May 21, 2007

Things that please me: LOTR Online

A looong time ago, this website or its precursors were primarily about computer games, with a little Tolkien fandom thrown in. Indeed, if you look back at the first month in the latest incarnation -- and I shudder every time I do -- you could read that the site itself was named accordingly, plus an expression of undying love for the new Tolkien movie, Fellowship of the Ring. And there it is.

So, it's almost going back to the site's roots to say I have been extremely pleased with the Lord of the Rings Online game that came out just under a month ago, and which I started playing desultorily, a couple hours at a time, a few days back. It's very well done.

Translating the source material to an Everquest-y virtual world had to be tried eventually, of course: it was certainly worth trying once. The surprise is that it has succeeded as well as it has.

Things worth praising:

1) Good levelling pace. After five nights of my play style, I have a level 10 minstrel. That's about an hour a level to 10, which isn't bad for me, given that the first night was basically just spent messing around with names and avatar eye colours, and that my general playstyle involves shunning any unnecessary killing, and looking for locations with a view to sit down at for extended periods and IM other people. Given all that, it's practically blistering.

2) Respect for the milieu. Haven't made it all the way to Bag End yet, but the scenery I've seen is pretty Tolkien-y. The elves have these Escheresque palaces, perched precariously over waterfalls, and with nary a safety rail in sight; the hobbit lands are extremely... hobbity, I suppose: what a Constable painting would have looked like if his English pastoral milieu had been entirely populated by midgets.

3) Sense of humour. An absolute prerequisite, of course. So I'm passing through the hobbit areas on some other quest, and I run into a postman who attempts to get me to deliver the mail. Yes, we've all done parcel delivery quests like this in games before, right? But it's on my way so I say yes, and take off down the road holding the bag. The point is, apparently, to avoid nosey hobbits who want to read other people's mail. Which I find out when I turn a sharp corner, run into one such hobbit, and lose the mailbag and the quest. Okay, I'm game, my elf says, hitching up his belt and heading back to the first postman.

Take Two involves heading cross-country, artfully leaping over fence rails, to avoid the nosy hobbit and deliver the mail to the postman in the next town. I'm thinking, oh, I'm so brilliant, up to the point where I jump into a pig paddock, at which I'm attacked by the angry boar. It is at this point that I realize that, because I'm holding the mailbag, I can't draw my weapon and kill the blasted pig. After a couple futile attempts trying to hit the boar with the mail, I light off across country in the opposite direction, outrun the boar, and eventually deliver the mail via a final roundabout leg that involves running over the recipients' roof and leaping from there into his front yard. I was smiling the whole time.

I will also always be proud that the quest that finally dinged me to Level 10 involved settling a hobbit-child's Hide and Seek game in Michal Delving.

4) Grown-up participants. Nothing against World of Warcraft, which I admit I have shunned, but LOTRO (unfortunate acronym, that) seems to have kept the worst of the idiots out through that underrated design decision, previously implemented by Dark Age of Camelot, of keeping everybody's avatar fully clothed. I'm sure there's cybersex in LOTRO somewhere, or there soon will be, but it's all fairly chaste to start with, which is nice. You can tell it's an older audience, if only because the chat's friendly, and the player-chosen names are not egregiously stupid.

The player-vs-player model (basically you can spar for fun, or you can choose to turn into a level 50 monster and try to take on the level 50 players) looks promising; the lack of actual hero death (you basically just run away, avoiding repeated resurrections), the relative scarcity of mages, and absence of a cleric class (that D&D-induced abomination) are all hopeful signs, too. The servers have been busy, not empty, but never so crowded you felt like you were taking the subway. The detailed music playing model looks fun. The use of quests to jumpstart player-crafting of items looks like a good design decision, as well. Also the focus on achieving multiple personal titles, like "Wolf-tamer," and "Guardian of Ered Duin," which is a very Tolkien-y touch, as well (recalling Aragorn's occasional rambling self-introductions from the books, to take one canonical example.)

There are a couple things that could stand fixing, of course. My mace to start with. I recognize it's a lowbie item, but my handy dandy handweapon looks like a cross between a can opener and a board with a nail stuck through it. I'm almost ashamed to wear the thing.

How does the new game compare to Dark Age of Camelot, which was to Everquest as this game is to World of Warcraft? (More mature, more niche-y, more-heat-less-foam.) Both games were stable at launch. DAOC had more complex fighting and character creation models, which I appreciated, but it's true that levelling, at least in the early days, was more of a drag than it needed to be at times. The questing in DAOC was a lot harder, at times, too, but I mostly preferred that... there were several quests I think I was in relatively sparse company in completing, because the game never handed the answers to you on a platter the way LOTRO seems to. The upside of that is I see no need with the current game to pay a second monthly fee to a third-party site like Allakhazam to find out how the quests are supposed to work, though.

I had nights and nights of good fun in DAOC back in the day. But I can't ever go back to those days again: MMOs have a lifespan, and an arc, and DAOC is into its late-mature phase now, with a very different feel, and appeal. And to be fair, a lot of that was the company I was keeping online, which seemed a nice bunch of people. But I've already had some friendly discussions and support in LOTRO, giving this one some promise of repeating some of that experience, so I'm thinking I'll probably stick around a while.

Posted by BruceR at 11:54 AM