It is ever so with the things that Men begin: there is a frost in Spring, or a blight in Summer, and they fail of their promise.
-Gimli, Return of the King
It has been fifteen years since the journey to Mordor began in Turbine’s Lord of the Rings Online, and it has been a journey of both highs and lows.
I want to say, up front, that the game is a charming and very special look into the world of Tolkien’s works and unlike any adaptation we have ever been able to experience or will likely see again in my lifetime. Turbine brought Middle-earth to life in an open world environment that you could spend a lot of time simply exploring. It is a wonder and has given me much joy.
I will add that as somebody who opted for the lifetime subscription launch back in April of 2007, I have gotten way more than my money’s worth out of that investment, even including the fact that I own every expansion as well. It was the gaming deal of the century for me and nothing else comes close in value received for that price.
And the game also occupies a special place on the blog, being one of the first games to ship after I started writing here back in September of 2006. I was writing about it along with Vanguard: Saga of Heroes and pre-Cryptic version of Star Trek Online back in the day, and at least one of those panned out for me I guess. I had a post about the potential, and potential problems, of the game back in that first month of the blog.
I was posting about beta and the launch and the instance group, which took a couple of runs at Middle-earth when WoW wasn’t popping for us. I have been back a number of times, the last time being for the LOTRO Legendary server experience, a fresh start/special rules server meant to let people work through the content again in a mass.
All fine stuff… but I didn’t choose that quote at the top because everything has been rainbows and lollipops with LOTRO. The history of the game has been marred by hubris, bad decisions, poor design, half measures, and a game engine that was awkward, unresponsive, and looked like it was a few years behind the curve on launch day.
I guess the hubris I can understand. Given the popularity of the source material, the proximity to the theatrical releases of the first three Peter Jackson movies,which finished up just a few years before the game launched and introduced many new people to Middle-earth, and the MMORPG market being at about its peak, LOTRO should have been ten times more successful than it was.
Where else were you going to be able to literally walk around in Middle-earth?
I realize you can’t have everything you want when you launch a new product, and especially a product as complex as an MMORPG. You got to Middle-earth with the engine you have, not the engine you want. And you could see how Turbine’s engine had improved from Asheron’s Call to Asheron’s Call 2 to Dungeons & Dragons Online to LOTRO. But being better than its predecessors didn’t make it feel current and, while the character models have been updated, they still look awkward and wooden and all the more so since launch as most of us have upgraded our monitors.
Google tells me that 1024×768 was half the monitor market in 2007. Now, unless you but a laptop, a 1080p monitor… which is 1920×1080 resolution… is the minimum standard, and many of us have much larger screens. I currently have a 3440×1440 monitor, on which the game is barely playable because, while bits of the UI do scale up, most of the text doesn’t. And even the UI that does scale up looks like garbage at useful sizes on my monitor.
So when Enad Global 7 talks about how their going to put LOTRO on consoles and I am briefly able to set aside the sheer complexity of moving the mess that it the game engine onto a PlayStation 5 or an XBox X, I still stumble over the fact that you really have to support 4K video… 3840×2160 resolution… to be seen as a modern, competitive game. It makes me think of the speedometer on my Camry, which suggests I could go 140 MPH. The expense of making that a reality would quickly exceed reason just as the expense of refactoring LOTRO into something that would even look good on a console… let’s leave aside the playability issues… would probably require a greater investment than the company could hope to recoup.
And then there is the UI, the iconography, the responsiveness on controls, and a host of other little things that wear on you as you play if you’ve, for example, played WoW where Rob Pardo once spoke about how much effort went into making sure button presses had not lag. A problem since launch and one that has sometimes gotten worse rather than better.
The world though, that remains a bright spot in the game. I can forgive a myriad of sins because the world is a critical feature of the game to me and, while avatars look rough and the UI is less than ideal, locations are often beautiful.
If, of course, you can get to them.
When it comes down to it, I have not been many places in LOTRO. I may own all of the expansions, but I have dead ended in Mirkwood largely due to it being a barrier of dullness comparable with its reputation in the books. I have been through the base game half a dozen times at least… and many more times up to 40 or so… and through Moria a couple of times, but Mirkwood is just so uninteresting that even the promise of what lies beyond it cannot sustain me.
I did boost a character into Rohan, only to find that the character boost leaves you nonviable against the mobs you’re sent to face immediately unless you visit the cash shop and invest in your legendary weapon.
The legendary weapon system is another roadblock in the game, a non-optional requirement to care for a needy baby of an item that you constantly have to take back to camp and deal with.
My hope was that the studio would create a special rules server that would let you just do the main book story line quests to advance through the game, letting players tour the world. That seems to be the only way I’ll get past Mirkwood.
But the game is still there, fifteen years down the road and is owned by a company that says they have plans to improve it. One of the side effects of the console plan, if that is even viable, should be to make the game better on PC as well. Or so one would hope.
It has been a bumpy ride this last 15 years, but as I said at the top, I have enjoyed most of the time I have spent in the game. I’ve logged in to collect my anniversary goodies, though my bags and bank are so full of stuff from anniversaries and expansions at this point I am not sure I should keep redeeming stuff. (I still have unopened gift boxes from the 12th and 13th anniversaries… I must have skipped logging in for the 14th.)
I’d go play the 1-50 game again if were practical on my current monitor. We will see what the future brings and live in hope of a better tomorrow for Middle-earth.
Addendum: In an effort to prove some points above SSG has given me a corgi, jumping on the MMORPG corgi bandwagon, which is also perhaps the most awkward looking corgi model I have seen in a game.
He isn’t horrible, but he isn’t good either, and it feels like another attempt to copy more successful titles.