"Sit down young man and I, Gandalf, shall tell you a story the likes of which has never been heard before. Ok, well actually it has been heard before, several times. Yes, they did make those movies of them too and yes I know everyone watched them again in one sitting when they came out on DVD. Ok, ok, I get the point – but listen, this story is pretty good even though you've heard it all before anyway."
Lord of the Pings
LotRO is the new MMORPG from Codemasters that ties into the works of J.R.R Tolkien by allowing players to play as either an Elf, Dwarf, Hobbit or Man and go off adventuring in the shire and beyond.
Creating a character is a disappointingly quick process, made up of selecting a race, a class and a hair colour. There are other options to edit the appearance of a character, but hair colour is the only one that makes a drastic difference. Still, it was enough for us to have some fun with and we immediately did what every male gamer would do.
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We created a female Elf character (who all look reassuringly like Liv Tyler), took her to a snowy peak and stripped her of her armour before selecting Emote – Dance. It wasn't very interesting or erotic, but it certainly made us giggle like authentic Elf girlies. We tried experimenting with a few classes and played as Dwarves, Elves and Hobbits, but it was the original Elven Hunter who we kept returning to.
No matter what options are chosen players are soon dropped down into Middle Earth and quickly caught up in the medieval fantasy problems. Which is to say that within moments an evil Dwarf is resurrected, joins his army with that of the Witch-Kings and potential doom is spelled out for all the peace loving pansies between Gondor and Hobbiton.
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In response to this, the important Elves and so on get together with Gandalf and ask if you'd be so kind as to bring them back the skins of six tiger cubs. If you hadn't guessed, tiger cubs are the equivalent of rats in Oblivion.
So, it may not sound like a dramatic opening on paper and indeed it actually isn't all that gripping in actual play. At first the game feels a little slow and staid, bereft of drama despite all the poncey names. Give it half a chance though and LotRO can prove just as addictive as WoW, though whether that's a good thing or not is still undecided.
The game is a persistent world and is mostly made up of PvE challenges. To those that don't speak MMORPG that basically means the game involves completing various quests, as in a standard role-playing game. At later levels however PvP gaming is unlocked, allowing players to temporarily take over new roles as various monsters and complete simple quests against other players.
Still, the vast majority of the game is focused on completing quests and teams of players working together. To this end the game has an in-built 'Fellowship' function that allows you to invite other players into your party. Fellowships can then share the experience they earn and gain equal credit and permissions when completing objectives.
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Fellowship members are constantly visible to each other so that, with a click of a button they can march off to assist wounded or failing comrades. The benefits of these teams are fairly rudimentary then, but as with most things MMORPG what makes it work so well is the value players attach to them.
Forming a team of quickly assembled n00bs to help you defeat a Goblin Chief is one, very simple thing. Forming a fellowship is something else all together and somehow it feels more meaningful and poignant, becoming not just an element of play but a facet of the created world as a whole. Forming attachments to other fellowship members and learning how to work together is one of the true joys of LotRO, as is mastering the 'Conjunctions' system which allows special moves to be performed by fellowship groups.