When is the appropriate time to evaluate an MMO? I usually post a review of a game after I finish it, but MMOs are designed to have no end to them. I could give a first impression, but many of the finer gameplay elements are not immediately available or apparent. In fact, MMO systems are generally so large and complex that I might not understand the "bigger picture" until the time I've invested is approaching triple-digit hours. So it is that I've gone so long without saying much about Lord of the Rings Online.
I've mentioned before my transition from World of Warcraft (WoW) to Lord of the Rings Online (LotRO). There's no mistaking the influence the former has had on the latter. Out of the box the familiarity definitely worked in LotRO's favor; I was immediately about to jump in and concentrate on the content. As time went on I think the similarities accelerated my fatigue, as it was very clear that although I had not "been there" I had indeed "done that." All of this invites comparison, and there's no doubt in my mind that WoW is a superior game. But when you've exhausted all of WoW's content, and you haven't written off the genre as a whole, you can do worse than to slum it out to LotRO.
I'm going to say some not-so-nice things about LotRO, so I really have to preface it all by reminding you (and myself) that I like LotRO. It has some really excellent moments in it. I'll never forget the time I wandered into the Barrow Downs and encountered my first shrieking screen-shaking undead. Or when I got thoroughly lost in the Old Forest. Or when I turned the bend and saw Weathertop, and refused to do anything else until I had climbed to the top of it. Or when I snuck my way into the valley of Rivendell, far earlier than I really should have. These moments where the game connects you to the fiction are amazing. Unfortunately they're few and few between.
As powerful as the Lord of the Rings license can be, it is also the source of many of this game's flaws. You see, the books are primarily about travelling, and as such the world of LotRO is huge. The developers have done an excellent job of honoring the scope of the fiction, such that if you were to walk the footsteps of Bilbo or the Fellowship, it would be an appropriately epic journey. Unfortunately, you can't really do that. For one, like WoW this world is broken up into level banded regions. Four Hobbits could not make it from the Shire to Rivendell in this world without having their asses handed to them by any number of bears, spiders, and orcs on the way. Instead they would have to stop every mile or so to grind until they were ready for the next leg. I'm beginning to see why Bilbo had to travel with thirteen dwarves and a wizard.
But I can forgive all of that and write it off as a gameplay necessity. I mean, that's how WoW does it and it works. WoW's locations are extremely varied, each with their own palette, landmarks, and local fauna. The world of Middle-Earth is certainly full of amazing locations, but unfortunately as LotRO exists today you're only getting a very small percentage of them. The currently available land mass covers from the Shire to the Misty Mountains. Comparing to the fiction, this basically only allows access to locations where events started to get interesting. There's no Lonely Mountain, no Moria, no Isengard, and certainly no Mordor. Spending hours of your time grinding through a field that the Fellowship breezed through doesn't exactly leave a heroic taste in your mouth.
I hit my first real slump somewhere shy of level 25. I had reached Weathertop but wasn't really high enough level to push much further beyond. I stopped playing for some time until the game got patched to increase the viability of my class (minstrel). Reinvigorated, I powered through the next ten levels relatively quickly. I hit the landmark level 35 and spent all my hard earned cash on a mount. Getting my mount had granted an amazing feeling of freedom in WoW, but now that I had mine in LotRO I quickly realized that I didn't actually have anywhere to ride to.
I sit now at level 37, not too far from the level cap of 50. And I'm having a hard time mustering up the willpower to get through those next 13 levels because I know that I've already hit all the landmarks that are most important to me. I want to see the Misty Mountains, sure, but that's about it. It'd be different if I weren't so invested in the fiction. I'd probably be more excited about visiting some random ruin if I couldn't think of a dozen more intriguing places I'd rather go to. Spending this much time tooling around in Eriador just feels wrong. Long travel times are okay for a one-way trip, but when you're doing all the back and forth grunt work of your typical MMORPG, travelling around becomes a chore. And this is where I think the license is working against the game: In trying to own up to the epic size of the world the developers have created an epic amount of work for themselves. If it's taken this long to get us to the Misty Mountains, how long will it be until we're at the steps of Mount Doom?
I'll see my character through to 50, but it's mostly for the potential of what's to come. The developers of LotRO have done an amazing job with the material they've presented so far. The environments are truly gorgeous. I genuinely look forward to seeing how they interpret the rest of Middle Earth, but I hope they establish better pacing so that I can see it in this lifetime.