The Lord of the Rings Online allows players to create characters from four of the Living Races: humans, elves, hobbits and dwarves. There's no option to play as a member of Sauron's forces: instead, the focus is placed on the game's narrative, which explores some of the struggles experienced by the Living Races at the end of the Third Age. Stepping on the heels of the Fellowship of the Ring isn't the aim here: instead, the game hopes to explore events in the rest of the world, whilst the Fellowship quest onwards towards Mount Doom.
New characters arrive in one of two regions: humans and hobbits arrive in the general vicinity of the Shire and Breeland, whilst dwarves and elves enter the game in another area of the world. Each region is associated with an introductory quest arc, parts of which are shared by both races of that region. The first quest demonstrated to me takes place near the end of this introductory cycle.
A recurring character from earlier in the cycle, a non-player character ranger named Andlum, suffered a wound from a Morgul-blade earlier in the quest arc, and by this point has begun fall under the dominion of the Nazgыl. The quest is led by another NPC ranger (and 'led' is the operative word here - the ranger physically lead us through the instance), with the aim of rescuing Andlum before his transformation to a wraith becomes complete. Alas, we were not successful in this, and Andlum is last seen disappearing in the company of another recurring character of the evil persuasion: the Pale Dwarf.
This quest demonstrates the approach Turbine are taking with Lord of the Rings Online: they're trying to bring the storytelling experience of a single-player computerized RPG, and bring it into the world of massively-multiplayer online games. The non-player characters you meet along the way aren't there simply to spout directions to a particular quest location - instead, they're developed, recurring characters, with motivations and reasons for being in the world.
One specific piece of technology is rather important to this storytelling experience: persistent instance. These are designed to solve the problem in any virtual environment of massively-multiplayer scale, not every player can be the hero at the same time. Repeatable quests allow everyone to take a stab at all the content in-game, but slaying the dragon isn't quite such an impressive feat when the dragon respawns within the hour to let the next group have a go. Traditional instances solve a related problem: what happens when two groups want to slay the dragon at the same time?
Persistent instances are an evolution of this technique: once a particular player (or their fellowship, in the case of group instances) has slain the dragon, every time they return to that area of the world, they'll find themselves in an instance within which the dragon is dead. Those who haven't completed the quest will instead find themselves facing a distinctly live dragon. This technique allows each individual player or group to see the effects of their actions upon the world, without interfering with the quest arcs of all the other players sharing that world.
Not all the world is instanced, of course - the majority is shared between all players, as befits a massively-multiplayer title. The technique is available for use when the needs of the story being told dictate it - and the requirements of the story are the primary criteria Turbine are using to select the appropriate tools.
The second quest I saw showed a twist in the quest mechanics available to the designers, turning a simple fetch-and-carry quest into something more interesting. The premise of the quest is simple: a townsperson wishes to water his horse, and the player has offered to fetch a bucket from the nearest river, within the hostile Old Forest. The twist is also fairly simple: while carrying a full bucket, you're unable to defend yourself, and receiving more than a hit or two in combat will result in the water spilling, requiring you to start again. In essence, it's another way of requiring a group to complete the quest, but in a story-appropriate way, without relying on levers and inconvenient dungeon layout or massive hordes of monsters.
The combat demonstrated to me is fairly traditional for the MMO genre: weapons are wielded, basic attacks are performed automatically, and special skills and moves are managed by means of hotkey bars. The major addition to combat in Lord of the Rings Online is the conjunction system, which has received an overhaul since last year's E3 demonstration. Conjunctions build on the idea that a group working together can achieve more than the sum of what its members can do alone: in game terms, it offers bonuses to fellowships for working together on a single combat manoeuvre.
Certain skills, when used by a fellowship member, will initiate a conjunction. An additional UI panel will appear on the screens of all members of the fellowship, with four coloured buttons. Each button represents an element which can be contributed to the conjunction - for example, selecting the red button may cause your character to contribute additional strength to the blow. The conjunction system has been changed somewhat from last year: once a conjunction has been initiated, any selection made by the fellowship members will have a positive result - but the greater the degree of coordination between the players, the more powerful the resultant effect will be.
Death is generally rather final in Middle-Earth, with resurrection virtually unheard-of. This could pose something of a problem, considering the excessive number of deaths many MMO characters suffer during the course of their careers. Turbine has decided to deal with this by dodging the question entirely: player characters in Lord of the Rings Online do not die when defeated in combat. Instead, once their morale has been completely sapped, they are considered to have been routed and to have fled the scene of the battle.
Strictly speaking, this doesn't make much difference in gameplay terms: once the red vitals bar is empty, your current adventure will suffer something of an interruption as you're teleported away. But, this does allow a little more flexibility in the design of "healing" skills. Morale can be recovered in a variety of ways during combat, without requiring magic to explain the speed of action: a captain's banner can provide a morale boost to a group, for example, while a well-executed backstab may help a Burglar feel a little happier in her skin.
Advancement within the game was also briefly discussed. The Lord of the Rings Online is primarily an experience point and level based system, with 50 levels being available at launch (for comparison, the initial quests will guide new players through the first 6 levels or so). Questing will also offer additional rewards: the completion of certain key quests are considered to be accomplishments, and additional rewards for these quests is offered in the form of traits. In general, a trait is a positive effect of some sort - perhaps a statistic boost, or an improved chance to hit against a certain species of monster - which can be applied to a character. Traits and accomplishments aren't the primary means of advancement, but do offer an additional bonus for participating in the storyline-based content the game will offer.
Turbine wasn't demonstrating the crafting system at E3 this year, but they did offer a few snippets: crafting and the in-game economy will be an important part of the game, with item damage and repair ensuring a steady turnover of assets within that economy. The phrase "pipe-weed farming" was also mentioned, which may well be of interest to any potential hobbits out there...
The land of Middle-Earth is a massive one, and even with the game taking place within the somewhat smaller borders of Eriador, long-distance travel is a major concern. The solution is stables: once a character has visited a location with a stable, they'll be able to reach it quickly by talking to the stable masters in other towns. In gameplay terms, it will be possible to teleport to locations you've already visited - actual rideable mounts are planned, but not until a future expansion pack. When they do arrive, they won't just be for transport - mounted combat is also on the cards.
The final quest I saw revolved around a favourite character from the Lord of the Rings books: Tom Bombadil. This quest falls towards the end of the introductory quest arc, and sees our characters delving deep in the Barrow-Downs in pursuit of the Pale Dwarf. Alas, he eludes capture once more - in fact, things appear distinctly nasty for the player characters at one point, until Tom returns to deal with the Barrow-Wights. This quest is another demonstration of the persistent instance technique: Tom's intervention causes some significant structural damage to the Barrow itself, which will remain for future visits to the area.
Some things haven't changed from last year: The Lord of the Rings Online is still a very pretty game, and Turbine are still demonstrating a considerable amount of attention to detail when it comes to interpreting the text. The environments are both varied and detailed, with attention paid to immersion - for example, I was shown a non-player character blacksmith in Bree, with an idle animation showing him working at his forge, instead of simply standing around and waiting for a player to interact with him. The engine used is capable of scaling the visual quality in both directions, so hopefully Middle-Earth will remain pretty for some time to come.
The world Turbine have created isn't the same as the Middle-Earth in my head (but how could it be?), but it's a pretty close approximation. From the sign outside the Prancing Pony to the colour of Tom Bombadil's boots, a lot of work has gone into recreating the Middle-Earth of the books as accurately as is practical. From what I've seen, I'm quite happy with the result - and I'm looking forward to exploring it myself.
As I'm currently living off a student budget, my recent purchases tend to be from the various budget ranges of older titles: I'm more likely to be found playing Quake II or the original Unreal Tournament than Thief III or FarCry. I'll probably make an exception for Doom 3, though. (For the record, I did try Doom 3, and wasn't very impressed. Thief III has made it to the budget range here in the UK, and one day I'll play it. Perhaps after I've updated this profile properly...)
I enjoy online games, but I prefer the persistent world offered by the MMORPGs to the competitive environment of the CounterStrike servers. I've a feeling too many years of leisurely RPG playing have ruined my shooter reflexes; needless to say, I tend to end up on the tail end of the scoreboards in online FPS games. That said, I enjoy the competitiveness of multiplayer gaming, but prefer the face-to-face encounters of LAN gaming to the anonymity of the public servers.