The Lord of the Rings Online –You Shall Not Pay!
Neil Kewn (Murxidon) – OnRPG Journalist
The Lord of the Rings Online is an interesting game. Unlike many of its peers, it isn’t an MMO that plotted to overthrow the market leader nor was it forgotten about a mere six months after release. LOTRO has always been there, gleefully welcoming new subscribers whilst providing a steady stream of content to those who already inhabit its servers. The game was well-received upon its release way back in 2007, and player numbers have been more or less good – or as good as they can be in the P2P market. Not content with this, Turbine, Inc. announced last year that the game was stepping out of its Shadows of Angmar and going free-to-play. The first major Western MMO to do so, but definitely not the last.
With news that the games profits had more or less tripled, its conversion to the love-it-or-hate-it cash shop model was a resounding success. Not only did it breathe new life into the game, it dawned on many other publishers that free-to-play is a viable option in supporting their increasingly derelict virtual worlds. The Lord of the Rings Online is here to stay, but how does its new funding dynamic affect the most important part of any MMO, the gameplay?
There’s a lot to see and a lot to do in Middle-earth, and any fan of Tolkien’s vast lore will have an absolute hoot roaming the fields of Turbine’s design. Free players are welcomed with open arms, and they get a fair chunk of content without paying a dime. All four races are available (man, dwarf, hobbit and elf) in addition to seven of the nine classes. From there, it’s pretty much up to you. Traditional but refined, the beginning stages of your journey into Middle-earth are story driven introductions that help you get to grips with the game. Any MMO player will feel very comfortable controlling their character and performing abilities, everything is very fluid and very natural.
This high shine has come from its three years as a P2P title, funded by reoccurring subscriptions. It is stable, polished and gracefully aged. LOTRO follows the tried and tested methods of MMO progression and adventure, so there isn’t a lot of innovation to be found. If you aren’t a fan of World of Warcraft or RIFT, Lord of the Rings is unlikely to change your mind.
As it doesn’t attempt to rewrite the formula, gaining experience and levelling is a pretty standard affair. Questing is your first port of call, with numerous NPCs in the many towns, villages and settlements all in need of assistance. The tasks given to you aren’t particularly original or challenging from the outset, with kill-x-of-beast and delivery quests making an appearance, but it’s all tied together within a narrative taken straight from the tales. Whilst there are standard, throwaway quests to spend time on there’s also important, story quests signified by a flaming ring over the quest givers head. These adventures aren’t just an interesting diversion, they aim to tell a story and you will no doubt bump into a few familiar characters on your travels. They’re fun and an excellent way to bring depth to the world.
What LOTRO lacks in originality it makes up for in atmosphere. It’s one of the few MMORPGs that manage to conjure a real sense of fantasy and wonder. Beautiful art direction makes exploring a truly engrossing activity. From quant old English towns to vast snowy mountains, the world of Middle-earth is an attractive and varied landscape. Even today, LOTRO is a great looking game that is kind to lower-end systems.
With reoccurring subscriptions now optional, a cash shop has made its way into Middle-Earth to help support the free side of the game. Using Turbine Points, players can invest in virtual goods that benefit their characters both aesthetically and practically. The LOTRO Store, as it is known, is jam packed with items (including the game’s two critically acclaimed expansion packs). Purchasing any item from the store automatically upgrades your account to Premium status, unlocking an increase in the gold cap and an additional character slot. Players who want to see everything the game has to offer can subscribe to the VIP service, similar to the monthly payments that supported the game previously but with 500 free Turbine points a month.
Those who aim to stick solely on the free side of the fence may become frustrated as they climb through the levels. A lot of quests have been sorted into Quest Packs, reserved for the paying adventurer; meaning freeloaders may struggle (or get bored) of grinding to advance. Luckily free players do get access to two Skirmishes, instanced group encounters, to help spruce things up. One has players defending against waves of enemies, whilst the other tasks you with fronting an assault. It’s a great idea and one that works well. Both are great fun.
Crafting in LOTRO is vast. You can choose to specialize in all manner of different vocations; depending on your playing style and how committed you want to be with creating, using and selling items. Harvesting professions enable you to gather resources from Middle-Earth itself, putting them to good use in other areas of expertise. Choose to become a farmer and your produce will be sought after in the cook profession, or you can be a little more traditional and craft weapons and armour for yourself and other players.
Lord of the Rings Online is still one of the big Western MMORPGs. I wasn’t sure if the free-to-play re-launch would upset the balance of the game, but it’s seemed to have breathed new life into it. Free players get a considerable chunk of content for what was once a premium game, meaning you can have hours of adventuring before the incentive to drop several dollars on extra content becomes warranted. The much-heralded Monster Play PVP may be reserved for paying players (for now), but there’s still a lot to sink your teeth into in this award-winning use of Tolkien’s mystical works.
Graphics – 5
Controls – 4
Features – 4
Customization – 4
Community – 4