In a long-forgotten cavern deep within the bowels of Middle-Earth, filled with lost treasures and the vengeful, embittered wraiths of an ancient race of warrior men, I am desperately flicking my mouse pointer over my toolbar in the hope of working out where the hell my healing spells are.
This isn't, I reflect sadly, quite the role I had seen myself playing in Tolkien's epic fantasy. As a young boy with a hyperactive imagination, I'd always sort of assumed I'd ride alongside Aragorn, fend off the Nazgul at the shattered hilltop fortress of Amon Sul, contribute something wise (but probably high pitched) to the council of Elrond, or rescue the Fellowship from doom in the dank darkness of the mines of Moria.
Being a furry-footed Hobbit bard who's being bellowed at by a company of taller and burlier adventurers to get his chubby little fingers out of his arse and start dishing out the heals pronto wasn't on the menu, as far as I can recall. But even as my real-life chubbies dash over the keyboard and I rescue one companion from doom even as another flatlines, and the wights close in around us, one thing is inescapable.
I'm grinning; smiling like an idiot, because the forgotten fantasies of the 11 year old who was enraptured by Lord of the Rings a decade and a half ago are coming to life again. This is, unmistakably, Middle Earth; I am accompanied by Elves and Dwarves, Men and Hobbits, and we're underneath the Misty Mountains battling evil wights. Every now and then, that fact hits me in the face again, and even to the cynical 26 year old, it's a genuine thrill.
The Eye of the Enemy
It would be incredibly easy at this point to insert a "But..." and launch into full-on Comic Book Guy mode. There's plenty to criticise, after all, because there's simply no way that developers Turbine (of Asheron's Call fame) could have built a Lord of the Rings MMORPG without making radical changes to some of Tolkien's material.
Yes, you're going to see lots of feisty little hobbits running around waving swords in Orcs' faces; yes, there are going to be dwarves and elves wandering in and out of towns and villages where they simply have no place being in Tolkien's lore. Moreover, in order to provide a solid basis for the adventures of player characters in LOTRO, Turbine has invented a vast new cast of characters, new locations, and even an entirely new storyline element which was nowhere to be found in The Fellowship Of The Ring.
The problem, you see, is that you can't really have thousands of people following Frodo and the Fellowship around - that simply won't work. So yes, your adventures in The Shire, at Bree and Weathertop, and at Rivendell will intersect with the Fellowship on occasion, and sometimes you'll be sent on quests that help out the Fellowship by clearing the path for them, or whatever. However, the main thrust of LOTRO is really a side-story to the Fellowship's quest. The subtitle of the game is Shadows of Angmar, and it introduces the idea that while Frodo and his tubby gardening pal were plodding along to Rivendell, a huge threat was gathering to the north, in the ancient evil kingdom of Angmar.
Turbine's invention - which will probably have Lord of the Rings purists gasping in horror, I suppose - is the idea that Sauron has sent the Witch-King, the leader of his creepy Ringwraiths, back to their ancient kingdom to raise some hell. The idea is that they will crush the realms of Men from the north-east, while the forces of Mordor swoop up from the south-west. Angmar now threatens all of Eriador - that's the bit of Middle-Earth west of the Misty Mountains, and it's where the entirety of LOTRO is set, for now. No Mordor, no Gondor or Rohan or Mirkwood in this iteration of the game; they'll be added down the line, as LOTRO expands over the years to cover the entire continent, and the entire continuity of the trilogy.
Is it authentic Tolkien? No, it's not. LOTRO takes liberties with the source material that even Peter Jackson's movie adaptations wouldn't have dared to touch - but so far, it looks like Turbine has done a rather good job with these departures from canon. The Angmar story isn't in Fellowship of the Ring, but it doesn't feel out of place either; you feel like it could have happened in Tolkien's continuity, and for a casual fan of LOTR (which, let's face it, is most of us) that's all that really matters. In essence, what Turbine has done is to flesh out the stuff that happens "off-camera" in LOTR. While there will inevitably be expressions of horror all over the world's LOTR web-forums at some of their decisions, it looks like the game is actually going to do surprisingly well at fitting into people's expectations of Middle Earth.
Something stirs in the East
In terms of how you actually play Lord of the Rings Online, much of the basic interface will be incredibly familiar to anyone who has ever dipped into World of Warcraft. You've got your inventory and equipment screens, familiar default key bindings for maps and chat, a toolbar of actions, various spell and talent screens; on a basic level, if you've ever played an MMO before, you'll be up and running in LOTRO in no time.
The seven character classes on offer are all fairly familiar as well, although they use names which are more appropriate to LOTR than to more generic fantasy universes. Interestingly, Turbine defines the character classes not just by the fantasy archetypes they fit, but also by which Lord of the Rings character they are closest to. As such, the Lore Master isn't just the Mage of the game, it's also modelled closely on the abilities of Gandalf; the Guardian is the tank, and follows Gimli's attributes.
You can probably work out the rest; Legolas is the Hunter, Aragorn is the Champion, essentially the damage-dealing warrior of the group. On the slightly more obscure side of things, the Captain is the Paladin class of the game, and follows the archetype of Boromir; while the Burglar is somewhat similar to the Rogues of other games, and is modelled after Frodo. The odd one out is the Minstrel, who (as I learned in our first encounter in the game) is the Priest of the group, boosting Morale (HP to you and I) with his various spells and songs. According to LOTRO producer Jeff Steefel, he's modeled to some extent after Elrond.
However, the instant familiarity of the game is matched by a gradual introduction of brand new elements, which do quite a good job of setting the game aside from World of Warcraft and its ilk. Perhaps the most interesting of those elements is the concept of Deeds and Titles, which offer a whole new degree of character customisation, completely outside the standard XP and levelling system (which, in this initial release, caps out at level 50).
The idea is that as you progress through the game, you'll be able to undertake various feats, or Deeds, which are noted in your record. Think of them like Xbox Live Achievements, perhaps; they're basically silent quests that run alongside the main stuff you're doing in the game. So, in a very simple example, you might get "Orc Slayer" for killing 1000 orcs over the course of the game. Many deeds, or combinations of various deeds, earn you Titles - special things you can put after your name, so everyone can see what a good Orc Slayer you are.
However, that in itself is just window dressing. What's really interesting is that those titles come with Traits associated with them - which could be anything from a skill or stat boost, to a genuinely new skill which your character didn't have previously. Up to 15 of these traits can be equipped at once, out of around 400 which are available. Far from being minor tweaks to your character class, they can make a very serious difference to how you play the game.
For example, a non-magic character could give themselves certain magical abilities - ranged shots perhaps, or healing - by equipping the right traits. That's the real power of this system. It essentially allows a limited type of multi-classing, by giving you the ability to play one primary class but bolt on abilities from other classes to create a more interesting, unique character.
Building the Fellowship
Another interesting aspect of LOTRO - which isn't entirely new, but won't be familiar to most MMO players - is the concept of group "feats" in battle. This is a mechanic which is basically meant to make grouped combat into a more interesting, dynamic affair, by allowing your group to stack up special combo attacks on an enemy.
The way it works is that certain attacks or circumstances in a battle will trigger the start of a chain - which makes a number of coloured "gems" appear on the screen of other members of your party. Selecting one of those gems (they only pop up for a few seconds) will fire off the next ability in the chain, which could be anything from a special attack to a buff or a heal.
Like many things in Lord of the Rings, there are different levels of complexity to explore with this system. For beginners or causal players, just stabbing one of the coloured gems will be enough - selecting one of the options is always better than just doing nothing. However, as players progress through the game, they'll find that certain options open up the potential for increasingly powerful chains - and raid groups late in the game will be able to use the group feats as a core part of their battle strategy.
Outside of major changes like these, LOTRO offers pretty much everything you'd expect from an MMORPG which is being positioned as a challenger to World of Warcraft. Guilds (called Kinships), instanced raids and duelling are all built into the game, and Turbine has tried to balance out the proportion of instanced to shared-world content so that players don't spend too much time outside the main game world. Some key areas of LOTR are instanced, though - Weathertop, or Amon Sul, being one of them, with an early instanced quest where you need to battle your way through an orcish encampment to get to the top of the hill.
There are ten crafting professions in the game, which work in a manner similar to WOW - you collect ingredients, acquire a recipe, and make objects in this manner. While this is very accessible for new players, it's not exactly challenging or particularly interesting for more advanced or hardened RPG veterans. Turbine assures us that once you master the basic levels of crafting, there's plenty to do for players who want to further down the crafting path - and certain extremely rare and valuable items can only be made by master crafters, using recipes and ingredients which aren't available to those who are merely dabbling in the profession.
Then there are a host of nice little additions to the game, touches which make it feel like a well-considered product. There are technical systems like in-game voice chat, which should make playing in groups altogether more interesting, and there are also certain weird but nicely implemented aspects of the game which demonstrate that Turbine has been thinking about this a bit more deeply than some of its rivals. For example, there's the Dread and Hope system, which draws on a key element of Tolkien's writing. When you're near a very evil place or enemy, Dread effects start to claw at your character's mind - they can cause you to lose health, to slow down, or even to experience weird graphical effects. Dread, however, can be counter-acted by items which generate Hope - remember the Vial of Galadriel, which Frodo carried in the books?
The final element of Lord of the Rings Online which is worthy of some in-depth discussion is the PvP - or rather, the lack of it. The game doesn't allow players to fight each other (except in friendly duels), and it doesn't allow you to play as an Orc, or an Uruk-Hai, or any of the other nasties from the LOTR universe. At least, not directly.
What you can do, however, is participate in the Monster Game - essentially a side game to the main MMORPG, where you roll a monster character and take part in a capture and hold style PvP game. You can play as a variety of Tolkien bad-guy archetypes - for some reason, the arachnophobe in me makes me want to play a giant spider - and like your main character in the game, this monster character is persistent and continues to evolve as you play, collecting "Destiny Points" with each player you kill or objective you secure.
Initially, this all seems a little bit tacked on, like a lame excuse for proper PvP - but after taking part for a few hours, we're not so sure. The Monster Game is damned good fun, and it's been implemented extremely well. It takes place over a vast swathe of the game world, full of towers, keeps and rally points to control, and allows up to five monsters to group together and play as a team.
What's more, the rewards you earn as a monster can either be spent on upgrading your monster character - or can be brought back into the "main" game with you, where you can spend them on buffs for your regular, good-guy characters. Turbine assures us that as the game progresses, more and more new areas of the world will be opened up to Monster play, and it certainly makes sense as part of the lore. As the game reaches east towards Mordor, more and more of the ground it covers will be the site of famous battles - Helm's Deep, Osgiliath, Pelennor Fields, and so on - and each of those areas is likely to be a permanent PvP battleground where players in heroic and monster guises will clash.
Return of the King?
After playing in the beta for a few weeks, then, our hopes for Lord of the Rings Online are surprisingly high. It would be an easy game to dislike just on principle; a game which runs riot with some elements of Tolkien's much-loved creation, an MMORPG which seems set on challenging WoW purely on the basis of a popular license. However, the simple fact is that Turbine, so far, seem to be doing a damned good job of pulling it all together.
LOTRO won't make everyone happy, but when Jeff Steefel tells us that "if there's any game that can take on WOW, this is it", we're inclined to believe him. LOTRO will be enormous at launch, with over 100 unique areas, 2000 NPCs, 1500 quests and 3000 different creatures to battle - and this is only the beginning. If the game can capture the interest of LOTR fans, there will be astonishing anticipation for the obvious expansions, which will bring the game east of the Misty Mountains and south into Rohan, Gondor and eventually Mordor.
Of course, one does not simply walk into Mordor. If LOTRO is ever to make it to the Dark Lord's lands, the game will have to convince legions of people to part with a monthly subscription fee. It will have to be more than just graphically beautiful, somewhat clever, and evocative of LOTR fantasies of our teenaged years - it will have to be slick, compelling and utterly, utterly addictive. Our hugely positive first impressions of the game don't mean that Turbine doesn't have its work cut out for it... But it does mean that it might just get it right.
The Lord of the Rings launches on April 24th, with pre-ordering players getting a 10 day head-start on April 14th. The game's subscription is priced at at 8.99 Euro (GBP 5.99) a month, with a 149.99 Euro (GBP 99.99) lifetime subscription also being offered.