Turbine is looking to release several titles in this series, with the first being set during the period of The Fellowship of the Ring, within the geographical boundaries of Eriador (roughly, the area between the Hobbit's Shire and the Misty Mountains). At E3, I watched a demo of the game, and spoke to Turbine's Harry Teasley, a Senior Artist on the project.
Firstly, players will be able to create characters from any of the four Free Peoples of Middle-Earth - Elves, Men, Hobbits and Dwarfs. It will not be possible to play any of the evil races, so PC Orcs and Trolls are out of the question, for this first game at least. Wizards are also out of bounds: there were very few wizards in Middle-earth, and the development team intends to stay faithful to this. For the E3 demo, we were shown parts of the new player experience from the point of view of a Human character. In actual play, each race will have its own newcomer's quest, but Turbine wasn't showing the other races just yet.
New Human characters enter the game in the village of Archet, on the outskirts of Bree. Unfortunately, this town has been besieged by a group of bandits, who don't take too kindly to uninvited visitors: our demo character entered the game in the middle of a jailbreak, attempting to rescue a captured Hobbit from the bandits. This quest kick-starts the Human newcomer quest arc, designed to introduce a new player to the game and the controls.
Our character quickly discovered the captured Hobbit, Celadine Brandybuck. She suggested that our best hope of escape was to cause a diversion and then make a break for it.
Conversations with non-player characters are handled in a branching, conversation-tree type format, allowing you to select between one or more options for each of your character's replies. At this stage, of course, there's much in the way of choice - it's a tutorial mission, after all. As it happens, this particular NPC was a bit of a pyromaniac - her idea of a diversion was to ignite a nearby cluster of wooden buildings, which obliged by impressively bursting into flame.
It's worth mentioning at this point that the game environment is very, very pretty indeed. The scenery is detailed, whilst the player models are both well textured and well animated. The particle effects for the flames are also very impressive. The engine is capable of scaling in both directions - downward, to support lower-spec machines, and upward, with higher-resolution textures and more effects for the high-end machines of a year or two past release.
With the bandits distracted, we made it out to the main part of the bandits' camp. Here, we faced (and killed) the leader of bandits. Once this unpleasant task was completed, we were allowed access to the village of Archet itself, and I parted ways from my Hobbit companion.
A hot topic in the MMO community right now is instanced content: content duplicated for each PC or group of PCs, allowing each PC or group to complete a quest or dungeon independently, without interference or aid from others. Up until this point in the newbie quest, I was inside a personalised instance, created for my character and my character only. This was done to avoid dropping new players into the potentially overwhelming experience of a bustling town. Instead, new players are guided by the scripted behaviour of the NPCs, and the controlled environment of the newcomer's quest. It also prevents interference from other players, and makes sure that there are no overpopulation problems at the entry points.
The downside of instanced combat, of course, is that it destroys the "massive" part of a "massively multiplayer game." Turbine is very mindful of this, and plan to use instanced combat only where it is required to allow a part of the story to unfold. The newbie quest is a prime example of this approach: players progressing along the quest remain in an instance only as long as necessary for the story, and that instance becomes more public as time goes on.
Once I entered Archet, and with it the next stage of the newbie quest arc, I was placed in a public instance: other newcomers would appear as well, but no higher-level PCs. There's a gameplay reason for this, but it also serves to help new players connect with other newcomers, without interference from older players.
From Archet, a newbie will be sent on a variety of quests, completing the newcomer quest arc. In total, these will take two to three hours to conclude. For the E3 demo, we skipped past most of those, but did take the time to visit some of the area outside of Archet.
As noted above, the graphics are very pretty indeed, and this extends to the landscape areas. Water, in particular, is particularly well done, but all the landscape I saw was impressive.
The mission we were on had us facing various types of spider, along with a few brigands and bandits for good measure. All were nicely textured and well animated, and the spiders also had a special attack worth mentioning: a web effect, which slows your attacks. When effects are active on you, a visual indication of this appears on your character and is visible to those around you. In the case of this particular effect, a spider's web appears, binding your weapon arm to your body. This isn't a temporary particle effect - it remains on you for the duration of the effect, and changes appearance as you move.
Combat is skills-based, with different skills allowing access to different attack and defence styles. Advancement is based on experience points, awarded for defeating enemies in combat. One of the more interesting aspects of the combat system is the conjunction feature, allowing two or more characters to attack in tandem. When one character uses a skill which opens a conjunction, nearby PCs will see additional buttons appear on their UI, allowing them to join the conjunction. When the conjunction is complete, the characters involved will attack in combination, producing a more powerful attack than their combined individual attacks. The demonstration of the conjunction system we were shown involved only two characters, but more complex conjunctions with larger groups will be possible.
In Middle-earth, the healer's art is subtle indeed, and mastered by few. Player characters will not be able to repair lacerations and broken bones in seconds, leaving their patients completely recovered and ready to face the next battle. Instead, wounds are a serious matter, and treatment will usually require a visit to town.
In terms of gameplay, this is modelled by splitting the traditional health bar into two sections - a smaller health bar, and a much larger endurance bar. Endurance is required to perform actions during combat - special moves, conjunctions, and more mundane actions such as blocking a blow. Once a character's endurance is exhausted, he will have no choice but to allow blows to impact his health directly - which will probably lead to a swift defeat, unless the character has another plan or a means of escape up his sleeve.
Death in Middle-earth is also serious business, as there is no precedent for mortal resurrection in the trilogy. Whilst the details of the system are not yet final, player characters will not be killed in combat - instead, they will be defeated. The implication is that defeated characters will then be rescued and brought back to town to recover, and will perhaps awake in a House of Healing.
Upon returning to Archet, we found the village burning, under attack from another group of brigands. Alas, despite our best efforts with bucket and well, it was too late for the village, which became a blackened shell of its former glory. This point marks the transition from the public instance to the main, shared game world, where new players are able to interact with the entire playerbase. From this point onwards, only the shared-world version of Archet - the destroyed version - will be visible.
This use of instances allows players to experience and participate in key story events for themselves, regardless of the state of the world and the other characters within it. Every Human character will experience the destruction of Archet, and once the village has been destroyed, it isn't possible to accidentally stumble across a pristine version of the village. Transitions between instances weren't quite seamless - they involved a short loading screen, equivalent to most other zone transitions - but they were certainly quick enough not to be a major inconvenience. On the other hand, the non-instanced landscape, which should comprise at least 70% of the game area, is completely seamless.
Although few details were given, the game will feature player associations in the form of Kinships, as well as short-term groups, known as Fellowships. A Kinship is a semi-permanent association of players into a group, and is one of the major social systems for the game. Kinships will also provide an avenue of support for new players, as well as forming a cornerstone of player communities. There will also be benefits to players for remaining associated with their Kinship for a long period of time, but we weren't given the details on what these benefits would be.
Turbine is not intending to make group play a requirement for an enjoyable game session - it should be perfectly possible to adventure alone, without waiting for a pick-up group. But, groups will be required for certain quests and areas, and group play does has its advantages, such as the ability to make use of the conjunction system.
Turbine is planning on expanding the game with regular updates, providing both new content and extending the game's storyline. Player characters will also be able to take part in 'career' quest arcs, which you will be able progress along throughout the lifetime of your character. Again, no details were available, but the concept is certainly an interesting one.
Although the E3 demo only covered the newbie experience, it also showed Turbine's level of attention to detail. Archet is mentioned in the trilogy as a town having trouble with bandits, for example, and the refusal to allow the world to be dominated with Gandalf clones is a vital part of keeping to the feel of Middle-earth as described by Tolkien. Hopefully, this philosophy will continue to apply when the game is released.
Satisfying Tolkien fans will always be a very tall order. No visual medium can match the mind's eye - especially for those of us who read the books well before the release of the films - but it's looking like Turbine will get close enough to do Tolkien's works justice. How well the development team will succeed remains to be seen, of course, but I'll be watching their progress with great interest and anticipation.
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.