Middle-Earth is a much busier place since Lord of the Rings Online went free-to-play. Bree is packed with adventurers running between contacts and crowding around traders. Elves ride giant goats through the cobbled streets. A hobbit stands on a wall, playing the Legend of Zelda theme on a lute. To the east, the killing fields are full of adventurers blasting bats and boars back to the Second Age.
There's a good reason for this renewed popularity. Free-to-play games are never completely free, but in LotRO there's a huge amount of content to enjoy before you're forced to lay down any cash.
It remains a polished but traditional MMO. Fetch quests and monster-slaying tasks are interspersed with choreographed story missions. The focus is on capturing the essence and scale of the Lord of the Rings universe, but keeping you trotting between locations from the films. You'll even fight alongside Gimli and chums in the Epic Quests, which pit you against the Witch King as he attempts to raise an army in the northern regions of Angmar.
The main addition to the free-toplay version is the item store. Here tomes, mounts, quest packs and the game's two expansions, Mines of Moria and Siege of Mirkwood, are all available for purchase. Items are bought using Turbine points, 100 of which cost just over a pound, although they can also be earned as you play. Turbine points have also been seamlessly integrated into the Deeds system, which offers a series of extra tasks in each area that run parallel to the game's normal quests. Completing Deeds earns Traits that buff your stats, titles that can be attached to your name, and precious Turbine points as well.
The attachment of Turbine points to Deeds has only made the game more addictive. On top of the smooth levelling curve that grants me new armour and skills with every quest, it actually feels as though I'm earning money as I play. I kill 25 wolves in one area and scoop five Turbine points. I discover a series of hidden relics in another area for ten Turbine points. After a few hours I have enough to train myself to be able to use a mount, or buy a minor experience tomes to speed up my levelling for a while.
In fact, for the first 20 levels, the game couldn't stop giving me free stuff. Every time I reached a new level, a mysterious gift package would appear in my inventory. Unwrapping the package revealed a cluster of free items. Oh look, a whistle that gives me a free mount for a day, and an experience scroll, And what's this? A strange letter that starts a special quest when read. These gifts, along with Deeds, and the hundreds of quests already in the game, all feed into the sense of constant incremental success that papers over Lord of the Rings Online's lack of innovation. It may be formulaic, but it's one hell of an addictive formula.
The game's generosity ran out at around level 20. As I ventured into the more dangerous Lone Lands region, I found that the only quests available were the story missions. The rest had to be unlocked by buying a quest pack. These populate areas with hundreds of quests, and add dungeons to new areas, effectively unlocking high level content. The Lone Lands pack was cheap enough for me to buy with my hard-earned Turbine points, but later ones cost around £5-6, which can buy you enough content to raise your character by five to ten levels.
While this initially seemed unfair, I came to prefer it to the traditional monthly subscription approach of most MMOs. Once a quest pack has been purchased, the areas are available to explore at your leisure, removing the pressure to play enough each month to justify the subscription cost. It is possible to play through the high level areas for the story missions alone, grinding the wildlife to gain levels between each quest, but it's a miserable alternative, and if you're invested enough to reach level 20, five or six quid every now and then feels worthwhile. Buying an item from the store also automatically upgrades your account to Premium, giving you more character slots on each server and increasing the limit on the amount of gold you can carry.
Very Important Player
If you prefer, you can still pay a monthly subscription to become a VIP player. The sub costs about £10 a month and gives you more character slots, storage space and 500 Turbine points a month to spend. It also removes all chat, mail and auction limitations: free-to-play players have limits on how often mail can be sent, and can't send gold and bound items through the system. In chat they can't send more than one tell every five seconds and while they can bid and buy items in auction houses, they can't post any items themselves. It makes the VIP subscription the ideal choice if you're planning to join a Kinship (Lord of the Rings Online's equivalent of a Guild). It also unlocks all of the quest packs, and the game's player vs player mode, Monster Play, which lets you create a monster at level ten and battle other high level players in the Ettenmoor region.
Beyond the new pricing system and the Deed quests, not a huge amount has changed since the game's release three years ago. Skirmish mode is the best new addition. At level 20 you can trigger instanced Skirmishes that transport you to a battlefield under assault from waves of enemy forces. You have to win territory in each arena by capturing control points, all the while repelling counterattacks.
These instances can be played solo, but are much better in a large group. Players also get special horns that let them summon soldiers to aid in battle. These soldiers can be equipped and upgraded at special Skirmish vendors to make them more powerful. Your reward: new skills that can be bought using the points earned in Skirmishes, granting your character additional special abilities. Extra Skirmish scenarios and abilities can be purchased from the LotRO item shop, although there are plenty of free events available at every major town. It's a welcome break from traditional levelling, which can become stale.
A little short
Lord of the Rings Online still has shortcomings. Every character in the game is still on the same side, removing any possibility of large scale player vs player battling. Monster Play is an interesting diversion, but isn't enough to compete with the epic Horde/ Alliance rivalry of World of Warcraft, or the epic Player versus Player arenas found in such games as Aion.
Character progression at high levels can be shallow, too, relying on diversity rather than added complexity. Reaching higher levels as a Champion gives me access to the Ranger's ability to wield a bow, but doesn't deepen my core damagedealing skillset. In Lord of the Rings Online, the classes become less unique as you progress, not more so. As far as I advanced, I never experienced the high level of risktaking normally associated with damage-dealing classes in MMOs.
Still, this is only likely to be an irritation for seriously dedicated MMO players looking for a highly technical competitive experience. If you just want to get together with some friends and casually explore Middle-Earth, Lord of the Rings Online is ideal.
In many ways, it's the best implementation of the free-to-play idea yet. It works because the game is willing to give away a huge amount of the adventure before ever asking for any money. When it finally does, the price is right. The new tiered pricing system gives players more choice. If you're planning to play once or twice a week, the quest pack system is a good value alternative to a monthly subscription, while the £10 a month VIP fee offers just enough to keep dedicated players interested. The revamped Deeds system even makes the game more absorbing, adding an extra layer of reward to every zone, and right now the world is absolutely packed with adventurers. There's never been a better time to grab a goat and ride into Bree.