It's been, in a word, smashing.
Having been away from the tamer lands of Eriador for so long, I had forgotten the charm and serenity that these lowbie areas exude. Plus, it's always fun leveling up a brand-new character, since there are plenty of goals and ways to develop your character that your level-capped toons have long since surpassed.
As I've been plugging away at Bree-land quests, I began to make a mental list of exactly what's so special about the low-level game in Lord of the Rings Online. The mental list became an actual one, and after a period of milling and refining, I've baked it into a nice loaf of observations to share with you.
If Bree-land, Ered Luin, and the Shire could be summed up with one word, that would undoubtedly be "bears." But if I had to go with a second word, "civilization" is a solid choice.
These lands are the epicenter of the Free People's civilization in Eriador, and it shows. These towns, villages, and cities aren't mere quest hubs but setpieces for normal daily life. You've got petty rivalries, hilarious antics, hopeless romantic crushes, estranged families, taverns from here to the horizon, and a rich tapestry of personalities. I've always felt that showing civilization is so important in MMOs because it gives you something to fall in love with and genuinely want to defend.
My high-level Lore-master hasn't spent any great amount of time in civilization for quite a while now. He's been on a near-endless quest through the wilderness with brief stops at the local equivalent of a Holiday Inn, and I think he's gotten weary from being absent from these places. We see that in the books as well, as the Hobbits often mourn how far away they are from their civilized homes and lives -- it gets to them.
So it's great that no matter what race you start with, Turbine made sure that you'd have to spend time getting to know the life of Middle-earth's population before you were sent out to guard it.
Dang, I love Hobbits. Seriously. Yet despite being central characters in all four of Tolkien's best-known works, Hobbits, or rather Hobbit NPCs, in LotRO are largely confined to the starter zones due to lore reasons. Past level 20, you'll only see Hobbit settlements a couple of times: Oatbarton in Evendim (which is so close to the Shire it's practically a part of it) and the interesting-yet-underused "forgotten" settlement of Stoors in Enedwaith. Other than that, the only Hobbits are fellow players or the occasional Fellowship character in the epic storyline.
And that's a shame because Hobbit culture is simply one of the joys of the early game in LotRO. They're funny, largely free from generic fantasy stereotypes, and a curious mixture of naivete and inner strength. Plus, Hobbit architecture is so iconic and cozy that you'd love to actually buy a Hobbit hole for a house if you could.
Past Rivendell, I don't think I've ever seen players congregate for concerts or engage in any roleplaying, and yet these are so prevelant in low-level zones across all servers. (Just my observations, of course.) It helps that most festivals are held in the beginning zones, where new players are constantly entering the game and exploring it for the first time.
I think this also has to do with #1, as Turbine's efforts to recreate pockets of Middle-earth civilization in higher-level zones have failed to foster the same atmosphere. Caras Galadhon, the 21st Hall, and Galtrev may have all of the requisite vendors of a major city hub, but they're still places that people move through instead of stop and exist in for a spell.
#4: Non-combat quests
OK, we all groan about pie-running and mail delivery -- really, any mundane task that we see as beneath our heroic stature. But you know what? We remember them for a reason. They're so memorable because they aren't just a "kill ten rats" fill-in-the-blank quest; they're something with a bit of purpose and originality behind it.
It's here in these lowbie zones that Turbine has a good reason to send us on smaller, less crucial tasks -- because we haven't established ourselves as gods of war yet. We're just Mr. or Ms. Nobody, starting from scratch with nary a copper in the pocket or a roof to cover our heads. It makes sense that we'd have to work our way up in the world by ferreting out library-haunting squirrels or assisting with a game of hide-and-seek (OK, maybe not that last one). We'll be slaughtering non-stop soon enough; it's good to begin with humbling tasks.
It's so easy to forget that there are new people coming into LotRO all the time if you haven't been back to these low-level zones recently. I mean, who asks basic questions about the game in Galtrev chat? Unironically, I mean. Yet in Bree, the advice and regional channel scrolls up with question after question from inquisitive minds, and it can have a wonderful effect on experienced players.
Newbies remind us of where we once were. They show us that the game is still attracting new blood all the time. They engage us in nostalgic glimpses back to the past. And they give us a chance to help out a beginner the same way that perhaps we were helped way back when.
#6: Fast and furious advancement
Finally, you really can't beat the 1-20 game when it comes to how fast and radical your character takes form. Despite constantly adding levels to the endgame, Turbine hasn't really given us much to develop our characters past the level 50 point; once you get legendary items and lock in your build, any character growth will be very incremental past that.
But starting out is a blur of new skills every level or so, loads of class and race and virtue deeds begging to be done, armor upgrades that take us from basic clothes to statted gear, and constant discoveries about what your character can do. Dinging every evening is another plus for someone who was previously lingering at level 74 for weeks on end.
Sure, none of this is sustainable, but that's not to say it's not enjoyable. It's a world of potential that lies at my feet, and all I have to do is walk forward to reap the rewards.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or through his gaming blog, Bio Break.