The Lord Of The Rings Online sells itself on one thing: J.R.R. Tolkien. LOTRO nails the conventions of massively multiplayer online games; it's solid, social, and fun for newcomers and lifers alike. But the gameplay is almost identical to that of MMOG leader World Of Warcraft, which means the wallet-opening differences are measured in the appeal of Tolkien's world. And for the most part, the world defines itself by its limits. For example, magic is rare: The closest thing to a playable magic-user is a character who can light fires and throw them at people. And where WOW transports players across its world via enchanted flying creatures, LOTRO just lends you a horse.
Players follow an epic storyline that gives structure and momentum to the experience. But as the Colonial Williamsburg to Warcraft's Disneyland, LOTRO isn't lush, and sometimes it even seems flat. The grand Elvish architecture and rolling Shire hills feel small, when they should envelop players. And LOTRO doesn't upend its competitors' grind/grab/grow routine, though it tries a few tricks (like a virtual music system) to break players out of the habits they've learned. It remains to be seen whether people will just chew through it all like any other game, or the alluring nuances of Middle Earth will give people reasons to linger.
Beyond the game: Everyone's basically fighting on the same side, which means that players who want to fight each other have to resort to "monster play." To try it, you have to sneak down a back alley to an unmarked door. Once inside, you'll hide behind a fake identity as a twisted, sinful monster to indulge your transgressive player-on-player urges. (Feel free to read between the lines.)
Worth playing for: A system of deeds and titles offers incentives for exploring the game world. And the real-time music system lets players stand around with their lutes and jam to "Greensleeves" or "Smoke On The Water."
Frustration sets in when: The interface is tiny, and sorting through your inventory takes tweezers-like precision. It's a little hard on the eyes for a game that should be luring you into all-night sessions.
Final judgment: Online games are always a moving target, so take this warm first impression with a grain of salt.