RPG Games
Mdl. Earth Online

Gamer's Reality
August 26, 1999

Middle Earth Online Review

"Oh look, another online RPG. Why should I care?"

With all of the Online RPG’s that are already out and are coming out, that quote is bound to be the sentiment of quite a few gamers today. Let’s face it, no Online RPG has yet to meet the expectation that people had. Ultima Online while incredibly ambitious, was plagued with bugs and design flaws, though now it is vastly improved. And Everquest, though highly addictive, lacks the sense of a true world that Ultima Online, for all of its flaws, has. One game reviewer said it best, "I don’t get [Everquest], it’s like Quake with Elves."

So when Sierra announced that they were making an Online RPG based off Middle Earth, I wasn’t really that excited. First of all, Sierra was publishing it, which already made me nervous. Second of all, I was wondering just how much new they could really add to the table. However when I started researching the game for my friend’s website, I started to come to the conclusion that the designers of the Middle-Earth Online RPG really are treading new ground with this game. This preview will focus on what I believe sets this game apart from other ones, while at the same time covering all the essentials you need to know about the game.

For those of you who don’t know what Middle-Earth is, (all twelve of you), Middle-Earth is the fantasy world that J.R.R. Tolkien created and was the setting for the most popular fantasy series ever, The Lord of the Rings. Not only is it the most popular fantasy series ever, it was also the series that created the entire genre. Any fantasy author today owes his or her work to Tolkien. Orcs, Dwarves, Goblins, Elves, all of these are a creation of Tolkien. There are very few fantasy series out there that aren’t inspired by the Lord of the Rings. And the same goes for most of the online RPG’s. Therefore it seemed natural that the inspiration for all of those games would get it’s own game.

The Middle-Earth game takes places in the 4th age, or the age of men. If you read the Lord of the Rings, than you remember (or forgot) that after the defeat of Sauron the Elves left Middle-Earth, and the age of men began. This is the age that the game takes place. Frodo, Gandalf, and many of the memorable characters from the series are gone, however according to the FAQ there will be some of the characters from the series in the game, "for example Lord Celeborn, now of Rivendell, and Thranduil, the Elvenking of the Wood of Greenleaves. In addition there will obviously be new characters in the place of old, for example Elessar's heir is King of the Reunited Kingdom."

The designers of Middle-Earth are touting the size of the world as "enormous, many times larger than comparable online games." While that is a pretty bold statement, it looks like the info they’ve given out supports those claims. According to the FAQ, to travel from the Shire to Rivendell would take a half-hour if you were traveling in a straight line. And to get from one side of the continent to the other would take considerably more than an hour. Add to that underground environments and you’re looking at a pretty massive land to explore.

So how will you be exploring this land? In other words, what’s the graphical interface like? Well, Middle-Earth’s perspective is going to be different than most other online RPGS out there, in the sense that it will be in a 3rd person overhead view. For those of you who don’t know what that looks like, that’s the same perspective that was used in the Playstation game Metal Gear Solid. Now while that might not look as realistic or immersive as the floating camera view of Everquest, what that will enable the designers to do is to optimize performance, since there’s no view of the horizon. And you’ll want to optimize performance, since they’re expecting the minimum requirements to be 300 MHz! Also this view is better for social gaming. (For those of you who don’t know what a free floating camera view looks like, think Tomb Raider, or better yet, think Redguard, since it’s an infinitely better game, but that’s a subject for another time.) The player will also be able to control the camera on its horizontal and vertical axis, so you can get a better feel of your surroundings.

Now that we’ve talked about the land, let’s talk about what the land will be populated with, namely houses and people, specifically 10,000 people. That’s the amount of users that one world will support in the game. Since this is the age of men, most of the users in the game will be men. However the designers are breaking away from Tolkien’s vision a bit in the sense that you will also be able to play an elf in the game. However, the designers are taking steps to ensure that elves will not dominate the world, and will be as scarce as you would expect to see a fading race be. There have been various ideas that have been touted. Some of these include making an elven character develop more slowly than a human, becoming an elf only by performing some quest or by having a certain number of elves proclaim you as an elf, and even not having elves in the initial release of the game. Now I know that there are some hard-core Tolkien fans who will be upset that elves still exist in the 4th age, since this runs contrary to Tolkien’s vision. However I believe that in making a game you have to strike a careful balance between authenticity and enjoyment. And sometimes you have to make a game less "authentic’ in order to make it more enjoyable. Let’s face it, people want to play elves. And to deprive people of that in order to be "authentic" would in my opinion make the game less enjoyable, which is what I believe the main priority of a game designer should be. I’ve seen some very "authentic" flight sims in my time, but many of them just weren’t that enjoyable since the game designers weren’t able to strike that balance. So I applaud the game designers for trying to stay true to Tolkien’s vision while at the same time making the game enjoyable to the masses.

Along with being able to play the noble elves you can also play an evil character. Which means that there will be player killing in the game. Now for those of you who still have nightmares from the player killing in Ultima Online rest assured that the designers are taking steps that what happened in Britannia won’t happen in Middle-Earth. According to the FAQ "Middle-earth will encourage such nefarious fellows to play roles within the context of the game, rather than just using their morality as an excuse for indiscriminate aggression." Now while we’ve heard that line before the designers have given us some information on how player killing will be handled that should ease the fears of those reading this preview.

Before I give out that info though I need to tell you all about something the designers are doing that is very controversial, but yet in the grand scheme of things can work out really well if handled properly. And that is when you die, you stay dead. None of this resurrecting with some loss of skill points ala Ultima Online. You die, and that’s it. End of curtain, take a bow and exit stage left. Now needless to say this has some people just a tad nervous. Rest assured though that the designers know your fears and are working hard to make sure that permanent death will be a viable system. There have been tons of ideas that have been thrown around on how to make it work. First of all, a player isn’t going to be able to kill somebody easily. They had to have been playing the game for a while before that option is even available. Last I heard they were mentioning a month of playtime before allowing this for somebody. Also, even when you’re finally allowed to kill somebody you have to knock all of the opponents in the surrounding area unconscious before you are allowed to kill. And finally, the actual killing isn’t going to be quick, but will take time, which means chances are fairly good that somebody might come by and stop the murder before it happens.

And don’t think that you’ll be able to kill another player and get away with it easily. First of all, you’ll be tagged as a murderer and all shopkeepers in the immediate area will call the guards on you if they spot you. Sheriffs will make you a wanted man and will hunt you down. However, don’t think it’s going to be like Ultima where guards teleport in automatically. Instead guards will have to chase you down. Now if you leave the area that you committed the murder you’ll be out of harms way, but don’t think of going back to that area for a long time, since the guards have a long memory. And finally, anybody else can kill you without consequences.

However even with all of these steps the designers are taking, I know there is some apprehension out there and people are wondering why the designers have installed a permanent death system. From what I understand, the designers are doing it to make sure that all your actions will have a weight and importance that are not normally found in online games. Let’s face it, in most online games we tend to be a little complacent about the decisions we make since there is no real serious threat. And this is especially true of player killing. A player killer can kill without any serious threat to their character. Even if they get "killed" in the attempt they’ll just resurrect later and can get most of their stuff back by killing other players. But in Middle-Earth, player killers will think twice before attempting to kill somebody. First of all, any player killer who’s going to attempt to kill another player knows that there is a chance that he/she could die in the battle. Also, it’s going to stop a lot of lone player killers from going out and committing murder. If the player killer is alone, than there are no other opponents that the other players have to make unconscious before they can kill the player killer. Also other players don’t have to worry about the consequences of killing a player killer, so there’s nothing to stop them from doing it. Add it all up and being a player killer is a great way to send yourself to an early grave in the game.

Besides being killed, there are other ways of dying in the game. Some of these include going without food or water for a long period of time. Prolonged exposure to severe elements, suffering from a disease or even a cold, and being poisoned. However the designers assure us that death is preventable, and that if we are prepared we won’t die.

Now that the morbid stuff is out of the way, let’s talk about fun stuff like houses! Yes you will own houses in the game, ala Ultima Online. And you’ll be able to do fun things like decorate it with furniture. (I’m sure we’re all looking forward to that time where our virtual wife or husband can’t make up their mind where the furniture goes J ) However these houses will not actually be on the map, seeing as if they were it would take up to much space. Think about it, you’ve got 10,000 users on one world, if each user had a house the world would become overcrowded really quick. So the designers were smart and instead the houses will not be on the map, so the land will be used for more fun things, like killing J .

Of course what fun is it owning a house if you can’t populate it with people and pets? The designers agree and have included the ability to have families and pets. Families can come about by several ways. Obviously you can marry somebody of the opposite sex and start a family that way. You an also "adopt" people into your family if everybody in the family agrees. By adoption you can cause a player to be your brother, for instance. Or whatever you decide to call him or her.. You can also appoint members of your family as heir in case of permanent death of your character. And families will share the same reputation. So if one of the members of your family is a murderer, than you’ll all be branded as murders. Along with having family members you’ll also be able to have pets. Besides the normal cats and dogs you’ll also be able to have tame beasts, assuming you have the skill to tame them. For those of you wanting a pet Balrog though, I don’t think the taming skill covers it.

Which brings me to the skill system. As far as I know, the designers are being secretive about how the skill system will work out. Which only makes sense, since if they’ve got a really great skill system I’m sure they don’t want to mention it and have other companies steal their idea. Same goes for how they’re handling quests, which I for one really want to see, since the main reason that online games haven’t been as engrossing as their single player counterparts is because of lack of great quests.

One thing that online games do have over their single player counterparts is the socializing. And nowhere is this more prominent than in guilds. Both Everquest and UO have them, and you can be sure Middle-Earth will also. However they won’t be called guilds, but houses. This is to give it a more familial atmosphere and be more inline with the Middle-Earth world. There will be two types of houses, major houses and minor houses. Major houses will have the added benefits of having a more permanent place on the map, receiving web recognition and publicity by the staff, and possibly even receiving special abilities. However they will be much more strictly enforced by the staff, and are more difficult to create. You will need to submit a name, creed, and governing laws for a major house. A minor house on the other hand can be created by just about anybody, just as long as they have enough gold and followers. However minor houses will not be on the map, but will occupy space off the map, just like a regular house.

And of course what good are houses without uniforms to go with them? And unlike some online RPGS, in Middle-Earth whatever clothing you wear will actually be shown in the game! So if you find that really cool looking armor, rest assured that everybody else will see how cool looking it is also. Along with customizing your outfit though, you’ll be able to customize other aspects of how you look. According to the FAQ, "You will be able to create your character's face from a huge array of heads, eyes, noses, chins, ears, lips, and hairstyles." So we won’t have a whole bunch of clones walking around, but everybody can have their own individual look.

This preview is by no means exhaustive, and there’s a lot more I can add. And I will be adding as time goes along. However I believe this is enough to get even the most jaded gamer (like me) excited. The designers are taking lessons learned from the mistakes of past online games, and are also including aspects that will set it apart from all other online RPGS. From what I’ve read, the designers are not seeing this as an easy cash cow, but instead are laboring hard to make it the best online RPG ever. And it looks like they might actually do it.