E3 06: The Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar Preshow Impressions

We join a Codemasters fellowship and pay a visit to Middle-earth.

The Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar is set for release on the PC in November 2006, and we met with Codemasters to see the game before it moves into alpha stage. The massively multiplayer online role-playing game is being developed in Boston by Turbine, with Codemasters handling distribution, service, and payments. The US release schedule is exactly the same, with Midway covering distribution and Turbine maintaining the service side.

You'll be able to choose between four races and seven different classes when creating a character.

The game is based on the books of J.R.R. Tolkien, with all the content licensed from the literary works instead of from the recent movies. This has allowed the designers to create a much more in-depth re-creation of Middle-earth and its backstory than was seen in the recent movies. For example, whereas the first film covers the gathering of the Fellowship at Rivendell and the subsequent journey to Mount Doom, the book says that it is some nine months before they embark on their journey while a path is cleared for them. The main quests in The Lord of the Rings Online will be to take part in this clearing mission, making a figure-of-eight across the path of the Fellowship.

Developers Turbine are behind the game, having previously developed Dungeons & Dragons Online and Asheron's Call 1 & 2. The team has been working on The Lord of the Rings Online (originally titled Middle-earth Online) for around four years. The game is now about 80 percent complete and is at the pre-alpha stage with 110,000 registrations at the game's Web site. Turbine owns the rights for all MMO games based on the books, so while an Xbox 360 version is unconfirmed, a possible conversion was hinted at.

The Lord of the Rings Online offers four playable character races: hobbits, dwarfs, elves, and humans. The game will feature seven character classes--champion, captain, guardian, hunter, minstrel, burglar, and lore-master--some of which are only available to certain races. Each of the different races starts on a different part of the map, but the goal is to rise to greatness by acquiring new character traits, unique items, and skill enhancements.

There are 50 levels of advancement through the game, but Codemasters promises that progression will be more complex than building up simple experience points. Killing a certain number of orcs will still transform you into an orc-slayer, but it's a quest that won't be signposted. Most upgrades will be acquired via lore, and on your travels you may find something that will transform your basic cleave into an orc-slaying cleave, for example.

Your enemies in Middle-earth will come in many forms.

As far as enemies go, the game offers up all of Sauron's minions to slay as you progress. The most familiar to those who have seen the films will include the uruk-hai, nazgul, and balrogs--you can battle everything that's featured in the books. The Shadows of Angmar will form the first part of this massive world, covering the northern planes of Middle-earth, which include Breeland, the Shire, and Angmar.

In keeping with Tolkien's writing, enemies can be killed, but good characters are not subject to death and are instead "defeated." The health bar used isn't based on the physical state of your player but is instead based on morale, so the more good deeds you perform, the further you move away from being able to be defeated. It was something that couldn't be shown at this early stage, but we look forward to seeing how well this arrangement turns out in the finished game.

While you could spend a vast amount of time exploring the various towns, there will be a massive number of quests and subquests to work through (around 600 in Middle-earth) if you want to get involved in the Lord of the Rings story. Famous characters such as Boromir, Tom Bombadil, and Gandalf will issue quests as you progress, although the latter will be a rare occurrence that will offer bragging rights for those involved. Codemasters compares the path to a figure-of-eight around the fellowship, with the main part of the game spent away from the famous characters but with frequent overlap, such as at The Prancing Pony where Frodo meets Aragorn.

You'll be encouraged to form fellowships with other players.

While the game has been designed to accommodate solo players, the easiest way to progress is by forming a fellowship of two or more people. The promotion of teamwork and brotherhood is perhaps the biggest theme in Tolkien's books, and therefore the game will reward players who can work together. For example, if a fellowship is on a quest and everyone uses a special power simultaneously, a conjunction box will appear. When the box is opened, every member of the group will receive an increase in power for that particular attack.

Like many other massively multiplayer online games, The Lord of the Rings Online will take place in a persistent world, but there will be occasions when individual or team instances will take place. Many of the major story-driven quests will include only the fellowship currently undertaking that quest. People involved in the quest may be fighting off orcs in a time limit, whereas players outside this guild will have no idea that this is taking place.

During our visit, we were lucky enough to see the opening area of the game with Codemasters' online producer, Jim Brown, who played as a human character in the town of Archet. The game's woodland setting was graphically solid, with reflection mapping on the water and lush, swaying trees. The game was still being tested internally, so it wasn't possible to see any quests, but the town itself was populated with plenty of non-player characters and enemies.

Screenshots really don't do the environments in the game justice.

Even though the game will not be released for another six months, expansion packs are already being planned. Fans of the books and films should be able to guess where the expansions will head next, with the eventual aim of going down into Gondor and Mordor.

Codemasters plans to release a preorder pack a month before launch in Europe that will allow exclusive access to the beta test of the game, merchandise that includes window stickers and miniature figurines, and exclusive game content. The standard retail game will be a less-expansive affair and will include a foldout map. There may also be a special-edition version of the game, as well as a digital download, although details of these are unannounced as yet. Look for more information on The Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar in the coming months.

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