Disclaimer: This review was written on May 1, 2007. As updates and expansions are released, we will be doing re-reviews.
- Core Gameplay Systems
- Wrapping up Core Gameplay Systems
- Depth Gameplay Systems
- Quest Advancement
- Wrapping up Depth Gameplay Systems
- Supportive Gameplay Systems
- Fellowship Manuevers
- Solo and Group Feasibility
- Wrapping up Supportive Gameplay Systems
- Is It Fun? / Conclusion
History has not been kind to massively online titles that include a major franchise name. Star Wars Galaxies
and Dungeons and Dragons Online
are primary examples of this; the former under-achieved in subscribers and had a very tumultuous time as a feasible, enjoyable game. Alternatively, Dungeons and Dragons Online
also under-achieved but was more solidly designed. Yet they both reached well below expectations. So if these two exemplaries of geekdom were mediocre, why should the Lord of the Rings
license be any different? The answer is simple: history does not repeat itself.
Turbine has done a thorough job at re-creating Middle-earth into a feasible, deep, and enjoyable experience for every kind of player. Previously, World of Warcraft
was the only title that could incorporate the expression, “something for everyone.” Now the Lord of the Rings Online
can be included in that phrase as well. If you only have thirty minutes or so to commit to the game, you can get something done. If you can put in five or six hours at a time, there will be something there for you too. Turbine’s vision of Middle-earth is just so wide and encompassing that players will find it difficult to be out of things to do. This is accompanied by well developed and thorough gameplay systems that are supported by detailed sub-systems that add depth and feasibility to every kind of player. Most importantly, however, is all these systems culminate in a very fun experience.
That is a lot to say about one game. The Lord of the Rings Online
is certainly not the messiah or saviour of this genre. Instead, it is the best for its time. Much like World of Warcraft before it, the game encompassed all the best elements of the past and present. Yes, this includes some of what World of Warcraft
did right, but it does not make it a “WoW clone.” It is, rather, a direct culmination of the successes of the past, present and a keen eye for the future; and of course Turbine’s own touch. But enough of that - it is time to explain why all of these things are so true for the Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar
.Core Gameplay Systems
The core gameplay systems of any title is the bread and butter of the game. It is at the centre of the play experience. So then, if your game focuses on combat, then one of the core gameplay systems is combat. If it’s more social - like the Sims
- then that lays the epicentre of the game. The Lord of the Rings Online
has four core gameplay systems: combat, crafting, social and player versus player. At one point or another, players will be continually involved in one of these four systems. Accordingly, all of the depth and supporting gameplay systems, enhance these four core gameplay systems. As such, they are the most important to be done right. After all, if you’re going to be doing one of those four at all times, they need to be thorough, detailed and enjoyable. If not, customers will be lost quickly. Fortunately for Turbine, each are done rather well, but improvement can be done in each.Combat
If combat could be described rather simply, one would have to take World of Warcraft
and EverQuest II
and have them make babies. Essentially that’s what the combat system is like. Its speed is fairly fast pace (like World of Warcraft
) but has considerable strategy involved (like EverQuest II
). Yet it is not that simple either. Much like the two titles mentioned, characters level up and acquire skills to use in combat. Each skill has a particular cost to use (measured in power, one of your vital statistics), has a re-use timer (so you can’t spam skills) and has different effects and damages. If a player is to be successful in combat, one must be mindful of what each skill does, the kind of enemy you are faced with and be fully aware of your surroundings. All too often does the inattentive player succumb to defeat far too often. There will be no coffee breaks while in combat in the Lord of the Rings Online
Often billed as one of the most important systems in the game, crafting lives up to its name but perhaps not in complexity. There are ten different professions and seven vocations (vocations are combinations of professions that players take on). You may only take one vocation at a time. This is done to maintain a culture of interdependency. If you are going to be crafting, you will need the aid of other vocations to complete the more complex items in your repertoire. Within these vocations are two kinds of professions: gathering and production. The names are rather self explanatory. To simplify this crafting concept, it would be best to use an example - that of the armourer. That vocation has three professions: prospector, metal smith and tailor. Let’s say one wants to construct Bronze Armour. First what is needed is mineral ore to smelt into bars and other metallic necessities. The prospector then is employed to gather the necessary ore from mineral nodes (these are scattered across the world and you use a mining pick to gather from them). Once that has been achieved, the player seeks a forge to smelt the ore into bars and other necessities. All the materials have been seemingly gathered but wait - one is missing! As a tailor, the armourer can construct the necessary leather pads to make it, but needs the forester profession to provide the treated hides. This is how the interdependency comes into play. Either by barter or sale will you be able to acquire the necessary materials. Once you have acquired all that you need, simply click on the Bronze Armour recipe to craft the armour. It is to be noted, as well, that once you have mastered a tier of crafting, a mastery option will appear to create more powerful items.
This system sounds seemingly complex but it leaves a lot to be desired. It seems almost improbable that every item crafted can be done so without a hitch. There are no failures or input from the player once the crafting begins. You simply sit there and watch it happen. It could be improved upon, but it is permissible because of the complexity before that point is reached.Social
Thorough social systems have often lacked in previous titles like World of Warcraft
and Final Fantasy XI
. Often all that is employed is a means for players to communicate each other (in public and in groups) and larger groups of players (often called guilds) are constructed. Very few times does any title go past these simply constructs. The Lord of the Rings Online
is an exception and an improvement. There are guilds but they are called kinships. Within these groups are different perks - member titles and kinship mail for instance. Of course each kinship has a dedicated chat channel for all members. In groups (called fellowships) players can not only communicate via text, but there is built in voice chat. Turbine has also increased their social dynamics by rewarding players for being social - you are given titles after you have used an emote a determined number of times.
Yet even in the Lord of the Rings Online
are the social systems lacking. Town centres are often just used to gain quests, sell loot and place items in storage. There is no encouragement for genuine social interaction - unlike Star Wars Galaxies
at its initial launch. Despite that, Turbine has made considerable strides to improving on social dynamics from previous titles.Player versus Player
There was a point in time where there was only to be three core gameplay systems for the Lord of the Rings Online
: combat, crafting and social. It was long maintained that any form of player versus player would be a gross violation of the lore. Yet that changed with one idea: Monster Play. It was discussed and inevitably introduced as the player versus player system in the game. Yet what is it, exactly?
Monster Play is best described as a modification of World of Warcraft’s
battlegrounds. The conflict takes place in the Ettenmoors, and players can either enter as one of the free peoples (the character they rolled from creation) or a pre-created monster. When players are in the Ettenmoors, they can do quests to aid their side, complete objectives and engage in battle with their opponents. All of these tasks earn destiny or infamy points which can be used for tangible rewards to either your monster or free peoples character. In addition, all players are ranked according to their successes; and this means there is a leader board to compare your victories against fellow players.
The only downside to this system is the lack of diversity. You can only engage in Monster Play in the Ettenmoors. After a period of time it may become stale and tiresome. Yet this should be addressed in updates and expansions, as more areas are opened up for player participation.Wrapping up the Core Gameplay Systems
For the most part, Turbine has succeeded in making thorough, deep and enjoyable core gameplay mechanics. Combat is not embedded in previous generation’s ideas - it is rather the culmination of the evolution of the system. Crafting is necessarily deep and complex. Social systems are improved tremendously from other games. Lastly, player versus player is very much evident and takes directly from the overwhelming success of the battlegrounds in World of Warcraft
- largely hailed as the most feasible application of player versus player combat.
At its core then, the Lord of the Rings Online has created a stellar foundation. Yet that is but a foundation. If the rest of the building is constructed poorly, then it will falter and fall. It is necessary then to discuss depth and supportive gameplay systems.Depth Gameplay Systems
Depth Gameplay Systems are what gives a game, well, depth. It adds to its complexity tremendously. It gives players options to advance their character in a myriad of ways. They give character and meaning to the game world. In the Lord of the Rings Online
there are four: accomplishments, dread, quest advancements and lore. Each of these play a very important role in creating a very deep world, built on further by the core gameplay systems.Accomplishments
Accomplishments are what makes the Lord of the Rings Online incredibly deep. To put it simply, they are mini-quests; but that is also very deceiving; for they are very much unlike quests. They are not simply kill x goblins or retrieve x item. Instead, they include that and require such things as discovering landmarks, using a certain skill, completing a certain number of quests and more. In other words, it encourages players to explore every nook and cranny of the world. In addition, the rewards are either titles or traits. The former is explanatory but the latter is not. Traits can be anything from skill upgrades to statistical bonuses. Within traits, as well, there are four levels: virtues, class, race and legendary. Within each subset, there are different kinds of skills and statistical boons to be had. This is where a considerable amount of strategy comes into play. If you want to fine tune your character into more defensive bonuses, you can do that. Alternatively, if you prefer offense, you can do that too. Or, if you want a middle ground, that can be done. It is this system that allows for considerable differentiation between classes.
This whole system is similar to World of Warcraft’s talents but taken to the next level. Instead of simply being granted points to spend on new skills or bonuses, you have to earn them yourself. It gives reason for players to explore everything and allows for characters to be differentiated immeasurably. It certainly gives the game considerable depth and meaning - no one character is the same and each square mile of the world is important.Dread
The dread system is commonly known as the game’s death penalty, but it goes beyond that. For Turbine wanted to portray heart’s wavering in game terms. After all, it is something that Professor Tolkien emphasized on in his works. This is what dread does in non-death contexts. When players are surrounded by improbable foes - be they Nazgul, Wights, Trolls - they are met with reductions to their health (morale) and stats. What player see on the screen changes as well, and the music. It is darker, more eerie. It gives players the feeling there is an incredible fight to be had, and success is limited.
For the most part the system performs its role admirably, but at times it is an annoying quirk. For instance, when your character is running away from a dreaded opponent, the screen is flashed with what seems like the rendition of the Great Eye. At times it can be very seizure-esque. Besides that, the system gives a tremendous feeling of fear and despair; and that is exactly what should be portrayed in a game based on Middle-earth.Quest Advancement
In the early stages of MMOGs, advancement was known primarily by grinding. You achieved the next level by defeating bears, goblins, trolls or what have you after hours at work. That changed a number of years ago. Instead of doing that, you completed quests. At first this was focused upon group endeavours, but then it changed to both solo and group. That trend has continued in the Lord of the Rings Online. Level advancement is done primarily through quests - both solo and group. Whether you prefer one or the other, there will be something for everyone.
Despite the prevalence of this, however, there is a downside. Sometimes the quests aren’t as evenly spread out as one would like, or aren’t rewarding enough (speaking from an experience point standpoint). So occasionally one will have to refer to grinding. Though this isn’t common, and if you complete every single quest, you’ll find yourself outside of the grinding mentality.
Lore; the world of Middle-earth
Among its early critics, it was deemed most important to develop an authentic rendition of Middle-earth. In addition to the casual MMOG players, Turbine wanted to bring in the Tolkien fans into the genre. That is why the development of the lore and the adherence to Tolkien’s vision was very important. In the case of the Lord of the Rings Online
, this has been achieved for the most part. For instance, the Inn of the Prancing Pony is very similar to what was described in the Fellowship of the Ring
. There is plenty of company to be had and Barliman Butterbur presides over the Inn. Imladris, or Rivendell, is a peaceful, serene, beautiful settlement for the Elves that remain in Middle-earth. The world is aesthetically authentic and is beautiful. In fact, the only criticism that can be made is that the world isn’t alive with its NPCs. But this must be allotted due to the current state of AI development. Still, it must be maintained, that players will be in awe while visiting the Shire, Ered Luin, Trollshaws and the Misty Mountains for the first time - it is truly representative of Tolkien’s vision.Wrapping up Depth Gameplay Systems
The depth gameplay systems build tremendously on what was put forward by the core gameplay systems. In the latter, the foundation was placed in the most rudimentary respects. With the addition of the depth gameplay systems, Turbine was able to construct complex means for players to enjoy themselves and stand out amongst fellow players. The accomplishment system allows for this differentiation and encourages players to explore the entire world. Dread and the lore brings inherent ideas of the source work to life and so the world feels alive. Quest advancement allows players to become involved in the world without it feeling like tedium. All of these aspects are varied and allow for tremendous enjoyment. Yet the Lord of the Rings Online
offers more then what is currently allowed; that is where supportive gameplay systems come into play.Supportive Gameplay Systems
If depth gameplay systems add complexity to the world, what does supportive do? Simply put, they add things to do. They operate in conjunction with the two previous systems, but are centred upon gameplay specific functions. These differ according to play styles. These are catered to grouping and others solo. In short, they are the end result of the foundations and the applications for them. There are four in the Lord of the Rings Online: instancing, raiding, fellowship manuevers and solo and group feasibility.Instancing
Instancing is simply defined as private content. They are essential to telling a story in MMOGs. If you are entering a Barrow for instance, how can you over hear a conversation between a Nazgul and corrupted Dwarf if someone else is hacking away at them? Further, how are the challenges suppose to be presented if ten other non-fellowed players are helping you? It is a way to tell a story and provide sufficient difficulty for it. Turbine has utilized this tool to a sufficient degree. The whole world isn’t instanced - only about 10% - and that is enough to tell the main story of the game. Some of it is solo, but it’s more catered towards groups. All of these areas are of a good length and sufficient challenge. If your fellowship is working together, you should be able to conquer the challenge and have a great time while you’re at it.
The only downside to the instancing model is that it’s restricted (primarily) to the main story arc. It would have been preferable if more was offered. Yet that doesn’t take away from how good it actually is. The fact is, when these instances are offered, you are fully immersed in the story and are presented with a series of noteworthy challenges. This makes the addition worthwhile.Raiding
The concept of raids is essentially instanced content but requires more players. Currently there is no raid content in the Lord of the Rings Online
, but it will make its way into the first update in June. If it’s anything like instanced content - in that it is difficult and tells an involving story - it will certainly be an improvement from other models in the genre.Fellowship Manuevers
Fellowship manuevers - otherwise called conjunctions - are complex skills that can be used by group members. It relies on the communication and co-operation of fellow players to pull it off. There are different kinds of skills and they vary from damage, healing, support and others. If the fellowship members are on the right page, you will be able to arrange for complex manuevers that can swing even the most hopeless battle in your favour. From an enjoyment perspective, this function is highly warranted; it provides diversity and involvement in battle that lifts the tedium of quick encounters common to groups.Solo and Group Feasibility
Among all the pertinent questions that a reviewer may be asked, is whether or not there is an option to solo or group. If you have been reading this entire article thus far, you would know the answer is yes. There is solo and group feasibility in nearly every aspect of the game: grinding, questing, crafting, instancing and player versus player. The only medium where grouping is forced will be raids when they arrive. Turbine is giving tremendous choice to its players, and that is always a good thing.Wrapping up Supportive Gameplay Systems
Within core and depth gameplay systems Turbine presented a foundation and a little bit more to base their game. There is sufficient things for players to do and the world was constructed with meaning and purpose. Within supportive gameplay systems, there is tangible things to do in gameplay. Whether you prefer grouping or solo, there is always something for you. Within those there is enough complexity to provide a thorough game experience. There is never a lack of things to accomplish in the Lord of the Rings Online
, and all three of these systems show that.Presentation
Thus far there has been an understanding of the main components to the Lord of the Rings Online. There are more then has been mentioned, but this is not meant to cover every element of the game. It has been shown that the game is very deep, complex and enjoyable. But is that enough? Do implemented ideas sell a game? Not necessarily. Presentation is important. The graphics and music.Graphics
To put graphics in one word: beautiful. The scenery is absolutely majestic, detailed and breath-taking. Given today’s advancement in video card technology, one can look for miles and miles. One engaging sight in particular is standing atop Weathertop and seeing all the surrounding area for miles. Forests are lush and complete; water is incredibly detailed; mountains rise up in sheer complexity; and buildings and ruins are intricate. Yet that does not do the graphics any justice. Be sure to look at the screenshots embedded in this article; the scenery is breath-taking.
But that is only one aspect of graphics. The other is character models. Turbine certainly put most of their effort into scenery and lacked in the models themselves. The detail is certainly lacking and some look a little goofy. Yet that does not mean they are bad - no. In comparison to the scenery, they are mediocre. They still do stand out as above average.Music
Many MMOG players turn off their sound and play some MP3s of theirs. It’s understandable, too. It wasn’t until third generation MMOGs came about that any attention was paid to the musical scores. Often it was simply mediocre, and even then that’s being generous. Like it’s most recent predecessor’s, however, the music track is outstanding for the Lord of the Rings Online. Every single track is appropriate for the place where it is made for. The music for the Shire, for example, has a very peaceful and serene feeling. Any tavern has an upbeat and joyful sound. Then any deep, dark locale has a very eerie, spine-tingling effect to it. It is not ridiculous to suggest that the music is a very important component to bringing Middle-earth to life.Is It Fun? / Conclusion
After all the considerations on gameplay and presentation, the age old question must be asked: is it fun? The game certainly is! Combat is thorough and exciting; instances are thrilling with great turns; the world is beautiful to look at; and player versus player is dynamic. The contrast to all those alone shows the options available to any player. One could further look at the grand scope of this article and see there is something for everyone. Do you want a new world to explore and experience? Do you want solo combat? Do you want epic group encounters? Do you want to war against your fellow players? Do you want to craft and make a lot of money? There is certainly no one that could say no to all of them. That is exactly what this game does: it has something for everyone.
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