Trying recently to explain the appeal of Lord of the Rings Online to an MMO-playing friend of mine, I could only come up with an analogy of flavours. The market leader we all know and love represents an infinitely long conveyor belt, funnelling colour and content down your throat as though they were Kola Kubes while you struggle gleefully to fight off diabetic shock. The Lord of the Rings Online, by contrast, is like a fine cheese: matured to perfection and best savoured with a glass of port in front of a roaring fire on a cold winter's night.
Both experiences are equally enjoyable. But to come from one to the other with anything other than a clean palate and an open mind would be to invite disappointment. Taken at face value, there's an obvious checklist of clichés from the fantasy MMO genre – elves, magic, good and evil – but let's not forget that Tolkien literally wrote the book on these. Rather than endless, earth-shattering action, LOTRO is first and foremost about a story, and it deserves to be judged under a spotlight of its own.
Last week, the game was relaunched in Europe as a free-to-play title, available for all to enjoy, albeit with different grades of membership. Breaking down exactly who is entitled to what based on previous subscriptions and in-game purchases is a little like trying to solve one of those logic puzzles where Billy plays the violin, but only on a Thursday afternoon. For the sake of our collective sanity, far better to point you to Codemasters' FAQ on the membership structure.
When we previewed the re-launch back in August, pricing information for the Turbine Store was unavailable, making it impossible to quantify the strain this free title would end up putting on your wallet. Points can now be purchased in multiples of 420 (Ł5.28), 1550 (Ł14.68), 2500 (Ł22.31) or 5000 (Ł37.59). It's worth noting, however, that these packages currently contain bonus points and may be subject to change.
Assuming you resist the urge to buy a mount at level 5, increase your available inventory bags or remove the currency limit on your characters, there are around 20 generous levels to be enjoyed before you'll find yourself handing over your credit card details. While it's by no means impossible to level further just through grinding and enjoying the main storyline quest, the type of person who will embrace this kind of gameplay will likely either prefer to be a subscriber or is already busy playing Aion.
Quest packs cost anywhere between 300 and 800 points depending on the number of levels and dungeons included. Once you reach the game's original level cap of 50, you will need to purchase the Mines of Moria and Siege of Mirkwood expansions for 2495 and 1995 points respectively. Monster Play – LOTRO's player-versus-player environment – remains a subscriber-only offering.
The range of items contained in the Store is far too great to express in minute detail; suffice to say that both cosmetic and advancement options are well catered for. My suspicions from August's preview remain, however. If you're teased into loving this world, and you're willing to pay for the pleasure, a subscription remains by far the most sensible option.
As well as making the game more accessible for the newcomer with clear, graphical help screens, Turbine has also taken the opportunity to streamline the levelling process and bring some of the more entertaining diversions to you much earlier on. Skirmishes, for example, were introduced with the Mirkwood expansion, providing a form of economy multi-boxing for the solo player.
Now available at level 20 rather than 30, Skirmishes see you playing out a number of scenarios such as repelling invaders from a hobbit village or defending a town fortress from the ravaging hordes. Accompanied by a solider NPC whom you customise to provide defensive, offensive or healing support, the battles provide a fresh and intense break from the traditional questing.