At its core, Lord of the Rings Online is a traditional MMORPG. You have got fetch quests and plenty of monster-slaying missions which are woven into the main story. Fulfilling tasks often bring you across Middle-earth, providing enough familiar eye-candy to tie the game with the films. Key locations, characters and baddies capture the scale of Tolkien's universe and do a great job of immersing you into everything Lord of the Rings. To add to your visual enjoyment, you are free to switch the game's camera angles from third-person to first-person modes.
Following a Path
The Epic Quest Line (the main story missions) are divided into Books and the tasks related to each one are referred to as Chapters. Initially, there were eight books all in all with new ones added per content update. From terms to mechanics, almost everything is kept in line with the theme of Tolkien's tale. Instead of hit points, players need to watch their morale which can be topped up by resting, eating or using battle cries. The crafting system is confined to farming and cooking -- trades which are quite Hobbit-like.
Aside from choosing your character's race and class, you can also use a title to display an extra tidbit of information. Traits, on the other hand, add a myriad of useful abilities and bonuses. There are four types of traits (Virtue, Class, Racial and Legendary) and you are allowed to mix and match these to your heart's content. The number of trait slots you have depends on your character's level. Once you think your Human, Dwarf, Elf or Hobbit is up to snuff, you may choose to join a Fellowship. This is essentially a party composed of up to six characters who can help each other complete quests and go for group hunts while taking advantage of a private chat panel. The leader may choose to disband the Fellowship at any time.
Now, the bread and butter of every LotRO player is TP (turbine points). These may either be purchased using real money or earned through Deeds. Completing these special tasks will reward you with Items, Titles, Skills, Traits and TP. With TP, you can gain access to exclusive Mounts and Tomes well as open up new areas to explore. In theory, you don't have to pay a cent so long as you keep farming TP. Reaching a high enough level with a Reputation Faction, for instance, can net you up to 50 TP.
Having the ability to earn Turbine Points as a reward has made the game even more addictive. On top of gaining valuable Items and Traits, you also get spared the requirement of shelling out real money by simply playing the game. It's not as if you will need to go out of your way too much to gain some premium currency. In fact, for the first fifteen levels, you will be showered with gift packages with a handful of useful Items such as a time-limited free mount or experience scrolls to give your character that extra push.
The constant rewards along with the vast number of things to do make the world feel like it's truly in a grand scale of the middle ages. The game is paced just right and although a bit formulaic, it is enough to keep you coming back for more. By the time all the grinding gets too much for the casual player, you will already have a good idea whether you want to stick to playing or not. If it's the former, then shelling out a little cash to skip the repetition will not be an wasted investment. At the very least, this is preferable to a monthly subscription as it allows you to explore areas at your convenience once you've bought the related Quest Pack. As an added incentive, buying from the store also upgrades your account. A premium account gives you access to additional character slots for every server and it also increases your currency cap.
Of course for the truly serious LotRO player, there is an option to pay a monthly fee in order to be a VIP player. This gives you more storage space, additional character slots as well as an allowance of 500 Turbine Points to spend in a month. It also unlocks every available quest pack, PvP (Player vs. Player) and even Monster Play, a mode which allows you to create a baddie to be able to participate in PvMP (Player vs. Monster Player).
As a VIP player, you also no longer have to worry about the mail, chat or auction limits so you can sell your items, send as much gold as you want and send as many messages as often as you wish. Having all of these benefits at your disposal makes a VIP status the perfect one to go for when intending to join a guild (or Kinship, in LotRO terms). Even just because of the sheer bulk of advantages, the premium membership isn't something to scoff at for sure. If you are invested enough to reach level 20, then using real money would probably be a no-brainer to you. However, this is one of those games wherein the optional paid content is substantial enough to make you want to support the developers regardless.
Just like any MMORPG, LotRO does have its weaknesses. For instance, there are no opposing sides or factions. Classic DnD alignments don't come into play so no one is really "good" or "evil" either. This eliminates the possibility of rivalries and epic battles. For truly competitive players, one-on-one PvP just won't cut it and even PvMP gets stale after a while especially when compared to epic battle systems in place in games such as World of Warcraft or Guild Wars. Leveling characters up also yield very little in terms of specialization perks. In higher levels, skill sets gets more diverse but they don't contribute to making the characters better or more distinct.
You Don't Just Grind into Mordor
Of course, those are issues which may be overlooked if you are only intending to take in the sights of Middle-earth with some adventuring buddies. For a variety of reasons, LotRO is the epitome of a good free-to-play medieval based war game like so many available to play today. The system is fair, it gives you a variety of ways to unlock premium content without spending any actual cash and when you do shell out, you can be sure that what you are getting it will be worth the cost.
To sum it up: if you're looking for your first free-to-play game or are simply a fan of the books and movies with some time to kill, we highly recommend checking out Lord of the Rings Online.