The first and most important question any new competitor has to answer is, "Why should I play this game instead of 'World of Warcraft?'" It's a question developer Turbine answers effectively with "Lord of the Rings Online," a vividly realized, emi-nently accessible MMO.

In any discussion of massively multiplayer online games, there is one 8-million player, 800-pound gorilla in the room. So the first and most important question any new competitor has to answer is, “Why should I play this game instead of ‘World of Warcraft?’” It’s a question developer Turbine answers effectively with “Lord of the Rings Online,” a vividly realized, emi-nently accessible MMO meticulously built from one of the most well-known fantasy licenses in the world, which will also appeal to hardcore players.

MMOs have dramatically changed the face of videogames, particularly on PCs. By creating worlds in which thousands of players are present with each other at the same time, there’s a bold new social dynamic, often like walking into a party where everyone knows each other. Because players pay a monthly subscription fee, there’s also a whole new opportunity for companies to make money long after a game’s release.

But for many newcomers, particularly casual gamers, stepping into these worlds can be a daunting prospect.

“Lord of the Rings Online” has enough unique points to stand out in a genre dominated by a single game, but crowded with lots of mediocre titles. Game is licensed from J.R.R. Tolkien’s books, not the New Line movies. Gandalf doesn’t look like Ian McKellen and that music isn’t quite Howard Shore’s stirring score. The overall feel of this Middle Earth is mostly safe, and sometimes even generic.

By drawing from the books, Turbine has enough latitude to make a world that’s familiar, yet still a joy to discover. Sure, anyone playing the game knows what a hobbit and an elf are. A smaller subset of those people will appreciate landmarks such as Weathertop, the Fields of Fornost, and the Bucklebury Ferry. Folks can cross-reference the game world with the maps in the books.

Still, a player doesn’t have to love the lore, or even know it, to appreciate “Lord of the Rings Online.” The Shire is as idyllic and in-tricately constructed as any place that ever graced a videogame. The Great Barrows, a vast dungeon, is lovingly handcrafted and adorned with its own landmarks. The detailed design in the many areas of Middle Earth demonstrate Turbine’s ability to take even the most boring fantasy tropes and invest them with new creative energy.

The tone here is also unique. It’s markedly different from “World of Warcraft’s” splashy cartoon of fantasy themes “Rings Online” might fall a bit flat at times for being so earnest, but it’s moments of levity are more effective. Like the books, the humor comes from the hobbits. The elves are melancholy, the dwarves are blustery, men (and women) are as vanilla as could be, but the hobbits are the comic relief. There’s a thematic unity to the people and places of “Lord of the Rings Online” that makes this world feel alive.

Unfortunately, there’s also plenty of filler, as the game trundles into its middle phase. There’s a dramatic drop in the quality of con-tent once players advance their characters past level 20 or so (the max is level 50, which can take hundreds of hours). The quests resort to tedium, like collecting twenty bear hides for no good reason, and there’s a lot of pointless running back and forth across stretches of empty terrain. It’s likely, however,Turbine will continue to add new content. The company has a good track record with its previous games, and has already announced an expansion pack for June.

Once players reach the mid-levels, it becomes nearly impossible to play without a group, so they will have to deal with the unique social dynamics of a bunch of people willing to spend 10 or 20 or more hours per week playing a game on their PC. For now, the player community seems mostly helpful and considerate, as if they were drawn in for reasons other than waving around their virtual swords and other such appendages.

Although you can only choose among the good guys (hobbits, dwarves, elves and humans) for your main character, you can also visit a monster arena set in the snowy Ettenmoors, where you can play as baddies such as orcs and spiders. The monsters will fight against higher level player characters who dare to venture here, each side trying to control a number of forts. These battles seem to be the foundation for the endgame content.

It’s a promising feature that’s unique from other MMOs. However, as of one week after the game’s release, there aren’t yet powerful enough players to reach the Ettenmoors. Until then, it’s a great opportunity to unleash your inner monster, slaughtering hobbit farmers and stealing their feet for trophies.

“Lord of the Rings Online” has obviously learned from the success of World of Warcraft. In particular, it has taken to heart the axiom that a successful MMO should be friendly to new players with older computers. This is an easy game to jump into, and it doesn’t take a high-end computer. It will hold your hand if you’re new to the genre and it will provide you with hundreds of hours of escapism into the latest and arguably richest fantasy world you can visit in a videogame.

Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar

Rated T; Price: $49.99, $9.99 per month after the first 30 days.

Production

A Midway and Turbine presentation of a game developed by Turbine and licensed by Tolkien Enterprises for the PC.
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