Setting an MMORPG in J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-earth seems like a blessing and a curse: on the one hand, the meticulously constructed storylines and rich veins of lore; on the other, an ever-growing legion of critical fans who demand perfection. Mercifully, newcomers and long-time devotees alike should recognize this game as a cunningly crafted love letter to the acclaimed source material.
The realistic bent of the art direction might not have the cartoony consistency of World of Warcraft, and the system requirements might seem comparatively steep, but once you've experienced the rolling fields of Bree-land and the squat farms of The Shire, there's no going back to the low-poly angles of Azeroth's contrivances. Every storied location is brought to verdant life, rich with detailed flora, deadly fauna, and huge expanses to explore.
Lord of the Rings Online drinks deep from Tolkien's well, offering up scenes starring the likes of Elrond, Gimli, and Strider right from the beginning, whether you're Elf, Man, Dwarf, or Hobbit. Quests are plentiful to the point of overflowing, and though most follow the familiar pattern of fetching a certain number of animal parts, killing a kind of monster, or running an object from one end of the realm to the other, the story segments that pop up at regular intervals are distinctly memorable, and make players feel like a part of world events and more than just another level-grinding scrub. More importantly, the underlying threads tying adventures together are more convincing and well thought-out than in any other MMO.
Fellowships are easily formed, and every class has a well-defined role to play: Guardians are damage-absorbing tanks, Minstrels heal, Lore-masters cast spells and send animal familiars into the fray, and so on. While each archetype can survive well enough on its own, thanks to expanding libraries of interrelated skills, there's another compelling reason to join up once you hit level 12: powerful Fellowship Maneuvers that deal tremendous damage, or restore power and morale. Finally, a tangible new reason to group beyond hollow designer mandates.
You'll still run into your identically-equipped twin too often, but such distractions seldom break the illusion. In fact, one could argue there are more opportunities for character customization than elsewhere, thanks to the Deed system. Make it to level five or eleven without dying, or kill a whole mess of goblins, and you might earn a title. Kill yet more, go on a sight-seeing tour of the region's ruins, or fulfill some other unexpected condition, and you'll earn "traits" with which to fill the slots that each level opens, improving your effectiveness. The familiar ritual of skill-invoking combat is addictive enough, but this intoxicating addition puts your brain on a virtual dopamine drip. Add in the ability to take a break from your hero and slaughter fellow adventurers as a level 50 monster, earning "destiny points" to spend on upgrades, and you might never leave the house again.
There are some predictable issues to be resolved over the long haul, like the dubious value of some trade skills, and the five character limit for each server does seem awfully low. Still, Lord of the Rings Online is already huge, deep, enormously entertaining, and brimming with secrets to uncover, and with the first free content update already announced for June, should only improve with time.