly though, the world actually feels somewhat alive.

I know that it's a bunch of repeated actions on a timer but it really does add to the game when I can see the farmer NPCs working on their crops. It improves the experience when I see the bears prowling along in the forest. It feels like I'm traversing a living and breathing world when all these little things add up together. There is a marvelous attention to detail in this aspect of the game at the very least.

AI and Combat

This is exactly what you'd expect it to be and thus not very interesting to talk about. There's almost no strategy to winning anything in this game as it all boils down to who has the biggest number at the start.

Graphic Design

The graphics in this game look cheap. Now I know that World of Warcraft and most other MMOs aren't exactly a bastion of gorgeous graphics in general, as they have to appeal to a large demographic with a wide variety of computing needs and a large population on the server at the same time, but the alternatives found ways to accommodate this. 

World of Warcraft has a more cartoonish style that both ages well and requires lower processing power on both the client and server side. Other MMOs, such as Neverwinter Online, separate players into instances to try and minimize the amount of rendering that the client and server has to do at once. Lord of the Rings Online just looks like garbage.

It has this weird mixture between a cartoonish look and a realistic look that just ends up looking wrong. I'm not sure this would be pleasant to look at even in the era of 2007 let alone the modern era of gaming!

Sound Design

Oh what do you want from me? It's a Lord of the Rings game! Of course they managed to get some decent music for it. It did begin to grate on my ears after a while though and I ended up turning it off and listening to podcasts and videos while I mindlessly grinded up to the next levels.

Special Mention: PvP

I've had some experience with the developers of this game before. Turbine is fairly good at making a solid PvE experience even if it gets a little dull after a while. It has never been and may never be any good at making PvP. In fact they usually stand by a motto that all games can survive on PvE alone. Because that served D&D Online so well didn't it?

So the PvP in this game is embarrassing. It's a neat little idea, you can play as either a monster or a hero and fight over territory. But the heroes have to reach level 95 before they can actually play in the PvP arena. They also have to pay real world money. This not only means that your fun as a monster is greatly affected by the number of subscribers there are but it also means that your competition is way more qualified than you to fight.

There have been several balance patches to try and make the PvP end-game work, but apparently the entire PvP system is controlled by a single temp worker while PvE is being constantly updated by the rest of the team. Since PvP and PvE counterbalance each other in this game it immediately becomes a one versus way too many uphill battle for the PvP system. Turbine will simply always be Turbine when it comes to PvP.

Final Note

I'm not really sure how to grade this game to be honest. It's a better experience than I usually have with an MMO. Instead of leaving LoTRO due to a feeling of self-loathing and disgust for the time I wasted being unproductive I simply got bored as the quests and story began to meld together and the monster play became more and more dull. There is potential in the game but they've had way too long to tap into it and haven't even tapped the right part of the bar yet.

Since the game is free I can't really rank it via a price tag so instead I'll rank it by its time investment. For the average MMO player this game is worth around 2-3 months of your time. If you're a die-hard Lord of the Rings fan and can look past the grind and make up your own fun as you go you may even get a full year out of this, but you my good sir are weird.