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May 18, 2007
Lord Of The Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar Review

By Mark "Thendar" Arsenault

Lord of the Rings Online is likely one of the most anticipated games of its nature to be released in many years. The wild popularity of the movies and long time circulation of the novels have both contributed to interest in wider circles than a typical game release. Released on April 24, 2007, it avoided the stigma of having to compete with Blizzard's expansion Burning Crusade. Coupled with the latter fact as well as a smooth launch, gamers are clamoring for a place to call their own in Middle Earth.

Personally, I have been a fan of Tolkien since I was a little kid, and saw the first cartoon incarnation of the series in 1978. Despite this, initially I was not very interested in playing LOTRO. I've been an avid online gamer for over a decade, and thus am typically wary of the "new kid on the block" when it comes to MMOs. Often these new games come with high accolades, and even poach many of the cool features of existing games, but don't deliver as intended initially. A few content patches later as bugs are fixed, the feel is polished and then things get interesting. With that said, I tend to play one online game until it no longer interests me before I move on, and I am still having quite a bit of fun with World of Warcraft.

However, after watching the introduction movie, which sent chills down my spine, I decided that I am very much interested in playing this game. The graphics were unbelievably impressive in the intro, and the level of detail on armor and faces was astounding. The rippling effects of the hair on the character models alone were enough to draw me in. Granted, in-game graphics never look as good as the trailers, but I find they are a good measure of a company's desire to place a solid first impression of their programming capabilities into the minds of their potential customers. Needless to say, the in-game graphics are still visually stunning. Turbine put quite a bit of effort into making a beautiful world which neither overwhelms the hardware nor underwhelms the player. They deliver a fantasy setting without the "cartoonish" look of World of Warcraft. Something that stood out as I entered into play was the billowing capes flowing behind other players. Rather than throwing all of their resources into the wind blowing through the trees, which I rarely pay attention to, they've brought the visual effects closer to the player.

After the intro, I dove straight into one of my favorite aspects of online games - character creation. There are several different elements of facial structure, hair, skin and eye color that are modifiable, as well as body type to some degree. The options are fairly limited overall, but still enough to be able to distinguish one character from the next within the same race. Also, each of the races and classes have separate descriptive movies, so that the player has a better indication ahead of time what to expect from whatever combination they select. That particular touch was very useful, especially for those new to the genre. Another interesting aspect of character creation was the naming of your character. Once you decide which race you want to be, you are able to choose which region you will hail from. As you choose your name, Turbine has entered helpful tips on what types of names those locals would use. For instance, a human from Breeland would have short common names such as Tom, Mac etc, while a human male from Gondor would have names like Boramir, Saradan. They also help you steer away from names that wouldn't be typical. This is an excellent tool for people who choose to role-play in the game.

There were 11 servers listed when I first logged in, and I came across maybe 30 or so different players in the newbie areas across the first few days. Rarely did I find I was competing for spawns - between the large areas to fight and quest in, and relatively fast respawn times, other players were never an issue in this regard.

As soon as the player steps foot into the game world, they are immediately immersed into an epic story line, which continues for many levels beyond the initial newbie phase. It allows for players to meet characters such as Gandalf, Elrond, Gimli and the like, as well as visit places from the novels and participate in the storyline as it unfolds. Quest NPCs have "The One Ring" over their heads if they have a quest available, and this also shows on the mini-map. When the quest is completed, the NPC has the same ring over their head, but it is now on fire. I thought this was a very nice touch, and a good way to maintain this powerful, well known image throughout the course of game play. The mini-map also displays a host of other useful information, from trainers, to crafters and other points of interest. This makes it very handy for navigating around unfamiliar territory.

As you complete quests in any one area, you begin to amass experience towards what is called a Deed. There are countless deeds available, and their usefulness scales as the character levels. They typically add to stats or resistances, and generally make the character more robust and durable. The deeds vary from one land to the next, and are useful enough that high level players will often travel back to other starting areas to do all the quests required in order to attain the deed from that area. In this regard, I think there is extensive playability inherent to the system - accumulation of deeds and wealth is a strong motivator for character development long term. Couple that with the extensive array of quests, and there will be plenty of enjoyable game time to justify the purchase price of LOTRO.

Combat within the game is fairly similar to other MMOs on the market. Players get the usual auto attack feature along with a few class specific skills to help them in combat. Minstrels are the only true healers in the game, and have the only heal specific skill set. This could be detrimental to the game for people who choose to utilize the fellowship aspects of play. However, there are other classes that are able to buff themselves and group members. Something to note - while minstrels are primarily healers, they are also quite capable in melee combat situations. Often the choice to heal precludes the ability to fight and defend well, but that is not this case here - Turbine took care of the soloing issues that typically plague healing classes.

One particular element that I found rather exciting was the built in voice system. If the player has used Teamspeak or Ventrilo for voice communications in the past, then this feature will not be earth shattering. However, having such a system built into the very design of the game is a great thing for novices to experience. Its simple design allows for the opportunity to experience the community in a more seamless socially interactive setting. Once you have cleared level 5 and exit the newbie areas, you will be able to create a fellowship (group) with people and use this feature. Voice is only relayed to other players within the fellowship.

One of the neatest features I stumbled across while playing is also the simplest. In all MMOs, players need coin of some sort to purchase equipment, food and other related necessities. The most tedious aspect of this requirement is sorting out what items to keep from looting while adventuring, and what ones to sell to the vendor. In the sell screen, a player can "lock" an item, preventing it from being sold by accident unless unlocked. This choice is saved, and recalled on each successive interaction with vendors in the future. Whenever a player returns to sell to a vendor, they can simply select "Sell All" and everything is sold, except for those items that were locked. A very handy feature, and something I am sure will pop up in future releases of other MMOs.

I tested this game on an Intel Core Duo 6300, with a 256 MB BFG GeForce 7800, 320 GB SATA and 2 GB of RAM. The game ran seamlessly on max video settings, so I decided to install it on lower end machine. I tested it briefly on an Athlon 2600+ Notebook, with an Nvidia Go420 and 768 MB RAM, and it was choppy on high settings. On medium settings, it also ran seamlessly - still nice enough to look at, with minor reductions in texture quality, shadows and environmental effects.

Overall, I was very pleased with my experience playing LOTRO. I was pleasantly surprised at some of the features I found that I'd not seen in prior MMOs. This bodes well for the developers at Turbine - it shows that they can bring some unique qualities to a market already inundated with online games. They have a content patch already planned for June 2007, which has some enhancements to the existing infrastructure, as well as some new quest and storyline content. If that is any indication of what is to come, I think that Lord of the Rings Online has the potential for longevity in the gaming community. It sure is a boatload of fun to play and explore an already familiar world. I'd recommend giving it a try - you won't be disappointed.

Thendar's 10 Word Lowdown: Intuitive, well-rounded design - high on playability and eye candy.

Pros: Visually stunning, high detail with low CPU overhead Music is excellent, changes pace with environment Extensive in-game help system / knowledge base Intricate and diverse crafting system The deed / trait system is an excellent feature

Cons: Movement jerky when using keys vs. mouse Virtually no specialization / diversity within classes Only one healing class, the Minstrel Travel between areas not very clear Cross-crafting class dependency

Game Play - 8
Stability - 9
Interface - 9
Community - 7
Reviewer's Tilt - 9

Overall Rating - 8.4


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