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 PLATFORM: PC
HEROES OF MIDDLE-EARTH, ASSEMBLE!

t’s impossible to talk about The Lord of the Rings Online without bringing up World of Warcraft, and not just because WoW is the 800-lb. gorilla in the room. Huge chunks of LOTRO’s design are culled entirely from the WoW playbook, but that’s generally for the best. WoW’s pre-endgame experience is the best of this style of gameplay to date, and LOTRO successfully emulates that within the universe detailed by Tolkien’s novels. If you’re looking for a brand new style of MMORPG with fresh ways of interacting with the world and your fellow players, do yourself a favor and ignore this title entirely. But those who want a new gameworld to explore within the proven framework of a traditional MMORPG should look no further.

So if LOTRO is structured similarly to and plays just like WoW, why bother with it? Mainly because the leveling experience is absolutely outstanding. Through a combination of good pacing, clever writing, and the undeniable ambience provided by Middle-earth, the storytelling in this game is leagues beyond anything else in the genre. I actually cared about helping out the beleaguered residents of some town, because they felt more like real people than faceless quest and loot dispensers. A good variety of content – solo quests, Deeds (both exploration and hunting-based) and more epic group-required adventures and instances – does an excellent job of allowing players to experience different things or simply stick to gameplay styles they prefer.

The basic systems that MMORPG players expect out of a full-fledged game are executed well here. Combat works well, though it feels too loose to be truely excellent. Group dynamics between the different classes are interesting, but nowhere near as complex or involving as WoW’s byzantine synergies. The classes themselves are different enough to provide a compelling amount of variety while maintaining the LOTR setting. Crafting can be rewarding, though not nearly to the level of a more freeform game like Star Wars Galaxies. Guilds are a convenient way to form a base of fellow players you get along with, but aren’t much more than a private chatroom. Travel is handled with a mix of teleporting back to hub locations and taxi-service stables that generally keep tedium low without making the gameworld feel tiny.

Turbine has done anything but reinvent the wheel with Lord of the Rings Online, but that’s not a problem in and of itself. Whether the company will be able to generate enough endgame content to retain its playerbase is still up in the air, but the game experience out of the box ranks very highly within the MMORPG genre. LOTRO’s version of PvP, Monster Play, could be very entertaining for a long time if communities spring up around it. WoW burnouts, LOTR fans, and anyone looking for a nice grind up through some levels will be well served here.

  

JOE JUBA   8.5
You wouldn’t know it from Peter Jackson’s films, but dwarves are actually good for something besides comic relief. Unfettered by ties to the movie license, The Lord of the Rings Online does a fantastic job creating a fresh, expansive, and addictive vision of Tolkien’s Middle-earth. The level grind is augmented by a clever Deed system that gives players bonuses (like titles and stat boosts), but often the sheer beauty of the game is enough to drive exploration. A shortage of traditional casters  (that’s really more of a Gandalf/Saruman/Radagast thing) might be a turn-off for some, but the classes in the game fit perfectly with the mythology. The only really silly one is the Minstrel, who takes time between knife-stabs to strum out a damaging riff on a lute, demonstrating the pure destructive power of music. It would be so much fun to gank these losers – it is too bad that there aren’t more opportunities for you to square off against other characters in PvP.  LOTRO may be pressed from a WoW template, but Turbine has expertly adapted and expanded the MMO formula into an entertaining adventure with its own identity.
8.5
CONCEPT:
Adapt World of Warcraft gameplay to Middle-earth while staying as faithful as possible to Tolkien’s ideas
GRAPHICS:
This looks great on a high-end machine, but more impressive is how well it plays with surprisingly nice visuals on mid- to low-end PCs
SOUND:
Why do the human females sound like they’re starring in an AO-rated game when they’re in battle?
PLAYABILITY:
The overall interface is decent, but some advanced functionality like macros and guild management functions are sorely lacking
ENTERTAINMENT:
If storytelling and exploration are what drive you to pay a subscription fee, this is your best option to date
REPLAY:
Moderate
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