Gollum in The Lord of the Rings OnlineI maintain that Vanguard is a much-improved game worthy of a second (or even first) look, but for now, I’m dropping out.  Not because of annoying technical bugs, lame classes, or mind-numbingly boring combat, but because the world seems completely devoid of players.

Vanguard can be quite challenging, and in many situations you’re gonna need to group with someone else in order to advance.  The game certainly isn’t World of Warcraft, and you’re not just going to solo through the majority of it.  Which is good, I won’t slight the developers for wanting their massively multiplayer game to focus on being both massive and multiplayer, but the subscription numbers just aren’t there.  You can play for two or three hours straight before coming across another soul, and the chat channels are always silent.  Either trial players aren’t subbing up after finishing their 10 free levels on “noob island”, or Vanguard‘s huge game world has the small player-base spread way too thin.  In reality, I’m sure both situations are to blame, with the former being the biggest issue.  Vanguard‘s a decent game, but $15-per-month isn’t going to attract many players at this point…and it hasn’t, which is precisely why it’ll be switching to a free-to-play model this summer.

I’ll surely step back in to Vanguard after the move to F2P to see if the population has picked up, but in the meantime I’ll be re-visiting Lord of the Rings Online.

I go back a good ways with LotRO, back to when the game was in beta and I was a tester.  My opinion of the game in beta was pretty much the same as every other time that I re-visited it after launch: The classes were uninteresting, the combat felt slow and boring, and there were WAY too many “FedEx” and collection quests…but damn, the game was beautiful.  My previous four, yes FOUR, attempts at getting into the game left me with these feelings, and somewhere around the late-20’s (in levels, that is), I would always fall asleep — cancelling my account after being rudely awakened by forehead slamming onto my keyboard.

I had heard that a few things had changed for the better since I had last logged in, and since my old pal, Kalinsias, was still playing the game, I figured I would give it another shot.  After all, I wasn’t going to have to pony up $15 just to have a look around, so why not?

The Lord of the Rings Online -- hobbit house

With the graphic settings on high and running under DirectX 10, LotRO is bee-yoo-tee-full.

Upon re-entering Middle Earth, I was instantly reminded of how gorgeous the game’s world could be.  Environments are lush and realistic, and as far as wanting a nice virtual world to live in, this is about as good as it gets.

Despite the impressive audio-visuals, a lot of my old irritations with the game remain: The lack of a pure caster class (due to the game being so slavish to the “There can only be one Gandalf!” lore), the fairly ho-hum classes with their barely interesting combat skills, and the crazy amounts of “FedEx” and collection quests that never seem to stop showing up.  You’d think that once your toon was several levels in, you’d no longer have some lazy-ass Hobbit asking you deliver a letter to the next town, or begging you to go collect boar farts in an adjacent field.  So many of these types of quests really bring things down, and can make it difficult to stay interested.  Add the often lengthy dialogue attached to these inane tasks, and it can be quite maddening.  While I started out on the straight and narrow, reading all the quest texts and trying to give a damn, I always end up just skipping to the part of the quest window that gives the “Collect 20 Boar Tusks for Dildo Faggins” objective and click “Accept”.  Now, I still pay attention to the “Epic” quests, but these “Blah blah blah blah, blarty blah blah. Blah blah blah, blartity blah blooby blah. Now-go-get-me-10-carrots!” types of quests can suck it.

Another thing that always annoys me about the game, is that it has instanced suburban housing, like a mixture of the systems in Dark Age of Camelot and EverQuest II.  (As if the game didn’t have enough instancing as it is.)  I’m all for in-game housing and how it can really help to make you feel a part of a virtual world, but when it’s kept all together in a little area and instanced, it’s damn-near meaningless.  If housing could be placed in the game-world proper, it would make that particular feature so much more immersive and rewarding.  Hell, they should at least implement a system to make buildings purchasable in the cities and villages.  Take Bree, for example: It’s huge and has tons of buildings, but you can only actually enter a small portion of them, with the rest being nothing more than a facade.  There is SO much potential there for community that is being wasted.

Middle-Earth Online by Sierra On-Line

The only screenshot of ‘Middle-Earth Online’ I could actually find online.

And that’s kind of my biggest problem with LotRO.  When the game was being developed as Middle-Earth Online by Sierra On-Line in the late 90’s, it was following an Ultima Online-styled sandbox design that I was just itching to get at.  But sadly, that project got scrapped, and the IP was picked up years later by Turbine who decided to make a level-based EverQuest clone — just like everyone else was doing.  To me, LotRO is a game that just feels like it should be deeper than it is; providing more than what the typical “themepark” MMO has to offer.  It has just enough sandbox elements to make you wish for more, and it’s that constant reminder of “what could be” that is the ultimate downer.  ‘Cause after five years of live development, it’s looking like what could be, simply never will.  A damn shame, that.

But at the end of the day, I’m honestly finding that I like this post-F2P version of LotRO a lot more than I expected, and have committed to a subscription.  Until that certain type of sandbox game makes a proper re-appearance in the MMO genre, I reckon’ LotRO will do as a fill-in.  After all, unlike Vanguard, a lot of people seem to actually be playing this one.  And who knows, maybe…just maybe…future updates of the game will introduce new elements that fulfill the game’s ultimate potential, breaking it away from the oh-so-tired and typical DikuMUD design that has dominated the genre for far too long now.

If you’ve never given LotRO a whirl, now’s the perfect time.  There’s a lot of quality game to be had here for free, so why wouldn’t you check it out?  Hell, if anything, just visit the Prancing Pony in Bree (on the Nimrodel server), buy a lute, and we’ll rock out on some Zeppelin tunes.