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.