If there's one fantasy world almost guaranteed to push every gamer's inner beardy button it's JRR Tolkien's Middle-earth. Most avid PC gamers will have read the epic trilogy of books (at least several times) and with Peter Jackson's CGI-driven triumvirate becoming the Noughties' Star Wars, Middle-earth has opened its gates to a whole new generation of fans.
So bringing Middle-earth online must have seemed an absolutely natural progression and that was almost certainly the case and indeed, the game's original name when Sierra announced it way back in 1998. Now, almost ten years later and after MMORPG specialists Turbine took over the helm in 2003, Lord of the Rings: Shadows of Angmar has finally been unleashed on the world, but what awaits both Tolkien and MMORPG fans in this brave new online realm?
Well LOTRO certainly has the looks to place it at the very pinnacle of the new generation of MMORPGs. The high-res version of the game is gorgeous to behold and, as one of the standard bearers for Games for Windows, creates a stunning and evocative version of Middle-earth to explore. Whether you're strolling through the pastoral idyll of the Shire, meandering deep in the depths of the Old Forest or shopping amidst the hum and bustle of Bree's central square, the game world is varied, sumptuous and positively drips with an authentic Middle-earth feel.
There's a thrill (and indeed rewards) for discovering or stumbling across famous locales like Tom Bombadil's house, or the halls of the last homely house of Rivendell and even taking a Sackville-Baggins style tour around Bag End (thankfully though, Bilbo won't have to count the spoons).
But of course looks alone don't a great game make and what really matters is how it feels and plays. With a wealth of original Tolkien lore to draw on (the original books rather than the movies), LOTRO also shares many of the mechanics common to the genre but always wraps them in a deep, faithful (and you suspect quite loving) appreciation of Tolkien's world.
Of course ,LOTRO's crucial differentiator from virtually every other MMORPG out there is its immensely rich and beloved source material and this truly raises it well above the standard MMORPG bar. Gamers really do genuinely love Middle-earth and while everyone carries their own personal picture of what it should look like, it's a tribute to Turbine's expertise that this online version feels as authentic as a paragraph of Tolkien's prose.
Moving on into the game itself and there's four main races to play, those of Man, Elf, Dwarf and Hobbit and seven different classes including staples like Champion, Loremaster and even Burglar, plus additional crafting and gathering elements - which mean your chosen character has a wealth of potential to explore.
Having powered through three different classes of Champion, Hunter and Loremaster and brought them up to levels 20, 15 and five respectively, we can say the learning curve is nicely pitched and probably best described as 'not steep but extremely deep'. From the introductory race-based instances, to the huge variety of story-driven quests, there's plenty to see and experience which gradually immerses you into a deep, rich and compelling game world.
With the machinations of the Witch King and the shadow cast by Angmar always threatening, you also definitely feel part of a bigger ongoing story, which balances nicely between the everyday and the epic; from helping humble Hobbits win their true lady love to stepping into the breech to prevent a disastrous war between the Elves and Dwarves.