Hitting the Mark: Turbine's sublime Rohan recreation in Lord of the Rings Online

Lord of the Rings Online - Riders of Rohan

I've written before about my on-again-off-again love affair with Lord of the Rings Online, and after finally getting my launch-day character to Rohan a few weeks ago, I think it's most definitely on again.

Yeah, I'm still a sandbox fan first and foremost, and yeah, LotRO is still a dyed-in-the-wool nod to the World of Warcraft school of linear MMO development. But it's got a pleasing topcoat of Tolkien paint that often masks the pedestrian mechanics, and nowhere is this more evident than in the Riders of Rohan and Helm's Deep expansions.

LotRO - Tombs outside Edoras

I can't return to LotRO without thinking back over its long history. And by history I mean development history. If you weren't following MMOs in the early 2000s, it's worth pointing out that this game wasn't always called LotRO, it wasn't always in development at Turbine, and it wasn't always based so clearly on WoW. In fact, the title that became LotRO existed well before WoW did, and so at the time I fully expected the fledgling Middle-earth Online to be some sort of Tolkien sandbox on par with Star Wars: Galaxies or Ultima Online.

That was wishful thinking, and with the benefit of hindsight it even seems a bit naive. I bring it up because the fact that I keep coming back to -- and more crucially, enjoying -- this game in spite of personal baggage speaks to what a phenomenal job Turbine has done with its world-building.

And let's face it: The world of Middle-earth is the main attraction here. Would anyone bother if we were killing 10 orcs in Another Generic Fantasy Forest instead of Mirkwood? I can only speculate, but aside from the music system, LotRO does nothing revolutionary. In fact, the only thing evolutionary about it was its business model. Recall that it was the first of the significant western triple-As (sorry Anarchy Online and DDO) to fully embrace free-to-play.

LotRO - Kingstead stream

What LotRO lacks in mechanical originality, though, it more than makes up for with its atmosphere. No other game offers the opportunity to so thoroughly explore Middle-earth. And trust me when I say that I've never wanted to visit an imaginary place so desperately as I want to visit Middle-earth. Turbine's designers and artists have skillfully obliged over the course of the original Shadows of Angmar campaign and five expansion packs, the last two of which have fleshed out the lands of Rohan in amazing detail.

As of this writing, I'm wrapping up the story quest line at Helm's Deep, and while the big battle system can politely be called underwhelming if not downright tedious, I nonetheless feel like I've taken part in a suitably epic journey across the war-torn lands of the Mark. Because I have. I've completed every soloable quest in both east and west Rohan, along with a few of the group-centric warbands that I outleveled.

This took me the better part of two months, as I stopped to read all of the quest text, snapped 1,042 screenshots, and spent a considerable amount of time slow-trotting my warsteed across the hills and dales of the Westfold, Kingstead, the Norcrofts, and other legendary places I'd heretofore seen only in my mind's eye (sorry, Mr. Jackson, but the rock-strewn plains of New Zealand make for fairly inauthentic seas of grass).

LotRO, somewhat appropriately given its subject matter, feels as if the weight of history is behind it. It's been live for seven years now, which as far as MMOs and changing technology are concerned may as well be seven decades. There's a noticeable visual discrepancy between the game's original zones and the sprawling new vistas of Rohan. The former, while retaining much of their charm, simply can't hold a candle to the new areas, which are are among the most beautiful locales I've ever encountered in gaming.

LotRO - Dunharrow from above

The eaves of Fangorn feel appropriately alive and uncountably creepy, while the sheer vastness of areas like the Norcrofts and the Wold cannot be overstated. Rohan is an immersion junkie's dream, but it also manages to be a solidly constructed series of themepark MMO zones. If rocketing to max level is the extent of your interest, you can do that very efficiently thanks to the quest flow and the fact that you'll never run out of content.

I reached 95 in Kingstead, which meant that I still had lengthy quest lines in Broadacres, the Stonedeans, the Westfold, and Helm's Deep to go. And that's not even touching on book XIII of the epic story that concludes with Theoden King's famous stand at the Hornburg.

Turbine's lore-monkeys deserve a raise for their Rohan work. Aside from the epic quest -- which is far too interested in making your character the Forrest Gump of Middle-earth (who knew that I played such a pivotal role in the War of the Ring and collided so frequently with Third Age celebrities?) -- the goings-on are lore-appropriate and believable.

LotRO - Rohan sunset

I spent time helping refugees escape marauding Orcs and even thwarted a traitorous Thane's opportunistic quest for power. And of course Turbine salts all of this with the usual deed and title acquisition minigames.

There are plenty of human touches too, including an Edoras quest involving the search for a missing refugee child whose primary concern isn't the demonic White Hand Orcs laying waste to her home but rather the well-being of a skittish fox that she's taken under her wing.

Turbine hews to Tolkien's dense lore as well as can be expected given the underlying everyone's-a-hero design paradigm, and while some of the Fellowship run-ins feel forced, the quest writers should be commended for working lesser-known characters like Theoden's ill-fated son Theodred into the player's personal story in pleasing and perfectly plausible fashion.

Not only that, but Turbine's Rohan is imbued with a real sense of history that's easy to appreciate. Another personal quest favorite involves cleaning up the Golden Hall at Meduseld prior to Rohan's refugees abandoning Edoras for the theoretical safety of Helm's Deep.

As part of the cleaning and packing process, I was asked to inventory the tapestries adorning both sides of the hall, and examining each of the gorgeous visual models provided summaries of the scenes they depicted, including everything from Eorl at the Fields of Celebrant to Aldor the Old driving Dunlendings from the Westfold.

This is heady stuff for Tolkien fanatics, and while many players will no doubt click through these things as fast as possible, Turbine has taken the time to flesh them out for those of us looking for the sort of immersion and alternate-history authenticity than only Middle-earth can offer.

Rohan's not perfect, of course, and in particular the Broadacres quest arc really drags on. Typical themepark delaying tactics are on display full force as you're asked to go talk to the Reeve, then meet her advisors in various places throughout the surrounding countryside for a paragraph or two, then come back and talk to the Reeve for a one-sentence resolution, etc. This unfortunate process repeats itself dozens of times both in Broadacres and in the neighboring town of Woodhurst, and it was a bit of a system shock after days of well-designed quest lines that didn't blatantly seek to either prolong my stay in a particular area or prod me to spend money on those teleport-enabling Mithril coins (which Turbine has of course made more expensive in the latest expansion; it now costs five coins to port instead of one).

Given the breadth of content on display throughout Rohan, though, as well as the top-notch world design and visuals, that's the only complaint I can muster. As a sandbox fan I still wonder what Middle-earth Online would've looked like, but I'm also willing to admit that Turbine has captured Tolkien's world about as well as it can be captured in this sort of game.

Even if we as LotRO players never make it to Gondor, the Pelennor Fields, and the white city of Minas Tirith, the journey is still worth taking, thanks in no small part to Turbine's magnificent interpretation of the Mark.

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