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.