Thoughts on Lord of the Rings Online One Year Later

For a change of pace from my usual obsessive critiquing of Blizzard’s WoW, I’ve decided to jot down my some of my opinions on another relatively popular MMO: Turbine’s Lord of the Rings Online. This is one virtual world that I have been following for years and I always hoped that a worthy company would come along and do justice to Tolkien’s world. So much of what we see today in popular fantasy literature and in many video games — especially MMO’s — is derived from Tolkien’s colossal and ground breaking books. He literally invented the first paper virtual world complete with unique races, languages, stories, cosmology and lore. So it goes without saying that many have been awaiting a MMO version of Middle-earth.

I participated in the LOTRO beta and played for a month or so after the game went live. At the time I was very busy with work so I didn’t have the time to devote to the game that I wanted. I’ve never properly reviewed LOTRO because I felt it would not be fair as I had not put enough time into the game and seen any of the content above level 20. Well my highest character again is still only level 20 and I have put my LOTRO career on hiatus while I wait for my new computer to arrive. Yes, I realize I have only seen a fraction of what the game offers so consequently my observations are of the newbie experience from levels 1 to 20.

Here are a few general impressions of LOTRO that I’ve broken down into a few themes:

A Job Well Done!

Doing justice to Tolkien’s Middle-earth is no easy task. Turbine has lovingly crafted a respectful version of Tolkien’s world with Lord of the Rings Online. Despite having an older computer, the scenery is absolutely breathtaking. The Shire alone is so well done and masterfully recreated that it should have received a special award from a video game society. There are also other areas that I’ve seen which have a very convincing spooky ambiance complete with threatening clouds as evidenced by the goblin camps of Midgewater Marshes. I am getting a new computer next week with a top of the line video card, so I can’t wait to see what the lands look like with the graphic settings turned up.

Art Direction

The art direction seems to be trying to emulate the realism of the quaint English countryside which is appropriate given the fact that Tolkien established that parts of Middle-earth used for LOTRO were inspired directly from England. The outdoors sense of space is non-compressed which is a contrast from the caricatured art and zone design of other MMO’s like EverQuest and WoW — this takes a while to get used to. Inside player accessible structures, the art direction and execution is top notch. The interior of homes and cottages are very warm and welcoming; beams of light come from the outside during the day. At night the homes and buildings of most structures emit a very warm and pleasing glow that is very conducive to generating that Tolkien feel one gets from the reading the books.

I found that the elvish lands (the starting area) to be a little flat and clinical — they just lacked the magical feeling for me. They reminded me more of a monastery then a living breathing town of elves. The structures of the dwarven lands too seem a bit austere and angular. Bree seems rather plain and grey. I think what’s missing is that there is not enough fantasy and warmth in the art. Another issue I have is the ruins that seem to dot the landscape: they keep using the same assets over and over again which can get a bit tedious. Turbine could do another pass at some of the outside structures and add some much needed polish.

A Steady Diet of Boars and Bears

One of the things that contributed to me leaving the game about a year ago was the impression that all I had to look forward to would be killing was boars and bears. Out curiosity I decided to make a trek to Rivendell in order to retrace Frodo’s steps. I also really wanted to see what Rivendell was like. Outside of a few trolls, I noticed that most of the creatures that I could see from the road were essentially boars and bears — just bigger versions with variances on the skins. That left me feeling very flat and uninspired. I said to myself: “is this all there is?” Killing the same creatures over and over again is a recipe for boredom.

Why was Turbine so conservative as to the small variety of creatures? In my mind this showed that Turbine was leery of straying from the established Tolkien Enterprises approved bestiary. I guess they didn’t want to anger the Tolkien purists. In LOTRO you really have a limited number of creature types to hunt: goblins, orcs, trolls, humanoids, undead and of course the animal kingdom. Other fantasy MMO’s like the EverQuest series and WoW seem to have a substantially greater number of creature types that one comes to expect from a fantasy MMO.

A Scarcity of Magic

The fact that there is very little magic practiced by the peoples of Middle-earth in Turbine’s LOTRO stands out like a sore thumb and is one my my biggest problems with this MMO. The absence of magic is the two ton elephant in the room. It’s swords without the sorcery; might without the magic. It’s like replacing Harry Potter’s spells and wands with sticks and stones. Even the melee and non-melee classes have a very restrained feel to them with regard to their lack of magic. I think this is a critical mistake in a fantasy based MMO to err on the side of less magic.

I’ve always regarded Tolkien’s Middle-earth to be a magical world. I remember when I first started listening to Led Zeppelin. Their song Ramble On which is certainly one of the best homages to LotR in popular music really made me want to read the books. The haunting lyrics of that song seemed to evoke the sense of wanderlust and destiny that was to be Frodo’s fate:

Mine’s a tale that cant be told,
My freedom I hold dear;
How years ago in days of old
When magic filled the air

That last line: “when magic filled the air” seemed to define the feeling I got when I read Lord of the Rings. I think it would be fair to say that most people including Zeppelin’s Robert Plant believed Tolkien’s Middle-earth to be magical. So it’s a bit perplexing as to why Turbine has chosen a rather timid and non-magical path for their MMO that from the perspective of a MMO enthusiast used to Ultima Online, EverQuest and WoW feels very spartan and limiting.

Turbine could have created classes with more magical abilities and still have been in concert with Tolkien’s lore. Here’s a line from the wizard Gandalf that reveals that there was plenty of magic in Middle-earth:

‘I once knew every spell in all the tongues of Elves or Men or Orcs, that was ever used for such a purpose. I can still remember ten score of them without searching in my mind.’

Gandalf from The Fellowship of the Ring, Book I, page 400

The lore certainly justifies the use of magic as Gandalf himself claims to know at least 200 spells off the top of his head without resorting to looking them up in a spell book. This suggests that there are probably thousands of spells — both good and bad that are possible and could have been used to create a robust magical system in Middle-earth. Just because Tolkien didn’t include a fully fleshed out spell book in the appendices doesn’t mean they wouldn’t have existed.

The issue I have with Turbine is their lack of consistency with the use of magic. For example they have given the hunter class access to single and group teleportation spells. I don’t recall ever seeing any basis for this in the Tolkien books. Also instant teleportation to and from some epic quests is also provided to the player which is also not supported by the lore. It seems that Turbine likes magic when it’s convenient to them.

To their credit, Turbine is introducing a new magic based class in their first expansion Mines of Moria. Hopefully this will inject a bit more variety in a primarily melee based combat system that is the bread and butter of this MMO.

The Challenges of Dealing with a Popular IP

Deciding how much to involve the player in the story arc was probably a very daunting task for Turbine. Of course most people who are drawn to a virtual Middle-earth naturally expect to interact with some of the major figures like Bilbo, Gandalf, Aragorn and Frodo. Too much interaction and participation would cause problems with hardcore Tolkien fans and Tolkien Enterprises — the stewards of the lore. Not enough interaction with the major players weakens one of the biggest draws of playing in Tolkien’s universe. The result is Turbine is damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Any IP based MMO will face this kind of problem to be sure.

I enjoyed the epic quest line that punctuates LOTRO but I felt like more of a spectator then someone directly involved. Of course I have only reached level 20 and I’m not sure how the quest lines play out after that. I believe the challenge for Turbine is to give players the feeling that they can create their own stories in Middle-earth yet feel linked to the grand story of the trilogy. It seems to me that there is a lack of cohesion between the big story arc and the average “kill more boars” play experience of the average player. More needs to be done to put the lands of Middle-earth into the chaos and uncertainty of the prewar conditions that existed as Frodo and the hobbits made their way to Bree and Rivendell.

A Lack of Fear In the Air

One of the things that I felt about the books was that there was a foreboding shadow creeping over Middle-earth. You really don’t get this feeling at all when playing LOTRO. The idea that traveling on roads was very dangerous was a big part of the books and characterized the mindset of the Frodo and his companions. The roads in the MMO just feel too safe and you rarely meet any NPC’s at all and if you are lucky you’ll see a player racing on to the next quest.

Black Riders and other servants of Sauron should be showing up on random roads in LOTRO at least at night; it would keep players on their toes and create a sense of eerie foreboding that should be plaguing the lands in Ered Luin, The Shire and Bree. Of course they couldn’t be killed in the traditional sense but they could be temporarily defeated like they were by Glorfindel as he summoned the spirits of the Loudwater River to swallow them up in book one.

The night time world of LOTRO seems safe and unimposing when it should be full of terror and fear. During the chill of the night Boars and other mundane creatures should be replaced by undead creatures under the influence of the “Shadow to the east”. Even in a major town like Bree, the night life seems to be a letdown. Nothing seems to change with NPC’s at night — they still go about their daily tasks seemingly unware that they should be snug in their beds sleeping. My suggestion would be to make it full of pickpockets, brawling drunks, cutthroats, thieves and courtesans. After all Bree was supposed to be a rundown, seedy, untrustworthy city full of mystery, duplicity and intrigue. Is it too much to ask from a major MMO developer to have cities that transform at night?

A World That Feels Rather Empty

Not once in my travels have I seen a party of elves traveling the roads on their way to the Grey Havens. There is a party of elves surrounding a campfire on the road from Bree to Buckland but sadly you can’t interact with them. The exodus of the elves to the ships at the Grey Havens was often mentioned in the books. There’s a scene in the extended version of Peter Jackson’s Fellowship of the Ring that shows a group of male and female elves walking through the forest — some on horses, some on foot, some with lanterns. Why haven’t these kinds of NPC patrols been implemented in LOTRO?

Players should also be encountering groups of dwarves on their way to mining operations and out scouting the roads. There just aren’t enough guards patrolling the roads around the towns and cities of Middle-earth which is a shame. Also there should be a steady stream of refugees from the south entering into the northern lands whispering tales of war.

Part of what makes the world feel empty is that most creatures out in the wild aren’t as animated as in other MMO’s. They move very little and appear to be little more then fixtures. This gives one the feeling that there is not much going on. I recall NPC’s in Asheron’s Call 1 and 2 were like this.

Another issue that contributes to the feeling of emptiness is the fact that you never hear any NPC’s doing any zone wide shouting or yelling. One nice thing about WoW and EQ before it was that often you’d go into towns and outside zones and hear NPC’s shouting about important events such as historical battles or special achievements made by players. In order to hear NPC’s talk you have to be very close. And yes to their credit there’s some really interesting conversation and comments coming from many of the NPC’s. But the feeling for me is one of timidity and understatement instead of excitement and engagement.

Conclusion

LOTRO has many things going for it that would take volumes to praise: the best fantasy IP in history, rich lore, faithful re-creation of Middle-earth, a deep crafting system, many outlets and activities for role-players, a deed and trait system. For the first time we have the ability for players to play music in an MMO which is very refreshing! Turbine really has been amazing with all of their free updates called “books” I (called “patches” by Blizzard). Despite being live for only a year player housing has already been introduced as a free update (hello Blizzard?). Also each player feels like they are part of the epic storyline of Frodo, Gandalf and Aragon with the epic quest line. Even the normal quests despite their mechanics copied from Blizzard’s WoW are quite thoughtful and original at times. Most importantly LOTRO has been a welcoming magnet for some really nice people — many who are refugees from WoW seeking a more mature, kinder MMO community.

If I were to make one general final observation on what could be done to improve LOTRO I would urge Turbine to focus a bit more on polishing their newbie areas and core game mechanics. Some of the classes could use a refinement makeover with less complexity and more exciting skills. Animations of players and combat could be improved as well.

Turbine has made many great achievements with LOTRO. It’s certainly a fun and worthwhile counterpoint to what Blizzard is offering with WoW. I heartily recommend this offering to anyone who wants a breath of fresh MMO air.

-Wolfshead

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