The current 800-pound gorilla of the MMORPG (massively multiplayer online roleplaying game) space is World of Warcraft. But Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar starts with a major advantage: its source material is far richer.

Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar does a terrific job of steeping players in series lore, and the more time we spend in it, the more we want to go back and finish reading the books.

Forging a hero

In Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar you can create a human, dwarf, elf or hobbit character. There are 'class' choices to accommodate any play style, including Burglars, Minstrels (who sing sweet healing ballads), tough Guardians and Hunters.

You also choose a vocation. We went for Historian, which encompasses farming, scholarship and weaponsmithing. Most Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar vocations feature excellent balance, and if you work with someone who has corresponding skills, you can provide each other with materials and products for crafting items. There are some excellent rewards if you put in the time.

Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar covers much of the first book of the trilogy, with the main plot elaborated upon in cut-scenes when you finish 'epic quest' chapters.

Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar gameplay is influenced by an interesting atmospheric effect called Dread, which makes the screen blur slightly when frightening creatures appear. Dread can be disorienting and creates a level of tension you don't find in other MMORPGs.

Outside the epic quest in Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar there are an array of mundane tasks, from hunting spiders to running errands. Some players find these frustrating, but we chose to put off the main quest to deliver groceries and collect bear pelts in time-honoured MMORPG fashion.

If you get bored with these tasks, there are various Deeds to achieve by killing a lot of a certain enemy, visiting landmarks or using skills. All of them carry rewards, whether a new title to tag on to your character's name or a stat boost.

There's no real ending to Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar as yet, simply because the story isn't over. The plot will unfold via expansions in the future – Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar is definitely going to be a long-term commitment for hardcore MMORPG addicts.

Monster Play

More lasting appeal will be created by Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar's impressive Monster Play mode. Once your hero reaches level 10, you can create a monster character and take on the good guys. What's surprising about what sounds like a novelty option is the amount of depth it contains: it's almost like another game. Monsters have their own quests to go on and their own skills to acquire.

You can use the points earned by your monster to further your heroic character's ends, but it's a much better deal to spend them on monstrous upgrades. And it's simply fun to be an ugly bad guy hunting for hobbits. It's easy to imagine someone spending nearly all their time in this mode.

As far as hardware goes, it helps to have a PC that can handle the higher graphics settings. Some quite breathtaking views in Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar aren't the same without them.

The overall look of Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar is more realistic than WoW – although less realistic, unsurprisingly, than the Lord of the Rings films – while the music (ranging from cozy whistles to threatening drums and horns, depending on the environment) adds a lot to the atmosphere.

Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar: Specs

  • 1.8GHz Intel Pentium 4 or AMD Athlon XP 1800+
  • Windows XP
  • 512MB RAM
  • 7GB hard drive space
  • 1.8GHz Intel Pentium 4 or AMD Athlon XP 1800+
  • Windows XP
  • 512MB RAM
  • 7GB hard drive space

OUR VERDICT

Despite playing similarly, Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar isn't World of Warcraft – and that's fine. This is a more engaging experience than other fantasy MMORPGs because of the depth of Tolkien's Middle Earth, it looks great and the subscriptions work out cheaper than those for WoW. We are impressed.

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