Many moons ago it was announced that Peter Jackson was going to start work on bringing the Lord of the Rings trilogy to cinema screens, I was cynical. I could not see how the books could work as a film. I was wrong. The films were well received by all and are remarkably enjoyable. When it was announced that there was to be a Lord of the Rings MMO, I was cynical. Yet again I was wrong.

Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar, gives players the opportunity to play as Hobbit, Human, Elf or Dwarf in an adventure throughout the lands of Middle Earth. Now I'm going to be upfront from the start, the game has a lot in common with World of Warcraft. This isn't a bad thing and it certainly doesn't feel like plagiarism. Many of the features found in World of Warcraft itself were borrowed from other games so fans of WoW shouldn't cry foul. The game is not a WoW clone though, it stands on its own merits.

Graphically the game is a bit or a treat. The landscapes are impressive as is character detail. In performance terms the game compares favourably to other recent MMO releases. I currently have the game set to low graphics settings (on an 18 month old laptop) and I'm not disappointed at all, in fact if I was willing to sacrifice a small amount of frame rate I could play closer to medium. Players with a mid range PC will be able to enjoy this game though like most games those with a low end machine will probably not be able to play.

The sound in the game is impressive for a number of reasons. Firstly, the sound sums up the feel of middle earth. Upbeat pipe music in the shire and more sombre tones in the more oppressive and derelict areas of the land. The one feature that is worthy of mention is player created music. Buy a skill to play an instrument and purchase the instrument and you can play your own music in game. This is done by pressing the number keys on your keyboard. One of the more amusing moments I've had in the game is getting ready to fight a boss while a guy next to me played Sweet Child of Mine on his lute.

Gameplay is fairly standard for an MMO. You create a character and gain experience points for killing creatures or completing quests. Experience points increase the characters level giving them access to more skills, weapons and armour. In terms of quests there are a lot to choose from and they are very different in type. Collecting items, killing certain creature types, crafting items, delivering items, escort missions and many more are included. The vast number of quests means that there is very little grind required as compared to some other games. Though if you do like grind then there is a feature that will cheer you up. Each game area has a number of deeds that can be completed, for example killing wolves, kill so many and you get given a title that can be displayed alongside your name. Continue killing them and you will be given a trait that can be applied to your character, improving his or her stats. Skill progression works similarly, use a skill or skill type enough times and you will be given a trait. A character can only equip a limited number of traits and so trait management is one way in which characters of the same class will develop in different ways.

The storyline progresses using instances, though they are used in a different manner to WoW. Early areas of the game are separate from later areas. Once a specific quest is started the player will enter an instance at the end of which they will be in a different version of the game world, Guild Wars players will recognise this as it is near identical to the searing in the prophecies campaign. Later on in the game instances are dealt with similar to Guild Wars in that a quest will take you into an instance with your party, though regular questing takes place in a persistent world.

The games crafting system requires a significant amount of balancing. One of my characters is a woodsman, giving him access to the skills farmer, forester and woodworker. This profession requires the raw material wax before any goods can be made. Having to buy wax means that by the time you can craft a half decent weapon you could have purchased it many times over from a shop. Some items that are required for crafting seem to be dropped by creatures of a much higher level than the item you are trying to create. Fortunately my main character is a tinker and makes jewellery, there is no need to purchase additional raw materials and so this has turned out to be far more profitable. I'm fairly certain that the crafting system will be improved as time passes.

The beginning areas of the game are significantly different for each race. The Hobbits are interested in preparing for parties, delivering letters and all sorts of food related quests. Whereas the Elves have a far more combat oriented start. The difference in balance for the beginning areas and quests may annoy some gamers, whether intentional or not I think this imbalance excellently reflects the different races and adds to the appeal, it also stays quite true to the Middle Earth literature.

The greatest achievement of the game is its overall feel. It feels like a Lord of the Rings game, not like a faceless piece that has had Lord of the Rings painted across the top. There are numerous references to the books and films, and every corner you turn is filled with Middle Earth lore.

One point that I should make clear is the performance of the servers. There has been a significant amount of downtime since the games release. This downtime has significantly delayed this review as there have been several occasions when I have sat down to have a good few hours on the game to find out that the server has not been available. Initially there was an above normal amount of lag, this is frustrating especially as deaths early in the game prevent you from earning some of titles for your character. Codemasters have been committed to putting this right and as days pass performance has increased and downtime has decreased (although I am currently writing this part review as I can't access the game!). Currently the main issue relates to peak times. When logging in during peak hours the subscriptions server cannot satisfy demand (even though the games servers can) and so players are unable to log in. As there has been such significant improvements since the game began these issues will not be reflected in the final score though gamers should be aware that there are likely to be problems in the immediate future.

The game is a welcome entry into a crowded market and accomplishes a lot. Codemasters have a little gem on their hands here and it is a welcome departure from the previous MMOs that they have inflicted upon Europe. If you like MMOs and are getting bored of WoW then LOTRO is definitely worth a purchase. MMO virgins will find a place in the game as its familiar setting and friendly learning curve offer a comfortable and enjoyable experience.