It’s not often I really get excited about an upcoming MMORPG. Partly this is because of the industry slowing down, and partly this is because I consider myself relatively hype-proof. I keep my expectations realistic. However, I do feel a tickle of excitement for the upcoming Lord of the Rings MMO from Athlon Games and Amazon Game Studios.
You see, the current Lord of the Rings MMO has always been a disappointment to me. I want something better.
When I was six, I got chicken pox. For over a week, my entire body itched so badly it was almost like my skin was on fire. Only one thing was able to take my mind off the misery: I had recently discovered Tolkien through school, and I had my parents read Lord of the Rings to me over and over again.
It ignited a love of reading and the fantasy genre that persists to this day. Whenever I’ve been at my lowest, I’ve reread Lord of the Rings, and the tales of hope and heroism in those pages have always inspired to press on even when my own life felt hopeless. Lord of the Rings is the closest thing I have to a religion.
Meanwhile, I’ve been in love with the idea of virtual worlds — if not always the reality — ever since I first set digital foot in World of Warcraft a little over 10 years ago.
You would think, then, a Lord of the Rings MMO would be absolute paradise for me. But for me, Lord of the Rings Online is nothing but a disappointment.
Before I go any further, I want to say that I do feel genuinely bad for criticizing Lord of the Rings Online so harshly. Whatever problems I may have with it, I can’t fault the obvious passion and dedication of the developers and the players. I know that Standing Stone Games has done a great deal of research into the lore of Tolkien’s work, and while I consider myself a Lord of the Rings super fan, I’m sure there’s plenty of people there who could school me on Middle-earth lore.
It’s also clear that SSG is doing the best it can with what is clearly now a limited budget, and that many of my problems with the finished product are the result of that limited budget, so it’s not necessarily the developers’ fault.
Meanwhile, I haven’t had much direct experience of the game’s community myself, but it is all by reports one of the more pleasant in the MMO space. I’ve never been to Weatherstock, and I probably never will, but I love that it exists. The MMO world needs more community events like this!
So know that I do regret that I can’t enjoy this game more. Picking on LOTRO kind of feels like kicking a puppy. And know also that I am not rooting for LOTRO to fail. I’d hate to see its loyal players lose their home. Ideally I’d like to see a world where both LOTR MMOs can co-exist.
That being said…
I hate to argue with my esteemed colleague Justin Olivetti, but I say that LOTRO has never done the setting justice, and honestly, I think Kotaku absolutely nailed the reason why: It’s not a Lord of the Rings game. It’s just WoW with a Middle-Earth skin.
Let’s put aside the fact that the designs are generic and over-used for the moment. I’d be able to accept a Lord of the Rings game utilizing generic game design if it made for a good representation of the setting, but it doesn’t.
When I play a Lord of the Rings game, I want to dive into epic adventures. I want to feel the scale and the beauty of the setting, and the desperate stakes of a world’s last stand against the darkness.
I don’t want to go around collecting wolf pelts and bear asses the same way I do in every other MMO of the same era. I don’t want combat so easy most mobs drop dead before they even get in a shot against me. I don’t want to read reams of bland quest text when I could be out interacting with the world.
When I think of Lord of the Rings, I think of thrilling adventures, desperate battles, and heartbreaking sacrifices. I think of Gandalf facing the Balrog and the fearless charge of the Rohirrim upon the Pelennor Fields. I don’t think of doing simple, easy chores.
At the risk of appearing shallow, the graphics are also something that holds the game back tremendously. I’ve never understood the love given to LOTRO‘s visuals. To me it’s always been a sea of jagged polygons and muddy textures.
It’s not just that the graphics haven’t aged well; even by the standards of the era, LOTRO is an unpleasant-looking game. Aion is barely any younger and looks infinitely better. A realistic art style works only if you have the graphical fidelity to pull it off, and LOTRO doesn’t.
Yes, the developers went to great pains to research the details of the setting and represent them in-game, but there is a difference between being slavishly devoted to the details of a fictional universe and actually capturing its spirit.
Consider the Peter Jackson films, which are in my mind as close to a perfect adaptation as we could ever see. Jackson changed some things about the story, but he captured the spirit of the story perfectly. The movies are filled with the same noble characters, the same beauty and wonder, the same intensity and peril, the same sense of hope against all odds as the books.
When I watch those movies, I feel like I’ve stepped directly into Middle-earth. When I play Lord of the Rings Online, I feel like I’m playing a low-budget WoW clone from 10 years ago.
Therefore I feel tremendous hope — and more than a little anxiety — over the prospect of a new MMO set in Middle-earth. At least with Amazon’s backing, there’s little concern of money being an issue. Just having a big budget does not a good game make by any stretch of the imagination, but this is definitely not a setting you can do on the cheap.
So how can the new game succeed where LOTRO failed? I wish I could tell you I knew exactly how they could do that, but I don’t.
For all my harping about LOTRO being “WoW with a Middle-earth skin,” my vision for a perfect Lord of the Rings MMO is pretty much “The Secret World with a Middle-earth skin.” But while that would definitely make me happy, it’s not necessarily the ideal path to follow.
I can think of a few things that would steer a new LOTR MMO in the right direction, though.
Firstly, I think some kind of action combat system is a must. Putting aside the fact that’s where the market is trending generally, I think this is a setting where combat needs to feel exciting and dangerous. Standing in one spot and rehearsing your rotation against mobs that barely fight back isn’t that.
Fully voiced story is also non-negotiable. I love reading books, but making players grind the action to a halt to read a bunch of quest text is not making use of the full potential of the medium.
I think it needs to be a PvE-focused themepark, not a sandbox or (Valar forbid) a gankbox. This is a setting about rich lore and epic stories, not life as a farmer or a merchant. PvP can be included, but it shouldn’t be the focus. That would go against the themes of uniting against a greater evil.
It should be open world, not some heavily instanced dungeon grinder like Neverwinter. This is a world people want to explore in all its vast glory.
Finally, it needs state of the art graphics. Not every game needs to look like Black Desert Online to be good, but this is such a rich and beautiful world that it deserves to be brought to life with the best visuals technology can offer.
Will we get any of that? I don’t know. These are untested game studios. It would be foolish to assume that anything they produce will be good or bad at this point.
I do find some hope in the fact the game is already confirmed to be free-to-play at launch. Now, I would prefer buy to play with DLC along the lines of Elder Scrolls Online, as games that launch free to play tend to be a bit more heavy-handed in their monetization, and no barrier to entry tends to harm communities. But at least they’re not trying to launch with a mandatory subscription in this day and age. That shows they at least have some understanding of the current state of the market.
And as I noted above, Amazon has more money than God, so at least we don’t have to worry about it being low-budget.
As it stands now, I feel some cautious optimism, but “cautious” is the operative word. The unfortunate reality is that my expectations for a Lord of the Rings MMO are so high that it would be almost impossible to meet them.
But perhaps they can at least do better than the last attempt.