If you're not so enchanted with decapitation, burly men in thongs and the low (cut) fantasy of Age of Conan, how about popping over to Middle Earth for a bit of posturing high fantasy? Following our two chats with producer Jeffrey Steefel, we've knocked up a few tips for the classes of Lord of the Rings Online. If you fancy starting belatedly, this is a good way of getting an overview of the classes, and an idea of what role they play in a group. We've ordered them in increasing order as to how many of the developers at Turbine play as them, a sort of top ten of the best. Except it's actually a top 9, as there's only 9 classes.
Captain (6 per cent)
With about 1 in 20 of the Turbine boys playing as Aragorn's class, this is the nearest you'll find to one of Conan's classes. Only humans can take this class and it's a weird combination of all roles, performing none particularly well. Indeed, a lot of the captain's abilities are only available when an enemy bites the dust, making this a class that excels in driving the Fellowship forward.
In soloing, a captain is fairly solid, able to handle pretty much anything the game throws at them, but his speciality is acting as the head of a Fellowship, due to his flexibility and ability to mark targets. The captain has the ability to summon heralds (out of combat) or banners (in combat) that give various buffs which, combined with the captain's own powers, make him able to direct his powers to shoring up the weakest elements of particular fellowships. He can also make one compatriot his shield-brother, giving them defensive bonuses. Captains can fill just about any role, able to buff, debuff, heal, resurrect, tank and taunt - though they excel at none of them.
Finally, like the Burglar, if it's all going tits-up, a Captain can really help out; higher-level captains get some astounding survivability powers, giving them an effective last-stand ability while you finish off an enemy, or they can simply increase everyone's run speed for 30 seconds, so you can get the hell of there. If you want to solo and don't mind being something to everybody, be a Captain - just don't expect anyone to ascribe a personality to you.
Champion (8 per cent)
Hmm, so you like killing things? I mean, you like killing lots and lots of things? Because the champion is the killing-things expert, able to do more damage-per-second through his array of area-of-effect attacks than anything else in the game. He's not terribly fragile either, though he has to be careful because he can lose all power in a long fight and his skills can aggro every enemy in the area (including mesmerised or stunned ones).
Moreover, a Champion has a "fervour" mode (frenzy to you and I) where he loses all his defensive abilities in return for doing Massive Damage to lots of people, with the damage increasing the longer he fights. When they're not in this mode, Champions can tank fairly well - but when in it, healers should watch their health carefully - especially as the Champion is likely to be assigned to protecting the healer. Either humans or dwarves can play as champions, and their lack of popularity is probably due to their fragility and their familiarity - they're essentially the barbarian from any other game.
Hunter (11 per cent)
The hunter, like the Loremaster, is a perfectly, averagely popular class - exactly 1 out of every 9 of the Turbine guys favour it. It's the ranged damage class - the "nuker" in MMO parlance - able to do more damage to a single target per hit than any other class, and without them fighting back. It's also the class for yellow-bellied cowards and hence is favoured by Elves like Legolas, though humans can also excel at it.
Hunters die easily and can't heal (save poisons), so have to be careful not to build aggro in parties, which is tricky considering their massive array of weapons, projectiles and high-damage. As with WOW, hunters can track any type of creatures except dragons (and if you can't spot them, you shouldn't be playing) and deploy traps, but unlike WOW they don't have pets (the Loremaster does) and can't mark targets (look to the Captain). Hunters can also teleport their compadres to a range of locations, as well as to any of the campsites which they can set up, which means they're good to have along for long instance chains. (Campsites are useful fixed locations that provide morale and power regeneration when out of combat.) They can also run super-quick, which is good for power-levellers, or running away...
Loremaster (11 per cent)
These wannabe-wizards are also exactly, averagely popular with the developers. Elves make the best hedge-wizards, but humans can manage it too. Their skills are all focused on crowd control and, because they're rather squishy, they have a couple of pets they can call upon to distract their enemies - bears (only useful as weak off-tanks) or ravens (excellent at distracting any enemy). They can mesmerise two enemies at a time, root others to the spot (like the Hunter's trap) and do reasonable damage themselves up close (though that's not always wise, as damage slows their powers down).
Because of their variety of debuffs and their pet, Loremasters make great solo avatars. However, their healing and power-replenishment skills are very weak, with slow timers, and actually are transfers of power or morale from the Loremaster, leaving him dangerously weak. Moreover, their skillset is focussed towards very slowly killing enemies one by one, so they clash a little with over-aggressive champions and their disruptive area attacks.
Guardian (14 per cent)
The third most popular class at Turbine, Guardians are the game's main tanks, able to absorb damage and draw enemies to them. They can only really cause damage when they're being attacked up close over a long period of time (though they have a selection of area-effect attacks), so ranged and self-healing enemies are their nemeses.
Because of this, solo-play with a Guardian is much slower, so it's worth staying teamed up all the time - something that's true throughout the game for all classes, especially if you're seeking to achieve the deeds that unlock the traits and skills that are key to successful, flexible higher-level play. It can also be quite expensive being a guardian, due to the tremendous amounts of repairs you have to make - but a kind kinship will help you out there.
The Guardian should be leading any exploration of instances (except, perhaps, for a scouting Burglar), and is best deployed in front of the fragile healers and nukers, but close enough that he can turn and reclaim aggro from them without moving too much. Attack slowly around a Guardian and let him attack first, so that he can build up and retain aggro - it's a lot more difficult to take enemies away from someone else than it is to attract and hold them in the first place. Dwarves are the preeminent Guardians, but humans can also tank perfectly well - think of Gimli or Boromir, if you need an example.
Burglar (22 per cent)
Bilbo & Frodo are the archetypes for this class (though it's also available for humans) and, though they can deal decent damage rapidly, the thing they're best at is staying alive, debuffing enemies and starting Fellowship manoeuvres. Indeed, whilst a burglar is one of the best classes to solo (unlike the pretty-tough soloing for Minstrels) their role in a Fellowship is to keep enemies weak through debuffs and crowd control, and set up conjunctions to take down tough bosses.
Of course, Burglars specialise in being dead sneaky, using their stealth skills to get around easily in solo play, but unlike rogues in That Other MMO they're not so great at dealing damage - though if they attack from stealth or behind, they can do great burst damage. Terrifyingly, burglars can tank quite well for about a minute, but this is a really short term solution whilst the main tank is healed. After their heals run out and their massive variety of stuns and debuffs are used, all their skills take a long time to cool down, so then they're pretty much dead. This illustrates their survivability - often a burgular will be the last man standing, being unable to aggro enough to draw enemies down on him.
In solo, burglars can kill enemies one-on-one nice and quick and get away with it. In Fellowship play, Burglars should be the conjunction experts, knowing when to trigger one, and what colours each player should pick to get the maximum benefit - and then should just wander around, stabbing from the back where possible and performing a general crowd-control role. Best of all, if it all goes pear-shaped in an instance, Burglars have enough skills to give the essential minstrel a chance to get away...
Minstrel (28 per cent)
Traditionally, Minstrels have been the class that everyone else loves to hate, the wussy troubadours that are tuning their lute in the background whilst everyone else is clonking orcs and goblins by the troll-load. Yet over a quarter of the Turbine chaps play as these (Elves, Hobbits and Humans are the best minstrels) possibly because they're essential for Fellowships - there's little point in going into an instance without a minstrel, despite each class's buffing and patching-up abilities, because only the minstrel has the ability to "heal".
The Minstrel is one of the most complex classes to use, so one of the most rewarding to master. Minstrels also have the ability to play any instrument in the game (other classes have access to a limited selection), meaning they can make full use of the bizarrely-comprehensive music-crafting abilities in the game.
Playing as a minstrel is a bit like playing a strategy game or spinning a hundred plates, what with the resource-management inherent in trying to keep your team-mates alive whilst stacking up songs. Your songs work in an odd way, strong ones stacking on top of weak ones to allow more powerful tunes, until you get to the top-end anthems after three songs; but as soon as a Minstrel deploys one of these, he'll have to start the chain over. The healing effect is slightly more obvious and easy to use, though Minstrels only get their resurrect spell at level 20 - and that's only usable out of combat, so DON'T DIE.
There are a few things to remember about Minstrels; they can only heal with line of sight and they're only any good with no enemies attacking them - as soon as that happens, or they have to move, their ability to heal disappears. If a Minstrel heals when one enemy is not aggroed, it will attack the Minstrel - so make sure all the enemies in a fight are occupied! Fellowships with two or three Minstrels in aren't unheard of and can work quite well - just remember that there's a trade-off somewhere, so for every class you double up on in a Fellowship, you're losing one other class.