The Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar Review
By Chad Montague |
Put aside the Lord of the Rings license for a second. It's an insanely popular fictional universe, the foundation for a majority of today's fantasy works in games and literature, and of course it's going to color perceptions when examining this game. If you're one of those people whose knees get wobbly while savoring the idea of questing for Tom Bombadil and Goldberry, you're in all likelihood going to enjoy this MMORPG. If you are, on the other hand, one of those rare gamers hooked on role-playing games yet care little for Tolkien's work, we've first off never met you, but figure it'd be more important to convey how this title plays than how faithfully it reproduces Tolkien's vision.
Dwarves, Elves, Man, and tiny humanoids called Hobbits constitute the playable races in this game, available in male or female flavors. It turns out they're all good guys, all fighting for the same cause, eliminating the possibility of open-world player-versus-player (PvP) combat. Instead, such fighting is restricted it to The Ettenmoors, one of the game's nine spacious zones. After selecting a race, one of seven classes can be chosen, including a Champion, Hunter, Burglar, Captain, Guardian, Lore-Master, and Minstrel. Each class' function serves roles any MMO veteran is undoubtedly all-too-familiar with You've got the damage-absorbing tank, pure damage dealer, healer, group buffer, enemy debuffer, and crowd controller. To facilitate solo play, each class is also given skills from outside their traditional class role. A Champion, LotRO's dual-wielding, damage-dealing off-tank, has a few limited healing abilities, for instance. Minstrels, the main healing class, can wear medium armor for increased protection. Infusing each class with this kind of variety means you don't always have to be grouped up to progress, making the game more accessible and forgiving for newcomers to the genre or those who generally like to play alone.
Classes can be further tweaked with traits that can be equipped on your character to alter their ability focus. These aren't immediately available, instead requiring you to execute a certain number of specific kinds of enemies, complete quests in a zone, or discover a series of landmarks to unlock. Such tasks, called deeds, are given to you as new areas are entered, and work to make it seem like you're making additional progress, bonus headway, while questing. For instance, if you wander into the North Downs and hack apart a Troll, you'll get a notice indicating you've unlocked the Troll-slayer deed. Eighty dead trolls later you get a title, Troll-hewer, which can be displayed over your character's head, and unlock the advanced version of the deed. After another canyon full of Trolls go down, you get a trait, which can be equipped to your character to buff resistances, augment vital statistics, or alter damage output.
The trick is to find the deeds that unlock versions of the same trait, allowing you to power it up. So if Barghest-slayer (Advanced) in Bree-land and Warg-slayer (Advanced) in the North Downs reward you with the Determination trait, completing both deeds will net you the more powerful Rank 2 version of Determination. While the whole point of the deed system was to offer a mechanic that operates and rewards you as you're doing quests, it also adds to the amount of work you need to do to keep your character up-to-date. If you're running around at level 30 with Rank 1 traits, you're not going to notice their effects. So, while deeds are completed as you quest and you are rewarded for things you didn't directly set out to do, you still need to fill sizable kill quotas to keep your traits relevant with respect to your character level. The discovery and quest-completion traits work well to keep you active and exploring for tangible reward, but the kill deeds can get tiresome, particularly because you can't see what the trait reward actually is until you unlock the advanced version.
Aside from the zone-specific traits, you also access race and class traits that can't be leveled and are always useful. These things can change your character's performance in significant ways, and switching them around is a great way to keep your character fresh should the experience be rendered stale by exhaustive hours of play. After level 41 you can slot legendary traits that provide new skills to further diversify your character's possibilities on the battlefield.
If you're a hardcore MMO fan the amount of grinding here will seem like a laughable trifle. Turbine has done a great job in making the play experience in this game more fluid, keeping you moving and discovering new things, instead of requiring you to sit in one spot and beat on the same kind of enemy for a horrifying number of hours. There are always quests to do, they generally offer great rewards, often a nice selection as well, meaning there'll be a reward item tailored for each class. That being said, the side quests are still quite standard. Go kill 24 bears in the old forest, the NPCs tell you. Go harvest 10 harrow weeds in Nan Amlug East, they say. Though they may seem generic, they are worth doing and not only for the rewards. A majority of LotRO's side-quests are prerequisites for the tasks that require a group, or fellowship as it's called in this game.
Up to six can band together to plunge into the game's more challenging content, which is split up into three general types. First, you've got the world group quests, usually involving beating up elite enemies wandering the countryside or huddled in camps. Next are the main narrative instanced group quests, which we'll get into a little later. Then you get the more time-consuming content designed to appeal to hardcore gamers, the group instances, which Turbine calls adventure instances. There are five in the game right now, from the Great Barrows in the Barrow-Downs around Bree to Carn Dum, a high level sprawling dungeon in Angmar. These experiences will be familiar to anyone who's ever played an MMO before. For the uninitiated, the instanced dungeons are usually the source of an MMO's most powerful items, dropped form bosses and elite mobs within. Breaking down the mobs is simply a matter of having a balanced group and slamming hot keys until the target buckles to the floor.