Monday, September 24, 2007

The Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar review - Book 1: The First 25 Levels

OK, when I said I'd be back "soon" in my last post, I obviously meant "in two months time". However, here I am at last with the first part of what will hopefully become at three part (or Books as I'm calling them) review of The Lord of the Rings Online: Shadow of Angmar sometime in the future. The first part will look at all the stuff I usefully cover in my reviews - graphics, sound, plot, game mechanics, innovation, and value. However, it will purely concentrate on the first 25 levels of gameplay. The second part will cover the other 25 levels, and part 3 will cover the "end game" material and possibly PvP if I can bring myself to try it. My opinions may change over time. For example when I first started playing World of Warcraft I was very impressed with the graphics. However, by the time I'd reached level 45 I started to notice how often the same buildings were repeated throughout the world which felt like lazy design. Anyway, we've got a lot to talk about so let's get started.

Format: PC DVD-ROM
Publisher: Codemasters
Developer: Turbine
Region: Europe
Price: £30 for the game, then £9 a month for subscription

Some five or six years ago, Sierra announced plans to bring Tolkien's world alive on the PC as an MMORPG, originally titled Middle-Earth Online. After a rather protracted and troubled gestation period Sierra eventually gave up on the idea, and developers Turbine took over the project. It eventually found a home under the wing of Codemasters in Europe, who were taking their first strides into the world of online gaming with games like Archlord and RF Online. Over the years the game has changed significantly - for example there were originally over 30 different character classes planned for the game, in the end there are only 7 in the final product. While some may see this as a disappointment I see it as good thing, as it meant that the finished game was more focused and honed. New character classes aren't completely ruled out anyway, they can always be introduced in future expansions.

Graphics: 9 out of 10
Considering I can only run my copy of the game at the "Medium" setting (there's High and Very High after that), the graphics are still very impressive. Turbine have done a tremendous job of bringing Tolkien's vision of Middle-Earth to live. Players can explore famous areas such as The Shire, with it's grassy fields, round doors and good, tilled earth. Or they can venture into spooky lands like The Old Forest or the Barrow-Downs, or downright evil and treacherous areas like the Ettenmoors or Angmar itself. The look of the game is definitely inspired by the film trilogy to a certain extent, but things look just different enough to avoid a law suit. But the beauty of the game is that it can go into far more detail than the films, or even the book trilogy could afford. Events in the game run parallel to Frodo's epic journey to Mount Doom and take to you to places that the Fellowship never went near, such as Lake Evendim and Ered Luin (the Blue Mountains). It is obvious that Turbine have done an incredible amount of research in order to create this game, not simply reading the trilogy but also the many back stories that flesh out the history of the world.

The land of The Shire is relatively peaceful and stress free, however you will have to travel to far worse places in your quest to aid Strider and the Rangers under his command.

Sound and Music: 8 out of 10
Music, much like the graphics, shares the style of the blockbuster film trilogy while managing not to directly steal from it out right. Many of the pieces written for the game would not feel out of place at all in Peter Jackson's opus. There are the quaint ditties of the Shire, the foreboding and unsettling tunes of The Great Barrow, and the pounding drum fuelled music that plays when you venture into Orc territory. It's all great stuff.

As well as the music composed specifically for the game Turbine also decided to enable players to play their own instruments in the game using various buttons on the keyboard. This is both a blessing and a curse, a for every person who hear playing a magnificent rendition of the theme from The Legend of Zelda, there will be three others making sounds that sound like somebody mangling a cat, or even worse, playing Mmmm-bop by Hanson!

Sound is alright but after a while you start to notice the same sounds appearing again and again, for example a disgusting flesh eating worm makes that same gurgling sound as a "cave claw" (nasty underground beasty) and the various lynxes you come across in the game.

It's also worth mentioning that the game has voice chat built in that you can use to talk to your Fellowship, however I haven't personally tried it so I don't know how well it works. If it's decent, it means you won't have to worry about using a third part application like Ventrilo or TeamSpeak while you play.

Plot and Character: 9 out of 10
Why do I have a rating for Plot and Character when this is an MMO, you ask? Simple - LOTRO uses instances to tell a story that only you and your party will experience. Not that there aren't hundreds of other people taking part as well, but they won't be able to interrupt or steal the item you're supposed to be looking for. At the time of me writing this review, there are currently 10 separate "Books" to play through each with multiple chapters, and they revolve around helping out Frodo and the Fellowship without them realising, by aiding the Rangers and keeping the Witch Lord of Angmar off their backs. The first 8 Books were included in the game at launch, and Books 9 and 10 have been added as expansions later on. These expansions brought with them more plot, as well as around 100 new quests per update and entire new areas such as Evendim.

The view of Weathertop from the Lone Lands

Game Mechanics:
9 out of 10
LOTRO is built around a very similar template to World of Warcraft, and shares many of the same features that helped make that game so successful, such as "rest XP" (where you earn bonus experience points while you're logged out of your account, which helps infrequent players keep up with those who can afford to spend many hours a day in Middle-Earth).

It also brings quite a few minor innovations and improvements of its own to the table, which include not having to constantly buy arrows if you use a bow, and the Deeds, Titles and Traits. Deeds can be compared to Xbox 360 Achievements, for example killing 100 goblins in a certain area, completing a certain amount of quests, or achieving a certain rank in one of your three professions. By completing Deeds you also earn Titles, which are simply pieces of text that you can choose to display after your character name. For example, at the moment my character is known as "Davriel Dawnspire, Grand Master Farmer" but there are dozens of these to choose from and your repertoire is constantly expanding. Traits are also earned from completing Deeds, but are arguably more useful. They range from stat boosts to new abilities. For example finding every Elf ruin in Ered Luin may give you +1 Wisdom. The Traits are also divided in various types, from standard traits, class traits, race traits and eventually legendary traits if you can find the deeds that unlock them. You are only allowed to equip a certain amount of these depending on your level and they also cost money to equip, so you have to pick and choose them carefully.

Also new in LOTRO is the Hope/Dread system. In happy, sunny areas such as the Shire, you heart will be full of hope and your morale (HP) will increase slightly. When you visit a slightly scarier area like the Old Forest, you will suffer a slight dip in HP as your morale goes down a bit. When faced with the servants of Angmar such as the Nazgul, you will suffer from Dread and your morale with decrease even further. When you are defeated in combat you also gain some Dread, which will either dissipate after about 10 minutes or if you get defeated again before it wears off, will get even worse. When under the influence of Dread you will also experience certain visual effects such as the border of the screen becoming blurry and the sky becoming much darker.

I'm now going to attempt to take you through the first 25 levels of the game. Not in great detail or we'd be here all day, but just enough to give you a taste of what to expect. When you first start the game, you will be asked to choose your race from either Man, Elf, Dwarf or Hobbit, your characters sex, their appearance, their name, the area of origin, and finally their class. There are seven classes in all (Hunter, Burglar, Lore-master, Guardian, Champion, Captain and Minstrel), but some of them will be locked depending on the race your choose. Each class has its own benefits - for example I chose to be a Hunter, who is very good from a distance (being adept with the bow and arrow), can use traps, track animals and enemies, and also use wayfaring skills to instantly warp themselves and their entire party to various major locations in Middle-Earth. These skills are gradually dished out every time you level up and will cost you money to buy.

Anyway, your first level will be set in an instance (an area containing only you) and the scene will be set. This also varies depending on which race you choose. Personally, I started in the Elven sanctuary of Edhelion many years in the past, just before evil dwarf Skorgrim Dourhand destroyed it. After escaping with the help of Elrond, I left the instance and was in my character starting area near Thorin's Gate. I then did some fairly simple quests until I was around level 6, before being taken to another instance so I could finish my Introduction. After this instance was finished I was then moved to the town of Celondim and urged to visit the Hunter Trainer and the Vocation Trainer. At the Vocation trainer I chose which package of professions I wanted to take up. In this game, you can't choose your profession individually (like in WoW), you have to pick a group of three that are associated with each other in some way. As I am an Hunter, I chose to be a Woodsman, which includes the professions of Woodworker, Forester and Farmer. So I can chop, gather and treat wood with the Forester profession, then combine it with other materials and make wood based weapons with my Woodworking skills. The third profession, Farmer, allows me to grow my own vegetables, crops and pipeweed, which can be sold to other players (mainly Cooks). All of the Vocations are interdependent in some way - for example my Forestry profession also allows me to turn animal hides into leather. This is not really useful for myself, but other jobs such as armourers or tailors need the leather in order to do their jobs, so the leather becomes my main source of income when sold in the Auction House. Many of my woodworking recipes also need metal ingots which have to be dug up and smelted by Prospectors.

Somewhere between levels 10-20, you will be able to train your character to wear better armour, depending on how good the armour was when you started with. My Hunter could only wear light armour when I started, but upon reaching level 10 I was allowed to move up to medium armour. I don't know whether I'll also be able to wear heavy armour eventually, but I expect so. You also unlock more weapon proficiencies, so if you want to be a Hunter two can dual wield two swords instead of using a bow and arrow, then so be it.

Also during levels 10-20 I took part in the first of the 10 Books, which is where the main story line takes place. Book 1 consisted of 12 Chapters, most of which required assistance from other players and also took part in instances. Book 1 climaxes in a trip to the Great Barrow to face off against the dreaded Wight-Lord, but he's not too hard to see off as long as you bring friends and you're not all the same class. It's important to have a varied party, and strongly recommended to bring at least one Minstrel (the healing class) and one Champion (the tank). My role in parties is mostly to drop a trap, then go behind everyone else and fire arrows at our enemies. These arrows can inflict various status effects such as slowing them down to half speed.

At level 22 I earned my first major wayfaring skill, which allows me to instantly warp my entire party to Michel Delving in the Shire. As the game gradually goes on I will obtain more and more of these, with the more important places having quests associated with them before I can get the skill.

The next part will cover levels 26-50, but don't expect a full review next time, this is it. It will be more of an update. I know one thing I've got to look forward to is buying my mount at level 35, for the sum of 4 Gold and 250 Silver pieces. I'm already up to 3 gold thanks to my business in the Auction House, so I should have enough cash by the time I'm there.

Here he is boys and girls, the baddy of the story (so far) - the very naughty
Witch-King of Angmar.

Innovation and Cleverness: 7 out of 10
While LOTRO does indeed borrow a lot from WoW, it has undoubtedly improved upon the high standard set by Blizzard with the gameplay additions such as the Deeds, Titles, Traits, Hope/Dread, and in many other little ways. I can't give it full marks because after all it is based upon someone else's world. I can't imagine Tolkien would have ever imagined that people would be able to wander around a virtual Middle-Earth, or what he would have thought about the idea, but Turbine have done the best job possible in my opinion. They haven't just used the main book trilogy as their inspiration and source for material, it's obvious in the details they've put in that they're also very familiar with all of the back story as well, such as the The Silmarillion and the 12 volume History of Middle-Earth. This makes the world of LOTRO a very rich and exciting place to be, and while the lands that are currently unlocked aren't as big as the world in WoW there's actually more to do in that smaller space.

Value and Replayability: 8 out of 10
The high score in this category is mainly for how replayable the game is. There are hundreds of quests, four races and seven classes which all play very differently thanks to their unique abilities. Like WoW, you can have more than one character on the go (I think the maximum is 7) so if you wanted to you could play a little of each class before deciding which one to concentrate your efforts on.

Whether a subscription based MMO could ever be called good value for money is debatable. In the case of LOTRO, you pay around £30 for the game and get 30 days free, then you have to pay another £9 for every month you want to keep playing after that. On the plus side, extra content and tweaks to the game are being added all the time by a dedicated support team which isn't free to provide after all. Personally, I traded in another game when I bought this, and got £22 for it so the game only cost me £8. I'm going to review how I feel about the game at the end of every month and if I'm not enjoying it or not playing it any more I will walk away - just like I did with WoW and Final Fantasy XI. There is currently a 7 day free trial available - but I have to warn you the game is so addictive you'll probably end up buying it if you try it!

Overall (for the first 25 levels): 9 out of 10
Fans of Lord of the Rings, be it in book or film form, will get a lot out of this. Those who have played WoW for months and are starting to get a bit tired of it may feel refreshed after a visit to Middle-Earth. At the moment, I'm still enjoying it despite the occasional run-in with a complete idiot (you get this in every online game, but it doesn't seem quite as bad as most in LOTRO because a lot of the people playing are quite intelligent).