Monday, January 29, 2007

Hello From Middle Earth!

After spending the weekend amoung hobbits, elves and the children of men I must say that I am impressed. Obviously, the game still in it's beta stages has some bugs to work out. However, over all was very happy with the experience. There really wasn't anything very earth shaking, but the game looks like it will be pretty polished by release time. The most annoying glitches that I encountered were certain enemies getting "stuck" in the terrain and becoming untargetable. There is still a need to work out some features of the chat and social portions of the interface. I had several problems adding people to a my friends list, and error when sending tells. Those flaws aside, I think Middle Earth might become a place where I could see myself hanging out again. I was invited to participate in a stress test this weekend for the game servers, so I essentially had a weekend pass to try and see if me and my fellow players could break the game with our sheer numbers. I am very happy to report that I encountered only one issue that seamed to be server related over the course of my 8 - 10 hours of game play. I was forced to restart when my system hung entering a house in a town.

For the purposes of my test I created three characters. An elf hunter, a hobbit burglar and a human champion. The champion character was the one that I settled upon and played for the majority of the stress test. You can see his picture above. WillFarrell, Watcher of Roads! The Champion class is a melee damage per second (DPS) class with some fun area of effect (AOE) attacks. I found it to be a very good soloing class. With the high damage rate caused by being able to dual wield weapons and his AOE attacks even fighting three enemies at a time was very manageable. I was able to progress to level 9 without being defeated in battle.

One of the most impressive aspects of the game is the world that has been created. Middle Earth looks BEAUTIFUL! Rendering the world in a realistic fashion (as opposed to the cartoony nature of World of Warcraft) was a good choice by the developers. The art direction clearly takes it's inspiration from Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy. When playing as my elven character I encountered a Frost Troll that could have easily just stepped off of the movie screen. The environments that you explore are very well rendered. At high resolutions this world is a sight to behold. Grass sways in the wind, and the water gives off incredible reflections. I had some trouble navigating at night or in caverns without increasing the gama settings. Actually playing at night or in a cave without making this adjustment made the game practically unplayable. (Realistic, because I was in the middle of the woods at night without a light source and like you would imagine in real life I couldn't see 5 feet in front of me.) The problem was easily correctable though, and increasing the gama did not ruin the experience even though the colours were a touch washed out. One of my least favourite part about reading the Lord of The Rings books, was that Tolkein seamed to devote an awful lot of page space to characters walking through fields or climbing mountains. It certainly drove home just how expansive the distances were that the characters were forced to traverse. (I just didn't want to read 20 pages of people running across a field.) Visually, this game does an excellent job of presenting the sheer size of Middle Earth. Standing on a mountain top outside of the city of Combe landscape stretched out in front of me in just about every direction as far as the eye can see. I don't know how the actual playable area may compare to the playable areas in WoW but the world certainly "feels" bigger. Being a Lord of the Rings game as one might imagine, part of the fun comes from exploring places and meeting characters that appear in the novels. As the elf I got to fight along side Elrond against the aforementioned Frost Troll, and I was just beginning to explore the country surrounding the town of Bree when my beta test expired. The mind spins at the though of being able to visit the Lonely Mountain or Rivendale.

The developers of LOTR did another thing that I felt was very smart. In terms of mechanics and game play they pretty much copied WoW. Seeing as how WoW is the most popular MMO in the world it was smart to watch and learn. It has two effects. First, you know that you are emulating a design construct that millions of people have found to be enjoyable. Secondly, the familiar controls meant that for me there was almost no learning curve when learning to play the game. I knew how to play it. However, because of the very different aesthetic styles of the two games, I never felt like I was playing the same game. I think that LOTR will offer players a very unique alternative to WoW. In fact, if there is a fantasy franchise which could possibly steal a bit of WoW's share of the MMO pie it just could be LOTR. One of the strengths of WoW is that it has a very well established lore and mythos which was begun during the real time strategy games which preceded it. However, if you are someone who had never played the earlier Warcraft games most of the lore and significance will pass right over your head. It dose not diminish the fun of the core game, but knowing the lore allows for a more complete experience. This is an advantage that LOTR will have from the start over WoW due to the fact that the world of LOTR is far more familiar to the general population then Warcraft ever was. History has shown that that isn't all that is necessary to create a successful MMO. (See Star Wars Galaxies or The Matrix Online) Obviously, no matter how compelling the story is if the game isn't fun to play it will fail. I think that LOTR may have what is necessary for it to succeed.

As I have said, I did very much enjoy my time playing the game. I am actually a touch sad that I was only able to play for the weekend. The game however was not with out a few issues, and granted they are minor. The first would be load screens. There are a lot of them. The world as a rule flows pretty smoothly. However, there are certain places where I wish the developers had chosen to adopt a more seamless approach. Entering buildings in towns or entering caverns were all preceded by load screens. Granted they were quick loads, and I can understand the need for them, as the building interiors are often times very elaborate. I just wish that they did not exist so that there could be a more seamless experience. Outside of that, and the few interface issues mentioned above I can think of very few issues that I encountered with the game.

I certainly think that once the game is in final release it will get some serous consideration as a reciepiant of my gaming time and dollars. I miss Will.

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