With a license as lucrative as Lord of the Rings, Turbine Entertainment could have simply created a World of Warcraft clone with Middle-earth nomenclature on it and called it a day. That The Lord of the Rings Online is such an accessible experience is bound to draw comparisons to the genre's leading title, but that it's so enjoyable to play is a testament to its great design. Its inventive aspects are peripheral, but they are there, and combined with slick and engaging questing, the package makes for plenty of appealing exploration.
Tolkien fans won't be left in the lurch, either. The game is brimming with well-known characters and name-dropping galore, as well as familiar races that should please anyone acquainted with the LOTR universe. Men, dwarves, hobbits, and elves are all represented, along with seven total classes being up for grabs. For massively multiplayer game veterans, though, this doesn't make for a lot of choices when games like EverQuest 2 offer so many more combinations, particularly if you plan on playing multiple characters. On the other hand, there is a good variety of gameplay styles from which to choose within those limitations. Classes like the pet-handling lore-master and the stealthy burglar play much differently, and all of them have a role to play within a group of adventurers. Significantly, all of them are viable solo classes as well.
With narrative-focused MMOGs like Dungeons & Dragons Online and Asheron's Call 2 under Turbine's belt, it should come as no surprise that a group of story quests thread together your adventures. Completing each one rewards you with a high-quality cutscene, and it's in these moments that the license shines most. In your early adventures, it's tough to shake the feeling that you've seen most of these types of quests before in other fantasy RPGs. Once the story quests kick in, though, the immersion factor rises and the world's unique qualities come more clearly into focus.
It helps that Middle-earth is beautiful to look at and brimming with touches that distinguish it from other fantasy settings. Seeing petite hobbit holes or the House of Elrond for the first time are gleeful moments for fans. The Lord of the Rings Online does not feature the most technically proficient visuals, with occasionally simple geometry and relatively lackluster character models. On the other hand, the environments are simply breathtaking, featuring plenty of rolling hills covered with lush, colorful foliage and detailed architecture. Even the more barren reaches of Middle-earth look impressive--like the mountains of the Ettenmoors, where dead trees and torn flags litter the landscape. The game engine runs smoothly and has few frame-rate jitters on even more modest systems, so performance issues are not likely to stand in the way of your escapades.
The sound design is even better, starting with a striking and varied soundtrack that transitions seamlessly from one locale to the next. The tribal music that you hear when entering the Old Forest is exciting and bound to get your heart pounding, and the occasional orchestral swooping of Ered Luin is well attuned to the visuals. Voice-overs are top notch as well, though most non-player characters aren't all that chatty anyway. It's harder for an online RPG to distinguish its sound effects, but they are all quite good in The Lord of the Rings Online, from the growls of wargs to the caws of pet ravens.
The game's greatest asset is that there's simply so much to do. World of Warcraft may be the king of quest-based MMOGs, but The Lord of the Rings Online is no slouch, and in fact, you may find yourself with so much to do that you reach the 40-quest limit in your quest log more often than you would expect. The upside is that you'll never be stuck grinding because there's nothing else to do. The quests require you to roam about a good deal, which makes for some occasionally leisurely travel but gives exploration types plenty to see. Aside from the story quests, they mostly boil down to the usual go-there-kill-that missions. On the other hand, some of them are clever and fit well with their locale, such as the Shire quests in which you deliver food while avoiding the noses of hungry hobbits.