There are many reasons to hate Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings movies. There's the dwarf-tossing. Alone, that's unforgivable. There are the myriad, meaningless plot changes. They're far too numerous to mention. But worst, worse than even randomly altering the flow of Tolkien's epic, is the omission of Tom Bombadil and Goldberry. For that, Jackson, you go to Hell.
Bombadil, for those who've never read the Trilogy, is a random, wood-dwelling idiot who also happens to be God. Or a god, at least. Goldberry, his wife, is what you'd expect from someone called "Goldberry" who's married to "God". They're both mentalists. They're also two of the most enigmatic characters in the entire book, a pair of oddities that truly cast insight into Tolkien's mind when taken in context with the rest of the story. Obviously, then, Jackson dropped them like a rock. Fool. Thankfully, though, Turbine Entertainment, developer of Lord of the Rings Online, could never be so cruel. We see him rescuing a player from the Great Barrow. He even skips.
"He's completely goofy," laughs Jeff Steefel, the game's executive producer, at the title's unveiling in Warwick. "He's the most powerful ancient guy in the forest and he's completely daft."
Bombadil hopping over the demo screen should bring warmth to the coldest heart, but The Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar (LOTRO) has a great deal more on its plate than sticking to Tolkien's original vision. For a start, it's the first and only MMO based on the world's most prolific fantasy franchise. For a thousand reasons, it can't be "bad". Secondly, both Turbine and European publisher Codemasters are banking on LOTRO far exceeding cult status among the online hardcore. And to achieve that end, everyone involved is going to have to climb over the WoW-shaped oliphant in the room.
"People are expecting me to provide a big player game, and that this is supposed to be the next significantly large MMO in the market," says Steefel. "It's not a niche game. It's not supposed to appeal to a small segment of the market. We're going to launch this game globally. It has a tremendous potential if we look at the audience that's available to us."
All in their Strider
Jeff reckons his team and his game are up to the job. The online RPG is based on the book licence, not the movies, and while EA owns the New Line Cinema rights, the publisher will never be able to use them to make an MMO, for reasons everyone seems to brush away with a confused scowl and a wave of a hand. In addition, anticipation for LOTRO is high, says Steefel - more than 110,000 people have already signed up to the beta despite the code currently being at the pre-alpha stage - and Turbine's online game heritage is deep. Two full Asheron's Call releases and the recent Dungeons & Dragons Online: Stormreach make the US developer one of the most experienced in the west when it comes to online goblin action.
He plays in front of us for an hour (no touching, no photography, no filming, pain of death), full spiel included. The original release is based squarely on the content of the first book in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring. Steefel shows us that Gandalf and a Nazgul are seen in the first five minutes of play, both in the hub town of Bree, sightings included as that's what players will "expect". The game's art instantly impresses, a graphical style somewhere between WoW's overblown cartoon and Guild's War's clipped realism. We see some of the colourful town, populated only with NPCs, before being transported away by the magic of dev codes to an assault on Weathertop.
Four races (Human, Elf, Hobbit and Dwarf) are available in seven classes (Loremaster, Hunter, Guardian, Champion, Captain, Minstrel and Burglar), and Steefel's playing an elf. The group would normally be a lot larger for this particular instance, says Steefel. A ranger hobbles up, injured, asks for an escort to the summit which has been overrun by orcs. The first taste of combat arrives in a scuffle with a goblin Conscript. A coloured, rune-ridden ring around the green monster's feet denotes the target and aside from Lord of the Rings styling it looks like an immediately familiar encounter to anyone with an MMO habit.
Steefel uses the words "straightforward MMO combat" as we're scanning the screen. One thing's for certain: it looks fantastic. As he moves on to a larger encounter with multiple enemies, the goblins' armour and weapons show painful detail up close. Orc Archers, Warriors and Reavers appear and the pace picks up. Steefel's hot bar is a plain-looking affair with 12 (ish) skill slots and he's playing using hotkeys in time-honoured fashion. All standard stuff.
A fantastic pair of orcs
Jeff's elf is on his own throughout the whole encounter and he's using cheats to walk through bigger fights. He shows us arching enemy sentries from massive distances as he moves through the instance, his character's breath visible in the air. New threats arrive in the shape of wargs, orcs retreating and blowing horns to call reinforcements. The player's constantly required to set fire to torches to "call down" orcs thus avoiding being overwhelmed, the flame device also being used to open gates. A couple of camps along the way need clearing, each progressively tougher, the first belonging to orc "Bob Hosk" (thanks), the second to a "Muz the Warg Keeper". The enemies speak throughout - "I've got a little surprise for you!" etc - and the ambience is generally faithful to the books. It really is what you'd expect.
In fact, there's nothing especially shocking about the game at all. It looks competent, attractive: Lord of the Rings. "I guess the way we're trying to craft the game is that it's got a broader spectrum of gameplay, so it's certainly a good game for a new player to take on because we're trying to make is accessible from the very beginning," Steefel explains. "On the other hand, for the hardcore player, it will provide them with all the high end stuff that they're going to want to have."
A first taste of "high end stuff" arrives when Jeff's elf reaches Weathertop's summit. He fights an Uruk Hai, followed by an awesome encounter with a mountain troll daubed with Saruman's white hands. It all fits, it all works and it looks bloody hard. But will it really be enough to span the hilarious gulf between those who've never picked up an online game before and a glass-eyed wraith with a bunch of level 60 WoW characters? Can such an obviously "down the line" MMO satisfy the hardcore?
"I think so," says Steefel. "Well, let me rephrase that, and I say this with tremendous respect. We can never satisfy those people. Blizzard can never satisfy those people. They're not satisfiable. Again, all power to them: they're so ferocious at consuming. We have a number of people on the team who have five, six, seven level 60 characters who've announced they won't play with anyone who has any less than three, four, five characters at level 60 or above. But in terms of the challenge level, in terms of being able to work in groups, being able to do raids, you know, high level content, there's just no way you could get through it unless you're in there with a bunch of real badass guys."
After Weathertop, Steefel goes to the Great Barrow for some dungeoneering. Again, the environments and the enemies are beautiful. The first sighting of the Witch King of Angmar is made here, although you don't get to take him on until you're reaching the top levels ("There's a 45-50 level cap," according to Jeff). The instance ends in combat with a particularly nasty wraith, after which Bombadil saves the day. He even skips. We're kind of loving the game at this point, to be honest.
Three times a LOTR MMORPG HaXX0r
Speaking to us in private after the showing, Steefel tells us he was contractually obliged to read the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings at least three times. He doesn't seem to mind. From the sound of it, that level of research was essential to the job.
"It's a huge place," he says, smiling. "For my designers and artists it's very cool for them to work on one of the most well-known properties on the planet. You know, it's like, 'What did you do today?' 'Oh I've been modelling Rivendell.' That's pretty cool. On the other hand, artists are really creative people, and that means that the amount of things they can create totally from scratch is unlimited. So when Angmar comes along and we said, 'Look, here's a whole part of Middle Earth that Tolkien only talked about. Here's everything we know about it, here's where it is geographically and we know what the rest of the world is like in terms of biology and topography: make Angmar.' And then we come up with a basic idea and we talk it over with Tolkien [Tolkien Estate, the owner of the book rights - Ed], come to a place where we're comfortable and that becomes Angmar. So you'll be exploring the realm of the Witch King. And there'll be many other places like that throughout Middle Earth that we get to do."
The Fellowship never goes to Angmar in the books. This is uncharted territory. To a Tolkien geek, it's wet dream material. And it's not going to stop any time soon. Turbine has very big plans for LOTRO. Get sucked in and you're going to be playing it for a long time yet.
"I think of this as a franchise that starts at launch and goes on for years and years and years," he adds. "It's such an evergreen piece of material there's no reason why it shouldn't. We're going to do an expansion roughly every nine to 12 months, and the expansions are likely to have significant functionality changes as opposed to just content. We're going to do quarterly content updates. Will other types of functionality come online in some of those? Sure. But it all depends on the technology involved. I'm going to have a content team, an art team and also a fairly substantial technology team to improve our game and add functionality.
"I think this is the beginning of an evolution. I've been preaching this to my team a lot. I think the MMO market is at a more mature place now. I think of it like the Betamax era. We ship the machine at launch and then just keep feeding it with tape? That doesn't work any more. The fundamental way that the experience exists is going to change and evolve. It's going to have to. The community's going to change and mature."
Some of the features to be included are obvious. PvP doesn't make it into the original release - currently scheduled for Q4 in Europe - although Steefel tells us to watch for an announcement on being able to play "darkside" soon.
Others are less so. The initial game includes 250 hours of play, but he tells us that all the content from The Two Towers and The Return of the King will be added in content updates. As an example of how this will affect the core game, the Rohirim make an appearance in the second book, so horse-riding and horse combat will have to be included. Add the unknown quantity of Angmar onto the three original books and you have an epic prospect. Turbine's in it for the long haul and it has massive plans. You should get into publishing, we joke.
"It's all part of the possibility space," says Steefel seriously. "It really depends on how many things we want to take on all at once. We're pretty clear that sales and distribution isn't a business that we'll ever want to get into."
"Unless we become the next EA."