Lord of the Rings: The Third Age Video Game Review - We put EA's new LOTR RPG under the microscope.

Lord of the Rings: The Third Age Review
By Owen Morgan-Jones

In Brief:
On the whole, The Third Age is a good-but-not-great console RPG. Whether it's for you or not is very dependent on how much you like lots of easy to control turn based fighting, a fast and loose approach to Tolkien's story. If you're an easy-going gamer who has no problem with spending 40-odd hours killing orcs, I suggest you pick up The Third Age soon

In Detail:
This Winter sees EA Games' latest batch of LOTR games based on the films. The first to be released is The Third Age, available on the Playstation 2, GameCube, X-Box and GameBoy Advance. Since the GameBoy Advance version of the game is substantially different from all the others, it will be reviewed separately, at a later date.

This version of The Third Age is a role-playing game (RPG), very much in the style of Square's phenomenally popular Final Fantasy series, but dressed in LOTR movie clothes. If you're a fan of those games, you'll be right at home here. As this is a game based on the films, it takes its look, sound effects and a large chunk of its voice cast from the trilogy.

The story of the game is not, however, very closely tied to the films' narrative. It begins with Berethor, a captain of Minas Tirith's citadel guard journeying north into Eriador, in search of Boromir. Unfortunately for him, he finds a small group of Nazgul instead, and only the timely intervention of Idrial, an elf from Lothlorien saves our hero from all manner of unpleasantness. Berethor and Idrial are then swiftly joined by Elegost, a Dunedain ranger with a moustache and the voice of an English aristocrat, and Hadhod, curmudgeonly dwarf. So equipped with Berethor's sword, Idrial's elvish magic, Elegost's bow and Hadhod's axe you travel from Eriador into Moria, and thence to Rohan, following a remarkably familiar path. Upon your arrival in Rohan there are two further additions to your party, Morwen, a shieldmaiden with a thing for axes and ill-fitting tops, and Eaoden, a member of Theoden's royal guard who brings his spear skills to your party.

The game's plot progresses in parallel to the film (Elves at Helm's Deep and detour to Osgiliath all present and correct), only joining up with its source material for set pieces such as battling the Balrog in Moria, and standing alongside the remaining Fellowship members at Helm's Deep. The game uses these grandiose set pieces surprisingly sparingly, which makes them all the more satisfying when you do get to play them.

Gameplay is divided into two main areas, Adventure Mode, and Battle Mode. In Adventure mode you control a single member of your party (the rest following but unseen) and move from to place to place in the game's attractively designed environments. Middle Earth in the Third Age being the dangerous place it is, this naturally leads you to encounter the odd enemy or twenty. As you move about hostile areas of the world one of two threat meters will usually be active. The first is a blue palantir that slowly appears in the top right of the screen to indicate that a "planned" battle is about to begin. As the palantir becomes more visible, so the battle comes nearer. The other meter is Sauron's Eye which brightens as a "random" battle approaches. The difference between planned and random is that it appears that some areas in the game are simply more hostile than others, and tarrying too long in them will lead to an attack. In practice, you're rarely in Adventure mode for more than five minutes at a time between battle modes.

If you are not a fan of games with twitchy controls that require you to perform intricate combinations of button presses to control your character, then The Third Age is for you. There is no fancy button pressing here. When in Battle Mode, all character actions are selected from easy-to-navigate menus. The combat is turn based, meaning the only character who can do anything is the one whose turn it is. Whether or not it's a particular character's turn is dependent on that character's "initiative", the higher a character's initiative the more frequently they get a turn in the battle. This turn-based fighting can lead to the strange spectacle of a line of three or so orcs standing still facing a line of equally still heroes while everyone waits for the current guy in the hot-seat to make his mind up.

Each character has a number of Action Points (AP) that they can use to perform their various special moves. These abilities generally follow the same pattern for each character, a basic attack that costs no AP, a variety of weapon attacks, and, for want of a better word, some magic spells. For example; Berethor has different sword attacks, each of which has a different purpose and his "Leadership" skills which provide benefits to the whole party, Idrial has a variety of sword attacks, and spells that can be used to attack, or heal members of the party and so on.

When an attack is executed, you see the character perform it with an anime style light show. This is perhaps the most visible departure from the game's source material, as although Legolas did some funky stuff in the movies, you never saw him strike a pose as the sky darkened and a big green glowing Mirkwood leaf appeared behind him before he ran forward to smack some unfortunate orc upside the head. Having said that, the design team have made a huge effort to ensure that the pretty light shows are suitably Tolkien-y. Most of Berethor's leadership skills feature illuminations involving the White Tree of Gondor, and I'm pretty sure the symbol of the House of Earendil is in there too.

Whether or not you can stomach anime style light shows in Lord of the Rings is likely to have a major bearing on whether you're prepared to really get into The Third Age. This is because the game is so combat intensive that the "Adventure" Mode really begins to feel like a slow way to move between the fights. Notable absences from the typical RPG formula are puzzle solving and character interaction, which you can start to miss after you've been playing for a few hours. Combat dominates to such an extent that it feels that this game almost wants to be an action game more than a true role-playing game.

An additional element of gameplay is character development. The more enemies you kill, the more experience you get, the more experience you get, the stronger your character becomes. Each time you get enough experience to get to a new character level, you are given a number of points to spend on boosting various attributes of your character, including how much damage they deal, how much damage they can take, how many AP they have and how much initiative they have. Levelling up occurs very frequently, almost too frequently in fact, as it can feel like a chore to go back to the level up screen to spend yet another two stat points raising Hadhod's damage by a tiny fraction. Also, every time you use one of the two kinds of skill, you inch closer to unlocking a better move in that category. While you do have a choice as to the next special move you learn, the standard order they are acquired in is good enough for most players to simply not worry about this.

The game also offers an added degree of replayability by allowing you to move through previously completed chapters of the game as evil characters. Yes, including the Balrog. While this is a cool feature (any feature allowing you to play as a huge angry fire demon is cool, no discussion), there are only a few areas you'd really want to make use of it - playing though Helm's Deep as the besiegers might be one. Another additional gameplay option is co-operative mode, which appears, more than anything else to have been added just so the box can say "1-2 players", as it makes absolutely no difference to how the game is played. In fact, it adds a degree of boredom to the game, as only one player can be in the hot seat at any given time, leaving the other player twiddling their thumbs.

The game's graphics are good across the board, slipping into excellent in some cases - battling before the Argonath at sunset almost took my breath away - and the character animation is all motion captured and very fluid. The light shows are very pretty, and feature a variety of special effects such as shock waves when a blow connects. Extra credit has to go to the art team, as there is a huge range of different equipment for all six characters. It's all visible down the smallest ring (not that one however), and every item looks different yet without seeming out of place. The characters begin wearing shabby kit, but by the end are gleaming in burnished armour or leather, depending on their personal style. It's a superb use of all the work the films' costume designers did, and is the most effective use of the license as a way of drawing the player into the game.

Sound scores equally highly, with good use of ambient sounds, and suitably visceral thwacks when blows connect. Excellent use is made of Howard Shore's score, which has been cut so that it always feels appropriate, and changes at all the right moments. Kudos also goes to John Rhys Davies, Christopher Lee and Ian Mckellen for giving up the time to record some original dialogue for the game. Mckellen contributes the game's over-arching narration, which is never lacking for gravitas. Where the actors were unavailable for additional recording dialogue is sampled from the films, rather than using "soundalikes" as the previous EA games. This leads to the occasional bizarre moment where a well known character says something out of context because it was the closest fit available.

The game makes liberal use of cinematics from the films, most of which are optional to view. This is actually a mercy, as there are more than a hundred and they do tend to repeat themselves. When I had heard Gandalf (as Mckellen narrates them all) explain who and what the elves were for the third time I stopped watching them. Those unlocked do remain viewable in the menu, so if you feel like it you can watch them all at your leisure. I'd suggest watching the films themselves on DVD instead.

On the whole, each of the three platforms does a good job with the game, while the X-Box's superior hardware does a slightly better job with the graphics, there is no noticeable slowdown on either of the others. The game's menu driven interface means that no system has a particular controller advantage, which is a good thing, depending on how you view menu driven games.

On the whole, The Third Age is a good-but-not-great console RPG. Whether it's for you or not is very dependent on how much you like easy to control turn based fighting, whether fighting is all you look for in a gaming experience, and if you don't mind someone playing fast and loose with Tolkien's story (I suspect there are book purists out there who could have quite a heart attack at some of the games greater liberties with the story). I might have perhaps preferred my LOTR RPG to have more character interaction and things to do other than simply fight, but I enjoyed it nonetheless, once I got into it. If you're a fairly easy-going gamer who has no problem with spending 40-odd hours killing orcs, I suggest you pick up The Third Age soon.
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