In the wrong hands, the richly-woven veins of lore and adventure that define J.R.R. Tolkien's books could've proved bridling, and possibly insulting - after all, it has in plenty of previous games based upon The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. But a few dozen hours in the closed beta of The Lord of the Rings Online gives the opposite impression: one of freedom and excitement in a familiar world that's nevertheless brimming with untapped potential, whether you enter it as Human, Elf, Dwarf or Hobbit.
Any new persistent world inevitably suffers comparison to World of Warcraft, the current "how online games should be done" benchmark. But Shadows of Angmar is holding up nicely, drawing obvious interface and questing lessons where appropriate, but striking out for new ground with confidence. Though it doesn't have quite the level of aesthetic consistency (yet, at least), Turbine's baby is nonetheless more graphically detailed than anything you'll see in WarCraft's angular and cartoony realm of Azeroth.
Every one of the seven current character types - Burglar, Captain, Champion, Guardian, Hunter, Lore-Master and Minstrel - is sufficiently self-contained to explore the countryside alone, but complementary enough to encourage forming temporary fellowships.