Review: Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar
To many people, Lord of the Rings: Shadows of Angmar may seem like just another flavor of fantasy MMO, but in some ways, it's the flavor. Everyone knows it--it's unavoidable, especially considering the franchise's current status in mainstream pop culture.
This game does a terrific job of steeping players in series lore, and the more time I spend in it, the more I want to go back and finish reading the books to learn more back-story and see which NPCs were taken straight from the novels. This is possibly the biggest advantage that LOTR Online has over the current 800-pound gorilla of the MMO space, World of Warcraft; the source material is far richer and there are few games who can claim such a prestigious heritage.
The Forging of a Hero
Depending on whether you roll a Man, Dwarf, Elf, or Hobbit (not all races are suited for all roles--nix on the Hobbit Champions, for example) there are a variety of class choices to accommodate any play style: Burglars to debuff, Minstrels to sing sweet healing ballads, tanking Guardians, and Hunters for ranged attacks. I ended up going with a Man Champion and named him Hesfrid, choosing from the suggested pre/suffixes for my chosen land of origin, Rohan.
With character created, the action-packed prologue begins. As of launch, the game covers much of the first book of the trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring. The main plot concerning Frodo and friends is elaborated upon in cut scenes when you finish epic quest chapters. Comparing your game map of Eriador to the map drawn in the book reveals the pains the dev team has taken in creating the world. The characters and locations have been carefully emulated, with Tom Bombadil's house in the forest and Thorin ensconced at Thorin's Gate.
Each race has its own opening set of missions, but they all eventually lead to Book 1 Chapter 1 at the Prancing Pony in Bree. This incidentally ends in a big dose of Dread, an atmospheric effect caused by scary things that makes the screen blur a bit, some stats debuff, and your character cower. At first, Dread is a bit disorienting, but it ends up kicking the tension up a notch in a way that's different from other MMOs. It also acts as a reason to Fellowship up and go after Dreadful things together and overcome your character's fear.
Outside the epic quest are your standard array of more mundane tasks: hunting boars, spiders, etc. or the type I like to call "Hobbit Crossing" for their resemblance to errand running for your animal neighbors in a certain Nintendo game. These latter, especially, can be frustrating as hell, but there are so many quests that if keeping the mail safe from Nosy Hobbits is proving too tedious a task, it won't hurt to move on.
Most MMOs these days come with a crafting system, although this one nearly didn't until one of the developers convinced the team with the analogy that the entire story of the Ring was just a botched crafting mission. In LOTRO you choose a vocation, which is a bundle of three professions. I made Hesfrid a Historian, which encompasses farming, scholarship, and weaponsmithing-- just my cup of tea. Most vocations feature excellent balance; you can't just pick two complementary skills like you can in WoW, and if you work with someone with corresponding skills, you can provide each other with materials and products. Or I could just skip the whole thing, though there are some excellent rewards if you put in the time.
There are various Deeds to collect by killing a lot of a certain regional enemy, visiting landmarks, or using certain class skills. All of them carry rewards, whether it is a new title ("Goblin-Hewer") to tack on to the end of your name or a stat boosting Trait. Tweaking these traits is how you will end up diversifying yourself. While some may be disappointed to find there aren't different "builds" to experiment with outside of these Traits, others will be relieved that they don't have to dig through a FAQ to avoid dumping weeks of their life into a character that ends up sub-par.