Why I keep returning to Lord of the Rings Online
I got sucked into Lord of the Rings Online last weekend and I'm not sure why. There's no new Hobbit movie forthcoming (thank funk). I haven't reread Tolkien's books lately, either, so that's not the reason. I guess it's just that time of year when I look around at the MMO space, see a mass of uninspired grindparks, and think to myself, "Well, at least I can wander through Middle-earth!"
This pilgrimage happens once, if not twice annually, and while I don't know how long my current sojourn will last, ultimately all that matters is that I'm having a great time with it.
I bought a lifetime sub way back in April of 2007 prior to the game's launch, and I played quite heavily through the end of 2008.
Since then, I've returned a couple of times per year and like the fellowship itself, I've been slowly but consistently winding my way across the game's ever expanding landscape with Mordor in my sights. I'm not even sure what I'll do when I get there, since it's such a butt-ugly place and my gear is average at best. But whatever, the journey versus the destination and blather blather.
I've never been much for LOTRO's dungeons or progression for progression's sake. Instead, what keeps me coming back without fail is a masterfully realized game world with dozens upon dozens of out-of-the-way nerdgasms that honor LOTRO's source.
The world-building is particularly impressive when you compare the game to other themepark titles and realize not only how vast it is in terms of explorable land area but also how much of a risk Turbine took by doing the fictional geography justice.
While contemporaries like Age of Conan (action combat), Warhammer Online (RvR PvP), and Turbine's own Dungeons and Dragons Online (instanced dungeoneering) were busy being one-trick ponies and funneling their players directly into the single reason for their existence, Lord of the Rings Online was inviting a small but significant slice of the MMO-playing populace who also happened to be Middle-earth lore nuts to fully explore an excellent digital recreation of Tolkien's world. And do all of the usual MMO chores on the side, as they liked!
That LOTRO is thus far the only digital recreation of Tolkien's world is beside the point. Turbine could have cashed in on the license as BioWare has by making a smallish, walled-off world that's only an MMO in the most liberal sense of the term. Fortunately Turbine took its source material and its MMO obligations a bit more seriously, and while the limitations of themepark games are readily apparent in LOTRO just as they are elsewhere in the genre, they're not overpowering here because they're not the star of the show.
Middle-earth is the star of the show, and as I do every time I return to this game, I've spent a good bit of time these last few days gawking at some of the niftier legendarium nods.
One of the first things I did during LOTRO's early days was prowl around the Trollshaws looking for Tom, Bert, and William, otherwise known as those poor trolls memorialized by the sun before they could have a side of hobbit and a dwarf dessert with their roast mutton. If memory serves, I ventured into the zone well before I was ready to take on its mid-20s to low 30s mobs, just to see if Turbine's world-builders had included a piece of Tolkien lore that pre-dated Lord of the Rings. Yes, they had, and yes it's (still) awesome.
Not far down the road from Tom, Bert, and William is one of Middle-earth's most recognizable landmarks. The ruins of the watchtower at Amon Sul, better known as Weathertop, is the centerpiece of the Lone Lands zone and is likewise viewable early in the life of your LOTRO character.
Weathertop towers over the rest of the sprawling zone, and it's worth navigating the tricky path to the summit for the view alone, in my opinion. There are also questing reasons to go, as well as an instanced skirmish or two that offer an opportunity to see the place in a different light.
If you're like me, Peter Jackson's incredible Helm's Deep set piece permanently affected how your mind's eye sees the world that Tolkien created. Even though I've read The Two Towers literally dozens of times, the film version of Helm's Deep is what I typically visualize when I think of Rohan's last stand. Turbine, then, had its work cut out for it when designing a memorable conclusion to its horse-lord quest arc. And while Helm's Deep's instanced battle sequences didn't do much for me, the zone itself is quite spectacular to the point that I end up riding around outside the wall and into the Hornburg for the sheer hell of it every time I return to the game.
I've seen some beautiful MMO landscapes in my time, but one of my very favorites is the area between LOTRO's Lothlorien and Mirkwood zones. The Golden Wood more than lives up to its name, and while there was initially a bit of a rep grind to get inside Caras Galadhon, it was more than worth it. Once you cross the mighty Anduin and land on the shores of Mirkwood, things take a darker turn, but the expansive forest is home to a lengthy (and fun) series of quests as well as great visuals that more than hold their own despite the fact that Siege of Mirkwood turns six years old next month.
Why do I keep returning to Lord of the Rings Online, then? The easy answer is Tolkien, and while it's also the correct answer, it's not an overly complete one. The truth of the matter is that Turbine deserves a lot of credit for accurately rendering such a massive and topographically diverse world. I don't necessarily dig all of the kill-10-rats quests, the legendary weapon grind, or the other time-wasting stuff that goes hand-in-hand with every themepark MMO. But LOTRO makes all of that incredibly palatable and even fun more often than not, which is a small miracle not unlike Tolkien's timeless story.