Lord of the Rings Online is shaping up to be a serious contender for the coveted MMORPG throne. At E3, I able to get a first-hand look at the amazing Middle-earth that they have crafted in the digital realm. Going into the meeting, I had mixed feelings about the game – on the one hand, handling the license is a delicate endeavor, as Middle-earth is dear to many fans' hearts, but on the other, Turbine has had many years of experience in creating dramatic online worlds. I'm happy to say that I think J.R.R. Tolkien's world is in fine hands with Turbine, and that this title is one that I'm looking forward to playing.
From the start, Turbine has set their sights on creating a faithful Middle-earth and then allowing players to explore and quest within. This is definitely no easy task, and while it is ultimately impossible to satisfy everybody, I think that the vast majority should be more than pleased. I was able to see the Shire, Tom Bombadil's House, and the Barrow Downs. The Shire looked fantastic – peaceful, green, and full of rolling plains. The existence of Tom Bombadil and the Barrow Downs is possible because Turbine has the book licenses for both The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit and is not simply working off of the movie licenses.
In LotRO, you will be able to play as any of the four free races of Middle-earth: dwarves, elves, hobbits, and men. All of the character models I saw looked very good, which is not surprising, given that the game engine is essentially the same as the visually impressive Dungeons & Dragons Online. Aside from the choice of race, you'll also be able to select from seven classes:
- Loremaster – A magic-user focusing mainly on small spells and natural magics.
- Guardian – A warrior class focused on defense and counter-attacking. Think Gimli.
- Hunter – Ranged fighter with bows and such. Think Legolas.
- Champion – Another warrior, but more of the barbarian type; aggressive and all about attacking at the expense of defense.
- Captain – An officer, if not a gentleman; a support class and backup healer for any group he may be in.
- Burglar – A sneaky little class which is not quite the standard rogue from other games. Think Bilbo from The Hobbit, only without the One Ring.
- Minstrel – A bard class and the primary healer; there's magic of sorts in music and in the ability to boost the morale of friendly units.
Magic is a touchy subject in Middle-Earth, since Tolkien's work is pretty definitive on the subject. The true magic users in the world are already defined as part of the canon, and it isn't possible for players to move up to the level of a Gandalf or Saruman. However, the Loremaster and Minstrel classes will be able to perform some minor magical feats. Healing is also a delicate situation, as the Lord of the Rings universe does not have magical healing along the lines of many other fantastical universes. To compensate for this, your party members will not take damage to health as they would in other games but instead take damage to morale. Only when morale is totally gone will you be defeated, which is why classes such as Minstrel and Captain will be able to take on "healer" roles by boosting morale.
LotRO could not be more different from D&D Online in terms of gameplay. LotRO will have a focus on solo play and exploration, but working alongside grouping rather than excluding it. Consensual PvP will be present in a form that is consistent with Tolkien's world, which means that there won't be huge battles going on in the middle of the Shire.
Skills are learned based upon class and will increase in power as the player levels, with the current level cap set at 50. Each character has an allowance for up to three traits to be equipped; traits are special abilities that can be earned by accomplishing various deeds throughout the world. As an example, a player could earn an Orc slayer trait by traveling the world and learning from five elves who have had extensive Orc-killing experiences. Travel around the world will primarily be by foot, but once you've visited certain social hubs, you'll be able to use stable masters in order to expedite movement between them.
Overall, it looks like Turbine is headed in the right direction in creating Lord of the Rings Online for both fans of the books and movies, and fans of good games in general. Expect the beta to start this summer – it's definitely one worth keeping an eye on.
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