I really don’t know why I do it. I like to consider myself a rational man, a man of logic and common sense and good hygiene, and yet, every time I discover a new Lord of the Rings-themed RPG, I simply have to pick it up and play it no matter how bad the last one I played was. Really, considering what I’ve gone through in the past, it’s a miracle that I bothered to give The Lord of the Rings: The Third Age a chance at all, but somehow, through the twin magicks of big budgets and a huge stockpile of artistic reference material to draw from, the fine people over at EA Games managed to put together a Tolkien RPG that’s actually not all that bad.
Since Peter Jackson unleashed his multi-nationally acclaimed ultra-blockbuster Lord of the Rings adaptations, the video game market has seen a glut of titles based on or tying in to the series. Some have been good, some have been bad, but generally the one thing they all had in common was that they were more or less ripped straight from the movie, scene for scene. It’s a decent enough story, certainly, but it’s difficult hearing it over and over again without getting a little sick of it. We enjoy the setting, really, but we just aren’t surprised anymore when (SPOILER ALERT!!!) Gandalf is dragged into the abyss during his fight with the Balrog, or when Frodo turns off his nav computer to shoot his photon torpedoes into Mt. Doom’s reactor core. This brings us to the premise of The Lord of the Rings: The Third Age.
Instead of following around the same old Fellowship characters you’ve seen a hundred times before, LotR: TTA’s goal was to put you in control of some of the unsung heroes of Middle Earth. The game begins with Berethor, a scout of Gondor who survived a battle at Osgiliath, being sent out to deliver a message to Boromir of the Fellowship. On his way, however, he is attacked by Ringwraiths and only survives through the intervention of Idrial, a servant of Galadriel. The party grows as they continue their journey chasing after the Fellowship, incidentally heroing it up in the process. Sounds promising? There’s one detail I left out.
You see, Electronic Arts only acquired the rights to make games based off the movies, not to make games based off the books. Therefore, the only story elements from the LotR universe that could be used were those that were either found in the movies or those that were not found anywhere in the books. Erring on the side of caution, the player finds that EA stuck with the events of the movies, and that even though the game is about non-Fellowship characters in name, there’s not terribly much originality in them. The nature of your mission sends you traveling along the Fellowship’s path fairly faithfully, pitting you against such clever bosses as that octopus outside of the Mines of Moria and the Balrog that Gandalf supposedly defeated singlehandedly according to canon.
The character development is even worse. The most blatant stereotype is the dwarf, Hadhod, whose only purpose outside of combat seems to be to act overly sullen and to shout about just how much he could use some red meat and dwarven ale, though the rest of the cast also manages to do an admirable job of being completely one-dimensional and unoriginal. The majority of the game’s original story progression is provided through brief cutscenes in which the party speaks amongst its members and, rarely, with outsiders who are usually major characters from the films. These cutscenes are generally brief and do little more than help move along the awkward story, establishing what movie setting they must head toward next, though later in the game the writers made a half-hearted effort at throwing a romantic edge in that hits you completely out of the blue. The story becomes more confusing over time, and it’s clear near the end that whatever they had originally planned, they weren’t given enough time to implement it. Events begin feeling like fragments of a potential story, and the last section of the game in particular feels very rushed.
To cover up this strange lack of storyline in an RPG, the game throws movie snippets at you every five minutes or so along your path. Narrated by Ian McKellen (the voice of Gandalf), these short clips from the movies offer detailed play-by-plays of what the more interesting heroes that you’re chasing after are doing. He gives a spirited performance, but rehashing a movie we’ve all seen already does not an epic storyline make. I suppose they provide decent enough filler material, but the effort spent putting them together could definitely have been put to better use elsewhere.
The game’s actual execution is handled significantly better. Gameplay is heavily combat-oriented, sending your troops marching across 3D zones, occasionally fighting pseudo-random battles, but more often engaging in scripted battles as you progress. Combat is heavily influenced by the system used in Final Fantasy X, which isn’t a bad thing. Essentially turn-based, each character, both player-controlled and AI-controlled, gets an action after a certain period of time has passed, this period being influenced by the characters Speed Attribute as well as the complexity of their last action taken. The nifty point here is that there’s a strip on the right side of the screen displaying the combat order for the next dozen or so actions, allowing you to plan out the best course of action for your troops, focusing on taking down enemies before they have a chance to strike.
The similarities continue with party formation. In battle, you can swap out active party members for your reserve members at no penalty. Each party member has his own skill tree, and the available options for each character does a lot to make them uniquely useful in particular situations, so managing your party is key.
Character development occurs in two ways. First is the skill tree. In combat, each character has a Fight command, an Item command, and two command types unique to them. The unique skill types have associated skill trees which you can unlock by using those types of skills successfully in combat. Perform that type of skill enough and you’ll master whatever skill on the skill tree you’ve selected to learn at the time. Each learned skill usually unlocks the next tier of skills on the skill tree, which are generally more powerful, more expensive in terms of AP, and require greater numbers of successful skill uses to learn. Generally, each of the character’s skill trees serves a different purpose, allowing you to customize your characters performance to a surprising extent based on which tree you take them down. For instance, Berethor the knight can focus either on combat skills, allowing him to do heavier damage, or on battle cries, letting him provide significant boosts to the entire party’s performance and giving him some interesting general effect spells, or on a mix of both, slowing access to the best abilities in the game but making the character more versatile. Although each individual skill tree is pretty narrow and doesn’t branch terribly much, you’re given enough freedom in deciding which skills to learn to keep it from feeling linear. Throw in a few bonus skill trees you can unlock as the game advances and you’re all set.
Characters will also level as they gain experience. Leveling is flexible, in that you are given five stat points each level to assign to the character’s stats. While some degree of balancing is important, you can use this to focus your character on the role you want it to fit. Most characters have skill trees that make them viable in multiple roles, so your decisions here aren’t always too obvious. Also, each level you receive one Passive Skill Point. Passive Skills are abilities that enhance your character’s innate ability instead of being usable by choice, and are learned in more or less the same way, except that you cannot earn Passive Skill Points in any way outside of gaining a level.
Other character modification can be handled through equipment. With so little emphasis on anything but dungeon crawls, most of your gear is won as prizes in combat and the rest is either found in treasure chests hidden (fairly obviously) throughout the game or given to you by the rare bystander. The equipment system is somewhat interesting though. Along with improving your offense and defense, most gear also adds (or subtracts) points from certain stats, sometimes significantly enough to make an old piece of gear worth keeping for its impact on your character’s most important stat, even if it seems less useful in most respects. Also, some weapons come with additional effects such as poisoning or life drain, while most armors have resistances to and weaknesses against certain damage types. I found most of these bonus effects somewhat pointless though, as straight offensive and defensive capabilities generally overwhelmed the bonuses you can gain from mixing and matching armors, and most characters have armor sets that generally all have the same resistances and weaknesses, or simply improve on the old model over time, making decision-making here very simple.
All in all, the game’s combat is solid, although it does get somewhat monotonous after a while. There are occasionally special scenario battles with interesting specific rules, and the game’s heavy emphasis on the use of status effects is something new and very appreciated, but battles definitely feel repetitive with time. Thankfully, random battles were essentially removed from the game. Most set battles can be detected ahead of time by the glowing blue orb (no, I don’t feel like looking up the official name) in the corner, and although there are dangerous areas where random battles do occur if you stick around long enough, an Eye of Sauron symbol begins to glow when you’re in these zones and shows how close you are to being attacked, and a speedy player can run through these areas without getting attacked once.
Aside from combat though, there is sadly little to do in the game. You are offered quests to complete as you progress through the world, usually pertaining to the main storyline at the time but occasionally branching off as a side quest. These side quests, however, are almost always completed as you go along the very linear path of exploring, and the complete lack of worthwhile dialogue keeps them from breaking up the monotony in a game that could easily surpass 50 hours. The game has two difficulty settings, Normal and Hard, and playing through on Hard mode I found a few situations where things got hairy and I died a few times, but Save Points and free healing are common throughout the game.
One last point worth mentioning on combat is Evil Mode, a version of the game that you can play after completing each chapter of the game. The concept is simple: you control a team made up of the bad guys you faced in that chapter and beat on the heroes in a series of consecutive battles. Completing these fights rewards you with generally excellent gear, but the real appeal to it is the little thrill that goes along with having your trolls bash your less-liked characters to death. It’s not a major point in the game at all (although many ads advertised the choice to play as a good or evil character), but it’s a neat and simple feature to a game that needed a little extra.
Graphically, the game does what was expected of it. Character models and armor designs are ripped straight from the movies, so there’s not terribly much to say of originality. However, the level of detail used is still high, and some of the more exotic weapons and armor you find are worth taking note of (Hadhod’s Dragon Helmet, for instance). The characters are animated well, and the fact that clothes worn beneath armor are animated independently was a nice touch, but that’s about all I can say for the graphics positively. The game suffers heavily from a shortage of enemy types to work with, and you find yourself encountering extremely similar looking enemies again and again with simple changes to the name, such as the “Feeble Warg” eventually evolving into the “Hungering Warg,” the “Enraged Warg,” and the rare and elusive “Yellow-Bellied Sap-Sucking Warg.” While there are graphical adjustments to these different enemies, they’re subtle and easy to miss, and the animations are all pretty much the same.
Attack animations are generally weak stylistically (there were a few exceptions) and the spell effects especially are terrible. This may be magnified due to the fact that new moves generally don’t replace old moves in your repertoire and you see the same attack hundreds of times by the end of the game, but a little flair and pizzazz and particle effect usage could’ve improved things. Also, everyone attacks very slowly. Where Final Fantasy X’s turn based battles felt somewhat fluid and spontaneous, The Third Age’s fight animations make it feel stiff and rigid and, sadly, unskippable.
Environments were drab and relied much too heavily on the settings in the movies. While a volcanic CG cavern can be really cool with excellent camera work, battles generally choose one or two points of view and stick with them. The movie segment FMVs in the game were handled well with only a few moments of video skipping, but I hardly count that as game content anyway.
In an unsurprising move, the game’s soundtrack is in the same vein as that of the films, using sweeping, epic orchestral pieces which incorporated elements of the movies’ soundtracks often. The possibility that some of these songs were ripped directly from the movies is there, but I honestly can neither confirm nor deny this since the music never really struck me as particularly interesting enough to pay much attention to. If you adored the music in the movies, maybe this will be right up your alley, but I found it to be satisfactory-yet-dull background ambience.
Sound effects managed nicely, however, with convincing sword swings, shield clangs, arrow whistles, and battle cries. Also, any game where you get to hear the sound Legolas makes when a troll bludgeons his skull in is doing something right. Even better, strangely enough, was the voice acting. Although the game’s story was paper-thin, the actors they got together to perform definitely had some talent and really stuck out when compared to the usual performances you find in video game VA.
Finally we have controls, which were really handled very well. Menus were clear and informative, battle controls were mostly ripped from a pretty good game and thus are pretty good, saving is convenient, and the near absence of random battles was a very nice touch. If the game’s fights just flowed a little more smoothly I could see controls getting a perfect score.
Is the game fun? Sure, but don’t expect to get blown away by any part of it. Is the game playable? Definitely, and that’s a very high mark considering how bad most LotR RPGs tend to be. If you’re in need of a decent RPG to play on your Xbox, give this one a go. By now its price has fallen to a very reasonable range, and you’ll get about your money’s worth. Just a heads up: The Lord of the Rings: The Third Age is NOT COMPATIBLE WITH THE XBOX 360, so consider yourself warned.