Intrigued by some of the good reviews that the latest expansion, Riders of Rohan, has been getting for The Lord of Rings Online I decided to head back to the game and see what's changed. It's a game I played from launch until just after the release of the Siege of Mirkwood in December 2009. Since I left the game it has gone free-to-play, had plenty of free content updates, merged the EU and US servers, and launched a further two expansions, Rise of Isengard and the new Riders of Rohan.
I have always had a lifetime subscription for LoTRO, which means I have been earning 500 Turbine Points (their real cash equivalent) every month since I stopped playing. This was enough for me to purchase both expansions in the game store, effectively getting them for free.
So, almost three years on since I last played, how has LoTRO coped with all the changes and how is it faring in the face of all the new competition that has arrived over the last year?
It was a simple (if quite lengthy) matter to get the game patched up from the last time I played it, and before I knew it I was back at the character select screen being greeted by my old toons like they were long lost friends (and some of them felt that way too!). There were two immediate differences I noticed on the character select screen. First of all there was a new plugin manager, and secondly there was a stonking great button inviting me to explore the LoTRO shop.
I decided to create a new character rather than carry on with an old one. A lot has changed and I wanted to see the new quests for the low level areas, plus I wasn't sure I could handle learning all the rotations on my warden. I decided to start another warden and relearn the gambits from the beginning. When I first played the game I found the warden to be by far the most fun to play as it brought something different to the table with its combat mechanics.
The first thing that struck me after playing through the beginner's tutorial was that, despite being over five years old, the game engine is still one of the best MMO engines around. Character's are starting to look a little dated now, but the environments and landscape remain amongst the best in the genre, with huge view differences giving some incredible vistas. It also runs really smoothly too and I never dipped below 60fps with everything maxxed out and the DX10 and DX11 options all turned on.
Another thing that stood out after a few hours play is that it really does feel like a world to explore, much more so than more recent games like GW2, Rift, TSW and TOR. There are lots of little touches in the environment, and the landscape ambient noises are excellent and really helped to draw me back into the world. In these areas LoTRO still stands up to the most recent MMOs, and even surpasses many of them.
Combat is one area where I immediately noticed a difference coming from The Secret World. It was actually initially hard to force myself to stand still during combat, and I kept breaking my inductions. This isn't so bad with the warden, as most of the skills are instacast, but it still felt odd and lifeless having to stand still whilst fighting. It just took some getting used to again, but it was one area where the game is starting to show its age compared to more recent MMOs.
What I did appreciate with the combat and character mechanics however was the complexity. As well as the usual statistics to manage there are traits, virtue, fate, fellowship manoeuvres, damage types and vulnerabilities, and a skill queue that can give a rhythmic feeling to the fights. Added at later levels are the legendary weapons as well. It all combines to give an easy-to-learn system with plenty of depth, and it feels very different to playing TSW or GW2, and not necessarily in a bad way.
Don't get me wrong, MMO combat is slowly evolving for the better with games like GW2, TSW and Tera helping to drive the systems forwards, but as old-school MMO mechanics go, LoTRO has a decent combat system. Not a lot seems to have changed with regards to combat since I last played the game however.
Older MMOs tend to have one big advantage over the new kids on the block simply due to the amount of updates and expansions they have received; content and systems. In both of these areas LoTRO delivers. The UI functionality has greatly improved since I last played due to the addition of lua scripted interfaces managed by a plugin system. There are some really useful plugins available already and I found installing them quick and easy. The UI system and customisation is now amongst the best in the genre.
The housing system in LoTRO is pretty good too, though not to the level of EQ2s system or the forthcoming dimensions system in Rift. There doesn't seem to have been much added in the last three years however, though I'm certain there are more housing items to find (and indeed purchase in the store).
Other systems also do not really seem to have moved on since they were first developed. For example, the hobbies system promised a lot, but fishing remains the only hobby skill in the game and doesn't appear to have been expanded, which is a shame. LoTRO does fluff very well indeed (housing, fishing, music system, emotes, and so on) and it's something I thought they would have expanded more.
The early game has been streamlined quite a bit since I last played, and
the prologue areas and quests have all been updated and changed to give
a better flow. I have found the game incredibly easy to pick up, but
I've also found it to lack challenge at the early levels at least (I'm
almost level 20). Levelling is extremely quick and I haven't died once
yet (or even come close), which feels a little odd having come from The
Secret World where if I go a day without dying it's a surprise. This may
change as I level, but LoTRO is not a particularly challenging game.
This is a problem with most MMOs to be honest (GW2 I especially found to
lack challenge in it's PvE levelling play).
The crafting system remains one of the best in modern MMO games, and whilst it doesn't seem to have been expanded since I played last, it remains deep and rewarding in most cases.
The addition of the LoTRO store following the move to a free-to-play model permeates many of the game systems. For example, many traits and deeds now have a button encouraging you to purchase accelerators from the store. The bank and excellent wardrobe system include similar buttons encouraging you to expand your storage space. In fact store buttons appear all over the place.
Personally I could live without all the store buttons (it would be nice if there was an option for VIP players to turn them off), but they are not too in-your-face and are easy to overlook if you choose. The whole free-to-play system really does tie into the gameplay well and it's easy to see how and why the game is making more money than it did when it used a subscription model.
I'm also a little uneasy at some of the items that are for sale, as they are perilously close to buy-to-win items in my view. They don't quite cross the line thankfully, at least not that I've seen. The store is incredibly easy to use (almost too easy!) and contains absolutely loads of stuff. It's so well integrated into the gameplay that it's easy to see how Turbine have made a real success of it. You can if you wish play almost all of the content without buying anything from the store, and there don't appear to be any of the absolutely stupid restrictions that The Old Republic is lining up for it's free-to-play model.
Finally, the one thing I was really pleased to see was how good the community has remained (at least on Laurelin, the server I play on). LoTRO always had a really great community, and for the most part that still seems to be the case. The game is still busy with plenty of people running round the starter areas, and quite a few of my old friends are still in game as well.
So, I haven't regretted trying the game again. In fact I find myself itching to log in now and again. LoTRO is definitely an old-school MMO, but it remains one of the best out there. It's highly polished, stuffed with content for all types of player (raids, crafting, fluff and roleplay tools are amongst the best in the genre). The fact you can play it for free now is great, and the game has gone some way to changing my perception of free-to-play MMOs. If they are done with care they ca work really well. I can't wait to see the new Rohan content when I eventually get there!
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