Wednesday, February 14, 2007
I'm not Gandalf
As was to be expected, the main discussion around Lord of the Rings Online revolves around how close or far the game is from the Tolkien lore. LotRO walks a fine line between being too faithful and not faithful enough to the lore. On the one side there are people complaining that they can't play Gandalf or a similarly powerful wizard. On the other side there are people complaining that if you start playing a lore-master you'll use more magic in the first hour of your career than Gandalf used in the whole Lord of the Rings trilogy.
I think the balance that Turbine struck is sensible. Star Wars Galaxies was often too faithful to the lore. At the start nobody could be a jedi, but instead you had the ability to become a hairdresser. Now okay, giving a wookie a haircut is probably more dangerous than anything I did in my life, but that doesn't mean that I would want to play a hairdresser. And I don't want to play a peaceful hobbit farmer, waiting for The Scouring of the Shire in book 3, either. On the other side I understand why we can't have 500 Gandalfs on a server. The Lord of the Rings trilogy is high fantasy, a genre which is about epic struggle against overwhelming evil. There can be only one ring-bearer, only one lost heir to the throne of Gondor, and only a very limited number of true wizards.
That leaves the players on some sort of middle ground, leading a low fantasy life in a high fantasy world. Every single player hobbit will be an adventurer, which is already stretching the Tolkien lore. But none of them will be the ring-bearer. Every player who wants to wield magic, destructive or healing, can do so playing a lore-master or minstrel, which again is far more than the lore allows. But they won't be called a wizard, and the healing will be called a "morale boost", to make it fit into the world. Players will be able to adventure, kill orcs and other monsters, visit the locations from the first book of the trilogy up to Rivendell (with the locations of the remainder of the books planned for the expansions), and lead a generally interesting and heroic life on Middle-Earth. But you won't replay the story of the books, and I don't think there will ever be 40-man raids killing Sauron.
World of Warcraft is being criticized for players being unable to change the world in a permanent way; Lord of the Rings Online will be exactly the same in that respect, with even more reason for not allowing the players to change the lore of Middle-Earth. But the lore leaves a lot of things uncovered, and Turbine is making the best out of that. Lore-masters and adventurous hobbits are stretching the lore, not breaking it. And that sort of stretching needs to be allowed, because otherwise there is no game to play. Tolkien doesn't have combats in which a tank is taunting the mob, while somebody heals him and somebody else is throwing fireballs from behind. But the LotRO game will have that, because nobody has found a way yet to stage a Tolkien-like combat in an online game. And it isn't even clear whether people would like a Tolkien-like combat in an online game, because for example the hobbits are mostly busy running away in these fights.
What LotRO delivers is a WoW-like gameplay in a Middle-Earth setting. And that is all it can do. If you want a game that replays the Lord of the Rings trilogy, it would by necessity be a single-player game. And if you want a game that depicts the life of a hobbit farmer, you'd have to play something like Harvest Moon, not a RPG.