Lords of the Rings Online has been a mixed experience. Some good, some bad and frequently gorgeous. What follows is a summary of my experiences playing the game from release until a few weeks prior to the launch of the first update.
At first glance there are few classes and races to choose from and many are unfamiliar. Classes like Captain, Minstrel, Lore-Master don't really fit into what most fantasy MMO or Tolkien fans are accustomed to. The style of the game is also very reserved and understated compared to the flashy combat and spell effects of a game like WoW. The environments on the other hand are astoundingly beautiful. I cannot fully describe the deep feeling of peacefulness and contentment you get while walking through the shire. It really made me wish that this was a real place I could live in with little more to worry about than sneaking mail past nosy neighbors and making sure the pies get delivered without being eaten by hungry hobbits.
Character advancement is a bit slower than WoW but probably no slower than you would see in Everquest. Killing monsters is worth virtually nothing. The lion's share of your experience points will be from completing quests and there are many, many quests to complete. The quests themselves are only slightly deeper than other games but the stories behind them are more interesting than what you would find in most games and certainly better than the glance at the objectives and go style found in WoW.
The Early Game:
The first few levels are done outside of the main game world and are based on the race you choose to play. Dwarves will be introduced to the dourhands, a family of dwarves who has decided to serve the enemy while hobbits see what transpires in the shire when the ringwraiths come looking for the ring after Frodo escapes.
This bit of fiction builds into what the game has christened the 'Epic Storyline'. As you progress through the game quests will become available to you in the form of Books and Chapters. Working through these books gives you insight into the lore of the game world and explores events that occur as a consequence of the major events that occur in the novels. The epic storyline has both solo and group quests that usually take place in small instances or instanced areas of the game world.
The early game is also where you will likely get your first taste of grouping. You will quickly discover that, as usual, healing and tanking classes are always in demand. Unlike other games they are often not needed. Guardians, Champions and Captains are all able to wear heavy armor and are quite durable. Health and Power regenerate and very high rates once you are out of combat. They regenerate so fast that even without a healer you can often move from fight to fight quite quickly without needed to stop and rest. If you encounter a difficult fight that drains you to near death and exhaustion it will take less than 60 seconds to return to full strength.
The Old Woods and the Barrow Downs are the major adventure areas in the early game and both are executed flawlessly. The Old Woods is a complex maze of trees with several ways in and out that takes a long time to learn to navigate without getting lost or killed. The Barrow Downs will be your first introduction to fear. Your first fight with a wraith will likely leave an impression on you that will linger for some time and being in the Downs feels like walking on the world's corpse. The Downs also contains the games first traditional instance. The Great Barrow is a large maze of tunnels beneath the largest of the Down's monuments. Several quest chains will lead you into this place and it may take several visits to get all the way through especially since passing beyond the mid-point requires you to quest for a key that is broken into two pieces hidden within the barrow.
The Mid Game:
Grouping becomes more and more necessary as you advance through the game. There are fewer solo quests available and, although you can still get by with virtually any ad hoc group of players, you start to feel the pull toward a more balanced party. Leveling really starts to slow down towards the late 20's and by the time you have reached the early 30's you will probably be out of quests. The game has a huge gaping hole in the content here and the biggest challenge at this stage is to not just quit out of frustration. If you can somehow tough it out and find a way to advance quests will start to open up once more around the late 30's and you should have little trouble finding enough content to carry you from 40-50.
The Mid Game takes place primarily in the Lone Lands east of Bree where you will find Weathertop: the hill where Frodo was wounded by the ringwratih, and the North Downs: an area not explored in the books but which lies between the civilized lands of the south and Angmar to the far north. As you reach the early 30's you will also find yourself entering the Trollshaws where Rivendell lies.
Lone Lands and North Downs are both well done but the real visual feast of this phase of the game is the Trollshaws. The leaf littered forest full of the colors of green and autumn is absolutely glorious just don't mind the trolls that live in the dark recesses of the woods and be vary wary of traveling here at night when they venture out of their caves and sheltered groves to wander the hills and roads.
Lone Lands and North Downs are brimming with quests and you will spend many hours adventuring in every nook and cranny they have to offer. Trollshaws on the other hand falls flat on it's face with hardly any quests at all. The only zone with less content would be the misty mountains which feels rushed, unpolished and incomplete.
The icing on the cake on both Lone Lands and North Downs is that the quests and story of each area is finished off with it's very own instance. Both instances are supported by a surrounding outdoor region filled with quests and creatures that gives you a feel for the dungeon before you even enter. Unfortunately, in the case of Lone Lands, it also creates a barrier making it difficult to reach which gets in the way of trying to replace a person if a member of your group happens to leave.
In Lone Lands the instance is Garth Agarwen which lies in the far northeast corner inside the Red Swamp. Garth Agarwen is an expansive ruin which frequently gives way to be absorbed into and replaced by the swamp. Inside you will be fighting both hillmen, the undead, and creatures of nature twisted by the evil of the Red Maiden who waits guarded deep inside.
In North Downs the instance is Fornost, a keep of staggering size filled with orcs, trolls, goblins, wargs and wraiths. Fornost contains many enemies and at least a dozen boss fights. If you tried to do the entire instance at once it could easily take 8 hours or more. If you defeat the right tower boss though you can obtain a key to a gate which will let you bypass much of the instance.
Instanced dungeons in LoTRo are private spaces where a party has the entire area to themselves as you would in world of warcraft not the zoned off but still shared dungeons of everquest 2. In both Fornost and Garth Agarwen there are no respawns except for a few patrols and both are non-linear meaning you can proceed through the dungeon in several ways rather than being funneled from fight to fight as is the familiar routine in the post expansion world of warcraft. I really cant say enough about how large Fornost is, how well it was done and how much fun it was exploring it for the first time. This is truly one of the shining jewels of the game that sets it apart and above other MMO's when it comes to dungeons and instances.
The Late Game:
Assuming you can find a way over the mid-30s hump without smashing your face through the monitor you will eventually find yourself in Angmar. Angmar is the home of the witch-king and the armies of the north. Here they have gathered themselves in preparation for the coming war and their preparations can be easily seen. The zone itself is split into the eastern and western areas by a line of watching stones.
Don't trust the statues of dark lands. In the realm of Angmar, Eriador, and Arnor, tall and ominous looking statues contain malicious spirits known as Watching Stones. Long ago Sauron merged spirit with stone using craft and magic to construct these covert sentinels. With perfect patience, these watchers will wait years without movement, keeping watch over ruins. No statue is safe. The difference between dead rock and the Watching Stone is impossible to distinguish until it strikes.
Unfortunately Turbine cheesed this encounter. The statues do not spring to life and rip you to pieces but instead if you approach them you simply die. Unceremoniously, abruptly and unexpectedly die. -10 points for lack of effort on turbine's part. By completing a part of the epic storyline you will gain the ability to pass these watching stones and enter the eastern half of the zone.
Angmar is also one of the most dangerous and frustrating areas to travel in. Once you begin questing in the eastern region there are two quest hubs. One in the north and one in the south. To get from one to the other you must either travel through a sunken area of undead called Imlad Balchorth or through a mountainous area called Nan Garth. Both areas are heavily infested by both normal and elite enemies making them extremely dangerous. Add to that the frustrating mechanics of mounted travel and more often than not you will die trying to traverse the area rather than reach the other side.
The quests too are not as well laid out as they should be. Many quests are marked as solo when they should be classified as group. Quests that send you to the remote regions of Imlad Balchorth, where it would be suicidal to go alone, or into the heart of orc camps guarded by giant armored trolls cannot reasonably be classified as solo by people with half a brain even if the objective is something as simple as discovering a location or collecting an item from the ground.
The bittersweet pinnacle of Angmar is the region called Carn Dum. Carn Dum in an expansive outdoor area that is extremely difficult to reach that holds two instances: Urugarth and Carn Dum (yes, they used the same name for the outer zone and the instance which is confusing as hell). To get there directy you must pass through a city of hillmen fortified with hulking troll guards. Fighting your way through there to the gate of Carn Dum can easily take 30 minutes to an hour depending on your luck and if you should die you will be dropped at the remote southern graveyard where you will have to once more pass through Imlad Balchorth or Nan Gurth risking death again just to begin the attempt to reach Carn Dum.
There is however a hidden route through a spider lair that will let you reach Carn Dum in a fraction of the time. Finding this was an enormous blessing. Having reached the gates there is still a great deal of traveling yet to do before you will arrive at the instances. To reach the instances you must make your way through the city and a narrow pass up the mountain fighting hillmen, orcs etc as you go. The biggest problem here is the ridiculously short respawn timers placed on the outdoor spawns. Even moving quickly you will rarely be more than 50 feet ahead of the monsters that you killed spawning in behind you again. Make one mistake or take too long to kill something and you will be trapped and killed. Once killed you will be sent all the way back to that maddening southern graveyard where you will have to make the kamikaze run through archers and elites to be able to try again.
Once you do reach the instances though they are Phenomenal. Massive, non-linear areas almost entirely free of respawns where you can explore and quest at your own pace. If you die inside the instance you are simply transported back to the entrance where you can regroup or run forward to catch up with the rest of the party. I could probably write at least 100 pages describing in detail the thrill of exploring these instances so suffice it to say they contain some of the most enjoyable and interesting content of the entire game and the best dungeon romps I have had in any MMO ever. It is tragic that they make reaching them so difficult and time consuming and replacing a player in your party once you get there is impossible.
End Game. Post 50
I've only been 50 for a couple of days so I don't have much experience with this yet and the update due in June will add still more features. I have been on a number of actual raids already fighting creatures in Angmar with 10-15 people and on one PvM (Player vs Monster) raid where we captured all of the battleground objectives while fighting off the people playing monsters.
The 2 PvE raids were fairly vanilla. Kill some monsters to make the raid boss appear then kill it while dealing with adds. No fancy moves or complexities, just straight up tank and kill. Fun but not terribly interesting.
The PvM raid was an absolute blast. The raid bosses themselves we had to deal with were no more complex than the ones we faced in PvE but dealing with the monster players while we did it added an element of excitement that greatly magnified the thrill.
Final Notes: The good, the bad and the angrifying.
The AH interface is poor. Simple things like clearing a search to start another and being able to link items into the search box don't work and although there are many categories given to help you limit your search many items do not appear in the correct category or it is not clear what category they should be in.
The LFF interface is horrific. If it worked as it appears it should than it would be fine. It is set up to let you find other people on the same quest or players of a certain level and/or class and filter by area as well as those who are seeking a group and those who aren't. In practice however the tool itself is simply broken. Change any field and the tool may or may not update. The results returned are incomplete when they return anything at all and closing the tool or changing tabs causes the search parameters to revert back to virtually useless default values. I can't tell you how many times I have tried to use the tool to find people only to get no results back at all even when there is someone standing right next to me who it should have found. The tool also defaults to limiting your search to players in your immediate area which is particularly pointless when you are inside an instance.
The quests are fairly typical of any MMO the big difference being the emphasis placed on story. Nearly all quests are chains which lead you through or get you involved with various facets of the game lore. This is great when you are soloing but once groups get involved it becomes a real pain in the ass. There are so many quests and so many are lengthy chains that finding other people at the same step of the quest as you can be futile. Getting a group of people together to quest often involves several people conceding to do earlier steps over again to get the rest caught up and hoping the group doesn't fall apart or fail before they reach a step that you need. There should be partial experience given for everyone who completes a quest weather they have the quest or not similar to how City of Heroes works.
The way crafting fits into the game isn't bad but the way crafters advance is an example of some of the worst, most mindless, designs used in MMOs today. Crafting advancement depends entirely on the number of items you make. Each item you make earns you a set number of points. Earn enough points and you move to the next level where you must make even more items to earn even more points. This causes people to sit and grind out items for no reason other than to advance and those items either flood the market or get sold to a vendor at a loss. The process of crafting is equally mindless. Press the make button and walk away as your toon sits there waiting for the progress bar to fill and refill over and over again with no interaction from the player at all except to occasionally return to repair the craft tool and click make again. The items that can be made by crafting are great and the trophy/single-use system for making exceptional items seems quite good but the mechanics of advancement and of actually crafting the item are the worst in the industry.
Horse travel is adequate for the most part but there are some very annoying facets involve. First are the quests you need to perform to get a horse. You are asked to deliver a horse to three remote areas of the game and then walk back. In a game where questing is given such a prominent role nothing stands out as much as one that is done poorly and the mindless designed-to-be-nothing-but-timesink quests required to buy a horse are the worst of the worst. In my opinion only the final quest of the series, where you ride the horse through the race course in the set time, should be retained and all the rest copied onto a bat and used to beat the person who implemented them. While riding it is very easy to get knocked off your horse. It takes only one or two hits from any monster to put you on your feet. The ease with which you are dismounted is a constant aggravation.
The persistent instances are exemplary. They are vast, open and well designed. I greatly appreciate that respawns are nearly non-existent now if they would just finish the job and kill respawns entirely the heavens would open up and angels would rejoice. The areas surrounding the instances do a great deal to enhance the feel of the areas but some consideration needs to be paid to keeping the game playable. As much as they add to the immersion they also place a huge hurdle in the way of people trying to reach them. How many people can afford to spend an hour or two just getting to an instance that can easily take four to six hours to clear? And if something goes wrong on the way there or a person needs to be replaced you can forget about it. There is no way of getting a replacement from wherever they may be to a group that is already at the instance.
I've only begun to scratch the surface of PvM but it seems to hold a great deal of potential that I will be keeping an avid eye on.