Monday, February 12, 2007
Lord of the Rings Online first impressions
The NDA of LotRO was lifted today, which gives me the opportunity to post the "first impressions" preview / review piece I already wrote a month ago. Here it is:
On January 13th I had the opportunity to play The Lord of the Rings Online stress test beta for a few hours. These are my first impressions. Please keep in mind that I only played the game for about 4 hours, taking a single character to level 8, thus I don't know much about the higher level content.
The first thing you notice when entering The Lord of the Rings Online is how beautiful it is. The graphics are artistically pleasing, technically up-to-date, and most importantly running smoothly without much lag. The direct comparison with Vanguard is striking: LotRO looks better *and* runs smoother. You will need a decent computer to run this, but you won't have to take out a second mortgage to buy one.
I created a hobbit minstrel as my character. You can also play humans, dwarves, or elves. And there are 6 more classes: Burglar, Captain, Champion, Guardian, Hunter, Lore-master. If you wonder why there are no "priests" or "mages", this is due to the Tolkien lore. There is no commonly available "magic" in the game. But that is only semantics, the abilities of the character classes in practice work exactly like magic spells in other games. The minstrel I'm playing is a kind of healer / bard, and plays very nicely. Besides a healing spell, an improved melee attack, and a "cry" that works like a direct damage spell, I have a series of ballads to sing. These ballads combine a short-duration buff with some direct damage to the enemy. Thus I can't buff before the combat, I need an enemy target to hit to use them. The ballads exist in several tiers, tier 1, tier 2, etc., and I can only use a tier 2 ballad if I have a tier 1 ballad buff currently on me. So keeping up all the buffs during a longer combat isn't trivial, and makes for some quite interesting gameplay. If there are still enough people remembering the original Everquest, I'm sure that this will be called "twisting" ballads, after the EQ bard gameplay.
The game starts with a short tutorial, in which you are running to safety with another hobbit, after encountering a Nazgûl in Dark Rider form. After the tutorial you find yourself in a newbie area, where you can do different quests to about level 6. You can't just walk out of the newbie area, you have to complete the main quest line there, which is conveniently marked as such. The last step of that quest line moves you from the public newbie area to an instanced event, the completion of which brings you to the main map. This is very cool, as the instanced event allows some scripted encounters that would be impossible to pull off in the presence of other players. At the same time the instanced events are short enough to not make this seem like a single-player game. Very well done.
General gameplay is similar to what you would expect in a post-WoW game. There are lots of quests, which serve both to tell you the rich lore of Middle-earth and to guide you through the game. I never managed to run out of quests, rather the opposite. You are never at a loss about what to do next, which is great. Quests cover the usual range of killing mobs, collecting stuff, or going someplace else. Quest items you find are not only marked "quest item", but also say for *which* quest they are, which makes you wonder why nobody else has thought of that yet. Combat has the usual mix of auto-attack with special abilities. But already at level 6 I had so many special abilities, that I didn't really notice the auto-attack any more, I was constantly hitting buttons to twist ballads. That keeps combat interesting. LotRO does a good job of not making you feel like a newbie in the newbie area. You don't have to kill any rats, although wolves, boars, and spiders are on the menu. Many fights are against human bandits. All mobs drop generous amounts of loot, you aren't kept short and can afford to buy weapons and armor, if you don't get them as quest rewards first.
Beyond the usual MMORPG gameplay, Lord of the Rings Online has a range of interesting special features. You can be awarded titles for special achievements, for example I received a "the Wary" title for reaching level 5 without dying once. You can choose which of your titles, if any, you want to display. But special achievements can also give you more than just a title, you can earn so-called "traits". A typical way to earn a trait would be completing the majority of quests in one area, or visiting a number of landmarks. There are also class traits, which you get by using your abilities a certain number of times. As far as I understood you are supposed to end up with more available traits than you'll have slots to equip them, with the number of trait slots depending on your level. This allows for additional character differentiation. So if my minstrel would use his cry a lot, he'd get an "improved cry" trait, which he could equip to further specialize in this area. But I'd have to choose between that and the "patience" trait improving some stats, which I get from finishing a series of quests to transport mail bags between the various hobbit postmasters. Hunting for traits is an alternative to questing, so besides the quest log you have a lore log, telling you how far you are in the different achievements. And there are lots of those too.
LotRO also has a crafting part. Crafting isn't available in the newbie area, but fortunately I realized that the light hides I found on the wolves and boars I killed where crafting materials, and kept them. Using Forestry I was later able to process the light hides into leather, and with tailoring made some light armor. Crafting seems interesting enough, without being terribly complicated. You need a recipe, some of which you get at the start, others you either find on mobs or buy from a vendor. Besides the recipe you need some materials, tools, and workbench, which limits crafting to fixed locations. Probably not a bad idea, it gives the crafters a meeting point to gather at. The one thing I didn't like was that you can't freely choose what tradeskills you want to take, you only have the choice between a couple of packages called vocations, each of which bundles three tradeskills together. I took the Explorer vocations, which gave me Tailoring and the Forestry I needed to process the leather. But Forestry is also used to find and gather wood, and instead of getting Woodworking as the third craft, I received Prospecting to gather metals, So I ended up with lots of gathering skills, without being able to process the wood and metal to something. The idea is obviously to force the crafters to trade among each other. I did see mailboxes, but didn't see an auction house. I hope that was just me not finding it, otherwise trading materials for crafting will be complicated.
Overall the Lord of the Rings Online is an excellent game. It is hard to describe the feel of the game, but in essence it just constantly made me very happy. There were so many things to explore, things to do and to see. And there was so little frustration involved. I didn't get to report a single bug, for the simple reason that I didn't encounter any. I was only sad that the servers weren't up all of the time, but this being a stress test I wasn't terribly surprised about Turbine having problems with the logon server. If they can fix their server issues, LotRO is going to be the "next big thing", the game you can't possibly miss of 2007. The officially announced release date is the 24th of April. I am very much looking forward to that, and I will certainly buy this game. Recommended!