Trying recently to explain the appeal of Lord of the Rings Online to an MMO-playing friend of mine, I could only come up with an analogy of flavours. The market leader we all know and love represents an infinitely long conveyor belt, funnelling colour and content down your throat as though they were Kola Kubes while you struggle gleefully to fight off diabetic shock. The Lord of the Rings Online, by contrast, is like a fine cheese: matured to perfection and best savoured with a glass of port in front of a roaring fire on a cold winter's night.
Both experiences are equally enjoyable. But to come from one to the other with anything other than a clean palate and an open mind would be to invite disappointment. Taken at face value, there's an obvious checklist of clichιs from the fantasy MMO genre elves, magic, good and evil but let's not forget that Tolkien literally wrote the book on these. Rather than endless, earth-shattering action, LOTRO is first and foremost about a story, and it deserves to be judged under a spotlight of its own.
Last week, the game was relaunched in Europe as a free-to-play title, available for all to enjoy, albeit with different grades of membership. Breaking down exactly who is entitled to what based on previous subscriptions and in-game purchases is a little like trying to solve one of those logic puzzles where Billy plays the violin, but only on a Thursday afternoon. For the sake of our collective sanity, far better to point you to Codemasters' FAQ on the membership structure.
When we previewed the re-launch back in August, pricing information for the Turbine Store was unavailable, making it impossible to quantify the strain this free title would end up putting on your wallet. Points can now be purchased in multiples of 420 (£5.28), 1550 (£14.68), 2500 (£22.31) or 5000 (£37.59). It's worth noting, however, that these packages currently contain bonus points and may be subject to change.
Assuming you resist the urge to buy a mount at level 5, increase your available inventory bags or remove the currency limit on your characters, there are around 20 generous levels to be enjoyed before you'll find yourself handing over your credit card details. While it's by no means impossible to level further just through grinding and enjoying the main storyline quest, the type of person who will embrace this kind of gameplay will likely either prefer to be a subscriber or is already busy playing Aion.
Quest packs cost anywhere between 300 and 800 points depending on the number of levels and dungeons included. Once you reach the game's original level cap of 50, you will need to purchase the Mines of Moria and Siege of Mirkwood expansions for 2495 and 1995 points respectively. Monster Play LOTRO's player-versus-player environment remains a subscriber-only offering.
The range of items contained in the Store is far too great to express in minute detail; suffice to say that both cosmetic and advancement options are well catered for. My suspicions from August's preview remain, however. If you're teased into loving this world, and you're willing to pay for the pleasure, a subscription remains by far the most sensible option.
As well as making the game more accessible for the newcomer with clear, graphical help screens, Turbine has also taken the opportunity to streamline the levelling process and bring some of the more entertaining diversions to you much earlier on. Skirmishes, for example, were introduced with the Mirkwood expansion, providing a form of economy multi-boxing for the solo player.
Now available at level 20 rather than 30, Skirmishes see you playing out a number of scenarios such as repelling invaders from a hobbit village or defending a town fortress from the ravaging hordes. Accompanied by a solider NPC whom you customise to provide defensive, offensive or healing support, the battles provide a fresh and intense break from the traditional questing.
It's a smoke-and-mirrors disguise for grind, but one that's incredibly addictive Skirmish Points and Marks awarded from these events can be used to purchase both cosmetic items and armour sets at various stages of levelling. If you wish to enjoy them in a more social setting, a group of up to 12 can be set up with the challenge scaled accordingly.
The new zone of Enedwaith has also been released to introduce some fresh air to the final stages of the levelling process. While many of the zones have an overcast feel to them, Enedwaith is a riot of colour and the artists at Turbine have taken to the task with abundant enthusiasm.
Polished as all of these elements are, they're almost incidental to what makes LOTRO so special. Even more so than the films, the MMO medium provides the perfect vehicle for this most epic of yarns.
Typically, the genre suffers from an intrinsic need to fill your time and retain the attention of your wallet with repetitive, arbitrary content tied to piecemeal character advancement. Turbine, on the other hand, has picked up every missed opportunity from the film trilogy in order to delight its audience.
We can even give this love a name, if you like, and it's Tom Bombadil. Ordinarily I'm not given to crying at films, but after sitting through The Fellowship of the Ring with an increasingly distraught look on my face, I realised with wobbly-lipped despondency that it simply wasn't going to be.
In LOTRO, he not only appears with his delightful nature and his own house hidden deep within the forest, but also his own soundtrack. It's devotion to details like these that brings a tear of nostalgia gratitude, even to the eye as you savour long-loved characters brought to life.
The take on Middle-Earth feels like a rural England seen in an older, more austere age where bleak is beautiful. Walking through rain-spattered landscapes with nothing in sight except grazing wildlife, there's a sense of loneliness and gloom that provides the perfect backdrop to the journey of the Fellowship.
Snow crunches underfoot, spurs jingle upon mounting your horse and nearby fires crackle with inviting warmth. If you're at all uncomfortable with your inner rambler, Turbine wants you to know that it's OK to dream of a weekend caravan parked on the outskirts of the New Forest while you trudge through the nine-to-five of daily life.
To breathe further life into this world, the relaunch also brings DX11 graphics to the table, though the impact is only really noticeable in the water where little ripples spread out in your wake. Anyway, LOTRO has always been a game of diminishing returns when it comes to tweaking and enhancing its beauty. You will not upgrade your graphics card to take advantage of these new developments but if you have a relatively new PC you really won't need to.
Given the labour of love the game represents, it's a pity that there are still gremlins lurking in the engine. For the most part, distant objects fade in gently without jarring, but there are also a shocking number of occasions where textures jump into view at near-distance, even altering the geometry of a building. Tested on a number of PCs, the effect still blemishes the world, even with all settings reduced. It's not an outright failure by any means, but it feels like a greater oversight than it really is due simply to the sheer splendour on display.
The Lord of the Rings Online is still everything it was in 2007 when Rob awarded it a 9/10. That it's now free to at least sample makes it compelling for any MMO fan. But it's not a technically perfect game, and its long-term appeal will likely come down to a matter of taste as well as your willingness to embrace the game for what it is, rather than what you've perhaps become accustomed to.
Standing on its own merits, the game comes as close to knocking on the door of a perfect 10 without quite making it as any other you'll play. It's opening night, and Turbine has prepared a table for you tuck in.
9 / 10