Jul 1, 2007

MMO Gnome. Intermission. The Lord of the Rings Online Shadows of Angmar Review.

The Lord of the Rings spawned everything from RPGs, to Orcs, Hobbits, Ents, enchanted rings, magical swords, names like Narsil, Iluvatar or Nalroth, Elven and Dwarven stereotypes -you name it- thus effectively shaping the whole fantasy genre us gamers, film-goers and readers have come to love and cherish (in a very cuddly, very manly way). The Lord of the Rings, you see, is the original, the archetype, the book that bloody sold more than 100.000.000 copies, and now, after an even broader popularization through Peter Jackson's okayish movies, it's gone all MMO, or to be more specific all MMORPG.

The Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar (hence LotRO), for obviously this is said MMORPG's full title, is the first fantasy game of its kind that just cannot be characterized as generic. Why? Carefully reread the paragraph above and you'll see why. Also, it's quite simply the best online RPG I've ever played and the first one I truly enjoyed for more than a week, let alone the first game I feel like paying a monthly fee for. Oh, and so you know, even though I'm not one of those lost fanatics speaking Quenya and dressing up in fancy elven suits, I'm quite enamored with the Professor's works. To be honest, and to make a another pretty obvious point, I'll let you in on a sad little secret. This game made me start reading the original trilogy all over again. Yes, for the fourth time wasting time in my life, but thankfully in a brilliant edition I had the foresight of buying myself quite a few years ago.

Hobbits love the countryside, apparently.

Anyway, I digress. The truly important thing in LotRO and its major triumph is that it could have gone so terribly wrong in so many ways and it just didn't. It's extremely faithful to the original work, uninfluenced by the sacrilegious film-plot, filled with details that will delight every aspiring Arda lore master, avoids most well-documented MMO pitfalls known to man, features an almost intuitive interface -say- a WoW player will immediately understand, has no bugs or lag to speak of, great music and some absolutely brilliant graphics. Let me say that again: absolutely brilliant graphics. Totally above anything seen in any MMORPG, filled with beautiful day-night transitions, excellent fantasy architecture, high-res textures and little touches like falling leaves or random flocks of flying birds. What's more, a mid-range PC with a half-decent graphics card and 1 Giga of memory should be more than enough.

Consequently, exploring the vast richness of Middle Earth (the parts currently available, at least), which, let's face it, remains light years ahead of any generic fantasy setting the competition has to offer, both in terms of depth and literary quality, is first of all a visual joy. Over a hundred screenshots taken by me while gaming with my main characters (a 15th level hobbit guardian and a 13th level Elf lore-master) are a testament to LotRO's beauty. The damned thing made me feel like a tourist. Probably would make for a great Middle Earth geography learning tool too, even though the world isn't 100% accurate, as it's been obviously and frankly wisely altered for gameplay needs. A 20 day walk from Hobbiton to Bree would have been admittedly boring. Then again, actually visiting Bree and having a beer in the Prancing Pony is quite a Tolkien fanatic's wet-dream come true.

A cute elf. Next to the sea, no less.

Bree at night. Obvious, ain't it?

Besides exploring and being all LotR happy, of course, there's the game itself to have fun with, which -while definitely not perfect- comes quite close to being the pinnacle of contemporary MMOs. Players get to choose between the four good races (Humans, Hobbits, Elfs, Dwarfs), a variety of classes from burglars, guardians (tanks), hunters and minstrels to champions and lore-masters, even though thankfully no wizard class has been made available -Gandalf was quite a rarity you see, a roleplaying or normal server and set off for virtual glory in typical MMORPG fashion. Everything you'd expect is there: quests, raids, crafting possibilities, huge vistas filled with critters for the grinders, levels to be reached and gold to be treasured or even sold for real money.

Three dungeon-running hobbits. Deadly.

The meat of the game are the quests, be they epic -thus advancing the main storyline, instanced, local, crafting or plain silly, like running drunk around the taverns of western Middle Earth. Despite quite a few quirkier -timed, even- quests such as running a postman's errands or avoiding certain characters have been included, it's the quality of the standard fetch and kill quests that manage to raise the level of the playing experience. Every one of them, and there are hundreds, is brilliantly written and quite verbose convincingly conveying the world's history and offering glimpses at the actual Lord of the Rings events. LotRO feels like playing through an unfolding story. You'll get to unearth seemingly unimportant conspiracies in the Shire, visit farmer Maggot, uncover a fake Black Rider, barely avoid a proper one, help two Elven brothers see each others point, raid a spider infested mine, try to bring peace between dwarfs and elves, hear a rumour or two about Sharkey and team up with the Rangers of the North to defeat them pesky goblins. All, in glorious prose and in full accordance with the overall works of Tolkien.

Yet, the game still remains a pretty standard MMO in the World of Warcraft gameplay mould. The major, definitely not groundbreaking, innovations LotRO introduces are the Deeds-Titles system, the Fellowship mechanic, a unique way to PvP and the ability each player has been granted to play some proper music in-game and smoke pipeweed. Now, to elaborate a bit:

  • Deeds and their accompanying titles (mind you, not all titles are deeds related; some can also be proof of heritage like Nalroth of Rivendell or Adelecar of the Fallohides) such as Wolf-tamer, Webslasher or Protector of the Shire are gained by killing loads of some particular beastie, fully exploring certain areas of the game world (e.g. discovering every titular farm of the Shire) or overusing an ability, and provide a variety of bonuses and interesting character customization options that have nothing to do with your level or class.

  • Fellowships, on the other hand, are something more anti-social gamers won't be particularly interested in. They are the groups characters organize in, in order to pull through a more difficult quest, and do grant quite a few bonuses like the pretty excellent Fellowship maneuvers; special attacks only available to groups.

  • Instead of proper PvP, a decision Tolkien surely wouldn't have been overjoyed with, you get the nice option of Monster Play in the rather barren Ettenmoors. Reach level ten, find a fell scrying pool (personally used a lovely one over at Thorin's Gate) and you'll get the chance to play as a level 50 orc/warg/spider (more baddies to be added soon) against high level players in a dynamic PvP campaign. It's the freeps versus the creeps.

Orcs doing what they do best: attacking stuff

Truth is, I could go on and ramble about a thousand other little things, you know, if only to come up with the mother of all blog-based reviews, and I wouldn't have even managed to scratch the surface of what a magnificent beast LotRO is. Things like the recent Solstice Festival, the raising difficulty of quest as one progresses eastward, destiny points, the amazingly detailed beginner's quests (instanced) & areas, the sheer number of available emotes, the immensely helpful community are all there for you to discover, but -as expected- not all is perfect. LotRO is still very young by MMORPG terms. Monsters have serious clipping issues, the combat is not very tactical and, despite a huge gaming world, not all of Middle Earth is yet available. Oh, and it's as expensive as WoW; definitely much better though. Still, an absolute must-try.

That's a (nine) out of (ten).

Related @ Gnome's Lair: MMO Gnome: World of Warcraft, Urban Legend review, from CRPG to RPG, reviews archive


  1. A quite brilliant review! I was thinking about you this morning when I was reading a review of this game in Games TM magazine (it scored 8/10). I thought it would be something I should bring to your attention (how foolish of me to think you might not have played it yet...)

    Your enthusiasm for both the game and the book that spawned it is highly commendable. I guess you will be ignoring your consoles now and chained to your PC...

    Will your blogging output suffer (as mine does) now that you're sucked into a game? I hope not!

    On a side note, would you believe that Tolkein's grandaughter lives in a housing co-op about five minutes from my house? Bizzarre but true! I've known her to say hello to for years, but only found out about her 'claim to fame' recently... :)

  2. (blushes)

    Thank you Father and worry not. My blogging output will definitely not suffer. As for the consoles, well, I can't really guarantee anything ;)

    Tolkien's granddaughter, huh? That's quite amazing, really. She doen't speak like an elf now, does she?

  3. I'm intrigued.

    I don't know that I have the time or inclination for a paid MMORPG anymore. Dungeons and Dragons Online was so disappointing that I figured we weren't going to get much more than what we had.

    So, I'll definitely take a look.

  4. What a feckin brilliant write up, now i've come over all drooling.. id payed no attention to this till now... thats one exceptional piece of work and so inspiring a review i went and checked the system specs to run the game....


    (sound of a gunshot......)

  5. Nope very ordinary and unassuming!

  6. Guttertalk, you'll definitely enjoy it if you ever enjoyed Tolkien's narratives. And they seem to be constantly upgrading it too, though no demo I know of has been released yet.

    Thank you for your kind words Mr. Elderly, but what's with the gunshot? You could just buy yerself a bit of RAM you know...

    Nice to know that Father dear. Now, do please get her to bring us some rare manuscripts...

  7. ...(bandaging head wound....)

    i would love to upgrad my ram.. but the experts in Cork are unable to upgrade my ddr 256mb pc400 memory, i kid you not....

  8. Then you should try searching e-bay or used-stuff stores. That's where i got my RAM at least. Oh, and be an expert and install it yourself. It really is simple.

  9. Good preview, gnome! I'm really glad the game sticks to the foundation of the book.

  10. So am I joe, so am I. Glad you enjoyed the article too.

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  12. Excellent review Gnome! You could be writing for Edge yet.

    The best reviews are those that keep me interested from start to finished (even if the game is being reviewed as total crap) and your's certainly did.

    About the RAM thing. There's not much Elderly, can do short of getting a new computer, if his RAM is limited to 256mb. I've got space for 4GB but I'm only using up 1.5GB (so it's got four RAM slots).

  13. Thanks so much Tom, but -clearly- I couldn't be writing professionaly. Not in English at least... Still, feels nice you enjoyed the review...

  14. I'm a native English speaker and you write way better than I currently can (it's also worth nothing that I'm doing an English degree at university).

  15. Thanks again, but I'm afraid that's not the case...

  16. the red wire... is connected the the thingy with two holes and the green wire to the boxy with the sharp edge.....now where did the green wire go.... (scratches head)

  17. It's still RAM you're talking about, right?

  18. Elderly, just slot it in and you're done. Just make sure you switch your PC off first :p

    Gnome, I'm intrigued!