A shadow has fallen across Middle-earth. Reports from the West warn of a gathering horde. As the people of Middle Earth prepare themselves for battle, an army of darkness stands poised to invade....
Two months ago, it was announced that Turbine's MMO The Lord of the Rings Online would relaunch as a free-to-play offering. It was hardly surprising. Given the success of the new model implemented for Dungeons and Dragons Online (boosting revenue by 500%) it was perhaps only a matter of time until MMO gaming's most criminally under-subscribed title followed suit.
It's fair to say, however, that the news was received with mixed feelings within the game's existing, highly loyal community. While under-populated servers benefit nobody and are frequently the subject of private concern, the LOTRO community has always prided itself on its helpful, friendly and civilised nature. The announcement then that the game would become available for free to anyone who cared to download it didn't so much divide the player-base as leave the players themselves feeling divided.
Membership for the re-launch has been split into three tiers, VIPs (current subscribers), Free Players and Premium Players. Once they've made their first purchase from the Turbine Store, Free Players are automatically converted to Premium Player status. Access and benefits differ greatly between the three models and - for those wishing to find out more about how the changes will affect them - Codemasters has provided a chart outlining the differences along with an exhaustive FAQ.
For the newly arrived Free Player, the seven classes included at retail launch are available and offer a varied choice for character creation while staying firmly grounded in the traditional trinity of tanks, healers and damage-dealers. Only the most recently introduced classes - the Runekeeper and Warden - are locked out, requiring a one-time purchase from the Turbine Store. Another initial restriction for the Free Player is the limitation of one character slot per account, although a further two are provided following membership upgrade.
Upon entering the world, Free Players are provided with just about everything available in the subscription game or, at least, everything in moderation. Only three bags are provided rather than the standard five for example. You can purchase items from the auction house but you cannot sell your own goods. In order to enhance or activate these and other benefits, you will need to access the Turbine Store via a button placed discretely at the bottom of the screen.
Turbine Points, the currency used for upgrades, can either be purchased outright or earned through gameplay such as the completion of Deeds, the grind-focused slaying quests that also confer stat upgrades upon the player. At the time of writing, pricing details have yet to be finalised and won't be announced until much nearer the launch. What can be said, though, is that the items currently available are at least priced sensibly in proportion with each other and the relative benefits or content they confer.
Divided into categories, the Store contains a wide range of goods including temporary buffs, travel enhancements, housing goods and essential quest packs for when you've exhausted the available content. Just as importantly, there's an abundance of purely cosmetic items to publicly humiliate your character with. What, after all, is a Hobbit without his Feathered Tri-corner Hat?
One item in particular that's likely to prise the coffers open sooner rather than later is the rental mount, available for purchase at Level 5 and good for 30 days of use. Each of the three individual zones provided in the free-to-play version is vast, with quests often involving a marathon sprint from one end of the map to another. While grizzlier veterans may bemoan how easy the kids have it these days, such sentiments are likely to last only as long as it takes them to roll a new character and take advantage of the benefit themselves.
Other provisions in the Store - such as the ability to purchase permanent stat increases - are, on the other hand, likely to invite legitimate controversy. For many, the use of real money to purchase hard upgrades is anathema to the spirit of character development in an escapist online world. Tolerance of these types of item within the existing community will likely hinge on how far this concept is taken and how attainable these bonuses will be from the monthly gratuity points provided to subscribers.
While functional, the actual process of purchasing items through the Turbine Store can be a little slow and browsing is an exercise in murderous frustration. Navigation of the various categories is reminiscent of HTML's clumsier dial-up days and this is one area of the re-launch that really does deserve a further round of polish. While all purchases are rather charmingly handled entirely within the game-world and delivered to players instantly, this difficulty in browsing seems at odds with a model designed to invite spending.
Level by level, Turbine provides gift-boxes containing various buffs, elixirs and other helpful odds and ends. None of these can be sold to vendors, encouraging active experimentation with their effects - and further supplies of these items are of course available for purchase. While it would be easy to write such offerings off as a cynical nudge towards laying out more of your hard-earned cash, they never feel intrusive or suggest that you're missing out by not restocking. More than anything, the prompts serve as a gentle introduction to the mechanics of the Store itself.
In terms of content, initial progress through the early part of the game is largely unaffected by your choice of membership. Players will easily be able to arrive at Level 20 without being denied any of the compelling story, questing and scenery that make LOTRO such a special game.
Differences will only really begin to show as you advance past this point - as your progress through both the content and the mechanics of your character advances, greater demands will inevitably be placed on your wallet. Quest packs typically provide enough content to see you through the next 10 levels and, while not obligatory for advancement, dungeons can be unlocked allowing access to greater gear and weapons. One thing that appears to be permanently out of reach of non-subscribers is Monster Play, LOTRO's good-versus-evil player-versus-player component.
Put simply, the content provided free of charge will keep most players busy for a significant amount of time. Those who stay the distance and reach the point where progression becomes impossible will most likely have already made the decision that LOTRO is indeed worthy of their money. From here, the choice comes purely down to whether you'll continue paying piecemeal for content as and when it's needed, or upgrade to VIP membership. In this sense, it's an extended, highly effective trial, and a large number of those who fall in love with the game will likely find it more sensible to pay a regular subscription.
Overall, the new system fundamentally works and, niggles aside, Turbine is to be congratulated on its implementation thus far. For players new to the MMO genre - or indeed, those looking for a change of scenery - LOTRO's free-to-play offering is shaping up to provide as polished and enthralling an experience as any other currently available.
With the initial cost barrier removed, there's simply no excuse for not indulging yourself in this enchanting representation of Tolkien's world. From the veteran's perspective, rather than fearing the incoming masses, the community might instead serve themselves best by preparing a cosy seat by the fire and a foaming mug of Thistleberry Brew for the friends they haven't yet made.
The free-to-play version of The Lord of the Rings Online is currently in beta testing and due to launch for PC this autumn.