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Graphics: The engine that ships with LOTRO is state of the art. A wide variety of options are present in the Options panel, allowing players to tweak the engine much like they would toy with a muscle car. You need a pretty high-end PC and video card to really see the beauty of this game’s graphics.
Hobbiton and surrounding areas are visually pleasing, and look like you’d expect. However, there are evil boars and goblins everywhere. Why is there a wall in Buckland at all? There are plenty of enemies inside the Shire. In short, the player must suspend his or her disbelief, much like in a pen & paper RPG. With that said, the graphics in LOTRO are some of the most immersing to ever grace my computer. On many occasions, I stopped to gaze on the beautifully animated and textured world geometry. Alas, the character and monster models are not as spectacular; they’re blocky, poorly animated and textured with a lower standard.
Interface: As with many other elements of LOTRO, the user interface mimics WoW. In general, it’s adequate for most tasks, although on a technological level, it comes nowhere near WoW in terms of customization. WoW lets players write modifications to the UI through Lua scripts, while LOTRO lets you change just the UI element location, like in Guild Wars. In addition, the art comprising the icons themselves is sub-par. It’s usually difficult to associate the skill icons with the skills, as most of the art looks like small, meaningless blobs. The inventory items also have bland art, and often trade skill ingredients of different tiers have the same exact icon.
Gameplay: At times, the gameplay in LOTRO becomes a canned and annoying sequence of waits. Turbine attempted to deviate from the standard MMO gameplay, but didn’t go far enough. For example, a typical play session might go something like this: log in; check your mail; curse the gold farmers when you see they haven’t sold your crafted items; head for the wilderness to finish a couple of quests; get to the quest area about five minutes later; start fighting a monster using skills that cool down once every 10, 20, 30 or even 60 seconds; loot the creature when he goes down; scan the area for a new monster; wait until your minute skills have cooled down; and then go in. Once in a while, you’ll notice a resource node for a particular trade craft you practice. If you can reach it before another eager player, you’ll have to wait while your character harvests it. After you repeat this entire kill-harvest-kill process about 20 or 30 times, you’ll head back to town to sell your loot and turn in the quests you completed. Getting to town takes about five minutes, after which you must wait while your character creates refined goods from the raw materials you harvested.
Thankfully, playing through the main quest solo or with friends is very enjoyable. In addition, you can engage in one of the many forms of meta-gameplay found within LOTRO. The most interesting is following the local economy on the Auction House and trading for profit. Unfortunately, even with tons of cash, stringent level requirements on powerful items limit your ability to spend it in a meaningful way. Other types of activities include chatting with fellow adventurers, arguing about loot with party members and trying to find a party. Also present is the LOTRO music system – playing an instrument in the game by pressing keys on your keyboard. Earplugs are not included.
Multiplayer What is one to do when confronted by the wall of cool down meters and experience bar indicators? A possible recourse is PVP. After all, the best AI is another human being. LOTRO takes a much welcomed fresh step into this territory by allowing players to create a monster character and roam one of the zones in search of players to defeat. There are also keeps that can be captured and quests to be done. The only requirement is getting a normal character to level 10. At this point, the player can enter a fell scrying pool and create a monster avatar. The monster play character cannot be equipped, but monster-specific traits and skills can be purchased using rewards accumulated through PVP gameplay. I wasn’t able to experience any battles, though, because when I entered the PVP zone on three separate occasions, it was devoid of players. The PVP thus devolved into grinding for rewards with PVE questing.
Sound FX: The audio effects are a mixed bag. Some of them are good, others sound like they were lifted from Jackson’s films. I’m talking about you, arrow-released-screaming sound! The voice acting that accompanies LOTRO is well done, though.
Music: If there’s one category where LOTRO shines, it’s the music. Each area in the game has an appropriate, wonderful score you can enjoy. It creates a feeling with which the player can identify, and anchors the experience of each zone deeper in the mind. What’s more, the battle music is appropriate and not intrusive or repetitive. I found myself whistling the tunes when I wasn’t playing.
Intelligence: The artificial intelligence follows the standard MMO mechanic: player actions generate a threat that must be managed to get through tougher encounters. No innovation here whatsoever, but it works like you’d expect.
Overall: I wanted to like LOTRO. After the initial shock of how similar the game is to WoW wore off, I found myself enjoying the epic storyline quests and the simple gameplay. Many small and positive design decisions are present, including the Class design, which is innovative, even while being trapped in the classic MMO mold. Soon, however, I could stomach no more repetitive fights, and tried my hand at crafting. Again disappointed with the results, I connected with some friends and continued the adventure to level 20. Then, as I got my next “Kill 10 Wolves” quest, I decided I’d had enough. Other journalists have labeled LOTRO “the best MMO since WoW.” I agree. This game is basically WoW 1.5. The source material is better and more serious, of course, which is a welcome change of pace from the scrambled omelet which is the Warcraft universe. However, game companies must innovate much more than Turbine has with LOTRO. Oh, and J.R.R. isn’t rolling in his grave, he’s just bored.
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