The Lord of the Rings Online is now live as a free-to-play online game across the UK and Europe, as of 2nd November 2010. “No subscription or credit card required”. The game comes as a 10Gb download + patches via a special branded torrent client, so don’t expect to be playing it the same night as you sign-up.
I had a couple of hours in it today, getting my character up to level 6. It’s absorbing and is very pretty (for an MMO) game. The prettiness when playing as a Man is comparable to Ryzom certainly, at least in the opening tutorials stages. There were a few minor illogical moments in the opening storylines, but these were easily brushed aside. The “look-around” view was horribly loose and slippy, but this was easily adjusted in the options. Initial quests include a few unimaginative “kill ‘x’ number of wolves / boars / bilberry-bushes / spider-cocoons” quests, but it’s fairly easy to blast through these while you’re doing other story-quests. There were no hideous game-stopping moments that are so common in the tutorials sections of games, and I’ll happily trade a few dull quests for having the game flow well. There were a lot of other virtual tourists in there with me, and yet the servers never stuttered or dropped on me. The game installed the hi-res graphics pack, and then ran fine for me on the highest settings under Windows 7. One thing I think I’d like for newbies, new to the idea of MMOs without a “save game” button — an indication when you ‘log out’ that your character + stats + place in the story/world has actually been safely saved to the servers.
Ten hour update: I’m used to quality single-player RPG PC games (Morrowind, Witcher, Oblivion, Nehrim, etc), and so can say that the graphics and models in LoTRO don’t have the same believability as those games. The place maps also have a rather clunky feel to them. I was hoping for beautiful dynamic skies, wind/weather, swaying grass and night-day cycles, like Oblivion – LoTRO has cursory attempts at bits of these, but it’s a very pale shadow of running Oblivion with hi-res texture packs and mods. LoTRO’s animal animations are also basic compared to modern single-player games, almost as clunky as the original PC 3D RPG Morrowind (2002). Compared to single-player PC games, LoTRO has more of toy-set ‘stuck on’ world feel to the graphics and models. That said, there are many pretty touches and some finely-crafted textures. Can the story make up for these shortcomings? Yes and no — many early quests are rather unimaginative and basic (“kill six wolves” and lots of tedious running back and forth), but overall the first ten hours seem to have been tightly-tuned in the three years since the game was first published. The starter set of stories are adequately woven together. I’ve found no nasty game-stopping moments to do with baffling puzzles or illogical placement of items. Does the ability to interact with other players really make the game? Sometimes. In the introductory quests and areas you’re forced into places where you really have to co-operate with other players to complete the quest. And from those brief experiences, I can see how teaming up in Fellowships would be quite enjoyable. But it seems there’s going to be a lot of “grind”, as MMO veterans call it, to get there and find a workable Fellowship. That includes learning all the jargon and keyboard commands. I have to wonder if it’s going to be worth continuing for the length of a normal single-player game (20+ hours) simply to get out of the newbie areas. But it’s been sufficiently entertaining (not to mention free) that I’ll keep going a little longer to find out.