Is "The Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar" truly the one massively multiplayer online video game to rule them all?
Only time will tell, but it's certainly off to a strong start.
After just a few weeks of exploring, this new online version of J.R.R. Tolkien's fictional epic is definitely ripe with potential.
Like other persistent online role-playing games, "Shadows of Angmar" is an always on, never-ending fantasy world.
This particular game gives players the chance to explore part of Tolkien's massive fantasy universe while you make friends, defeat enemies and grow in stature to the highest rank of level 50.
The first step is creating a character, or avatar. You have four choices — human, elf, dwarf or hobbit — and then can further specialize into one of seven class types with abilities to deal damage or heal, for example.
As a diminutive hobbit, I chose the minstrel class, which has some interesting abilities where you can shout at enemies to damage them, as well as heal yourself and others.
You can't play as any of the famous characters in the books; imagine hundreds of overpowered Aragorn and Gandalf look-alikes running amok and it's easy to understand why.
There's also no denying the similarities between this game and the genre's top dog, a juggernaut known as "World of Warcraft."
"Shadows of Angmar" is the same general idea — players get together to battle monsters and complete quests in a social setting.
There's a lot of questing to do, and you can even form your own fellowship, but it frequently becomes a treadmill of repetition.
My hobbit began his life by killing a pack of hungry wolves, hardly a hobbit-worthy endeavor. It's the same sort of "gather x number of items" or "kill x number of boars" that I've been doing in online games for more years than I'd care to admit now.
I'm still waiting for an online game that realizes just how boring these sort of tasks quickly become. Surely there's got to be a more interesting way to advance my digital characters?
There are plenty of things to like about "Shadows of Angmar," too.
The excellent graphics echo those found in the movies, and you'll have access to some interesting abilities, such as playing instruments by banging out notes with your keyboard.
The pricing is fairly standard for games like this, and can end up being rather expensive.
There are two versions of the T-rated, Windows PC game — a $49.99 edition, and one with a flimsy printed map and some other extras for $10 more.
After the first free month, you have to pay a $15 monthly subscription fee. For the truly committed, a one-time fee of $199 nets a lifetime membership.
Despite its literary background, "Shadows of Angmar" doesn't rewrite the rules for massively multiplayer online games and instead sticks to the same safe, proven formula.
It does, however, deliver a rich world that stays mostly true to Tolkien's vision. That's probably going to be enough for fans of the lore or anyone tired of "World of Warcraft."
Additional content will be the key factor to the game's long-term success.
Already, a free expansion pack called "Shores of Evendim" is scheduled for a June release — a good sign that there will be more to see and do in Middle-earth for months to come.
Three stars out of four.