Earlier today with sat down with Turbine Entertainment, makers of the Asheron's Call series, for a look at its newest MMORPG. The game formerly known as Middle-Earth Online is now called The Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar. Turbine has just acquired the Tolkein license, so it now has more freedom to leverage elements from the venerable fantasy trilogy. All the familiar areas, landmarks, and monster types (65 in all, including orcs, giant spiders, uruk'hai, and more) will be in LOTR Online.
The game will cover all the major areas talked about in the Fellowship of the Ring book, including the Shire, Bree, Rivendell, Lorien, and Angmar (the land of the Naz'ghul). You won't be able to fight on the side of Sauron, but you will still be able to choose from four different races on the alliance side: humans, elves, dwarves, and hobbits. In the E3 build, only humans were enabled, and only the warrior-type class was implemented. The number of classes and their names are still undetermined, but the game will include all the different types depicted in the novels. So you can definitely expect to be able to play as a ranger, which was the class type of Aragorn. Aside from gender, race, and class, you'll be able to select your lineage, which can effect special bonuses on your character and maybe even unlock special skills. And, as you probably inferred from the inability to choose a race allied with Sauron, there will be no traditional player-versus-player action in LOTR Online. But the development team is working on a special mode that involves competition between parties, or "fellowships" as they're called in the game.
We watched as the demonstration started near Bree, during the night, which is the human area (each of the four races will have its own newbie city). Your first mission as a human will be a solo one in an instanced area where a ranger has asked you to assist him in rescuing a female hobbit who's being held prisoner in a brigand camp. Once you take out some brigands and free the hobbit, she grabs a torch and uses it to light one of the brigand huts on fire. This results in several brigands getting distracted as they try to put out the fire, making your escape easier. On your way out, you discover the ranger who sent you on the mission has been killed. Not far from there, a named boss, protected by chain mail armor and armed with a two-handed sword, challenges you to a fight. After you defeat him, the female hobbit thanks you and opens up one of many dialog trees that you'll navigate as you play the game. The game's dialog trees are designed such that those who want to role-play and take in the full richness of the game's story can engage in lengthy chats. But those who just want to skip to the action and get the minimum amount of information will be able to select options that cut right to the chase.
Combat in LOTR Online is skill based, as it is in most MMORPG games. You can map skills to the number keys and press them to execute them in pseudo turn-based combat. As you level up, your skills will evolve to become stronger and develop into combos. What makes LOTR Online unique is the ability to do group combos, which are called "conjunctions." The way this works is that when one of the players does a skill that opens up a conjunction opportunity, buttons will pop up on other players' screens, which gives them the option to join into a conjunction attack. In our demonstration, one warrior knocked over a brigand with a shield-bash skill. This opened up several buttons on the other warrior's screen. His choices resulted in a double coup de grace on the enemy. More complicated conjunctions will be possible when larger fellowships, which comprises several different classes, join together in beating down enemies. It hasn't been determined yet how many players can join in a fellowship, but it should be somewhere from six to nine players.
Another thing that separates LOTR Online is the way the world can be markedly altered as you make your way through the game. This was apparent to us as the demo moved through several missions in and around the small, besieged down of Archet. After you complete a series of newbie missions to acquaint yourself with the main non-player characters in town, you are then sent on a raid mission outside of town, which results in you getting sent to an instance. Eventually you'll return to the town of Archet and find that it's been attacked and razed to the ground. You'll enter the town, take out some more humanoid enemies, and defeat another boss to fend off the attacking force. Unfortunately, it's too late and the entire town of Archet is destroyed.
The interesting thing is that everyone in the world who's reached that point of the game will see Archet as a ruined town, while the newbies in the game who haven't yet reached that point of the storyline will still see the town in its unblemished state. The developers of LOTR Online intend to have other major areas in the world go through a similar evolution. Of course this will require careful design on the part of the writers to make sure there are never any logical inconsistencies for players who are at different stages of game completion. But this promises to make LOTR look and feel more like a real world that you have the ability to alter in significant ways.
Overall, the Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar appears to be shaping up quite nicely. Even at this early stage, the game's graphics offer detailed character models and lush environments. Hopefully, though, these aspects will continue to evolve as the development team fleshes out the game. Stay tuned to GameSpot for more details on LOTR Online as they become available. The game is currently slated for release in 2006.