To say that MMOGs (I refuse to use "MMORPG" or simply "MMO"; what is a "Massively Multiplayer Online" anyway?) are the future is bollocks. More on that in a later post. However, I pretty much love The Lord of the Rings Online [LotRO]. After literally more than a decade of playing these MMOGs it seems I've finally reached a point where I can be satisfied by one game. Perhaps a little history is necessary...
I remember seeing an ad for Meridian 59 when I was 12 or 13 years old. It looked like potentially the coolest thing ever: you made a character and fought monsters with other people online. Then you got to go the pub, have a few digital ales and share your tales of glory around the hearth. I was a pretty well established nerd by that point in my life. I read Dragonlance, played a lot of video games, and was just digging into this new realm of "The Internet". It hadn't taken me long to find a Star Wars roleplaying group on AOL. The only rite of nerdish passage that had (and has) eluded me was tabletop roleplaying, and I'm going to include LARPing in that category as well. Transitioning into what I consider the first MMORPG (sorry) seemed a natural thing and so I tried it. I was hooked. Looking back, the game was a serious grind. There weren't many quests to speak of or much storytelling going on but there were beasts [mobs] to kill. Many, many mobs of all shapes, colors and sizes. Then Everquest happened. I bought a graphics card, said my farewells and went to Norrath for a while. Again, much of the same: grinding mobs, grinding reputation, and so on. I myself was all imagination and no action. I never progressed a character very far at all; I simply loved being in the game world and continually thought of new ideas for the next cool character which meant a lot of deleted character slots and little progress. I think my brother actually bought a high level rogue on eBay in a last ditch effort to have some kind of endgame experience (don't tell the feds).
The MMOG wheel turned, I tried out virtually every beta from Everquest to Auto Assault. WoW happened. My time in the World of Warcrack came and went. I went to space. I went to the end of the world with the same results: burnout, aggravation, and deep want for more. The sickest part is that more open, "sandboxy" games like EVE were almost too directionless. I needed a track to run on and, despite my deepest misgivings, I needed a grind. I guess I don't want to have to make life decisions in a game. There's enough of that out here in meatspace; I want to be told where to go next. Looking back as a barely self-aware and reflective adult, a lot of us gamers seem to want to get more out of these games than we can get. So we play a game, complain about how much it sucks, and move on to the next thing in the neverending buffet of development. Madness.
So how am I, a self-proclaimed MMOG junky, now happily wasting time in Middle-earth instead of jumping ship into the sexy, steamy, new, cancer curing, problem solving, world saving messiah-game? Good question. In an attempt to keep this thing short I'll say this: I grew up. I knew it all along but I finally put faith into action; a game won't save me and won't fill the starving Goomba that took up residence in my belly those many years ago. So I picked a game I could love and stuck with it. My foaming frenzy for Tolkien grows daily so being in only virtual Shire out there seemed like a win-win. Additionally, LotRO's game world itself is gorgeous and there is an ambiance and storytelling I've not seen in other games. Getting Mrs. Shipwreck to play it certainly hasn't hurt either.
So let's get to the point: it has been a month and a week, give or take, since Turbine released their most recent expansion to LotRO. The Siege of Mirkwood has taken us across the Great River from Lothlorien and into the darkest, most evil of forests in an Age. The shroud left by the Necromancer (Sauron) remains through the lingering darkness of his earlier meddling and his proxy commanders, the Nazgul. The Free Folk of Eriador must join the Galladhrim armies and their skirmish against the Enemy, which serves as both a preemptive strike against the forces of Dol Guldur and direct action meant to distract the Enemy from a greater task being carried out by Nine Walkers who are heading South.
If you understood what I just wrote then you're either playing LotRO or a big enough Tolkienist to figure it out. Tip of the cap. For the rest of you, all of that is to say that we, the players, have been introduced to some serious shit.
Expansions to these online games are curious things: they give us new toys to play with, new items, more story, more levels to mush through. They also break stuff and introduce changes that piss people off. In a seeming effort to curb the growing plague of revulsion and whining that's been consuming the community for the better part of a year now (and to win new subscribers), the makers of LotRO play things very close to the middle. There is content for the hardcore players who enjoy solving dungeons and defeating massive bosses but there is much more for the average joes, like me, who simply don't have the time or interest and just want to mess around in Middle-earth. It works quite well: even on days when I'm not terribly thrilled with the game I can log in, enjoy a quest or two, complete a skirmish with some friends, have a stroll around Bree, and generally feel like I've accomplished something (the game, like most of these timesink-oriented MMOGs, is all about deeds and accomplishments). But the main thing is that I can put my imagination into the game world. Unlike the generic sword 'n sorcery, built-to-house-a-game worlds I'm grinding mobs and quests and engaging in a fantastic story in Middle-earth.
If you've not played many MMOGs, they're all basically the same. Even the most original ones have similar qualities to the others. So it pays to be in a setting you can connect with.
Going to Mirkwood reminds me why I started playing these games in the first place, which is facing down evil with friends, living to tell about it, and feeling like you're part of your own epic story. The fact that it's the same forest Legolas call home and that Thorin & co. traversed on their way to the Lonely Mountain amplifies the experience for a geek like me.