When you look at the events of J. R. R. Tolkien’s classic epic fantasy, The Lord of the Rings, Frodo and his companions set out from Bag-End on the 23rd of September in one year and returns to it on November 3rd of the next. In just a little bit more than a year, they had had their adventure, recovered from it, and returned.
It’s fairly amazing to think, then, that Lord of the Rings Online, the MMORPG based on the same story, will have been running successfully for six years as of April 24.
As someone who’s been playing for even longer than that (thanks to my participation in both the closed and open beta tests), I find myself pausing to consider why I’m still so avidly playing this game. I believe I’ve pinpointed why, and I’d like to share my thoughts with you.
A Beloved Franchise
Well, first off, as you all know from my previous articles, I’m a raving fan of the LotR property. I’m enough of a purist to rattle off crazy trivia (and win prizes for doing so), but I’m flexible enough to enjoy many interpretations, such as the Jackson movies. I first read The Hobbit when I was 8, and I’ve never recovered, on some levels. Many of my favorite hobbies, including RPGs and LARPing, stemmed directly from my love of the books. I can probably even go so far to say that, if not for these books, many things in my life might be totally different, as so many of my friends are people I’ve met through geeky hobbies that, at the roots, I got into because of Tolkien.
LOTRO does a fantastic job of respecting the canon of Middle-Earth while still expanding into new and interesting territory. We know very little, for example, of the region of Forochel and its people, the Lossoth. From the tiny details in the appendices of LotR, however, the game designers expanding to create a huge, fascinating area which is still one of my favorites in the game. For every familiar spot, like Rivendell, or the Shire, we get a place which is much less well-known, such as the lands of Dunland, or Eregion, or Forochel. And these places end up being beautiful, unique, and fascinating in their own right.
Even small, wonderful details that a casual fan might never notice are lovingly created. When I first entered Tom Bombadil’s house and found bowls of water lilies sitting all over the place, I had to smile. The Prancing Pony has its sections for Hobbits, which are recognizably different from those for Men. Gollum’s cave below Goblintown in the Misty Mountains is every bit as shiveringly creepy as one could want. And you’d better believe that I grinned when I found the fragment of the Bridge of Khazad-Dum far down in the Foundations of Stone, sticking up like a fallen knife out of an island in the middle of a huge sunless lake. From things mentioned in the novels to things that can be extrapolated from the novels, the game designers have done a wonderful job bringing the books to life.
If the game was still just the same regions it was when it first opened, I think we all would’ve gotten bored and gone home. Happily, every year or so, a big expansion comes out and expands the scope of the online world. First we had Moria, then Mirkwood, then Isengard, and, most recently, eastern Rohan. The developers have more than hinted that the next expansion will be into western Rohan and will advance the storyline to include the Battle of Helm’s Deep. I can’t even begin to imagine what this will be like, but I’m fascinated to see how the game will handle this truly epic battle.
Beyond just the real estate expansions, the game has added numerous sub-systems into its mix. Various systems for housing, fishing, legendary weapons, skirmishes, and, most recently, mounted combat have kept the game feeling very fresh. The mounted combat system, in particular, has really added a new feature to the game and given a fun new way to play.
A Good Sense of Humor
Every once in a while, something quirky will find its way into the game. A bit of humor will pop up to give a little wink. Up in the North Downs, one can meet Colbert the Mad and discover his terror of invading bears. Minstrels can learn to play the Moor Cowbell. It’s even possible to play as a chicken, fleeing across the landscape on a quest to find animals to aid your farm in battle against wolves.
Humor isn’t an everyday thing in the game, but it’s refreshing when it pops up. So much of the later LotR is dark that it’s nice to have a little levity now and then. On top of that, seasonal festivals give you a chance to take a break from the mounting danger and have a bit of fun. Things like this make the game a constantly changing good time.
A Compelling Storyline
The game developers have done an excellent job at creating original characters and a compelling storyline so that, while you occasionally cross paths with the Fellowship, you’re mostly busy doing other things. In the early parts of the game, you’re essentially running interference to keep the eyes of the Enemy off of Frodo and his friends so that they can reach Rivendell. Then you find yourself dogging the Fellowship’s heels to make sure they’re doing okay and being ready to aid them if the chance comes up.
Along the way, you’re making allies and enemies. It’s rather exciting to be battling Ivar the Bloodhand, or Naruhel, the Red Maid, or Amarthiel, the Daughter of Doom. And one could not ask for better companions than Corudan, Horn, or Nona. As the game progresses, their stories join with yours, and you end up with an excellent tale of your own set in Middle-Earth.
A Fantastic Community
First, I will add the caveat that I play on the Landroval Server, which is the unofficial roleplaying server. Now, having said that, our server has a wonderful sense of community, bolstered by various chat channels, community sponsored and run events, and a general desire to immerse ourselves in Middle-Earth.
One of the most fun things is to suddenly find oneself caught up in some oddball little event and to run with it, no matter what one was doing beforehand. I remember that, one December, I discovered a dwarf dressed all in red with a prodigious white beard. His name was Sainte Nicholas, and he was running all over, giving out presents. I quickly threw on a Yuletide outfit and chased after him, using the game’s music system to play songs like Jingle Bells and Santa Claus is Coming to Town. We had people laughing and thanking us for spreading a bit of spontaneous holiday cheer. It was a really fun time, and completely unplanned.
Although I’ve taken some breaks from the game, there are so many aspects to it that I often find something new to do. Right now, I’m helping to rebuild a town in Rohan that was burned to the ground by orcs. As I complete various quests, sections of town are being rebuilt, and I don’t intend to stop until the whole town is restored. And after that, there’s a set of armor I want to collect, and then there are some Reputation quests I want to fulfill, and some deeds for slaying certain monsters, and…
Well, you get the idea. The game has done a marvelous job at always having something new to do. I look forward to years of gameplay to come. Gondor and Mordor haven’t even been touched, and we’ve barely scratched the surface of places like Fangorn Forest. If Turbine can get the rights to the locations from the Hobbit as well, then there’ll be more of Mirkwood, and Esgaroth, and more. I’m even hoping the game will move out to areas like Rhun, Umbar, and the realms of the Easterlings and Southrons.
There’s a lot of world out there yet to come.
If you’re looking to play, the game is free, and if you’d like to find me, I’m Carroll Goodwine on the Landroval server. If you’ve already played, is there something about the game that’s drawn you back? Do you feel that the game doesn’t sustain long-term game-play? Let us all know.