I spent a few leisurely hours in Middle-earth, unsure if there would be anything new in an enterprise that's been too long under the sun. What caught my attention was a development team that (somewhat) turned off the Peter Jackson films, tuned into their own intuitions, and turned out a faithful hymn to a daunting, frighteningly high-profile venture. Hit the [MORE] link below to take a little trip.
The question is inherently ironic, but it bears asking nonetheless: How is The Lord of the Rings Online going to distinguish itself from the myriad other deep-pocketed, high-fantasy MMOs? When so much media (and just try to name a medium that hasn't been touched by The Lord of the Rings) relies on Tolkien's seminal trilogy as a basis for their own fantastical realms, what of Middle-earth is there left to explore? What angle could developers possibly exploit that hasn't already been lifted wholesale from the Rings franchise itself?
First off, it plays the Archeological card. As in, for Western Civilization, having your passport stamped in Middle-earth is like embarking on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. No, Tolkien didn't invent the fantasy tropes that are so familiar and expected today; while he's arguably the father of modern fantasy literature, he's not the grandfather. So, by unfurling the Middle-earth map, players aren't experiencing some slipshod spin-off that took a little here, stole a little there, and made just enough cosmetic changes to not get sued by the Tolkien Estate. Players are finally experiencing a world translated straight from the source texts of modern western fantasy. And again, let's spare ourselves the literary snobbery of referencing The Odyssey, Beowulf, Norse tradition, etc., as source texts. Tolkien himself had already assimilated that intellectual property into his own writings for our enjoyment. (Wasn't it Oscar Wilde that said "Good writers borrow. Great writers steal"? Well, it turns out that ol' Uncle Wilde wasn't lying to you.) So, with Lord of the Rings Online, you're running an avatar through the playgrounds of the man that stole it best.
Don't over-read me and think that I'm a Rings fanboy, however. Not to incite a riot, but I find most of Tolkien's writing to be parched and eye-glazing. And while he's an author I certainly respect, he's not one that I've ever really liked. (Yes, we all know that we're supposed to deify Tolkien, but those of us that couldn't actually stomach reading the entire Rings trilogy -- you can breathe easier, knowing that you're among friends.)
Secondly, seven months of beta testing, along with Turbine, Inc.'s previous development experience with Asheron's Call and Dungeons and Dragons Online, is putting LOTRO's best foot forward. Some very recent online releases (*cough* Vanguard *cough*) haven't shown the level of spit-shine that Middle-earth seems to be pulling off effortlessly. Monitoring the chat channels, I haven't seen any complaints whatsoever as to bugs -- real or alleged -- broken quests, avatar appearance or disappearance issues, or any of the other showstoppers that are often par-for-course with a new MMO launch. In about one month (which is when LOTRO reviews will trickle their way onto the net) we're not going to see the usual Buyer Beware! warnings that go hand-in-hand with lowered review scores. We won't see the concluding paragraphs that advise "Wait six months until all the bugs are mashed," or huffy bloggers stating "I'm not gonna pay $15 bucks a month to beta test a game!" Could this (along with the superbly polished World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade -- although that, by definition, isn't a new MMO release) represent a new standard for the opening day of an online game?
But I'm being hasty. Sadly, I admit that my experience was only a few levels deep for the different races, so at least I can say with confidence that the introductory stages are nicely refined.
From amongst the selectable races of, um, the Race of Man, Elves, Dwarves, and Hobbits, and deciding between the race-limited classes of Champions, Guardians, Hunters, Lore-masters, Minstrels, Burglars, and Captains, I opted to explore a magic-wielding human character for a healthy mix of the arcane and the mundane, respectively. As a lovely touch (one that D&D Online alumni will recognize) each race and class has a short introductory cinematic to view on the character creation screen.
This is some nicely-sculpted help from the developers, since at least a couple of those classes won't sound immediately familiar. Sure, you'd expect the Minstrel to take up a bard's lute, but it's much less conventional to think of the Minstrel as the healer. Which it is. But all of these LOTRO-specific paradigm shifts are spelled out equally well in text on the character creation screen. To the extent that commonly used MMO terms are blatantly utilized in their descriptions: The Champion's role is for "area-of-effect damage and damage-per-second," the Guardian is a straight up "tank," the Hunter is a "nuker," the Burglar is a "buffer," while the human-only Captains are a "buffer/pets" class, and the wizardly Lore-master handles "crowd control/pets."
By entering Middle-earth, you're also entering a vast, pre-established world with a veritable cast of thousands, and an already fully-realized map. Each race enjoys a unique starting point, but LOTRO entertains the idea of a character's history by having you pick out your character's old stomping grounds. Which is doubly cool since you get a suffix title from the very beginning of the game. The name floating above my head isn't just BillyJoeBob. It's BillyJoeBob of Rohan. Or Rivendell, or The Lonely Mountain. More obscure locales are available too, like the Stoor, Lindon, or the Dale-lands.
But no matter where you hail from, you're treated to a single-player instance to start things off. And if there's something Turbine has learned how to do right off the bat, it's launch a motivating hook for the rest of your time in Tolkien-land. So you don't immediately lose track of what you're getting yourself into, you'll either run across Elrond, Gandalf, a cave troll, or one of the Dark Riders during your tutorial mission. And it's going to be in an all-hell's-breaking-loose fashion that you're introduced to them. No, silly hobbit, you won't be taking down one of the Nazgul in all of your level-one glory. But you will be getting a little too close for comfort, just as an appetizer.
But just as Tolkien himself does, the missions' writings tend to overrate themselves, plodding on a bit haphazardly about too many non-player characters and settings you don't really care about yet. Although, every layman's argument against something unapologetically Middle-earthy can and should be argued against -- in favor of some thoroughbred Lord of the Rings immersion. And for every rote fantasy convention you will be prescient of, there'll be one step outside the box to counteract your expectations.
I can't lie to you and tell you that I'm riveted. Middle-earth is too middle-of-the-road for me when it comes to high-fantasy. It fits into some unlabeled "realistic fantasy" genre that, all things considered, wouldn't be fantasy at all if it weren't for a few fireball spells and a couple magical denizens. If not for those elements, it'd be a somewhat droll, perhaps picaresque period piece set in Tudor-style England. But still, there's enough baked into the Rings environment to keep it all quite charming, if not in a commendably restrained manner. If you check your baggage at the door, The Lord of the Rings Online shapes itself as a thoughtful homage to the father of fantasy literature, made all the more digestible from a nigh-infallible interface, buttery controls, and palpable vistas to make newly-forming fellowships puff their pipe-weed in awe. Beyond exploring its own license it doesn't do anything jaw-dropping. It's simply a well-crafted game that will leave you craving elevensies.