LEIPZIG, Germany--Based on the literary works of J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings Online is a massively multiplayer online role-playing game set for release on the PC. We've seen quite a lot of the game over the past year, and as it moves into beta phase at the end of September, more people will be able to see just how it's shaping up. As you'd expect from a game based on such a classic piece of literature, The Lord of the Rings Online has a firm emphasis on story. Playing as one of seven character classes, you will follow a path that frequently crosses that of the fellowship of the ring, with plenty of familiar names and places along the way. We visited Codemasters at Leipzig to see an example of the first few character levels and what players can hope to expect as they work their way deeper into the game.
With so many fans of the books, The Lord of the Rings Online could attract its fair share of players who are new to the MMORPG genre. The developers of the game realise this, and as you work through the first six levels as your character, you'll be eased in with plenty of onscreen tips and a world populated with people to talk to. The interface is also pretty well drawn out, with ring icons drawn on the map to highlight available quests that will suck you deeper into the game.
Codemasters and Turbine showed us how the first half hour of play might pan out. As a human female character, we started in a village that's home to hobbits, including relations of Frodo and Bilbo Baggins, and it's not long before trouble arrives and you're naturally left to help out with only your basic skills and combat ability to depend on. As you may remember from the films and books, the black knights on horseback are rather keen to find Frodo, and when one of them descends on your hobbit neighbours, it's down to you to help out the poor little guys. Codemasters showed us how to create a fire on one of the houses, and we watched it spread until it completely engulfed the black knight. Sauron's riders may well be pretty tough, but they're still susceptible to fire, and under the pressure of the mounting flames, the knight disappeared into the distance.
Since The Lord of the Rings Online was developed in Boston by Turbine, which has been responsible for Dungeons & Dragons Online and Asheron's Call, there's plenty of expectation surrounding it. Those who have been granted access to the beta release next month, including testers, journalists, and fans, will soon be able to see if it is living up to the hype. This will be the final test for the game, as it will show how it will hold up in a real-world environment, and after that, the signs are good for a spring 2007 final release.
We last saw the game at E3, and since then, the graphical effects, such as fire and water, are looking increasingly polished. The recommended minimum specs for the game are currently set at a 2.4GHz processor, 512MB RAM, and a 64MB graphics card, which seems fairly modest for a game of this size. Aside from graphical flourishes, certain features have been expanded as well. There are certainly a lot of quests to get through, and from the half-hour snippet we were privileged to see at Leipzig, it seems that there are actually quests within quests. Quite often, these are side achievements that you don't really set out to undertake. For example, you may be rewarded for seeing all the landmarks within a certain region (Breeland or the Shire, for example), and there are the usual accomplishments for slaying a set number of trolls or goblins. You can also become a lore master by recovering books and information about what is happening within the gameworld.
The accomplishments that you achieve can then be used to help gain traits within the game. Traits are essentially special abilities that you can equip and unequip at will, and that let you specialise your character as needed. As with any MMO, the skills that you choose to equip will help define the role that your character plays within the game. However, each of the seven classes has both a primary and secondary role. For example, a champion will primarily be a damage dealer, but he can also be a tank. It all depends on the group dynamic of each team and the situation that players find themselves in as they progress through the game.
While the game has yet to be released, the potential size and depth of the Lord of the Rings world means that it is ripe for expansion packs in the future. The game already looks like it will present a massive amount of exploration on its own. Nearly all the major characters promise to make an appearance at one point. All, that is, apart from Frodo, who is a conspicuous absence. At least fan favourite Gandalf will make an appearance at some point.
As with most modern MMOs, combat is dynamic, which means that your success is dependant on your position to the foe. A skilled player will therefore be able to dispatch foes quickly by circling around them, which should also serve to confuse the enemy as you attack. It's not all about attacking in The Lord of the Rings Online though, and a massive part of the attraction is just to explore the world that was created in J.R.R. Tolkien's fantastically detailed books. Instead of being linear, the story is a much more open interpretation of Tolkien's world, and as such it weaves around the path of the fellowship of the ring. While Frodo and company are heading off to destroy the ring at Mount Doom, players will occasionally cross paths, often directly affecting the fellowship and interacting with key members of the story. Depending on which class you choose, you'll also start out in different parts of Middle-earth with different opening quests, which should give the game some replay value.
This massively ambitious project is looking like it's finally taking shape, and while the spring 2007 release is still a ways off, the move into beta is an encouraging sign. Those looking for an MMORPG with a meaty story will probably lap the game up, even if the underlying adventure may be familiar to many. We'll have more on the game as it approaches its final release date.