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A lot of that welcome comes down to Middle Earth itself. With the novels, the films, the board games, the old paper-based role-playing game and several existing video games already out there, Middle Earth has a familiarity factor that other fantasy MMOs – WoW aside – can only dream of. Of course, this is a double-edged sword: it also means that LOTRO’s Middle Earth has a lot to live up to. Luckily, Turbine has barely put a foot wrong. I doubt this is a Middle Earth Tolkien would recognise or approve of; there are too many hobbit warriors and malicious wights and goblins wandering around for that. However it is one that is evocative of his writings, the illustrations of Alan Lee, John Howe and others – not to mention Peter Jackson’s films – without feeling like a slavish, unplayable recreation.
The landscapes are epic and expansive, the elven cities full of intricate design and wispy architecture, the shire towns as rustic and bustling with merriment as you might expect. There is a huge buzz when you wander through Bree, discover Elven ruins in the forests or enter the gates of a deserted Dwarven city for the first time. Kudos goes to Turbine’s art team for the way it has brought all these influences to life, and expanded them into a world you could explore for months at a time.
Plaudits also go to whoever did the work on NPCs. In the vast majority of MMOs NPCs are generic goons who stand around like lemons in central areas with their sole interest in life being to dole out quests or assist with basic training or trading functions. Well, in LOTRO they are still found standing in central areas and, true, they are still handing out quests and handling logistics, but the difference is that, this time, they do it with some modicum of personality. With their back stories and changing motivation, they’re one more element that helps stitch the whole fiction together.
The quests themselves are right up there with the best of WoW and Guild Wars in terms of wrapping fairly basic instructions (kill this, collect that) in an interesting narrative package. There is a lot of text to wade through at times, but it includes some deft humour and atmospheric dialogue, and the game continually implies the brooding fears – who are the black riders? Why are the goblins crawling out of hiding? What black forces lie behind the treacherous Dourhand dwarves? – that we all know will link into the wider tale of the War of the Ring. What’s more, all that text means you get a lot of information, and as a result you rarely find yourself wandering willy-nilly looking for a goblin encampment or nest of spiders. Better still, you can always use the handy quest-tracker on the right-hand side of the screen to give you basic info on your current missions. Click on your current main quest, and you’ll find all the info you need in seconds.