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This is what we feared: a crap World of Warcraft clone with hairy hobbit feet; a superficial theme park trip through Tolkien’s Middle Earth; another lifeless, old-school MMO relying on the fantasy world’s biggest license for mass appeal; a game that fails to do justice to either Lord of the Rings or Turbine’s heritage as a world-class MMO developer.
Here is what we’ve got: an excellent, third-generation MMO that’s not shy of taking inspiration from the mighty World of Warcraft, but that has a few great ideas of its own; a game that explores and expands Middle Earth in ways that Tolkien might never have intended, yet still captures much of the spirit of his creation; the first fantasy MMO that can actually give Blizzard’s behemoth a run for its money.
Of course – as some of the moaners keep on pointing out – the overall look and feel is very, very similar to WoW. If you’ve played it – or Guild Wars, City of Heroes, Vanguard or EverQuest II – then the placement of icons along the bottom of the screen and the use of the Quest Log, Character Sheet and inventory isn’t going to give you any major surprises. Still, WoW hardly invented this interface – it merely polished and enhanced it – and if the result is that anyone who’s played another MMO can pick up and play LOTRO in minutes, then Turbine really has nothing to be ashamed of. After all, we don’t complain that a Word Processor feels too much like Word or an image-editor feels too much like Photoshop. Why should we as long as it’s easy to use?
True, the same charge also holds water with the basic game mechanics. Yes, as in WoW, Guild Wars, Vanguard et al, playing LOTRO is frequently a case of finding a non-player character (NPC) with a glowing icon above their head (here a ring instead of a question mark) then following their instructions to find one or more creatures of a particular type. You then target these creatures in turn, and click on the icons at the bottom of the screen (or batter the hotkeys) until they’re dead and you can loot their gently glowing corpses. Alternatively, you might have to deliver an item or message or collect a particular object from the environment, but whichever the case, your next step is invariably to return to your friendly quest-giver for a reward. In other words, if you were expecting some vast innovation in MMO gameplay from LOTRO then I’m afraid you are likely to be disappointed. In some respects – particularly its combat and diplomacy systems – Vanguard was actually a more progressive game.
To be perfectly blunt, then, the experience of playing LOTRO is not a million miles from the experience of playing WoW. But like WoW, the brilliance of the game is not in its reinvention of the MMO genre, but in the way that it polishes, extends and streamlines the style and the mechanics to build something most of us will warm to in the short-term, and should grow to love as time goes on.
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