Regular readers (hi Mum!) will know I've a tolerably time-killing addiction to tattooed on my forehead, so I recently had a bash at Lord of the Rings Online, a new rival MMO from D&D Online developers Turbine.. But I'm not a closed-minded fanboy with 'For the Horde!'
Now, MMOs are unbelievably complex organisms that take years to mature. I don't expect Lotro (as it's known) to be anywhere near as polished as WoW. And it's not -- there are updates almost every time you log in, and you have to get the patch from a mirror site, for instance. But I think it has some original ideas that deserve some attention.
For starters, it's far more detailed graphically. There's much greater scope for customisation when you create your character, and clothes and weapons have interesting designs. There are also more slots to put items in, so as well as the usual shirt and cape and whatnot, you can get two earrings and a pocket. The flipside of this is that the game is less scaleable, so it doesn't work on as low-powered PCs as WoW does. You would expect this of a much newer game, however. It also has to load more often, so if you go into a large building or a cave, it will go to a load screen, but these are usually pretty quick.
Secondly, Lotro is much more story-led than WoW. In WoW you feel part of a world with an ongoing, evolving story, but it's not very personal. Lotro places you on the periphery of events in Tolkien's books, so as a starting dwarf character, for example, you see Thorin setting out to find a burglar. This is enhanced by individual instances when you start and a few levels later, where characters from the books take you through a short level.
You also earn titles for certain achievements -- my dwarf is now Gruffni the Wary, having not died on the way to the heady heights of level 5. When you get to later levels you can give yourself a surname, and even children -- so an incentive to level up is to further define and personalise your character, which I think is very elegant.
On the negative side, the range of characters you can play is rather limited -- the playable races are only the 'goodies', so you can only be a human, a dwarf, an elf or a hobbit. This is obviously a restriction of the source material -- Tolkien's baddies are much more difficult to fit quests around. It's the same with classes -- Tolkien doesn't have the usual flash-bang wizards, so Lotro's Minstrel and Lore-master magic users feel very much shoe-horned in. Having your Minstrel whip out his lute in the middle of a fight to play a quick tune for a buff is really rather silly.
Your character's stats are also more complicated than in WoW, so they're more difficult to analyse. And there are only a few servers open at the moment, so the starting areas all seem rather crowded -- but of course this was the case with WoW when Burning Crusade came out, and will certainly improve over time.
Lotro is an enjoyable experience and a refreshing change of direction, but it simply isn't complete enough to make me switch permanently.
For more info, check out our sister site GameSpot's full review.