This latest stab at recreating the hallowed lands of Middle-earth doesn't mess: from the very start you're dabbling in and around the much loved and extraordinarily well-known Fellowship storyline, spanning the lovingly recreated lands of Eriador. Be it clearing the path for Frodo and Sam with Boromir, or bumping into much-loved tree-hugger Tom Bombadil, you'll be thrust into your own personal story within the events of Middle-earth, without necessarily infringing on the adventures of certain furry-footed ring bearers.
While in Azeroth your beginnings are decidedly humble, your first minutes in Middle-earth thrust you into a fantasy romp of epic proportions. Even the hobbits get their fair share of scares from the off, watching as ring wraiths stare down their friends in search of the Baggins boys. Turbine haven't re-invented the wheel, but instead have tried to roll it in a Guild Wars-esque direction of having a gigantic, over-arching quest that affects everything you do. Not to say there aren't a bevy of side-quests, but there is an emphasis on putting you into a storyline as vast as Peter Jackson's pre-Atkins gut.
While it's hard to call it generic, what with the landmark source material, the starting races are exactly what you'd expect from a Lord Of The Rings game: dwarves, hobbits, elves and men, each with their own particular starting areas (though the dwarves and elves share theirs). Each race gets their own little side-instance that teaches you the controls and eases newbies into the gameplay, while at the same time setting the scene for the rest of the game.
Though training missions aren't anything new, they directly lead into the rest of the game's quests and are worth a once-through, even if you have to groan through the 'press W to move forward!' prompts. Interestingly though, the developers want to start the game off on a good foot - you're a hero from the start. "You're not the shoe-maker of Middle-earth, but one of the adventurers - you're going to change the world," explains Turbine CEO Jeff Anderson as I take my first steps into the fray.
A CLASS APART
Angmar's class system is a mishmash of the last few years of MMORPG development, taking some of the best parts and trying to make something that fits into the LOTR canon: put away your robe and wizard hat, there's little magic here. Champions are essentially like WOW's warrior class, building 'furore' (rage) to use their bigger attacks. However, they take more of a damage-based role, with Guardians being more defensive, taunting enemies away from weaker players.
Captains buff their group and hold down the enemy. Burglars do what Rogues usually do in other games, with trips, stealth-attacks and debuffs, and Hunters are essentially hunters from WOW; ranged damage with a bow, using traps to gain the advantage. The really interesting classes are the Lore-Master and the Minstrel. Lore-Masters are a mixture of healing, curing, direct-damage and debuffing, created mostly to remove the annoyance of needing one particular magic class. Minstrels have a similar jack-of-all-trades feel to them, harking back to EverQuest's bard class without the tiresome necessity of constant song-weaving.
Regardless of class though, you're going to be able to solo very comfortably. Much like WOW, Turbine are promising comfortably soloable levelling into your 30s (with the current cap being 50), allowing casual gamers to not so much breeze but ease their way through content. Power-gamers will be pleased to know that there's a certain
satisfaction (and the same random loot possibilities and auction-house systems as WOW) of grinding your way through goblin camps, or into the top of a fortress to take out a big, bad guard captain, just because you can. The strange feeling is that you know you've done this before - but the immersion of Middle-earth is something else entirely.