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Last Updated: Friday, 23 February 2007, 09:33 GMT
Wannabe ring-bearers apply here

Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar is due to go on sale worldwide on 24 April.

Prior to the launch, BBC News website Technology Correspondent Mark Ward got a chance to join the beta, or trial, version of the online game as the finishing touches were being put to it.

Screenshot from Lord of the Rings Online, Codemasters
The game lets players adventure in Middle Earth

One of the first things you notice about Lord of the Rings Online (Lotro) is how pretty it is.

Gone is the slightly cartoony look favoured by World of Warcraft, and in its place is a much sleeker and more realistic depiction of people, places and monsters.

In fact, from the first moments I started messing around in Middle Earth the whole setting seemed far more familiar than Warcraft ever has.

This is partly because I've read the books, played the role-playing games and watched the movies more times than I care to admit. Because of that I felt far more at home in Lotro than in any other game.

Like many early players - 350,000 people have already been involved with the beta - I wanted to be a bit of a tourist and head off to Bree and the Prancing Pony, Weathertop and the Ford of Bruinen.

Screenshot from Lord of the Rings Online, Codemasters

But before I could do that, I had to create a character, and all the races you would expect - human, elf, hobbit and dwarf - are available. Though if you choose a dwarf you can only be male.

There's no chance to play an orc, troll or goblin from the start, but there are areas in the game that let you take over a monster character for a while and pit it against other players.

Player power

Like in other games, various aspects of these characters can be tweaked to make them look more distinct. Choosing a different origin for your dwarf, human, elf or hobbit also changes their overall look.

Following this basic stage, the strictures of Middle Earth become apparent. The game is based on the Lord of the Rings books - not the films - and while magic does feature in the story, the users of it are few and far between.

As a result, five of the seven choices of class for your character are combat-based. The other two are burglar and Lore-master - the latter is a kind of scholar who can use everyday objects to create magic-like effects.

Screenshot from Lord of the Rings Online, Codemasters
Many different foes await in Middle Earth
Once I'd chosen my human champion, I was thrown into the game, which starts with an "instance" - essentially a self-contained adventure - that familiarises a player with the combat, movement and questing system.

For the humans, this opening instance involves rescuing a kidnapped hobbit and a dramatic encounter with one of the Black Riders. Other races get equally striking opening sequences.

It's a slam-bang opening for an online game and does a great job of reminding you of the story that's being played out and your potential place in it.

Risk and reward

After this I settled down to adventuring in Middle Earth and found that Turbine, the creators of Lotro, have certainly learned a lot from the online role-playing games that have gone before.

The opening quests do a good job of introducing players to the mechanics of the world and the characters in the opening setting.

One neat innovation is the system of accomplishments. While all characters improve as they gain experience, also available are other ways of becoming smarter, stronger or faster that only emerge when you complete a task a certain number of times.

This can be killing lots of one sort of monster - such as spiders - or completing a number of quests in a particular area, or avoiding being beaten in combat.

It felt like a good way to relieve some of the "grind" in other games where the only reward seems to be loot or a tiny step towards the next level.

Players get told about accomplishments before they finish them so you do get a sense that many of the things you engage in do have a point.

The final verdict is that Lotro is a compelling alternative to other online games - it looks great, feels familiar and its in-game systems seem well thought out.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got some travelling to do - there's a beer with my name on it on the bar at the Prancing Pony.

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