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Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar

Score: 90%
ESRB: Teen
Publisher: Midway
Developer: Turbine Games
Media: DVD/1
Players: Massively Multiplayer
Genre: MMORPG

Graphics & Sound:

Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar could have been a spectacular disaster on the scale of Star Wars Galaxies. Creating a meaningful play experience in an already well-defined universe is difficult enough for a single-player game, so in a massively-multiplayer one, it reaches near nightmare levels. Given the success of World of Warcraft and The Lord of the Rings, Turbine could have just produced a Middle-earth flavored clone. While it does borrow some elements, it also refines them.

Middle-earth is a beautiful place to look at and has a feel that is completely its own. Since the game shares no ties to Peter Jackson's trilogy, the artists were able to re-imagine every aspect of the Tolkein's world.

Each of the locales you'll visit over the course of your many adventures throughout the realm have a distinct look to them. Each area is a self-contained entity, although it connects to surrounding areas. Transitions between areas are natural and flow rather realistically. You never find yourself walking through a lush forest only to suddenly find yourself in a desert. Instead, there's a transition that slowly gives way to the new area.

Character creation is wide-open and offers plenty of opportunity to create a character that stands out from the crowd. Early on, things look similar and generic, though as you progress, new options become available.

Most of the game's visual success is because of its art style rather than its technical prowess. There are a few cool touches like lighting effects, but for the most part, the geometry and character models are low-key. Instead, the game's art style pushes the game's look, which is a refreshing approach that I wish more developers would take. The biggest benefit to this shift is that even on a lower-end system, you can still enjoy a great looking game.

The game's soundtrack is directly tied to the area you are currently in. The music you hear in one area is completely different from the other, yet it retains the natural flow seen in area transitions.


Gameplay:

Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar follows a similar gameplay model as other MMOs. You begin with a selection of four race choices, each with their own benefits and drawbacks, after which you select from various classes, all filling important party roles like tank, healer and crowd control. Once you have your character, you then set out on a series of quests, all taking place in Middle-earth. Along the way, you may even run into a few notable characters from both The Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Hobbit.

While at first glance, it may not look like it does much to differ from other MMOs on the market, Lord of the Rings Online mixes up the traditional formula, giving the game a different feel. The first few missions are set up as a story-based tutorial that really gives you a feel for how to play. After that, you begin on a story-driven main quest that indirectly ties into the book's plot.

Calling on the game's literary origins, storytelling plays a major role in Lord of the Rings Online. Each race begins in a story-driven tutorial that makes sense for that race. For example, dwarves and elves begin in the same starting area where the city of Edhelion has been destroyed by a group of renegade dwarves called the Dourhands. As you play though the area, many of the missions involve building trust between the two races. Not every quest ties into the story, though there are enough that you don't always feel like someone's errand boy.

Eventually, the story ties in with the book's narrative, taking you through quests that run alongside events in the book as well as exploring other related lore that may only be hinted at in the books. The current chapters focus on Nazgul and the forces invading Angmar. While you never directly participate in major events, your actions do have an impact on the Fellowship's quest.

Lord of the Rings Online does a great job at always keeping you moving. There is always some new quest you can take on that will generally reward you with something useful. Quests are standard and, like WoW, really just disguised "experience grinds." The payoff for completing quests is eventually coming across characters from the books and fulfilling prerequisites for the game's fellowship system.

Up to six players can form a group, or fellowship, and tackle the game's more challenging areas. These include instanced dugeons like the Barrow-Downs and Carn Dum and are where you'll find most of the game's high-end loot and enemies. Playing with a fellowship goes a little further than having a group of players to fill roles in battle. While grouped, you have access to special group attacks that are triggered by players pulling off attacks in a specific order. How often and well these attacks work is mostly dependant on how well your party is organized and communicates.

Another feature worth mentioning is the player-created music system. Once you character reaches level five, you can purchase a music skill for your character that allows you to use the number keys to make your own songs. Although the music has no in-game effect, it has really taken off and become one of the more popular aspects of the game. It is not uncommon to walk through and hear in-game renditions of popular songs.

Lord of the Rings Online's PvP feature is another interesting element. At level 10, your character can look in a Scrying Pool and enter the body of one of Sauron's minions. Battles take place in an area known as the Ettenmoors, an area where high-level characters can enter and fight player-controlled monsters. The great thing about the system is that it gives the opportunity to those who like PvP without forcing it on people. It also protects character builds since you never have to make sacrifices for PvP. There's also no risk involved in the system, so if you are curious, you can try it without putting your character at risk. The game is still young, so the Ettenmoors aren't as active, though they should pick up as more players reach higher levels.


Difficulty:

Just about anyone can jump right into Lord of the Rings Online and quickly adapt to how things work. The game comes to a market that is already dominated by WoW, a game that has shifted the approach many developers have taken to the genre. It seems that Turbine understood why WoW works and adapted it to their game. Most of the interface resembles WoW's, right down to similar keystrokes and the way abilities work. However, don't take Lord of the Rings Online as a WoW clone; though it does borrow, it is more of a case of not reinventing the wheel when you already know people are comfortable with how it works.

As with any MMO, you shouldn't have too many problems if you stick to areas that are more in-line with your level of power. Trying to take a low-level character into areas inhabited by enemies that could kill you in a hit isn't smart. As a general rule, stick to the area where your quests are given and you should be fine.


Game Mechanics:

While they didn't reinvent the wheel, Turbine did go back and add a few steel-belted enhancements that greatly improve the system. One major enhancement is the player accomplishment system that works like a talent system. As you play through the game, you earn achievements for accomplishing certain goals. These range anywhere from killing a certain number of an enemy type, to finding a certain location on a map, to reaching a certain character level without dying. Each accomplishment comes with a title that you can display on your character as well as offering character stat upgrades. Earned traits can be swapped around and can alter how your character functions in battles.

The benefit of the accomplishment system is that it encourages you to try new things and just "play" with the game. Nearly everything you do is a potential opportunity to earn a new deed. Even if you receive no experience for a kill it can still count towards one accomplishment or another. Accomplishments will also build on one another. Many deeds offer the same trait boosts that stack on top of each other, increasing the benefits.

While it does cut out some of the tedium that comes with grinding, it doesn't completely eliminate it. Instead it replaces it with another form of grind since you'll eventually need to kill large numbers of certain enemy types to earn trait ranks that suit your level. Oddly enough, the system still works despite this. In a sense, it is almost like the 360's Achievement system; there's something oddly fulfilling about seeing that little indicator pop up that says you've unlocked a new deed. The only real downside is that there's no way to see what deeds are available without earning them first, leaving you a bit directionless.

Lord of the Rings Online: Shadow of Angmar doesn't completely reinvent the genre, though it delivers an experience that is accessible and extremely enjoyable. If you are looking to jump into an MMO, Lord of the Rings Online is a great choice.


-Starscream, GameVortex Communications
AKA Ricky Tucker

Minimum System Requirements:



Windows XP/ Vista; 1.8 GHz processor; 512 MB RAM; 64 MB VRAM; Direct X v9.0c
 

Test System:



Windows Vista; 1.6 GHz Dual-Core processor; 2 Gig RAM; Direct X v.10; 120 GB HDD; GeForce Go7600

Windows ArmA: Combat Operations Nintendo DS Spider-Man 3

 
Game Vortex :: PSIllustrated