Thursday, August 23, 2012

Discussing MMOs: Lord of the Rings Online

Lord of the Rings Online is the first MMO I played after it became free-to-play. It is, of course, based on the Lord of the Rings property, and takes place, chronologically, just before or around the time when the Fellowship of the Ring is formed in Rivendell. The company, sadly, only has access to the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit; it cannot make use of material from the Silmarillion or other Tolkien works. Predictably, players play characters in Middle-Earth, and unlike WoW or WAR, there is only one side. You can choose to play as a human, elf, dwarf, or hobbit, and different classes are open to each race; humans can play as 8 of the 9 available classes, while hobbits only have access to 4. The graphics of the game are slightly better than those of WoW in that they are not as cartoonish, but they aren't high-quality like DCUO or WAR.

I only played Lord of the Rings Online (or LOTRO) for a little while, but in the time I did play, I learned quite a bit. Despite being a game basd in a well-known world, LOTRO has a lot to offer, even to veteran MMO players. For one, there is a long, epic storyline that progresses through the game; it progresses parallel to, but outside of, normal area quests, and is generally relatively difficult - though I hear that it can become easier with multiple players progressing on it at once. This gives the game a coherent storyline, even as you move between quest areas that are often unrelated.

Health is handled differently in LOTRO; characters don't have hit points or health points, but morale. Some creatures - particularly direct servants of Sauron, like Ringwraiths or powerful undead - will lower your morale simply by being near your character, so seeing this effect is a telltale sign that there is a difficult fight or area ahead. I found this to be an interesting mechanic, because it made some fights that would have otherwise been easy into harrowing affairs, though fun. I don't know that I'd recommend it for other games - it works in LOTRO because of the creeping fear and sense of terror inspired by true evil - but it works to make the game feel more immersive and thematic.

Like the superhero MMOS I played, LOTRO has a loose, easy method for creating your character's look; the armor you appear to be wearing is not necessarily the armor your character has equipped, and you can store a number of armor pieces in a sort of closet, allowing you much greater freedom in how your character looks. This allowed me, as a player, to make my human Guardian look like the warrior from Rohan I pictured him as, rather than someone who armored himself by picking random pieces of armor in the dark. This is really a feature that all MMOs ought to embrace.

Once you reach a certain level, you can buy a house for your character; houses reside in instanced neighborhoods, each with dozens of houses, and they vary in appearance depending on where you buy them - a human house looks different from a dwarven abode. In your character's house, not only can you decorate it according to your whim, but you can also use it as a way of displaying trophies you have won from quests or difficult monsters. Other characters can come visit you, and you can likewise visit them, to relax or roleplay in a quiet environment - and to show off, of course.

One thing I never tried, though I would have liked to, was LOTRO's music system; each character can learn, at the very least, how to play a lute, and the Minstrel class can play every instrument, and each instrument can be played with in-game macros covering several octaves. With sufficient organization, this can lead to some cool in-game musical performances by other players, and there are scheduled musical festivals - the most well-known of these being 'Weatherstock', essentially Woodstock on Weathertop mountain. It has no mechanical effect on the game, but is a fun way to bring the community together for something besides in-game monster hunting and such.

Being set in Middle-Earth, there is an enormous amount of territory to cover, and most of it will be familiar to fans - you can visit Bree, the Prancing Pony, the Shire, Weathertop, and the first expansion opened up the Mines of Moria. After the Moria expansion came other packs that expanded Mirkwood and Isengard, and an expansion coming in October of 2012 should open up Rohan. I never got a chance to see Moria in-game, as it is quite the dangerous place and I never got to a level capable of handling it, but I imagine it would have been a sight to see. LOTRO definitely fulfilled my need for exploration; I doubt I explored even a third of what the game had to offer.

As a free-to-play game, I have to say I never really noticed any real focus on getting me to buy from the game store; there were a number of items available in the store that appealed to me - a variety of character outfits, new mounts, and even some useful items - but none of them looked like they were so necessary that I would need to spend money to get them. Indeed, by performing some deeds in the game, you can earn points for use in the game's store, meaning that if you work hard enough you might never need to spend money on the game. From what I can tell, the game is still going strong; Wikipedia notes that LOTRO is said to be the third most popular MMO, with Turbine, the company that runs the game, citing its free-to-play model as a large part of the reason. LOTRO is one of the games I would like to return to, if I knew anyone else who was likely to play, because even in such a  detailed world, it gets a bit boring doing everything alone. That was, in fact, the reason why I stopped playing - I just felt too lonely. And so I stopped for a time, but there was more on the horizon.

Next up: Star Wars: The Old Republic.

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