Turbine's upcoming Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar will usher gamers into a massively multiplayer online version of Tolkien's fantasy universe. I got to play some of the still-beta game at a recent media event; the title's setting and story will be its main selling point, otherwise it resembles other MMOs -- not to say that's a bad thing.
It takes a little work to learn an MMO, and Turbine said the company isn't trying to change Lord of the Rings just to be different. Instead, game controls and quest system felt like other titles, and I was killing defenseless forest creatures right away. Lord of the Rings also looked like other MMOs; what I saw didn't set any new standards, but it matched competitors. I was told that game art and other assets were still being updated for the Spring, 2007 launch.
Lord of the Rings Online's story-driven approach and setting should be unique. The game is based on the original three books and The Hobbit, not the recent movie properties. So while the game looks similar to the movies -- hobbit houses have round doors and passages, and Gandalf looks like Ian McKellen -- Turbine says that's because the game matches the original, detailed prose.
When we met at the event, Jeff Anderson, CEO of Turbine was excited about the connection to Middle-earth. He said, "We want to be there at the cool moments ... and want people to feel that the world is alive." He described how the books chart Frodo's goal to destroy the ring and how his quest is assisted by other events; Anderson said that the game's story will put players in the position of clearing the way for Frodo, "inferring that you, the player are helping on the side."
Every new player will begin the story at the original starting time and then will follow the in-game quests tangential to the complete ring story. So in a year, a high-level player will have progressed further through the narrative than someone just joining the game. An old player will, however, be able take a new player on a more advanced quest.
Turbine is developing the game to match the story in even more ways than plot; if you get too close to profoundly bad objects or characters, they say your screen perspective will gradually tighten into tunnel vision, matching the dread and powerlessness conveyed in the books. Because of these kinds of techniques, I have high hopes that Lord of the Rings Online will be a strong reflection of the Tolkien world, but it might also be a creative MMO underneath that wrapper. I didn't have time to do much more than kill some giant spiders and run a few errand quests, but I left the event looking forward to playing more.