Publishers: Turbine Inc.
Costs: Free to Play
On 28 Feb, 2011
Pros: Immersive, excellent quests, high production values
Cons: Sorry, no PC wizards
Our Rating: (5/5)
Lord of the Rings Online goes straight to the source of all fantasy MMORPGs. Living up to J. R. R. Tolkien’s magnum opus and to Peter Jackson’s blockbuster movie trilogy should have been daunting to Turbine, but they fearlessly produced one of the best free-to-play games to date.
What Makes Lord of the Rings Online So Good?
Lord of the Rings Online (LotRO to its friends) didn’t start off free to play. Originally a subscription-only game, the professional quality of it shines through in every detail. Quests and deeds work seamlessly, graphics look lush, major characters have spoken lines, music is varied. You’ll hear the town of Archet burning and waterfalls splashing. Your character’s footfalls sound different on a wooden floor than on soft mud or cobblestones. Free-to-play games just don’t have that loving attention to detail.
As beautiful as they are, graphics and voices are frills. LotRO succeeds with its story. From the beginning, the game honors its literary roots. As you go through character creation and select your class, you’ll see that each class description contains a line or two describing the Tolkien character who formed the basis of that class. You’ll feel a part of the story even if you aren’t familiar with the original novels and will be swept away by it if you’re already a Hobbit at heart.
Races and the Trait System
Hobbits are there in abundance, but so are Elves, Dwarves, and Men (yes, you can play a female of the race of Men). You won’t be able to play as one of the Maiar, though, so don’t hope to be a wizard. Each of the four playable races has its own set of bonuses and drawbacks, all of which are logical without being unbalancing. For example, small Hobbits have a reduced Might stat, but increased Vitality as they’re tough. Most of these initial passive traits are another nod to the characteristics Tolkien ascribed to the Hobbits and Elves who peopled his novels.
Where other games have skill trees, Lord of the Rings Online has a trait system. You’ll garner new traits as you progress through the game. Some come to your automatically from leveling, but you’ll have to earn others. While it may seem overwhelming when you first encounter traits, you won’t have too steep a learning curve because LotRO gives players the kind of ample instruction that you’d expect from a premium pay-to-play game.
Free to Play?
Lord of the Rings Online is a free-to-play MMORPG, but the cash shop sells a wealth of extras and monthly membership payments offer so many incentives that paid membership has increased dramatically since the game went free-to-play, according to Turbine. Unlike many micro-transaction models, LotRO sells content, not just “fluff” items like attractive mounts and clothing. Two classes–Runekeeper and Warden–are available only for paying clientele, as are certain quest packs.
Don’t let that put you off playing LotRO as a free game, though. There is more gameplay value in the initial hours of Lord of the Rings Online than in days of playing some lesser RPG. A complex crafting system, a lively economy, and busy servers make this game worthwhile whether you buy additional features or just enjoy the base gameplay.
But Is It Perfect?
Well, nothing’s perfect. If you’re used to playing a caster class, you’ll miss magic in Lord of the Rings Online. Some classes have skills that resemble magic, but there’s no true “glass cannon” class. Combat can be a little fussy; you’ll occasionally see an annoying “you must face your target” message when you’re just turned a few degrees from your target. You might also feel a bit lost in a very big game world at first.
These are minor complaints, though, against a game that manages to capture the elegiac quality of Tolkien’s Middle Earth while still remaining a good fun monster-killing romp of an MMORPG. If there’s a single free-to-play fantasy game to rule them all, this is the One Game. It gets five stars only because there isn’t a sixth one to award it.