The Bin: Lord of the Rings Online

Some games aren’t worth the $60 release price. Or half as much, for that matter. How many times have you bought a game and told yourself that if it’s terrible, it was only five bucks?  This brings us to the “Bargain Bin” realm of gaming, a second glance at games far enough down that they don’t see light. Guilty pleasures are a blast — so long as no one’s watching.

As an avid MMO fan for well over a decade now, I tend to play any and every massively multiplayer online roleplaying game that releases – at least the more notable, worth-while ones. Lord of the Rings Online was no exception. Back when LOTRO was released in 2007, I was at the pinnacle of my MMO-playing, what with having a colossal amount of hours on my hands thanks to the indolent time many refer to as college. Interestingly enough, however, playing any MMORPG at launch is sticky business, as sometimes it takes years for such a game to catch fire and blow up, figuratively speaking of course. That wasn’t necessarily the case with Lord of the Rings Online seeing as it was popular upon release; though, it would be downright inaccurate to say the game hasn’t gathered a considerable amount of steam now in its sixth year of operation. In fact, some would say the game is currently stronger than ever.

No less, Lord of the Rings Online is not at the height as some of its competitors. It’s dwarfed by the World of Warcraft, Guild Wars 2 and Old Republic giants, and certainly doesn’t have the same reputation among casual gamers like those others do. That doesn’t mean it offers an experience below those found in that tri-facta of games. In actuality and despite having a smaller community, LOTRO might be one of the most solid MMOs on the market currently – a truth that I hadn’t seen until I recently went back and put in many hours with it.

62684_01_epic_story_mirkwood

Lord of the Rings Online is the game that pioneered the concept of story-driven MMORPG. Sure, Star Wars: The Old Republic likes to claim that it was the first one to emphasize narration over anything else, but the truth is, that’s just plain wrong. From the minute players are thrust into Middle-earth, the world is bleak, the circumstances are strenuous and there’s a particular level of oh-this-shit-is-intense going on. Players will come face to face with one of the series heroes, Aragorn, within the first few seconds of firing it up, which serves to make an almost instantaneous connection to the game’s universe, lore and specific storyline. I was surprised to find myself fully compelled and pulled into the plot this second playthrough, having spent many an hour with the title some five years ago.

To make matters even better, there was no lengthy or boring tutorial to wade through or extraneous fluff. From that moment I entered Middle-earth, I was already in conflict on both a small and large scale. I could feel all of that from just a few spoken lines, slain enemies and interesting plot developments. It’s so rare to actually want to listen to what NPCs have to say in MMOs, but in Lord of the Rings, it feels like doing anything BUT that, would be selling the game and oneself short of a wonderfully crafted experience that feels individualized and wholly intriguing.

But what is an MMO without its gameplay? Lord of the Rings Online released at a time when the genre was still learning and growing – not like now where its primary focus seems to be on innovation. Thus, LOTRO’s gameplay is something of a standard affair, combining tried and true, even if formulaic by this stage, point and click combat mechanics and a grab-a-quest-go-to-point-A-kill-X-number-of-creature-B-rinse-repeat adventuring system. This may be dull to some, but it provides a streamlined experience that is made all the more thrilling thanks to how satisfying the battling feels. While it’s a point and click, hotkey pressing test of endurance, it also feels rewarding due to the combat carrying with it a sense of weight and ferocity.

epic_story_11

What does set LOTRO apart from its rivals, however, is its strict emphasis on player-versus-environment (PVE) gameplay. Where many MMOs get their kicks from a decadent helping of player-versus-player combat, Lord of the Rings looks to refine the idea of cooperative play, and does so on a noticeably smaller scale than most other games that share its qualities. For instance, raids are considerably smaller than in WoW and instanced dungeons feel far more tight-knit. So while others go for that quantity-over-quality feel, LOTRO says that more isn’t always better, and in fact, quality can easily trump quantity when executed well. Fortunately, the game’s developers have nailed the concept of banding together with a few other comrades in order to vanquish a heinous foe. Raids are smaller, yes, but they are also more meaningful and personal because of it. Each time I and a group of others slew a giant beast, we basked in our glory, each feeling as if we had personally contributed to the victory, rather than feeling like another body in a sea of 40 or more others. It’s during these moments of intimate triumph that Lord of the Rings Online’s complete design philosophy is actualized. It’s hard to top that kind of a feeling, even when playing the other big hitters.

Naturally, it doesn’t hurt that just running through the game’s world is a visual treat. Seeing familiar locales and characters talked about in the novels and films is smile-enducing, and waiting to see what fowl beast awaits in a decrypted pit of a rumor spider lair is entirely gripping. That’s what Lord of the Rings Online does best – it creates a world that is alive, and one that the player can connect to, interact with, and care about. Because of this, long treks across the Shire or a jog down the streets of Bree at night feel tantalizing and all-encompassing, allowing players to forget that they are not actually part of Middle Earth. To have a MMO build a setting that is fully realized and worthy of one’s efforts and many footsteps is a feat on its own. And yet, this is just one of the many aspects that the title presents in a succinct way. Sweeping hymns and promising orchestral scores that may have players welling up merely puts icing on the proverbial cake.

 lord_of_the_rings_online_riders_of_rohan_screenshot_02

If there’s one thing that every player wants from their MMO, it’s choices, which LOTRO delivers in spades. Much like many others, Lord of the Rings Online feels like the type of game that wants players to feel like they have a say in their decisions. Although there aren’t any branching dialogue trees or moral-ambiguous decisions for which to be responsible, how one outfits their character, the back story they give them, the skills they choose, the look they desire and even which musical instrument they play all make the game feel like a custom-made experience.

The game isn’t without its flaw, sure, but Lord of the Rings Online, even almost at the age of seven years old, is one of the most exciting, refreshing and fully developed games on the MMO market. Better yet, its free-to-play, microtransaction model has only done the game wonders in terms of boosting its player base as well as offering new content for long time veterans. Developer Turbine actually has one of the most effective cash shops in the game, though one can only assume this is due to running two very successful F2P MMOs – LOTRO and Dungeons and Dragons Online. Regardless of its age, however, Lord of the Rings Online has so much to offer. It possesses personality, and above all else, is lovingly crafted by a team that obviously adores its source content. If there are people out there wanting to dive into a game that has caught its stride and will be around for a while, then look no further than Lord of the Rings Online. Azeroth has nothing on Middle-earth.

Dig deeper into The Bin. Head here for more guilty pleasures in gaming.