I love some good expansion pack buzz. Whether it’s for a game that I’m actively playing or not, I often find myself wrapped up in the excitement and the hype for a big expansion or major content update. With Lord of the Rings Online about to open up Mordor to its players, I figured now was as good a time as any to see what Lord of the Rings Online free to play was like for those like me returning as a result of current buzz or for those who feel like it’s the right time to jump in.
Released in April of 2007, Lord of the Rings Online has come through ten years as one of the preeminent MMORPGs based on one of fantasy’s most beloved IPs. While the story of your character being on the periphery of every major event in the books strikes me as a pretty broad stretch, this game still very obviously adores and respects the Lord of the Rings license and still stands up as one of the best digital realizations of Tolkien’s world today.
That realization comes from the level of craft in LotRO’s zones. In spite of its age, this game is still very pretty to look at, potato-headed player character models notwithstanding. Arguably, that’s due to Tolkien’s writing style not allowing for a lot of room for imagination, but I’m taking it as a sign of developers who are very clearly paying attention. During my journey from Bree into the Lone-lands, everything was breathtaking and genuinely well-crafted.
As far as gameplay goes, things have not exactly advanced, but that’s not really a complaint more than an observation. There is a lot of stat-rolling in LotRO’s tab-target cooldown-filled combat model, but it works as good now as it did when I first played the game during its initial beta release. It won’t burn any barns, but the way LotRO plays is pretty evergreen. The quest hub stylings of LotRO is also very run-of-the-mill, but that’s not something that’s stopping me from pressing along and enjoying the journey.
While LotRO is certainly getting on in years in terms of some of its gameplay features, it’s also full of little touches that modern MMOs just don’t seem to feature anymore. The world of the game is so expansive and free of loading screens that I almost forgot I was playing an older title, and when I arrived in Bree to a player belting out the theme from The Never-Ending Story on his flute through the music system, I was immediately drawn in.
Lord of the Rings Online has a lot of little touches like that which ultimately come together to make a classic MMORPG experience that endears in spite of age. Its questing and gameplay aren’t exactly going to make waves but it’s very clear that this is a well-built MMO.
Now we get into how much of that well-built MMO is available as a free arrival. I’ve broken up my Lord of the Rings Online free to play experience in four different categories: Account Limitations, Store Interruption, Store Offerings, and Store Reliance. Each category is then rated as either Minimal, Acceptable, and Oppressive with explanations on why I came to the rating I did. Finally, I wrap up the full overall experience of LotRO as one of the freeloaders.
Account Limitations: Acceptable
What are Account Limitations? Anything that locks content away from you, from character or class choices to hotbars, access to dungeons or endgame. These are things that flag you as one of the “freeloaders” and restricts your play.
Lord of the Rings Online has four different content expansions out now, but that’s not to say that there isn’t a whole lot of base game to explore. The greater bulk of LotRO is freely available for the most part. I started hitting content roadblocks at around the level 19-20 mark where I was directed to a region that was only available to me if I bought the relevant zone quest pack, but the primary story headed me in the opposite direction of that region and kept me playing regardless.
While I would have liked to have some of these additional zones available to me as well, by the time one gets to that point in the game, you’re arguably already invested mentally and are perhaps willing to invest monetarily. That, of course, is a matter of personal preference, but for those who don’t want or can’t spend money, there’s plenty of MMO gaming to be had here.
Store Interruption: Oppressive
Store Interruption is based on how frequently you’re reminded of the in-game store during play. This either occurs through pop-up reminders that dominate your screen or buttons that redirect you to items offered in the store.
While the account limitations are understandable, the repeated redirects to the store absolutely are not. At practically every open moment, from checking stats and character advancement to speaking to some quest NPCs to even simply trying to travel around from one spot to the other, I was drowning in store reminders.
Take, for example, the picture above. What you see are four different character and UI elements that all have some redirect of some form to the game’s store. It gets pretty ridiculous when you’re trying to, say, check what sort of Deeds one has to complete in order to get a Virtue unlocked and clicking the corresponding button immediately fills your screen with a game store page.
Yes, video game. I know. You have an in-game store. It sells things. Knock it off.
Store Offerings: Acceptable
The Store Offerings section is a quick look at what the store has to offer. From the selection to the variety of items, this is your at-a-glance idea of whether the store is interesting and if prices seem to be fair.
As one would expect from a ten-year-old MMORPG, LotRO’s store has a pretty wide selection of items to choose from. From boosts to cosmetics, mounts to content packs, this store has a lot of things to check out. While it’s not exactly the prettiest storefront I’ve seen in a game, it most definitely has a selection of options.
As far as prices are concerned, things seemed to be pretty fairly priced. What’s also nice is that completing in-game Deeds will grant you store points that can be spent, though the points I was earning was barely enough to get anything of what would be called value. Still, it’s nice to be offered a little stipend, and prices looked balanced.
Store Reliance: Acceptable
This is an overall score of whether a game enters the “pay-to-win” realm with its offerings. Does the in-game store have an abundance of boosts? Does the leveling curve feel like you need to buy pots in order to progress? That’s what Store Reliance measures.
With all of the store reminders and redirects this game throws at you and all of the little things that halted my progress until I pulled out my wallet, I was, ultimately, not given the impression that any of the paywalled systems were a requirement. Yes, additional Virtues would add up to a slightly stronger character. Sure, I could have paid for that zone full of quests or a couple of quests on offer at the Lone-lands. But honestly, none of it really felt necessary.
XP earnings were generous enough that I was over-leveling hubs on a pretty frequent basis. The Virtue slots I did have available as a free player were enough to make an impact on my character. There are more than enough quests and side quests in the base game for me to press on beyond the purchasable content.
Sure, I was being slapped with ads for the in-game store with almost every UI element before me, but it felt less like outright robbery and more like a dog begging you for food while knowing it won’t get any. It was obnoxious, but it wasn’t enough to stop me from playing.
What we have here is a game that just barely nears SWTOR levels of F2P annoyance without stepping over that horrible line. A bigger fan of Tolkien’s work will easily ignore the more obnoxious facets of this game’s free to play model, but even those with a passing fancy can hop in and get a lot of enjoyment, especially if you’re the sort of person who loves classic themepark fantasy MMOs.
While Lord of the Rings Online isn’t doing too many favors in terms of store mentions, it’s pretty much doing everything else right as a free-to-play title. There’s a whole lot of game waiting for those who want to start their own adventure in Middle-earth, and I get the impression that there will be even more waiting just around the bend. In other words, the road goes ever on and on.Related: Column, F2P Kingdom, Free to play, Lord of The Rings Online, MMORPG