Author John Ronald Reuel Tolkien probably never realized just how far-reaching and long-lived his Lord of the Rings novels would become when he penned them more than 60 years ago. To date, the author's chronicles of the fantasy world of Middle-earth have captured the imaginations of thousands of readers, young and old; have given rise to smash-hit, award-winning motion pictures; and, most importantly, have led to video games that let guys pretend that they're elves. The next electronic game to carry Tolkien's standard will be The Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar--a massively multiplayer game from publisher Midway and Asheron's Call developer Turbine Entertainment. We got our hands on the early game experience and also had an opportunity to see some high-level content in action. Note: This preview may contain minor spoilers.
According to Turbine president Jeff Anderson, the studio's "number one goal is to deliver on Tolkien" by focusing in great detail on a portion of the fantasy world--specifically the realm of Eriador (where all the events of The Fellowship of the Ring take place)--rather than attempting to re-create the massive sprawl of all Middle-earth. The developer is hard at work creating a densely packed world full of quests (more than 1,300), characters to meet, and interesting, authentic locations to explore. The game will take place during the "Third Age," the same time frame in which the events of the Lord of the Rings novels unfold, so you can expect to meet with key characters like Gandalf and Aragorn and fight alongside them in the War of the Ring.
Anderson explained that the game is intended to appeal both to casual players who might be more familiar with Tolkien's novels than with online games and to veterans of massively multiplayer games. Casual players will hopefully be drawn into the game by its faithful interpretations of Tolkien lore, since the game will include major locations and characters from the novels, as well as in-game cinematic sequences called "dramatic moments," which often precede or follow quests.
Hardcore online-game fans will hopefully be drawn in by the game's depth--though you'll be able to choose from only four playable races (humans, elves, dwarves, and hobbits) and seven different character classes, all characters will be able to earn hundreds of different usable skills, along with hundreds of additional usable "traits" that either come naturally with your characters' race or profession, or can be earned from various quests. As your characters become more powerful and experienced, you may join "fellowships" (temporary adventuring parties) and even "kinships" (the game's version of guilds--persistent player groups) and find quests suited specifically for larger groups that carry unique trait rewards at the end of them. However, in many cases, you'll be able to equip only a limited number of specific skills to carry into battle by consulting the local bard--this setup adds an extra layer of pre-battle strategy.
In the meantime, you'll also be able to earn new traits and vanity titles for your characters (such as "the Explorer of Bree" or "the Warg-Slayer") by discovering new areas, defeating massive numbers of monsters, and completing the higher-level "passive quests" that will start appearing in your character's adventure journal once you hit level 20 or so. These quests might include reducing the local monster population or simply discovering a series of ancient ruins. Completing these quests will always yield some kind of reward, so it seems that you will have plenty to do.
We ourselves had a chance to create a new character and to give the low-level areas in the human settlement a try (each of the four races will have a different starting area, though all characters will eventually filter into the central region of Bree to begin their real adventures). As a human character, you'll apparently start your game as a prisoner of evil humans who are led by of one of the dark lord Sauron's fearsome "black riders," though you're aided by a human ranger who helps free you from your cell. Your initial quest to get out of jail will act as a tutorial, and our stout dwarf champion--a character class devoted to wielding a weapon in each hand and dealing as much damage as possible--was up to the challenge.
Mazes and Monsters
The game uses the same kind of keyboard-and-mouse control scheme you'd expect from a massively multiplayer game, and although the game interface we played with wasn't final, it seems that Turbine may very well err on the side of giving you as much control as possible, like with its last game, Dungeons & Dragons Online. The temporary beta interface (which Anderson suggested will be streamlined for easier use before launch) offers a long row of "hotkey" shortcuts, chat windows, and a marked minimap that indicates quest-givers and vendors (along with a larger "region map" to which you can manually add points of interest, and an even larger world map). Anderson suggests that experienced players should feel right at home with the game's interface and basic gameplay. The interface offers a "paper doll" character screen with various slots to equip weapons and armor, multiple bags to carry inventory items, and even enhanced options for buying and selling items at merchants, including not only instantly repairing all your damaged items at once and buying back items you've sold, but also comparison-shopping between new items and your current ones and locking items in your inventory window to make sure you don't accidentally sell them.
New human characters must hack their way through a handful of evil prison guards and rescue two friendly hobbits, one of which sets a nearby building alight to create a diversion. It's a good thing, too, since the fire is the only thing that drives off the black rider himself. Just after you rescue your wards, you're treated to one of the game's "dramatic moments," a cinematic sequence that shows the black rider struggling to control his horse before fleeing, leaving the wounded ranger who helped you originally. Those familiar with either Tolkien's novels or the recent motion pictures know what happens to anyone who is wounded by a black rider, and it seems your ranger friend's fate is sealed (and your friend's doom may come back to haunt you--literally!--when your characters advance themselves further and uncover more of the game's story-driven quests).
Once you escape from the prison, you start off at your first town, a bustling hub of activity where merchants, minstrels, and trainers wait to give you quests, buy and sell items, and train your dwarf, elf, human, or hobbit to earn your next level's skills. From there, the world is mostly seamless and can be traveled from end to end on foot. Anderson suggests that the only times you'll see noticeable loading times will be when your characters visit an important "instanced" area closed off from the rest of the world, such as part of a story-related quest or a high-level dungeon.
In addition to trying out the early part of the game, we had a chance to see and hear about some of the other unique features that Turbine recently unveiled, such as the "dread"/"hope" system. Certain powerful relics (and powerful characters) in the game will actually affect your characters' morale. Though you won't encounter this system frequently, every so often your characters will run across an exceptionally powerful site or character of evil, and this will begin to inspire dread in your character as long as you're in the area. At first, the edges of your screen will begin to blur, and your characters will glow red. Eventually, you'll start to take penalties to your abilities and even begin to feel your characters' life force drain away if you stay too long. Conversely, if you happen to encounter a powerful force of good, such as the wizard Gandalf, your characters might become infused with hope and receive powerful temporary bonuses.
In addition, Turbine dropped a few hints about the game's competitive player-versus-player mode, which is currently being called "monster play." Anderson referred to this mode as "casual PVP"--a way to bring in new players who don't want to put their characters--or their pride--on the line. The game's monster play system will let those players who don't wish to put their own characters in harm's way take control of one of Middle-earth's monsters instead and do battle against other player characters. The executive even suggested that, as a monster, you will be able to go off and perform quests in the arena area and gain exclusive, monster-specific traits while in that form.
From what we've seen so far, The Lord of the Rings Online is clearly trying to deliver an authentic Tolkien experience wrapped around a highly evolved, deep online game that should be easy to pick up but hard to put down. The game is scheduled for release early next year.