Review: Lord of the Rings Online

Lord of the Rings Online is a massive and very complex computer game. Knowing my own preferences with video games, which tend to lean towards playing simple and easy games, why then do I like this one? Let me break down which parts I love and which parts I do not.

Storyline: Lord of the Rings Online began as a paid game, and against my better judgement, I spent my hard-earned money to play this game. I didn’t play very much or advance very far in levels, but I paid for it nonetheless. However, it is currently free to download and play LOTRO, so that is a relief anyhow. The first game was titled “Shadows of Angmar”, and there have been four subsequent expansion packs: “Mines of Moria”, “Siege of Mirkwood”, “Rise of Isengard”, and “Riders of Rohan”, which will be released in September.

Lord of the Rings Online is an “MMORPG”–a Massively Multi-player Online Role-Playing Game. What does this mean? Well, it means 1) that the game environment is massive and also that the number of players is massive; 2) that this massive number of players all play at once and have to interact with each other in order to advance levels in the game; 3) that an Internet connection is required to interact with these other players and therefore to play this game; 4) that you create your own character; 5) that you play the game as the character you create; and 6) that it is a game.

Lord of the Rings Online follows the epic storyline of The Lord of the Rings books. However, since you do not play as any of the main characters, the producers can take liberties with the storyline and create seemingly frivolous tasks to complete in order to continue with the epic storyline, thereby slowing down player advancement through this epic storyline, while also creating an exceedingly long and difficult game, as well as creating a need for further expansion to continue the game. Already we are through five games (the original game plus four expansions) and we are just now finishing the epic storyline for The Fellowship of the Ring and starting the storyline for The Two Towers, five and half years later.

However, there is seemingly no end of tasks to complete, most of which do not tie in with the epic storyline, so the game can be easy and simple if you want it to be. You don’t have to leave home to seek adventure. You can stay right where you are and live your life in Hobbiton or in Bree instead. You can even buy a house or a hobbit-hole if you want. You can make your money to pay for that house by crafting or hunting or trading. But, these questions nag at my soul: What else is out there? What am I missing? What else can I see and experience?

Gameplay: As I have begun to explain, LOTRO centers around the epic storyline, but the epic storyline does not have to be central to your experience in Middle-Earth. You are welcome to aid Aragorn and Frodo as they leave the Shire, but the character you create might be of a meeker sort, who chooses to stay rather than leave. Actually, character creation comes with many choices, including four races: man (male or female), elf (male or female), dwarf (male only), and hobbit (male or female); seven classes: burglar, captain, champion, guardian, hunter, lore-master, and minstrel; and several crafting vocations and professions. Given so many choices, it really is easy to live in Middle-Earth however you want.

Completing tasks for NPCs (non-playable characters), as well as engaging in combat with and defeating enemies (whether they are everyday animals, some other creature, orcs or goblins) earns your character experience points, which helps to increase your level, which in turn helps to gain access to further areas of the game. Crafting, the simpler, easier alternative to combat, also earns you points, but not as many and not as quickly as you otherwise would earn if you chose to engage in combat or follow the epic storyline.

I suppose this makes sense; experience in baking bread in Bree is not going to translate very well to defeating wolves in Isengard. Joining a fellowship, one of the key factors of the game, is going to get you farther than if you were to make any sort of journey alone (one of the greatest themes of the books). Still, even though these concepts makes sense in “real life”, even though I understand why I can’t simply explore wherever I want to, regardless of how low my level is, this bothers me.

Visuals: In a video game with visuals so spectacular, so breathtaking, the greatest I have seen, I would love to simply explore every inch of Middle-Earth that I can, without the worry of defeating enemies nearby, without the nuisance of joining a fellowship, without the responsibility of completing any tasks. This is how much of an anti-gamer I am. I want no expectations from this game other than to freely explore its environments.

This game does not offer that opportunity. I tried once, after I had freshly started a new character, to simply walk as far east on the Great East Road as far as I could go, to see if I could get to Rivendell just to take in the sights. I couldn’t. I was greeted with a message after I had crossed a river explaining that the “enemies” I would encounter in this new environment were of a higher level than I had achieved and that it would be unwise to proceed any further. I tried to, but I died pretty quickly. I know this idea sounds boring to most avid gamers, but I want a game where I don’t have to do anything. I want a game where I can just walk around in it, wherever I want, whenever I want, and just look at and listen to everything.

Music: Perhaps even more breathtaking than the visuals in this game is the sound and the music. Every environment has its own sound effects, which in combination with the awesome visuals makes you feel as though you are really there. However, even more than the birds and babbling brooks, I am an intense fan of the music for this game and its composer Chance Thomas. He is right up there with James Hannigan and Jeremy Soule as my three favorite video game composers. Jamie Christopherson is pretty great too.

Each environment has its own distinct theme music, some of which I listen to on a regular basis, as I do own the soundtracks for the original game, “Shadows of Angmar”, and its first expansion, “Mines of Moria”. I tend to listen to the first soundtrack more, but the second one has some awesome themes too. I’ve just heard five pieces from the newest soundtrack for “Riders of Rohan”, also composed by Chance Thomas, and the new music is just as awesomely epic as its predecessors. Go to the Lord of the Rings Online YouTube channel and click on “Play All” next to the “Riders of Rohan Soundtrack” playlist. You won’t regret it.

Thomas also composed the music for the 2003 video game The Hobbit, which I have not played, but I do own the soundtrack. It’s a great soundtrack from a great composer. Some of the music from LOTRO is reminiscent of the music from The Hobbit. Thomas also composed the score for 2003’s War of the Ring and 2001’s The Two Towers video games–which I have also not played and do not own and have not heard their soundtracks–plus two other Lord of the Rings-related video games that were never completed or released. It is obvious that Thomas has extensive background in writing music for the Lord of the Rings franchise.

Overall: In all, if you are an avid gamer, you can take this review with a grain of salt. It is not so much a review of the game as it is a commentary from an anti-gamer’s perspective about the spectacular visuals and breathtaking music of this game. My only wish, once again, is that I could experience all the visuals and music that this game has to offer firsthand, within the game itself, without having to accomplish anything to get there.

Though, perhaps you are an avid gamer and a huge fan of this game–which I like to think I am but for different reasons. If you are, you are more than welcome to contact me via the comment section below and take me on a tour of the many areas of Middle-Earth that I haven’t seen and would like to see. I would be so very grateful to you if you did! Meet me in Bree? Thanks!