Why I Play: Lord of the Rings Online

Jef Reahard
J. Reahard|04.25.12

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Why I Play: Lord of the Rings Online
Lord of the Rings Online - Oatbarton archway
It's confession time, folks. I change MMOs like most people change socks, so while many of my colleagues write about their long-term MMO love and possibly a backup game or two in this column, I'm more inclined to write about four different titles in as many weeks. In fact, by the time you finish reading this, I may well have moved on to something else.

That's OK, though, and that's one of the great things about the modern MMO space: There are just so damn many games that there's really no excuse for ever getting bored. And this week's infatuation is Lord of the Rings Online.

Lord of the Rings Online - Bill, Bert, and Tom
I've written about Turbine's Tolkien-drenched themepark before, mostly in regard to some of its lore-centric foul-ups. Why do I still play it, then? Because for the most part, the company has created as lush and as accurate an online Middle-earth as we're ever likely to see.

Geek moments

Back during the summer of 2007, I was trekking through the underbrush in the Trollshaws zone, hunting mobs for some quest or other. I stumbled into a random clearing, and there before me were three giant stone trolls, the very trolls who almost made fledgling burglar Bilbo Baggins into roast mutton before Gandalf and the first rays of dawn intervened.

That was an oh-wow geek moment if ever there was one, and I must've taken a dozen screenshots of poor old Bill, Bert, and Tom before moving on toward Rivendell.

Lord of the Rings Online - The Last Homely House
The landscape

Rivendell: Has there ever been a more beautiful zone in an MMORPG? Probably, but I can't think of one at the moment. Seriously, though, Turbine's artists outdid themselves here, and even though portions of the game are showing their age at this point, Rivendell remains one of the genre's crowning visual achievements. Elrond's Last Homely House is vast and multi-tiered; it begs to be explored. The approach to the hidden valley comes upon unsuspecting players quite suddenly just as Tolkien described it, and the architecture on display is a gorgeous take on elven curves and muted colors.

Similarly beautiful are the green fields of the Shire. My hobbit avatar was created on LotRO's launch day, yet he has never ventured beyond the bounds of his homeland save for a single trip to Bree way back when. The Shire is one of those zones where the designers got everything right. The quests are a mixture of the usual FedEx this and kill that, but there's also the odd pie-delivering tomfoolery, an opportunity to join the Bounders, and plenty of out-of-the-way fishing holes that provide picturesque backdrops for diving into LotRO's addicting fishing minigame.

Turbine designers should also be commended for the game's geography. While much of Middle-earth is scaled down for gameplay reasons, everything is where it should be. There are still vast distances involved, too, particularly if you opt to up the immersion ante by skipping LotRO's numerous fast-travel options. When I'm not in the mood to level- or deed-grind, I'll turn on the walk emote and wander along the trail between Hobbiton and the Greenfields, passing Bag-End, its huge party tree, and plenty of gorgeous scenery along the way.

Or I'll switch characters and head east along the road that runs through the Lone Lands, with Weathertop looming large to the north. I'm sure it sounds boring to the uninitiated, and it probably would be in any other game. Because it's Tolkien, though, and because Turbine did a respectable job of capturing that mythos, there's something a wee bit magical about ordinary MMO trappings here. Call it immersion or call it more of my crazy-talk, but it's one of the main reasons I play.

Lord of the Rings Online - Inn League drinking
Have a pint with the Gaffer

Grindaversaries notwithstanding, Turbine also puts on fun events more often than not. The 2011 version of the anniversary festival was much-reviled for its token grind, but that doesn't detract from the fun to be had this year, thanks to the emphasis on fireworks. Horse-racing is fun too, and I'm not simply talking about the developer-sanctioned variety. LotRO's community seems more passionate than most, particularly on Landroval, where events and random roleplaying are the rule rather than the exception.

And let's not forget the Inn League shenanigans. There's nothing quite like a pub tour of the Shire, complete with a full-screen beer goggle effect and some hilarious quest dialogue.

Lord of the Rings Online - The Lonely Mountain Band getting down
Non-combat gameplay

LotRO's music system also deserves a mention here. We've covered it at length before, and while it gets overlooked by players who are bent on character advancement and the gear grind, it's one of the most brilliant non-combat features in the genre. In a nutshell, you can actually play real music via your keyboard. Players can (and do) compose elaborate original pieces and folksy renditions of popular hits. Multiple instruments and synchronization functionality means that you can get a live band together for all kinds of fun. It's reasonably accessible too, even if you don't know the difference between an eighth note and an octave.

The system uses .abc files to store song presets. Third-party websites like The Fat Lute offer a huge variety of pre-made songs that your character can play with a button press.

Oh, and the smoking! Yes, many of Tolkien's characters smoke like chimneys, and yours can too (without the rank smell and the threat of cancer, I might add). Player-made pipe-weed is easily obtained, and there are several varieties depending on what sort of animated smoke-rings you desire (think Ian McKellan's Gandalf in the Fellowship of the Ring film if you have no idea what I'm talking about).

Lord of the Rings Online - the Shire
Final thoughts

LotRO isn't all sunshine and rainbows, of course. Turbine is erring on the side of shady as its free-to-play business model matures. There's also the usual cycle of nerfs and buffs and other facts of MMO life, some of which will no doubt annoy you as you shadow the fellowship on its journey toward Mordor. All of that baggage is really a sideshow compared to the world of Middle-earth, though, and while I haven't played LotRO consistently since the Mines of Moria expansion, it's one of those titles that I'll always return to several times throughout the year.

There's an MMO born every day, and every game is someone's favorite. Why I Play is a column in which the Massively staff members kick back and reminisce about all their favorite MMOs. Whether it's the new hotness or an old fan favorite loaded with nostalgia, each title we cover here tugs at our heartstrings and keeps us coming back for more.
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