Lord of the Rings Online (LotRO) has a very flexible release date system. While the official release date is on the 24th of April, many players are already able to play the characters that will be rolled over into the release version, and so for all practical purposes the game has already started for them. Thus I don't think it's too early to write my first real review of LotRO. Obviously a MMORPG is always a work in progress and could be re-reviewed several times, or looked at under different aspects. So this post describes how the game is now, how it plays in the low levels, and what the first impression is about where the game is going to.
At the core Lord of the Rings Online is a very good game. The graphics are pretty. The game runs well, even on average computers. There are few bugs, and they aren't of the serious kind. The game is very accessible, with a very good introduction for new players, and a well-working quest system. And of course LotRO profits from the Tolkien lore, and manages to leverage this lore into creating a living world in which everyone who read the books or saw the movies will feel instantly at home.
But of course no game is perfect. One issue is while LotRO does many things right, it achieves doing the right thing by taking the best aspect of previous games. LotRO is an evolution of the MMORPG genre, in the right direction, but doesn't introduce many revolutionary features. One reason why people feel instantly at home is because they played World of Warcraft before, and LotRO plays very, very similar to that. That isn't necessarily a bad thing, but if you were looking for a revolution, you might get disappointed. If on the other hand you liked World of Warcraft, but got a bit burned out, and you are looking for something similar but new, LotRO is exactly the right game for you. In further reviewing LotRO, I will repeatedly compare features to World of Warcraft, which by sheer size is emminently qualified as a point of comparison.
Lord of the Ring Online has 4 races, humans, hobbits, dwarves and elves. You will notice that this list doesn't include any "evil" races. But that doesn't mean you can't play the bad guys. LotRO has an innovative PvP system called monster play. Any player starting from level 10 can visit special fel scrying pools and temporarily play a level 50 monster in a PvP zone instead of his character. There is a choice of different types of orcs, or a warg, or a giant spider to play. There currently is only one PvP zone, the Ettenmoors, containing several castles and PvP quests and objectives. Monsters are always level 50, but they can improve their stats by spending destiny points. You get 200 destiny points each time your real character goes up a level past 10, and you can earn them by doing PvP quests as a monster. The same destiny points can also be used to buy temporary buffs for your good character. Once enough players have reached level 50 with their good characters, we can expect interesting PvP battles. But as this only happens in the Ettenmoors, there is no PvP ganking like on PvP servers in WoW. PvP is completely consensual. And by making it a fight of players against player-controlled monsters, and not against other player characters, LotRO doesn't run into the same problems as WoW to balance characters for both PvP and PvE.
Once you have chosen your race and gender (with no female dwarves available), you can proceed to choose one of 7 character classes. Due to the Tolkien lore there are no mages and no priests. But lore-masters throw fireballs at their enemies and play not unlike some mage / warlock mix, just having a summoned animal pet instead of a demon. And minstrels act as healers. LotRO doesn't have hitpoints and death, but morale and defeat. Thus a minstrel "heals" by raising his fellows' morale with songs. There is a burglar class, using the term Tolkien used for the job that Bilbo accepted to do for the dwarves in The Hobbit. There is a hunter, master of bow and arrow. And there are three melee classes, guardian, champion, and captain, with different roles.
With a class chosen, you can spend some time thinking of a name, and modifying the look of your character with various sliders. And then it's off into your first adventure, an instanced introduction quest that explains the game to you. Very well done, as this first part is pretty much on rails, so even complete beginners can't get lost. After that you enter a newbie zone, which again is separated from the rest of the world. Only by doing an instanced quest at about level 5 you can proceed into the larger world. If you create more than one character, you are given the option to skip the intro and newbie zone, but then you also skip most of the quest rewards from there, so I wouldn't advise that.
Combat in LotRO is pretty much exactly like combat in WoW: a combination of auto-attack and pressing hotkey buttons for special effects. Some classes have variations of this theme, like the minstrel having balads that both damage an enemy and buff himself or his party, and which have to be played in a certain order. Or the champion who has some special attacks that grant him fervor points, and others that cost fervor to execute. The only combat feature that is radically different from WoW (but not totally new, Final Fantasy XI had something similar) is the possibility for a group to start special combo attack chains, which if correctly executed can have a major impact. Burglars have a special skill to start these combo chains, but otherwise groups get the opportunity to do so at random moments in combat.
LotRO has lots of quests, signaled by a golden ring (instead of an exclamation mark) floating over the head of the quest-givers. There is the usual range of monster-killing and fedex quests. There are some interesting variations, like a quest where you need to gather eggs without the rooster who patrols the farm seeing you. Or transport quests where you have a time-limit, and because you carry something aren't allowed to swim or fight. The most interesting quests are the instanced group quests, which play like a 15-minute instanced dungeon. But if you don't like to group, you can avoid the group quests and level up soloing.
Combat and quests are earning you experience points, which make you go up in level. Leveling up allows you to learn new skills. One positive point in comparison to WoW is that your old spells and abilities are automatically upgraded each level. The new spells and abilities you buy from your trainer are exactly that: new. And besides the active abilities to put on hotkeys which you can learn at every even level, there are some passive skills you get at uneven levels, so you don't always have to wait two levels before you get something new.
There are no talent trees in LotRO, but by leveling up you open up slots into which you can install so-called traits. The interesting thing in that is that you first need to earn these traits, before you can install and use them. You earn traits by doing various deeds. That could be doing a number of quests in one region, or killing a number of monsters. But you can also earn traits by doing long quest-series, like all the postman quests in the Shire, or by visiting all the places of interest in a region. These traits can be upgraded by earning the same trait again in a different region. There are also class-specific traits which are earned by using your spells and abilities, so if you use one combat move more often than another, you'll get that trait earlier, and it'll improve that specific combat move. The system is very well done, and a lot more interesting than just distributing talent points.
Besides combat you can spend your time in Middle-Earth doing tradeskills: gathering resources, crafting weapons and armor, making jewelry or scrolls, cooking, or even farming. The act of crafting itself is done reasonably well, but the balancing of the economics of crafting isn't done yet, and Turbine is still working hectically with patches and nerfs to get the system balanced, sometimes breaking more than fixing. Thus for a final review of the tradeskill system we need to wait until it is fully implemented.
Fortunately the crafting seems to be the only part of LotRO that has an unfinished feeling, at least in the lower levels. The game is full of little surprises, NPCs talking and living their lives, making at least the low-level areas feel very much like a living world. Again it is too early to say how well the mid- and high-level game is done. On release LotRO covers only one region of Middle-Earth, roughly the area of the first book of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The other areas are going to be added in future expansions. Now don't despair if you are used to the glacial speed in which Blizzard is adding expansions to WoW; the one strong point of previous Turbine games was the high frequency of game events and addition of content.
I'm not giving out scores, saying whether Lord of the Rings Online is better or worse than World of Warcraft. Lets just say that they are in the same class of high-quality MMORPG with a focus on accessibility for the average player. There are a number of minor differences, where one might prefer the one or the other, but generally the gameplay and quality of execution is similar, at least in what I saw up to now. So in my opinion Lord of the Rings Online is one of the best MMORPGs around. Recommended.