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The Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar

Turbine lays down the Tolkien lore in an MMO environment

They're fair spitting them out over in Massachusetts. Turbine, having just catapulted the online version of Dungeons & Dragons over the parapet, are just readying themselves for the release of Shadows Of Angmar, the first MMO to tackle Tolkien's Middle-earth.

You certainly can't call Turbine cowards, as both worlds come pregnant with expectations. Get it wrong, and you're upsetting the kind of people who'll set aside two weeks to bitch about you on the 'net. Obviously, there's an upside too. Even if you're not sure how playing a hobbit might be a thrilling experience, there must be a million people gagging for the chance to chuck rocks at a Ringwraith. Well, there's 100,000 people registered on the forums, anyway.

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You'll play LOTRO as one of the main races - human, elf, dwarf or hobbit (not orcs or Gandalfs), and there are seven classes, most of which are token Tolkienisations of common names. Rangers emerge as hunters, warriors as champions and so on. As proper magic in Middle-earth is rare and powerful, Turbine has side-stepped mages and created the Loremaster. "There's no question we had to have a magic-using class," explains executive producer Jeffrey Steefel. "People expect that. But at same time, no-one's going to be a wizard. There are only five of those in Middle-earth." So Loremasters act like clerics, with access to magic-esque items.

Does this mean there's any tension between the game and the books? Steefel says not. "Tolkien Enterprises have been really good with finding that balance, where the world feels pure Middle-earth, but it's still fun to play."

ROAD TO MORDOR
The game is set towards the end of the third age (the time of the books), but you won't be tracing Frodo's footsteps. You play missions related to the fellowship's journey to Mordor, and you certainly run into all the characters. Just don't expect to be recruiting vast armies of the undead, or skateboarding down an elephant's spine.

At release, you can only play the good guys, so like Stormreach there's no PvP combat, with your focus on missions in impromptu fellowships. Solo missions will be technically possible, in the same way that dry-humping a porcupine is possible. Much better to find a few people who play the same way you do and work together.

An obvious issue is the fact that the books have an ending; the ring gets burned, and - as Peter Jackson understands it - everyone says goodbye and jumps on the bed for 30 minutes. So what's in store for LOTRO at that stage?

"There's a lot of possibilities," says Steefel. "We could reach forward into the fourth age and make our own interpretations of what Tolkien wrote. It'll most likely become a stable, persistent world. It'll take three, four, five years to get to that stage, though."

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Turbine certainly know its Rings, and even in the developer's first game, Asheron's Call, groups were called fellowships. You get the feeling this is a game it really wanted to make.

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