LOTRO Legendarium: The unique feel of Lord of the Rings Online

    
27
I am very much a creature who is affected deeply by my environment. I suspect all of us are to varying degrees, but I think about this a lot. I crave the uplifting feeling that a beautiful nature scene, a well-organized office, or a meticulously crafted artificial experience provides. When I go to Disney World, I’m almost there more of the atmosphere and the feel that the place cultivates than for the rides themselves.

Likewise, when I log into MMORPGs, I’m acutely aware of the environment of the game and the feel that it produces. While I can’t interact with the world through taste, smell, or touch, I can get a good sense of it through the visual and audio input and extrapolate what it might feel like past that. Each game that I’ve played has its own unique personality, art style, and soundtrack, and all of that (and more) combined makes for a memory that sets it apart from all others.

Out of all of the MMOs I’ve played over the past two decades, Lord of the Rings Online sticks out as a game that has a very distinctive and special feel that I’ve yet to encounter anywhere else. It largely contributes to why this feels like a game world rather than a game setting, and in today’s column, I want to try to put a finger on why that is.

The whole package

When I first started playing Lord of the Rings Online back at launch, this unique feel struck me hard from the get-go and drew me right into the game setting. It wasn’t any one thing, but rather a whole host of elements that worked together to create a whole package.

For starters, LOTRO is not a fast-paced, threat-around-every-corner game. It establishes itself right out of the gate as a slower experience that encourages you to take in the world details instead of frantically clearing out your quest log and attacking a dozen mobs at once.

I’m going to use the Shire as an example here, because it’s a zone that most all LOTRO players are intimately familiar with. When you come out of the tutorial, you don’t start at a quest hub that’s bustling with NPCs and sights and sounds. Instead, you are plopped down at Little Delving, a tiny burg that is pretty much a cul-de-sac you won’t visit much afterward. But instead of overloading your senses with big picture stuff, instead the quiet introduction of that town and the subsequent run to Michel Delving — across a bridge, around a waterfall, up a hill — gives time to absorb the actual environment as a key character.

Sounds good to me

Maybe you haven’t noticed, but LOTRO’s sound design is truly amazing. The ambient background track of noises have a lot to them without coming off as overwhelming. Instead, it created a pastoral soundscape that communicated very clearly that this was cultivated farmland and that the area was rather peaceful. It always reminded me of walking around during calm summer nights, and I cherish that feeling.

Then you have elements like the fantastic skybox (which varies slightly by region but not so much that it breaks continuity) and a landscape that, while not photo-realistic, skews more toward realism and relatability. It’s still a fantastic, otherworldly setting, but it’s grounded in a way that makes Middle-earth more approachable than other games.

I also think about the size of the world a lot, too. LOTRO isn’t obnoxiously big in the way that MMOs used to be, back when they’d tout that they had more virtual square miles than Maine but most all of that was empty space. But the zones are fairly big, and without a flying mount, it takes some time and know-how to traverse them. Mobs and landmarks are spread out. Some regions are difficult to navigate and requires some actual exploration. All of this combines to a world where everything has some breathing room and you can feel like you’re quite far away from civilization at times.

Even in the Shire, which is more heavily populated than most zones, still has its fair share of areas where you can get far off the beaten path and there is nary a single house in sight.

Tavern tales

Another factor in the weave of this game’s setting is the attention given to making this feel like a lived-in place. Again, I’m not here to besmirch other games but rather to use them as points of comparison. But how many MMOs have we played where it feels like the NPCs are stage actors placed in strategic locations to keep you busy? LOTRO has those, to be sure, but far more than that it has many towns and settlements where you’ll wander around and see a place that looks and feels like someone’s home.

Wandering into taverns, I enjoy seeing characters engrossed in conversations, playing games, telling stories, or slumped over their cups. I get a kick out of watching kids run around playing games or bards singing in the public squares.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the quest text and dialogue, both of which go hand-in-hand in crafting the style of the game. I guess the devs figured that if you read the books, you’d be fine consuming huge blocks of text, because you get a lot of that here. Lots of character dialogue, lots of details, lots of period language — and all done with a font that isn’t exactly antique so much as it is refined. In fact, I’d be happy using that term for a lot of LOTRO’s UI elements. I’m not crazy about the UI and sometimes have to squint to read the text, but it definitely has that refined feel that aims for something near elegance.

The low-tech, low-magic approach to a fantasy game world also contributes to setting LOTRO apart from the brace of WoW clones that emerged post-2004. LOTRO isn’t an “anything goes” kind of game; it has strong boundaries of lore and permissions, and while the devs have pushed the envelope here or there, as a whole the MMO has a consistency that places it in its own category.

You’re in for a different experience when you play this game. It’s going to be slower. You’re going to explore more. You’re going to really get to know the world, its people, its enemies, and its quirks. The game is going to start changing your perceptions of how you interact with it and move through it. And that for me is what more than makes up for some of LOTRO’s deficiencies and difficulties. I revel in that feel because I know there’s nowhere else where I can get it.

Every two weeks, the LOTRO Legendarium goes on an adventure (horrid things, those) through the wondrous, terrifying, inspiring, and, well, legendary online world of Middle-earth. Justin has been playing LOTRO since its launch in 2007! If you have a topic for the column, send it to him at justin@massivelyop.com.

27
LEAVE A COMMENT

Please Login to comment
  Subscribe  
newest oldest most liked
Subscribe to:
Reader
Carebear

They had a very good opportunity when they updated the character models to make something really good, with good aninations. Thats where the game hurts more.

The game world, even graphically outdated, its still very beautiful and immersive but the combat and the character models are meh… plus the game need more optimization… i am getting lot of stuttering, fps drops out of nowhere and lag (server lag).

Someone need to make a lotro reborn, but for god shake need to hire the same people who created the original game world

Reader
Viktor Budusov

New regions are way way better than old ones…

Reader
Carebear

Well I have no problem with the Regions/environment but with the character models and combat..

Reader
Patreon Donor
ghostlight

Your first screenshot of dawn/dusk brought back fond memories of how strikingly beautiful the sunset I witnessed in the Shire was. I’ve tried LOTRO a couple of times over the years, and although I never stuck with it (probably distracted by other games), I kind of kenned that it was a game probably worth fleshing out at some point.

That said, I reloaded it recently, and although I’m not one of those people who consider state of the art graphics a must, I just couldn’t get past how primitive the player characters now look. Baring any future graphics overhaul of the game (which seems unlikely), I think my window of opportunity to deep dive into LOTRO probably passed a year or two ago. Sighs.

Reader
Kickstarter Donor
Loyal Patron
Jack Pipsam

I really hope they can pull off the 64-bit client, because that (along with DDO) really suffers some serious jank.

Reader
Bango on Laurelin

Lotro is like your local pub – familiar place – though it’s getting shabby and needs updating, familiar patrons who get on your nerves but who you love to bits, a landlord who has been around for years serving beer which you know is kept better elsewhere but which you can’t be bothered to change the habit of the past 11+ years for.

Even though other MMOs have caught up with SSG and even surpassed it for writing and world building, there’s something comforting and familiar with lotro that those of us who have played since the start still come back to.

Reader
kalech

One thing that I think really helps Lotro’s atmosphere is that not every location has a purpose. Not every area is a quest location, there is wilderness in most zones. The large scale of the zones also help and the gradual change of biomes. It’s never going to be immersive to take 1 step and suddenly the skybox go from blue to red, or to have NPCs talk about a “big city” and then you arrive to find that it’s 3 houses. Lotro, when it can, stays away from that. Large settlements are usually fairly large.

Alex Js.
Reader
Kickstarter Donor
Alex Js.

I do agree that the world looked more “aesthetically pleasing” and “alive” than in most of the other RPGs that were released at the same time, same goes for ambient music and sounds. I liked each and every zone in an original version, including Angmar, which had the perfectly “evil”, dreadful atmosphere throughout the zone (mostly done through the ambient music).

Of course, nowadays it just looks extremely dated and repulsive (after I have experienced much more beautiful MMOs that were released much later), especially combined with atrocious performance (it was actually both amusing and sad seeing how the game’s performance degraded over the years with my hardware being constantly upgraded with much more powerful components and my internet going from shitty 20/5 cable “broadband” to a current 1Gbit fiber-optic connection).

Reader
Oronatu Urikhan

One of the most wonderful things about LOTRO is the way the Devs can create a mood. The use of light and shadow is excellent. The Dread effects can literally disorient the player and I have even spoken with players who feel fear when the Dread kicks in. Take a look at the different zones, like Angmar, Mirkwood and Moria and you can’t help but feel the desolation and emptiness in your gut. When the fog rolls in in Forochel and you are lost and disoriented despite having a map, you can appreciate the genius that went into making the zone.
On the mechanics side, I dearly love the fact that you are not slowed to a crawl when you are spotted by some mob and become “In Combat”. Some games I have played (SWTOR) will drive you insane by slowing you to the speed of a crippled, slug in molasses just when you are trying to run away. And, LOTRO does not punish F2P like some games (see above). Cash shop purchases are largely cosmetic or convenience items, and even the items that can be used in combat are not very powerful, nor game breaking.
Crafting is useful in LOTRO. Making items for your own use or for sale or gifts is quite prevalent. Unlike some games (WoW) the items you make can remain useful for a significant period of time as opposed to working yourself silly to make something only to out-level it as soon as you make the first one. And, while there is an interdependence in crafting, you don’t need 3 or 4 different crafts to make one item.

Reader
Viktor Budusov

Lotro has some p2w unfortunately but it’s really not needed.

Reader
Kickstarter Donor
Patreon Donor
Loyal Patron
Ashfyn Ninegold

Timely article for me. I was just running the Farmers Faire again and thinking pretty much the same thing. LOTRO has a unique style and feel. No matter how long I’m gone or what supercharged, twitchy game I’ve been playing, I immediately slip into those comfortable, velvet slippers and pad away down grassy lanes to adventure.

Reader
Viktor Budusov

Great article. I’d add a lot of good music and much more detailed world.

For example Wow lok’s like Disneyworld with small and compact examples of tons of different races. Lotro has not so much races and cultures but those which game has are detailed very much. Just one example: kingdom of Rohan in the game has ~30 cities and towns. 30! Not counting villages, fortresses, camps and so on. It feels like real big kingdom. There just no other MMORPG with such level of detail.

Reader
Sleepy

For a game of its age, the skyboxes always seemed very realistic to me. Much more so than something like GW2, for example.