Middle-Earth Online Impressions

We got an up-close look at the massively multiplayer game based on J.R.R. Tolkien's classic fantasy novels.


At the ongoing E3, we took an up-close look at Middle-Earth Online, VU Games' upcoming Tolkien-inspired online role-playing game in development at Turbine Entertainment. The version we saw was, according to Turbine president Jeffrey Anderson, "in a prototype state," though the already-impressive graphics engine suggested otherwise. Though the game will be based on the same engine the developer used to create Asheron's Call 2, it will look considerably better, featuring enhanced support for improved water and dynamic lighting and shadow effects, as well as support for far, far more graphical detail, especially with respect to character models. We watched a human character wearing a suit of extremely ornate, glossy plate-mail armor underneath a worn traveling cloak stride through a festival in a colorful hobbit village in the Shire. The Shire itself was also remarkably detailed, complete with cozy-looking hobbit holes and groups of hobbits milling about outside.

According to Anderson, Middle-Earth Online will attempt to bring true role-playing aspects to the world of massively multiplayer games--a world that, as he suggested, seems more focused on creating large fields of monsters to hunt rather than allowing players the freedom to play as epic heroes and villains. To that end, Middle-Earth Online's graphical engine will allow for many more characters and monsters to appear onscreen at the same time, both to let players stage huge battles and to let them congregate in populated areas, such as the Shire, in which we watched hobbits chatting with each other, seeing to their chores, and even gathering for a dance in the town square. Middle-Earth Online will also put more emphasis on interactive and destructible environmental objects, such as the fireworks launchers in the Shire.

Once we'd seen the Shire, we were able to visit the dank mines of Moria, a series of huge underground caverns adorned with crumbling dwarven architecture. Some particularly important ruins, such as the tomb of the King Under the Mountain, will be clearly indicated--in this case, with a single shaft of blue light that cut through the darkness overhead and illuminated the dwarven runes carved on the bier. Middle-Earth Online will allow you to play as characters of different races, such as humans, dwarves, and elves, and you'll occasionally encounter ancient writing and glyphs in different languages and be unable to read them. So, in this case, unless you happen to be playing as a dwarf, you'll have to complete various quests on the behalf of the dwarven people so they'll reward you with some rudimentary teachings of their language. Otherwise, you'll need to enlist the help of a friend playing as a dwarf character if you want to find out what the runes say.

In addition to choosing a specific race for your character, you'll be able to determine what sorts of skills and abilities you'll have using a hybrid profession system that will let you develop your character both as a member of a specific character class and as a character with a varied set of skills that will unlock advanced abilities along a skill tree, much like in Asheron's Call 2. You'll also be able to customize your character's appearance by recovering or crafting powerful weapons and armor, as well as wearing different clothing over your armor. However, the most important factor that will distinguish your character from others will be your character's level of virtue, or vice, as the case may be. By successfully completing quests for the cause of good, your character will become far more well liked by good-aligned factions, may gain access to specific abilities, and will also change in appearance. Similarly, if you take on important quests but opt for the evil alternative, your character will instead increase in vice and will change in appearance to reflect this fact--and may even gain some of the otherworldly powers of Mordor. The game will take place around the timeframe of the first novel in Tolkien's trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring, so Turbine will likely ship the game with highly developed versions of the areas in the first novel and then add new areas in the coming months. However, the chaotic realm of Mordor will likely serve not only as a seat of Middle-earth's evil power, but also as the game's free-form player vs. player combat area. Middle-Earth Online will be released late next year.

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