The Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar Final Hands-On: The First Week

Ahead of our full review, we've got initial impressions of the recently launched massively multiplayer role-playing game set in Middle-earth.

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What does it take for a massively multiplayer online role-playing game to stand out from the pack? It certainly doesn't hurt to license the cornerstone of modern-day fantasy. The Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar is based on J.R.R. Tolkien's admired novels, though based on our initial hours with the game it's obviously not content to rest on the laurels of a famous franchise. With the game now officially live, we traveled to Celondim (one of the starting cities) and began our initial exploration of Middle-earth. We're working on our review, but here are some early impressions of the game.

Celondim is beautiful. The hat, not so much.
Celondim is beautiful. The hat, not so much.

As with any MMO, your first task is to create an avatar. There are four races from which to choose: man, dwarf, hobbit, and elf. You may also choose a gender, though dwarfs are limited to male only. There are a total of seven different classes, though not any race can choose any class. Several of them fall into standard role-playing archetypes, such as burglars, which are similar to rogues in similar games, or guardians, which function in the familiar "tank" role, as they're frontline fighters who wade into the thick of a fight. Other classes seem more original, such as captains, who are able to summon pets, assist in melee combat, and provide buffs, or temporary bonuses, to teammates. We were most intrigued by the lore-master class, a pet-based profession that offers a good number of area-of-effect spells and buffs. While Lord of the Rings Online doesn't offer the large number of physical customization options that other online RPGs do, it didn't take long to create an appealing elf lore-master, and we logged in and prepared for our adventure.

The action starts from the moment you begin. The elven starting area introduced us to the basics of online role-playing gameplay while surrounding us with intense battle. A chain of quests introduces you to combat as well as to minor Middle-earth characters, and we had a chance to use our starting abilities against some goblins. You can strike opponents with standard attacks, as well as use special abilities that can deal out more damage. For instance, staff-strike is a mighty blow that gives additional damage to your standard attack, while burning embers causes fire damage to your foe. Both of them were useful in our introductory quest. Once the quest was done, we were able to explore our starting area, Thorin's Gate, in more detail.

There are a variety of side quests to take from the very beginning, as well as a central quest that opens up the main game world once complete. Several game mechanics are introduced during this initial questing, such as the ability to earn titles based on actions you perform within the game. We began with a generic title indicating our heritage, but as you fight foes and complete quests, you earn more exciting titles. For example, once we had completed certain quests, our character became known as the Guardian of Ered Luin. Once you earn a title, you can switch among them freely. Titles aren't the only rewards for accomplishing in-game goals, however. Deeds are more complex tasks that may earn you new titles but may also grant you bonuses to such statistics as wisdom or compassion. For example, visiting six specific locations in the Shire rewards you with a fidelity bonus, while defeating enough wolves earns you the title of wolf-tamer.

Questing in the Shire.
Questing in the Shire.

Once you finally open up Middle-earth proper, you will find that there is a lot of stuff to do. Quests are numerous, and it's easy to locate mission-granting non-player characters on the minimap. While many of them will send you off on standard fetch quests, others are different enough to be fresh. In one quest, we had to collect eggs from hen nests while avoiding the watchful eye of a distrustful rooster. In another, we delivered mail from one city to the next while avoiding nosy hobbits. It all feels very much in the spirit of the novels. Elven quests are somber and steeped in lore, while hobbit quests are lighthearted and mischievous.

We also decided on a crafting vocation. Vocations are sets of three different professions, such as farmer, cook, or weaponsmith. Our chosen vocation, the explorer, includes the tailor, forester, and prospector professions. Gathering raw materials like ore and wood is very simple, thanks to tracking skills that let you identify resources on your minimap. Putting them together into usable items is even easier. All you need to do is approach the appropriate workbench, choose a recipe, and indicate how many units of the particular item you wish to craft. Even better, items that you craft early on are very useful and may be much more effective than anything you can pick up from a vendor or loot from a corpse.

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Lord of the Rings Online is monster play. Once you hit level 10, you can visit a fell scrying pool, where you create a monster character and jump right into the heart of the Ettenmoors. Creating a monster isn't nearly as involved as building your hero, but you can choose from five different and equally terrifying savages. You then take your monster into the heart of the War of the Ring, where you can complete quests, join raids, and fight hero characters in player-versus-player combat. Monsters begin at level 50 right off the bat, so it's a great way to experience high-level gameplay before your main character has reached the endgame. The monster play areas are sparsely populated right now, as no heroes have reached that level yet. However, the prospect of hero-versus-monster gameplay is an exciting one.

Monster play lets players experience endgame content early on.
Monster play lets players experience endgame content early on.

The visuals do a great job of bringing Middle-earth to life. It's worth noting that so far in our experience, the graphics engine runs smoothly with all settings maxed out, and the visuals scale nicely to older machines. The Shire features cozy hobbit houses and towering willow trees, while Ered Luin is lush with beautiful foliage and detailed architecture. The sound is solid so far as well, and between the two of them, Middle-earth looks and sounds very much like what you would expect. Both hardcore and casual fans should find plenty of eye candy to gape at, and it's interesting to see developer Turbine's vision of Middle-earth bring Tolkien's novels to life.

So far, we have enjoyed our time with Lord of the Rings Online. The game was stable at launch and we've encountered no obvious glitches. While its long-term appeal isn't yet clear, the early levels offer a smooth, streamlined experience. Look for a full review in the coming weeks.

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