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SummaryOne game to find them, and to exploration bind them
The GoodAfter Interplay delivered the groundbreaking Wasteland, they continued to conduct experiments in the field of role-playing games with a bold move: an adaptation of one of the most influential books in the history of the century (at least in the realm of the fantasy genre): J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings.
First, a few words of warning: this game covers only the first volume of the story, and even that not in its entirety. The plot ends with a confrontation that was not present in the book, slightly before the original final chapters. So if you are looking for an exact reenactment of the epic work, you are probably going to be disappointed. The game is slow-paced and you'll have to go through a lot of gameplay to get to the famous dramatic events; it is not a cinematic action game, but an RPG with open-ended wandering, party management, and so on. In my eyes, however, this is a plus: I never expect games to mimic books or movies; on the contrary, I want them to focus on gameplay as much as they can - and that's exactly what this rendition of Lord of the Rings does.
The game's world is vast, almost seamless (there are transitions between very large areas), and fairly open-ended. You must find a few crucial items and info to complete the game, but the bulk of the gameplay is dedicated to simply exploring the world, searching for things to do. There are plenty of houses, characters, optional locations, and other stuff to look for for. The game doesn't restrict your movement and allows you to gradually become acquainted with its world. What I particularly love in this sort of games are all those shortcuts, optional paths, and other tricks they allow you to do. Lord of the Rings does a great job at being flexible that way. Don't want to go through a maze-like forest? You can take the main road - but a tough battle awaits you there. Had enough of the huge, multi-leveled dungeon they have made out of the Moria mines? Find a shortcut that would lead you straight to Balrog.
The game tries to keep the main plot as far away from you as possible; I consider this an excellent achievement the designers should be commended for. Too many games, licensed or otherwise, force events down your throat; on the other hand, games based on other popular media often ignore too much of the material that made the original attractive in the first place. Lord of the Rings solves both problems in an elegant, convincing way: it contains most of the story and the characters, but inserts them into the game in such a fashion that they rarely stand in your path. You can, theoretically, avoid most battles and march into Moria with Frodo alone. You can totally skip important events such as Old Man Willow or the meeting in Bree. You can recruit Boromir, take his equipment, and then kick him out of the party - and there is nothing he'll be able to do about that.
Yet, if you are nostalgically-minded, you can try to cling to the plot with a fair degree of success. It's all there - you'll just have to find it. Tom Bombadil is waiting for you in his house and he will ask you to give him the ring - and it will be up to you to agree or decline. Gandalf is calmly sitting outside of Elrond's house: talk to him if you want, and you'll have a powerful wizard in your party; or just walk away. The game also adds tons of optional content that, for the most part, fits the story very well. Fancy discovering ancient ruins in the Shire, duking it out with trolls, investigating a murder, etc. Many characters that were not present in the book join your party, and some of them have backgrounds and personal objectives.
The game beautifully conveys the sensation of having a grand adventure: you are free to wander wherever you want, and your main task would probably be finding somebody who could protect the hobbits from harm. Your little heroes are realistically weak and vulnerable, having little chance in a direct fight even against a single Black Rider. But things change when you begin recruiting humans and other helpful creatures. It really feels true to the spirit of the book when you initially control four poor little guys who can barely handle a dagger, and end up with mighty warriors and wizards. This also compensates, at least partly, for the lack of true character development.
There are some interesting touches in the role-playing system. Skills like charisma, sneaking, or perception are fun to use, and thorough exploration and experimentation is usually rewarded with all sorts of secrets, hidden items, and so on. It adds an almost puzzle-like element to some of the quests. In fact, Lord of the Rings does feel a bit like an adventure game with RPG elements sometimes, and I must say I didn't entirely dislike that approach. Full-screen navigation, simple interface, and limited customization possibilities point out to absence of complex menus and meticulous micro-management. This is hardly a good thing per se, but I consider open-ended gameplay a more important component - and Lord of the Rings certainly did not let me down in that respect.
The CD version is vastly superior to the floppy release. Its most important addition is the much-needed automap: with the stroke of a key, you can access a zoomed-out view of the location, which is extremely helpful in a game with vast and fairly monotonous areas. It also puts the manual information serving as copy protection into the game itself. This version greatly enhances atmosphere and the quality of presentation by adding a beautifully orchestrated soundtrack, and inserting quite a few cutscenes taken directly from Ralph Bakshi's 1978 Lord of the Rings cartoon. True, that movie may not have been the ultimate Tolkien-based product, but its artistic and technical quality is clearly above what we usually saw in video games back then. These scenes add a lot of dramatic flow to the game's otherwise laid-back pace.
The BadBasing a game on a well-known work of literature is always a very tricky business. Interactive entertainment poses different demands, rightly putting gameplay above the narrative in its scale of preferences. Interplay's Lord of the Rings valiantly tried to faithfully follow the plot while pushing forward its gameplay ideas as much as it could. This, however, led to some discrepancies, the most glaring of which is odd balancing. In order to stay true to the story, the game had to have a certain event that gives you access to four or five very powerful characters at once. These render many subsequent fights so easy that you feel you've been given cheat codes. I think they could have at least made some enemies tougher to pose a challenge for the extremely beefed-up party.
In general, the absence of systematically placed challenges undermines the overall structure: you can clearly sense what evolved naturally from the game's mechanics and what was forced upon it by the iron hand of the plot. Also, the game is often inexplicably shy with character development and prefers to keep certain features in the shadow. Despite the many finely-tuned RPG elements, Lord of the Rings actually resembles an adventure game with its sporadic combat and lack of experience points and levels. I found this format interesting, but I don't think I would oppose a more rewarding system that doesn't encourage you to avoid combat simply because there isn't much to gain from it.
The game's open nature sometimes leads to repetitiveness that is further exacerbated by a rather plain visual design. Most outdoor areas consists of identically-looking green meadows and brown roads; houses and dungeons lack detail as well. Dialogues are painfully short and impersonal. You can type in keywords to talk to characters, but this feature is woefully underused. I tried chatting with those guys about everything I could think of, but they remained indifferent: "Hello Frodo. I'm a fellow hobbit who lives to the left of your house". - "Hobbit". - "I can't help you with that". - "Fellow". - "I can't help you with that". - "Left". - "I can't help you with that". - "House". - "I can't help you with that". Talking to people isn't worth much if they don't want to talk to you...