This post is a message to my old bear-mentor Karthis aka Andrew, author of Of Teeth and Claws gaming blog. I promised him, and his readership a comparative review.
Most MMO reviews that I've read only take into account the experience of the individual. How was solo play? How easy was it to "find" groups? How easy was it to find a guild to Raid with?
Frankly, if this was all about me, I may not have fallen in love with LotRO the way I have. I'm a member of a group of 8 long-time friends committed to playing together. We have our own private vent server, this blog & a "Kin" page on guildlaunch. We picked LotRO because of a collective love affair for Tolkien's works. All of us have played Lord of the Rings as a table-top RPG at one time or another. Some of us are even playing characters straight out of that history.
While we don't "role play" over vent with one another, our RPG roots seep into all aspects of our activities. We've created elaborate backstories for several of our characters. Kin members have written "in-character" posts on our blog. This is something that never really happened for us on WoW. Sure, WoW has a solidly developed Lore, but it simply can't hold a candle to LotRO.
The Lore of the game, our history with Tolkien (I've read the books 5 or 6 times and re-watched the movies in "extended edition marathons" over the holidays) and the great decisions of the game designers have created this amazing sense of foreboding - unless you play in the Shire* - which has colored our kin's entire experience thus far.
*Hobbits (and other players) who choose to do their starting levels in the Shire are rewarded with a completely different feel than any other MMO encounter I've ever had. The entire zone seems to be about helping bake pies, smoking the perfect weed, and dealing with gossip.
Of course, fostering the imagination can't be the only reason to play.
At a fundamental level LotRO is no different than WoW (and perhaps any other MMO.) LotRO still depends on the "holy trinity" for instances & elite quests. LotRO is still about leveling to unlock new abilities, become more powerful & open up more content. There's lots of "fed-ex" quests and return "but I was just there!" quests. LotRO is also a subscription service, something Andrew has been arguing against for a while.
note: LotRO subscriptions can run as cheap as $10/month if you take a multi-month plan. Having multi-month subscriptions often entitles players to free digital downloads of expansions. We're getting the Merkwood expansion for free. You can also choose a "life-time" plan, but it's $200.
Virtues: Unlike WoW, "Deed" farming is valuable. Complete a certain number of quests, use an ability enough or kill a certain number of a particular mob and you will unlock an equipable "virtue." These abilities are essentially LotRO's answer to Talent Trees. I love it. Players can just play the game and unlock the deed that unlock naturally from playing OR they can take the time to research deeds they want and fight for them. If a Champion never develops his defensive talents, he'll always just be a dps and never be able to be a tank.
Professions: More than WoW ever did, LotRO rewards teamwork on professions. A group of players can plan to have a set number of players designated for each profession & then have others be gatherers. There's no such thing as a "bind on pickup" crafted item. There are no bonuses for having a specific profession. A solo player can thrive on his or her own. But, the design encourages team-work. I have no crafting profession, instead I gather extra mats. I help mine materials for my wife's jewelcrafter, she in turn crafts gear for everyone in the Kin.
Following the Story: There are tons of quests in each zone. You can't really be a "completest" in LotRO. Many quests help show you a vision of life in Middle Earth. Most quests connect directly to the growing evil surrounding the players. LotRO has this massive interlocking chain of quests called "Books." Each book intertwines with the the Fellowship of the Ring. The players become "supporting cast" in the grand story. Stories involve helping to cover the tracks of the ringbearer or killing agents of the enemy that are too close to the ring. Our Kin is just completing Book 5 and there are a lot more books ahead of us.
Value of a Diverse Cast: Just like WoW, every class brings something different to the table, but LotRO really rewards diversity even in low level instances. Bring too many hunters & champions (raw dps classes) and you won't win. You need support classes that can crowd control, back-up heal, do creative support. This isn't just in Raids or in select boss fights. This is a fundamental aspect of all the fellowship quests I've seen thus far.
Fellowship Maneuver: The Fellowship Maneuver is a triggered event that encourages teamwork. When grouping (any size) there's a chance that a maneuver will be triggered. Each player gets a pop-up to select one of 4 colors. Fellowships (groups) that choose good color combinations are rewarded with anything from straight damage to the mob, to fellowship heal over time & instant power regen. The more in sync a fellowship is and the larger the combo, the more powerful the maneuver. Pugs suck at maneuvers. Our group loves the challenge. Some classes (remember my comment about diversity) can trigger fellowships. We have won fights because fellowship maneuvers were triggered. We have also lost fights because of failed maneuvers.
Death: Instead of "health" players have moral. Being "defeated" means you've run out of moral and must retreat. A player who dies out in the world can choose to revive in place once an hour, but beyond that defeat is painful and has consequences. The results can be devastating for a fellowship. A lot of activities take place is densely populated open elite zones OR public instances. If your fellowship wipes, a hour of work can go down the drain. Defeat also creates dread. Dread greatly reduces a player effectiveness. Many bosses cause even more dread. Too much dread saps a player to the point where they can do nothing but simply run away and cower. Jewelcrafters can create hope tokens which counter-act dread. The best choice is to avoid wipes by playing smart.
Note: I know Andrew is a fan of the undying style game. It's possible to play in LotRO as well. The game rewards players for avoiding death by cool new titles every 5 levels. But beware bad connectivity! I had an alt moving along quite nicely, she died to a DC. Sigh!
Housing & Banking: A Love/Hate Relationship: Players start with a lot of bag space. We get access to a modest sized bank really early. This seems really great until you realize that bag space is fixed, your bank is small, extra bank bags are smaller & exorbitantly priced. The solution? Get a house. You & your Kin can get houses. Your house is located in a homestead in the human, elf, hobbit or dwarf zones. Houses are cool places to display trophies. They also have trunks.
I LOVE this feature because my house reflects my main's taste and attitude (role-playing opportunity) and our Kinship house is a great place for us to display the trophies from our successful instance runs. I can "pop in" to a friend's house to drop of crafting mats or see their personal trophies.
I absolutely HATE this feature because my house, the Kin House, my friends' houses & my bank are scattered about. The trunk space is small and finite. Actually, the bank/bags/mail/auction system is by far my biggest - and only real - complaint about the game. It's clunky to the point where I realize that Blizzard has a really well-designed system in place. (I take back every bad thing I've ever said about Blizzard's mail/bank/auction system.)
Some Concluding Thoughts: There's a lot more to say about this game. I am really enjoying it. There's so much to talk about, I've failed to get into the individual classes I've tried. It's good for solo-play, but great for groups. If you are a small group of 6+ looking for a new home, I recommend you play LotRO. You will be rewarded with tons of fellowship quests, opportunity for collaborative work, and a game rich in story.
At this time, the wife and I are avoiding the "life-time" membership. It pays for itself in under 2 years, but with the variety of new games on the horizon we wonder if our group will look elsewhere in a year. After the holidays when we've paid for the Christmas, we'll reconsider it.