Turbine / Midway
Floating gold rings indicate characters worth  talking to in "Lord of the Rings Online," with valuable rewards for completing quest assignments.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 6/12/2007 4:18:48 PM ET 2007-06-12T20:18:48
Review

If ever there was a massively multiplayer role-playing game to take the uninitiated by the hand and lead the way, it’s Turbine's “The Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar.”

Part of the game’s welcoming nature owes thanks to its source, the undisputed godfather of fantasy fiction, J. R. R. Tolkien. (Did anyone not have to read “The Hobbit” in high school?) And whether you went on to read the whole “Lord of the Rings” series or see the movies, it doesn’t matter. You can still enjoy “Lord of the Rings Online,” even if you don’t know the difference between a Hobbit and a ham sandwich.

I’ve always shied away from MMORPGs because I was intimidated by the cryptic terms used by die-hard players on forums or in reviews. I’m also not interested in focusing on one game for a long stretch, which seemed to be a requirement for most MMORPGs; I tend to bounce from game to game (and genre to genre) when I play most nights.

“Lord of the Rings Online” changed my mind. Anyone who has played “World of Warcraft” will jump right in and feel comfortable, while newbies like me are equally welcome, thanks to a series of brilliant starter quests. These baby-step missions introduce everything from moving around in and exploring the world; managing your inventory; outfitting your character; attacking enemies and conversing with both non-playing characters (NPCs) and real players you encounter along the way.

You start out by choosing one of four possible races to play: Dwarf, Elf, Man, and of course, Hobbit. My choice, Champion, is a powerful warrior focused on melee combat, while other classes include Burglar, Guardian, and Hunter — all of which have their pluses and minuses, particularly in how they contribute to the overall good of everyone when questing with other players as a “Fellowship.”

My character proved a capable alter-ego when it came to wandering around the game’s initial countryside, killing wolves and spiders and asking for — then completing — simple quest after quest. The quests could be ones relevant to the game’s main plot, or side quests that simply helped me gain the all-so-important experience (XP points) to bump my character up to the next level.

Leveling is, at heart, the addictive substance that makes all MMORPGs tick. (The game’s current level max is 50.) A bar at the bottom of the screen shows your current level and what you need to reach to reach the next level. Many a night I’d look at that bar and tell myself:  “Just one more quest so I can level up.”

Turbine / Midway
The world of "Lord of the Rings  Online" is enormous, but thankfully the games maps will help you find  your way.
The game’s Middle-earth is gorgeous, with fine details in everything from buildings and characters, to the forest, fauna and bodies of water. Of course, I chose to install the game’s high-resolution content option, which plays beautifully on the screaming fast Alienware Area-51 7500 gaming PC the company sent me to review.

Even so, I’ve read elsewhere that the game plays fine on middle-performer machines, including the older PC shoved into the corner of the room until I return the hot-rod loaner that temporarily replaces it.

Middle-earth is also massive, and easy to get lost in. The towns are clearly marked and the maps, easy to read and access. Practically every key on the keyboard is mapped to commands that, after a few days of playing, become second nature.

Questing from level one to ten is mostly a solitary proposition, though some quests come with a warning that success is only likely with the help of other players. It’s this feature —Fellowships — that most intimidated me. Do I just click on a stranger and ask for their help? I didn’t have to, because another player invited me, first. Unsure of what to do, I followed this character and his companion as they slew various creatures en route to their intended quarry: a big, ornery bore. We creamed the dirty beast, the other players thanked me, then disbanded the fellowship and went on their merry way.

Turbine / Midway
Tired of playing Mr. Nice Guy? Reach level 10 to  unlock the game's Monster play mode and side with the bad guy in the War of the Ring.
Whetted by the experience, I used the “looking for fellowship” command to announce to other players that I was looking to team up for my foray into a spider cave. Low and behold, three other players accepted my invitation, and we ventured into the cave — and chopped the spiders to pieces.

After our quest, one of the other players stuck by my side as I went back to town to collect my reward. And that has been the overriding feeling I’ve had playing the game, one of friendliness and camaraderie, from even high-level players that I assumed wouldn’t give lower-level players like me the time of day. And if typing while in the heat of battle isn’t your thing, you can plug in a mic and push-to-talk by voice, instead.

So apart from one unpleasant instance with a pair of music-making players (who made fun of my relatively low level when I asked for permission to take their picture with a screenshot), the intimidation I felt about MMORPGs has lifted.

Heck, I may even try a few more, including “World of Warcraft.” Whether I’ll keep paying the $10 a month subscription fee to continue playing “Lord of the Rings Online” over the long haul remains to be seen, but right now all I want to do is wrap this up, get back into the game, and invite a few willing strangers to join me on a quest to poison some dead sheep in order to kill a population of marauding wolves.

Indeed, in the world of “Lord of the Rings Online,” it’s okay to talk to strangers.

Without them, I’ll never reach that next level.

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