If you cast your mind back to last April, you might remember something curious about the launch of Lord of the Rings Online: how smooth it was. There were very few bugs, despite the usual array of gameplay complaints, and a straight 9/10 score from our resident hardman Rob. No launch had been so professional in the MMO world since World of Warcraft's. And, unlike its near-contemporary Auto Assault, LOTRO is still going; in fact the number of people playing has been rapidly increasing. So what's changed since then, and why is it drawing new gamers in?
The main reason must be LOTRO's substantial free content updates, all of which continue the story. The way they're opening up the world as they do so, introducing new areas with every new chapter and working out the story through perfectly-scripted instances - after the astounding dungeons of Dungeons & Dragons Online, it has to be said that developers Turbine are the instance kings - means the story is, unlike WOW, LOTRO's biggest hook. For Tolkien fans, the fact that your story always runs parallel to that of the Fellowship is great anyway, as it expands the world you've already read so much about - and it's a lot more fun than reading the bleeding Children of Hurin and putting up with Tolkien and Tolkien Jr's mawkish imitation of the lingo of Norse epics.
Making the main town for each race the starting area means that as you go further into the game, you're further from home (more on this later), in increasingly high-level areas, and at a later point in the books' story. Though each race has different beginnings, they all dovetail together neatly into the main narrative, which itself cleverly supports the main storyline of the novels. Moreover, the best thing about the story is the instances.
The Epic Quest line is broken up into books, the key parts of which are instanced. The instances are all singularly well-written and in-line with the grim worldview of Tolkien lore; NPC heroes and damsels in distress don't always win or even survive, in fact they more often die or fall into corruption. Moreover, because the story instances are few and far between, there's always plenty of other players willing to help out with each one, handily as they normally require a full, well-balanced Fellowship (squad). A good Fellowship doing an Epic Quest instance, and using the conjunction system well, makes for great fun; it's a pity it's not the whole game.
It might be very familiar to EverQuest II players, but the conjunction system (otherwise known as Fellowship Manoeuvres) really brings the team combat to life. Only certain classes can trigger it in combat, but it's essential for efficient dungeon-running. Essentially, one player (normally a burglar) performs an action that gives everybody else the opportunity to join in. First, a big target board pops up for them that allows them to quickly switch targets; secondly, they have to choose from four coloured buttons (red is direct damage, yellow damage over time, green heals, yellow) that pop up on screen within six seconds. If a whole fellowship (that is, six players) joins in and provides a recognised series of colours, then something spectacular happens; a lazy fellowship hitting all reds will summon an Ent spirit to bury their enemy for massive direct damage, a clever fellowship can try YBRGYB for a conjunction called Dawn on the Deep and a whole host of combined effects. These skills are essential for taking down elite enemies and instance bosses and are plain spectacular to use.
Older areas, like the badly-designed Angmar (which Turbine admitted was surprisingly full of pigs, and devoid of orcs), have been reworked. Indeed, there's so much new content in here you have to wonder what Turbine can add to the world with its first big expansion. Thankfully, it's already been announced as the Mines of Moria which, being really early in the books, shows up quite how far the tale still has to go - at this rate, the story should be finished by the end of 2010. What will happen when they finish? Well, if they buy the rights to the rest of Tolkien's work, there's literally thousands of years of flashbacks for the devs to visit, including the sunken land of Numenor, amongst other places. If they don't, they can always just add depth to the world they've already created.
At the time of writing, the Spring Festival has taken over The Shire. Like St Patrick's Day, it appears to be mainly about booze, with new quests including a pub crawl around the whole Shire and a drunken balancing-on-a-fence-when-seeing-treble minigame. The fact that this is limited just to the Hobbit areas makes it very likely we're going to see an Elven summer festival, a human harvest festival and a Dwarvish Samhain (there were summer and harvest festivals last year, but they were again hobbit-orientated, indicating an unhealthy obsession with the hairy-footed ones). Of course, the gimmicks don't stop there, as any player in the game can play a selection of instruments using the keyboard as, well, a keyboard. New instruments have been introduced since the game came out ("more cowbell" gives you a hint as to one of them), but most people haven't invested the time to learn to jam properly or have turned off player music, so this particular gimmick has fallen by the wayside.
Book 10 introduced two new types of transformation play - playing as a creature other than your main character - to the world. We'll get to Trolls vs Rangers in a minute, but both of these new modes exemplify one thing that LOTRO is really doing well - coming up with fun ideas and implementing them professionally. Almost from the start of the game you can access Critter Play, where you spend a limited period of time as a chicken in a separate chicken MMO... an irrelevant joke, but a sign that the Turbine team is still enjoying making the game. More importantly, as soon as you hit level 10 you get access to Monster Play, which supplies the player-versus-player element of the game. It's here that the Freeps (Free Peoples) fight the Creeps (y'know, cos they're creepy, kooky and awfully ooky).
Essentially, you're given six level-50 monsters, ranging from the weirdly creeping giant spiders spawned by Shelob (our favourite) to Warg Stalkers and three varieties of orc warrior (the new orc Defiler, a much-needed healing class for the monsters, will be in the next patch release). Play is straightforward combat, with a mass of monsters advancing into a mass of high-level Free Peoples (who were obviously absent when the game initially launched), the latter slaughtering the former without much fuss in normal circumstances. There isn't the tactical or strategic element of, say, Planetside or even Savage, and there certainly doesn't feel like there's much structure to the assaults. Indeed, the aim is ostensibly to capture citadels and camps scattered across the Ettenmoors by killing the Nemeses and Arch-Nemeses that control them, but with the lag problems we experienced it's hard to see opponents more than twenty yards away, so that's merely a noble ambition. For killing and capturing you're rewarded mostly with Destiny points that can either be used for permanently upgrading your monster or for buying temporary super-buffs in normal Hero play.
Or for buying playtime as a Troll or Ranger.
The option to play as either one of these juggernauts was introduced in Book 10, but has been disabled for a lot of the time since then because of exploits. And this matters, because it costs a lot to transform into one of these (5000 Destiny points) and you only get to play as them for an hour. The difference, however, is that you've suddenly become an elite boss that has the brains of a human; trolls have massive hit points (about 12 times that of a level 50 character) and can kill most Freeps in a few attacks, whereas rangers have the same abilities but they look like a normal human. Thankfully, each faction can have at most two of these monsters each and, though they make the battles more one-sided, they don't alter the disappointing chaos of Monster Play. Perhaps, as the war progresses, Turbine will allow Monster players to spill out from the Ettenmoors into the larger world, which would alter the focus of the battles and make the various contested areas more threatening and hence interesting to quest in.
One more important thing to mention. LOTRO looks absolutely, astoundingly right. Characters look correct, the world is beautifully crafted and enemies match the best drawings that the Tolkien Legendarium has attracted in sixty years. The Shire looks as good as the movies, Bree (though bigger than we expected) is gloriously rickety, like an old medieval English town, and the build of the Elven and Dwarven towns nail ethereal and indomitable respectively. The player-owned houses, introduced in Book 11, also look damn fine, though they exist in a range of instanced villages located around each races starting areas. Sadly, as empty most of the time so, like player houses in most games since Habbo Hotel, they're a pretty useless and expensive adornment for high-level grinders or show-off Kinships only.
After all the piles of praise we've heaped on it, why does LOTRO still not get the coveted 10/10? Blizzard even like the game so much, it seems to have named their art director after Samwise Gamgee - so why do we have qualms? Firstly, because, despite all its advances, despite the Deeds achievement system, and the believable world Turbine has crafted (where it's very careful to avoid Blizzard's occasional frame-breaking humour, so that you're encouraged to take the plot more seriously), this is still very similar to WOW and its predecessors. And, because of that, it shares the genre's flaws: there's still a lot of needless, tedious running about; the gaps between the excellent story quests stretch wide, no matter how good the scripting of the other quests is; and there are still irritating "kill a billion slugs" quests (some deeds literally ask you to perform an action 1000 times). Monster Play, though promising, isn't quite there, and many of the updates (e.g. faction reputations and collectible armour sets) make the game more like WOW, not less.
If you played LOTRO at launch and hated it, it's not changed sufficiently since then to justify you coming back. Otherwise, it's as polished and stable, and a better written and more believable world than the elephant in the corner. It doesn't have the same player-base as WOW and all your friends aren't playing it, but maybe if you move, they'll follow, and you could have fun together. You could be the ringleader.
9 / 10