The Lord of the Rings has left a pretty stellar legacy in video games. Appearing on just about every platform, Tolkien's masterpiece of fiction, compounded with the aesthetic vision of Peter Jackson, has given life to dozens of games surrounding the events concerning hobbits. But I would argue that, despite how awesome some of these games have been, few have ever as closely realized the incredible scale and depth of Middle Earth quite as well as The Lord of the Rings Online. Only an MMORPG could ever give as much attention to detail to a world as expansive as Middle Earth.
But The Lord of the Rings Online is very much past its prime. Though there is certainly tons of content to be explored, a relatively healthy playerbase to engage with, and a game that is far from archaic, LOTRO is beginning to show the signs of its age in plenty of ways. Comparing it to the wave of MMORPGs that have launched in the past year alone, taking a trip back to Middle Earth is already looking less and less alluring. It's kind of sad when an MMORPG starts to enter its twilight years, but that said, The Lord of the Rings Online certainly has some aspects worth remembering. The good news is that, depending on what you like, you can likely find little traces of LOTRO scattered over plenty of other MMORPGs. The big tragedy is that when Lord of the Rings Online dies, the massive virtual world of Middle Earth will likely go with it—unless someone wants to swoop in with another iteration on Tolkien's lore, unlikely as that might be. But even so, if you're hankering for something similar to The Lord of the Rings Online, or perhaps you already play it but are looking to jump ship, here are several games that would likely make for a suitable home.
The Secret World
Okay, I'm getting this one out of the way early because it's kind of my way out of left field submission. The Secret World is a pretty massive departure from LOTRO in just about every way. It abandons the medieval fantasy setting, the adherence to traditional MMORPG design standards like levels and classes, and has a much more pronounced focus on free form character development and its odd "everything is true" supernatural world.
One aspect that The Lord of the Rings Online and The Secret World share in common, however, is the distinct emphasis on storytelling and exploration of a staggering lore. If LOTRO enchanted you not only with its gorgeously realized vision of Middle Earth but also the wealth of story and mythology that populated it, The Secret World will make you feel right at home—and all you need to do is abandon the comfort of a medieval fantasy setting.
Taking place in the modern age, The Secret World blends mythology, conspiracy theories, and urban legends into a cocktail of supernatural storytelling that has you battling zombies one minute and combing through Egyptian tombs the next. It's pretty intense. But as chaotic as this might sound, there is a satisfying thread that pulls you through this mosaic of paranormalism in a way that is refreshingly well knit.
But the departure of a fantasy setting isn't The Secret World's biggest feat—not by a long shot. Where The Lord of the Rings rests comfortably on the foundation built by popular classics like World of Warcraft, The Secret World completely deconstructs these mechanics to create character progression that is wholly unique.
For starters, say goodbye to staples like levels and classes as those are both absent. Players can freely choose between around a dozen weapons which each have their own specific uses and implementations in combat. Everything from shotguns and assault rifles to katanas and blood magic is available to combine and experiment with. Feel like switching things up? Not a problem. The Secret World abandons the rigid class structure to allow you to freely assign skill points in any of its skill trees as you see fit. While you'll still build towards a primary method of playing, this free form approach also allows you to mix things up and remain highly adaptable. As you continue along your adventures, you'll eventually max out one combination of weapons and want to start focusing on a second, giving your character a whole new lease on their virtual life.
The downside to all of this is that, as incredible as the character progression and combat can be from behind the scenes, on screen there is much to be desired. All of that freedom and choice essentially boils down into lackluster combat that really doesn't live up to everything else The Secret World has to offer. Don't get me wrong, it isn't bad by any stretch. But, unlike so much about The Secret World, the combat fails to do anything new or inventive. You'll mash the same group of hotkeys in the same specific orders and watch countless enemies die. Of course, that's exactly what you would be doing in The Lord of the Rings Online anyway, so maybe I should just stop harping on it.
Regardless, The Secret World is a pretty stellar knockout. Unlike the Lord of the Rings, The Secret World requires an upfront cost without any mandatory subscription fees—but if you keep your eyes peeled, it frequently goes on sale for dirt cheap. Expansions, called Issues (like a comic book), are released fairly frequently and will also set you back some dough, but even without them there is a ton to see and explore.
Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn
A big aspect of The Lord of the Rings Online is how deeply it is tied to the lore of the universe it inhabits. Final Fantasy XIV, which draws upon the collective mythos of the Final Fantasy franchise and then distills it into a simple and elegant love letter to its fans, manages to do this in a vibrant and engrossing way. Just like with The Lord of the Rings Online, those who have submerged themselves in the daunting list of required reading (or in the case of Final Fantasy, playing) will be those with the most to take away from the whole experience. Subtle nods and winks abound. But even if you're not a Final Fantasy scholar, there is still so much to enjoy about the world and characters of Eorzea.
Another striking similarity that Final Fantasy XIV shares with LOTRO is the almost exclusionary emphasis on group content. Sure, both games feature a player versus player mode (with LOTRO's Monster versus Player mode being the more memorable), but both games are all about working your way through the wonderful story along with a group of comrades.
If you enjoyed that feeling of conquering vast landscapes and indomitable foes, Final Fantasy XIV is absolutely worth looking into. Its Japanese heritage might be a bit off putting if you're used to the more familiar Western approach to medieval periods and character design (Final Fantasy XIV can be downright eccentric at times), but the journey is well worth the few times you might roll your eyes.
World of Warcraft
This one might be a bit too obvious, so I'll try not to spend too much time talking about it. But sometimes you'd be surprised how often people spend their whole lives on the vine without ever exploring the root of a subject, and, as steeped in the Tolkien mythos as The Lord of the Rings Online might be, its roots are certainly with World of Warcraft. That is because, in many ways, The Lord of the Rings Online was one of the first games to kick off the cycle of taking what WoW did well, and dressing it up in different thematic costumes. In so many ways, The Lord of the Rings Online draws from World of Warcraft, and heading back to experience the latter might just prove to be a rewarding sidestep away from the former.
But that said, if you love Lord of the Rings Online, and never took the time to explore World of Warcraft, now is absolutely a great time to head back. The new leveling experience introduced in the Cataclysm expansion makes the journey from level one to 60 a total breeze. Furthermore, there is so much content to see and explore that working your way up to the fairly disastrous Warlords of Draenor might take you so long that Legion, the upcoming expansion, could very well be out by the time you arrive at the end game. Okay, probably not. Maybe if you go really slowly.
Many of my suggestions have been a step forward from The Lord of the Rings towards more modern (or at least updated) MMORPGs. But this last suggestion is a trip back to an older time for the genre, when the general language that we all learned to speak post World of Warcraft wasn't so solidified.
Project Gorgon is a small indie MMORPG that just successfully ended a Kickstarter campaign. In many ways, it taps into the potential of LOTRO, like exploring a vast open world rife with mystery, but does away with rigid levels and quest structures. Instead, the game feels much more like a sandbox as you are free to explore and discover without pesky exclamation marks pointing you to all the cool bits.
Project Gorgon is deep in beta, however, and remains a very incomplete game. The Kickstarter campaign also means that, eventually, the game will transition into a closed beta only available to donators. While you can jump in now and try it for free, keep that in mind as the months go on.
The Lord the Rings Online is, of course, still happily chugging along and likely will be until at least 2017 when the license that Turbine, the developer, has for the setting expires. LOTRO remains a seminal and important MMORPG that really showed not only how to successfully adapt an existing universe to an online game, but also how to transition smoothly from subscription models into a free to play method of doing business. But if you're on the hunt for something similar, hopefully one of the names mentioned above suits you well. Do you have some ideas of your own for a game like The Lord of the Rings Online? Think my suggestions were bogus? Let us know in the comments!