But LOTRO isn’t just about grinding and levelling; it’s also about making you feel part of an ongoing, epic story. To further this aim, it makes use of instance-based narrative missions, where you (and often a group of other players) follow an important NPC on a mission that takes the overall story arc to its next logical point. These are used sparingly and wisely to give you a feeling of plot development, and you’re under no pressure to take them until you’ve had your fill of the regular quests littering each region.
That’s good, because the game gives you no shortage of reasons to make the most of every part of Middle Earth. Even more than WoW, there’s a sense that wherever you go and whatever you do, you will be richly rewarded for your efforts. For one thing, as you explore certain areas or defeat certain enemies, you open up new ‘deeds’. You might complete one by killing so many goblins in a region, or another by finding four major elven ruins, but in any case it might lead to an attribute bonus or a brand new title. The latter is a particularly cool feature: just select a title from your ever-growing selection, and all who meet you will see the legend ‘Defender of Ered Luin’ or ‘Web Slasher’ floating above your head. Add in some great reward arms and armour for completing specific missions, and it’s not long before you feel like you’re building a legend all your own.
What’s more, the game hits an almost perfect balance between group and solo play. Without cheating (as Guild Wars: Nightfall does) with henchmen or AI heroes, LOTRO probably has more solo-friendly content than any other MMO I’ve played, and if you just want an hour or two of action without any complications, you can always find a few quests to keep you occupied (and the quest log actually distinguishes between solo-friendly and group-oriented mission). However, finding a fellowship brings benefits in terms of group combat capabilities, and is an essential part of some of the instance-based narrative missions. It can also save you time queuing at particular mission points. One of the few regrettable vestiges of the old-school MMO you’ll encounter in LOTRO is the odd small period of hovering while the goblin chief returns from the grave or the lost dwarf cook finds his way back into peril.
The good news here is that the game makes it easy to locate groups via the chat and social windows, and that it seems to be standard practice to hook up for a single mission if you want then disperse to collect the rewards. If you don’t want to make friends for the MMO’s life, you can dip in and dip out as you please.