The Road to Mordor: You're the best around, nothing's gonna ever keep you down!

Two semi-stunning thoughts hit me this week. The first is that March 5th marks the debut of my very first column on Massively a year ago, and I still have my life and sanity intact. The second is that even with the release of RIFT, which I'm playing, I still feel compelled to play Lord of the Rings Online just as much -- if not more -- than the new shiny on the block. These thoughts are related after a fashion, so just hang in there with me.

When I first came on board Massively and chose the game I'd be following for a presumably lengthy stretch of time, only LotRO seemed as though it would fit the bill. I knew it was a great game from experience and that I had a lot to do, see and learn about it, and I'd hoped that it had a lot in store to keep me from getting bored. Still, I was worried that I would lose interest after six months or so, as I'm a habitual MMO sampler. Could I settle down and form a serious relationship with an MMO like this?

It turns out that yes, yes I could -- and quite easily at that. While I had liked LotRO before last year, these past 12 months have helped me form a deep appreciation and connection with this version of Middle-earth. This relationship has held firm even as I've dabbled -- or dived in deep -- with other MMOs, because there's something LotRO has that I've never experienced in another MMORPG. So what is it about this world that sets it apart and has endeared itself to me?

Unlike many players I meet in LotRO, I never really was a huge fan of the Lord of the Rings novels. I read through them in high school and generally liked the first book but got lost in the branching plot thereafter. The movies were great and all, but like most film fads, the excitement over the franchise settled down as time went by.

But even though I initially dismissed this new Lord of the Rings Online game back in early 2007, I grew intrigued by it after reading a games magazine article that highlighted just how different it was from the typical high-fantasy pack that was running in MMOs of the time. This game would contain many similar elements to its contemporaries, but it would distinguish itself by fitting the game to the lore instead of vice-versa and by offering more of a chance to live in the world of Middle-earth than a chance to merely kill everything in sight.

I know that LotRO always had "WoW-clone" thrown at it, but even though you could show a connection between the two games' systems, I've always felt that Turbine's creation was its own beast. Small details, like using "morale" instead of health or the unique twists on conventional classes, went a long way to molding an environment that made us wonder: If the game thought these were important enough to emphasize, how much more important would the larger story of the game be?

I've determined that if you can't get into the small details of the game, LotRO as a whole will ultimately disappoint. I know this because when I decided to return to the game in 2008, I treated it much like any other MMO: I tried to level quickly and got frustrated by everything else that demanded my attention apart from the almighty experience bar. It was the wrong way to approach it, because LotRO is just as much about those side activities than the leveling curve.

This is why it helped immensely to commit myself to the long haul instead of seeking short-term success. I appreciate that it takes a long time to fully develop your character, because it broke me of the rush-rush mentality. I've seen level 10s who spend a good amount of time solely roleplaying in the Shire and who have as much fun -- if not more -- than hardcore raiders. And yet the game gives allowance for both playstyles and more.

Everything about Middle-earth feels connected as I travel about; it's not a huge shock to go between zones, because everything flows naturally like it would in the real world. Ruins and Hobbit-holes and tucked-away secrets never fail to spark my imagination for a place that's more lived-in than artificial.

It's been an immense year of transition with the free-to-play switch, although ultimately I think it was the best move for the game. Few people could claim that it was a Hail Mary pass of a dying title, but instead it grew both the audience and the profits many times over. I know the store and everything associated with it still carry controversy, but personally I don't feel it intruding in my gameplay the way I've seen in other F2P titles.

The reason I was and continue to be for this new version of LotRO is that I want to see how the journey ends. I'm in it for the long haul, and the worst possible fate I can imagine for this game is for the money to dry up and the dev team diminished and shuttled off to other projects, leaving us an MMO that got halfway to Mordor but petered out.

Of course, I would've never stuck with this game as long if it weren't for such a supportive, good-spirited community. I love how it seems that most players "get it" in LotRO, that it isn't about being out for yourself so much as immersing yourself in the world and connecting with others. From band performances to player-run events to the odd helpful hand out in the wilderness, this community has shown that it isn't here to chew up the content and spit it out but to marinate in it and add a bit of flavor of its own.

It's been a blessing to be a part of an excellent kinship as well, the members of which are always quick with an encouraging word or two:

So maybe this week is nothing more than a love letter from me to this game, but I wanted to say it anyway. In many ways, I feel as though my adventures alongside Bilbo and Gandalf and what's-his-elven-ears has only begun, and I'm just as thrilled to see what the next mile of the journey will hold as I was back in 2007.

When not enjoying second breakfast and a pint of ale, Justin "Syp" Olivetti jaws about hobbits in his Lord of the Rings Online column, The Road to Mordor. You can contact him via email at justin@massively.com or through his gaming blog, Bio Break.

This article was originally published on Massively.