System requirements: Windows XP/Vista/Win 7, 1.8 GHz Pentium IV or equivalent CPU, 512 MB RAM, 64 MB GeForce 3/Radeon 8500 or better graphics card, 11 GB hard-drive space, DirectX 9.0c or higher, Internet connection
Genre: Free-to-Play MMO
ESRB rating: Teen
Release date (FTP version): September 10, 2010
After three years as a subscription-model MMO, Turbine’s Lord of the Rings Online is moving to a free-to-play structure, almost one year to the day after their other hit MMO, Dungeons and Dragons Online, went FTP. I hadn’t played LOTRO since participating in the game’s original beta test in 2007, so I decided to return to Middle Earth and see what’s new in Tolkien’s universe. Turns out, things are pretty much the same, only prettier.
The biggest problem with jumping into an MMO a few years after launch is downloading, installing and patching the client. My Internet connection is fast, and yet the client download (approximately 10 GB) took more than three hours to complete. Add another hour to install and patch and you start to hope that what you’re getting will be worth the wait.
And, for the most part, it is. When the install was finally completed, the game realized that I have DirectX 10-compatible hardware and asked if I wanted to make use of it for high-resolution graphics. Then it was on to the character-creation screen, which offers your choice of four races (Man, Dwarf, Hobbit or Elf) with up to eight available classes for each race. Each class and race has an associated cinematic that fills you in on their high points. After selecting my race and class and making adjustments to the character’s appearance, it was time to get to the business that all MMO players love: leveling.
LOTRO‘s epic story is divided into segments, starting with an introduction that lets you acclimate yourself to the game controls, character interaction and combat. During this section you slay dozens of the unfortunate local fauna as you complete quests doled out by the now-standard NPCs with the icons floating over their heads (rings, appropriately enough, as opposed to the exclamation points that are used in other MMOs). My introductory section included one dungeon, lots of diseased pigs and creepy spiders (some of which drop down from the dungeon ceiling, so don’t stand still for too long). Eventually I got a very helpful message telling me that I was about to begin the final quest of the introduction, which gave me the opportunity to finish any outstanding quests before I reached the point of no return.
On the tech side, LOTRO is excellent. The graphics are clean and attractive, featuring an effective day-night cycle that reveals a marvelous starscape, should you decide to take a break from the slaughter to check it out. The sound design is very good, making full use of multi-channel speaker systems, but some of the voice acting is embarrassingly bad. And online lag was minimal, mostly found during the first few minutes of a new session, although I was playing on a beta server that wasn’t nearly as populated as the live servers are likely to be. But does the free-to-play business model make playing the game more difficult? There are restrictions that come with being able to keep your wallet in your pocket. You’re limited to two characters per server, three inventory bags per character, and there’s a maximum number of crafting guilds you can join or community features you can use. Of course, you can visit the LOTRO Store and purchase upgrades to these and other features using Turbine Points, which you gradually earn while playing or can buy with real-world currency. Word has it that it’s possible to finish the epic story without spending a single red cent, but once you’ve reached character level 30 or 35, you might want to give serious thought to taking out the plastic.
It’s been awhile since my last extended MMO experience (EA’s ill-fated Earth and Beyond), and I’m one of those lone wolf gamers who would rather not join guilds or group up with strangers. But in Lord of the Rings Online I found a technically excellent, very accessible game that can be comfortably played solo for a long time before frustration forces you to seek help from others. And the addition of the free-to-play option is bound to make the game very attractive to newcomers who have resisted the idea of a monthly fee. If you’ve got the patience to endure the initial download and install, not to mention the hours of grind quests in the game’s early stages, you’ll find an engaging experience that will have you coming back on a regular basis.