From the developing team behind the Asheron's Call series comes Middle-Earth Online, a new MMORPG set in J.R.R. Tolkien's world. The title has undergone many setbacks since it was announced back in late 2002, and a beta-version release is still a number of months away, but Turbine has made significant development progress in the last few months that Tolkien fanatics are sure to drool over. Let's just call this article a friendly reminder that the project still exists, and it still looks very promising.
First off, the game is based on a license from Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy, not the recent films. Middle-Earth Online has no relation to the recent slew of action-oriented titles released by EA Games, and will not share any artwork, music, or settings with those titles. Instead, Turbine Entertainment has been working diligently to create impressive character, creature, and environment designs for the upcoming title.
The storyline of Middle-Earth Online starts off just after the Fellowship of the Ring exits the Mines of Moria. The player will control a civilian character from Middle Earth, not a character found in the books. While it will be possible to interact with some famous characters from the story, such as Radagast and Elrond, it will not be possible to interact with Frodo and his companions directly. The developers are attempting to create a unique storyline based on Tolkien's world and to answer some questions that were never answered or only eluded to in the books, such as how the defeat of the Balrog affected Moria. It will be up to the lesser known heroes of Middle Earth to keep peace in Eriador (and other regions as expansions are released) in the wake of the fellowship.
The available races for character creation in Middle-Earth Online are Elves, Men, Dwarves, and Hobbits. At present, there are at least two unique classes available for each race. The career path that a character takes will be dependent on the moral choices made throughout the game by the player. For example, Elvish Scouts will evolve into Archers if they choose to oppose the shadow of Mordor or Avengers if they somehow aid it. Similarly, Dwarvish Warriors can evolve into Warlords or Berserkers while Hobbit Rogues can become Burglars or Backstabbers. The race of Men have the most classes available at present: Hunters can lead to Rangers or Assassins, Sages to Sorcerers or Necromancers, Soldiers to Champions or Mercenaries, and Squires to Knights or Tyrants. In Middle-Earth Online, moral decisions will have a huge impact on the character and story evolution.
Turbine is working hard to make sure that the gameplay of Middle-Earth Online is as innovative as possible in the face of the new MMORPGs flooding the market. One example is the the "Time Based Advancement" system. In addition to actively increasing a characters stats by participating in quests, crafting, and combat, players will also be able to passively powerup their characters using this system. What this means is that a characters stats increase in real time, independent of whether the player is logged in or not. This is being introduced to help reduce the repetitiveness of "level-grinding" and to ensure that players who do not have as much time to play as others will not be left too far behind.
A variety of quests will be available to advance the overarching story of Middle-Earth Online. Many of these quests will occur in "private encounters", enabling players to fulfill story-intensive quests without being interrupted by other players and also reducing the need for groups of players to "camp" quests. Most quests, however, will not require this mode. In fact, some larger and more difficult quests will require multiple fellowships to join forces to achieve some goal.
There will also be a complex economy system available in Middle-Earth Online. Players will be allowed to pursue crafts to create and repair unique items. Players will also have the option of owning and upkeeping a house for their character, which will be suitabe for their race and can be customized inside and out using a variety of items. Players can invite guests into their homes, and groups of players called Kinships can also inhabit larger dwellings. These Kinships will have tiered membership, meaning that some characters can have a higher status in their Kinship than others.
As mentioned previously, the graphics and art of Middle-Earth Online are unique and not related to the recent Lord of the Rings games from EA Games. That being said, the character, creature, and environment designs released so far look stunning. The developers seem to be working diligently to stay as close as possible to Tolkien's vision of Middle Earth.
For rabid fans of Tolkien's works, Middle-Earth Online should inspire both anticipation in what is sure to be an exciting MMORPG experience and apprehension that the world developed by Turbine stays true to Tolkien's vision. Although an official release date for Middle-Earth Online has yet to be officially announced, it is rumoured to be Spring or Summer of 2005, and beta testing should be available within the year. Look for announcements on RPGamer in the coming months.