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SummarySchhwWWWingTchrrr!!! Yeah THX, that's what a bow sounds like...
The GoodThe Lord of the Rings saga (one of the FEW things to come out in 20 years that deserves to be even called a saga) is undoubtedly epic. I don't even need to say that, you know it - J.R.R. Tolkien's seminal work has been put to film and it is pretty darn good.
And of course, there's been media galore - at least two dozen games on many platforms (some better than others), A table-top game (by Games Workshop) an RPG in the D20 system published by Wizards of the Coast - the list goes on.
So how does this attempt to do a traditional platform RPG stack up?
LET'S TALK GAME-PLAY
- Camera is very co-operative, it'll let you check out your outfit and moves around obediently.
- The run speed is appropriate, the terrain finding is maybe a little rounded (the programmed floor goes has a wide radius around obstacles) but keeps you moving.
- There are a lot of chests all over the place.
- The level design is logical and lets you know when a boss-fight is coming.
- The menu system is easy to move around in.
- The battle menu is organized the same for each character, although they all have different abilities.
- Evil Mode is one of the most fun mini-games I have seen in an RPG and they do right to brag about it on the back of the box here - playing as the Balrog and smashing Gandalf and your own party is tons of fun!
LET'S TALK GRAPHICS
- They spent a lot of time getting the art design right on this and it shows. Considering the graphical limitations of the PS2 they designed the faces of the known characters first and then followed suit with the story characters. I appreciate the effort.
- The armor and weapons (visible) look great, I always applaud an RPG that takes the time to SHOW me that new breast-plate or ax I picked up. And the fact that they know enough to break the armor down into the base components - greaves, frauld, bracers, etc. That took dedication. And the armor you find throughout the game matches the look of what you previously had, so that your battered suit of simple armor evolves into a citadel guard ornamental suit rather than seeming to be mis-matched pieces. Very thoughtful.
- The backgrounds are matches with the movies, some exceptions made. The up-close are nice, the far-off horizons are a little blurry but okay.
LET'S TALK STORY
- Unfortunately this is where the game tacks a bit of flak from people. I personally think the story is perfectly okay for a traditional RPG - hell, at least the main character has DIALOGUE in this one. How many times did Cloud even talk in FF7? The real showcase of the game is the setting. The game knows that, and if you didn't get it I'm sorry.
- The characters stay pretty true to the Tolkien established archetypes (and he painted some pretty broad strokes), with a few influences from the movies and set design.
- I like how you bump into canon characters in a way that does not under-mine (exactly) the movies. You fight the Balrog alongside Gandalf before he leads it to the narrow edge, etc.
LET'S TALK SOUND
- Well, this game will use your speakers. All over this thing is plastered "THX certified sound", and they mean it. Check below for how I feel about that.
The BadLET'S TALK GAME-PLAY
- The map designs, and especially the mini-map are very weird. They feel the need to outline every walk-able space and leave obstacles excluded. More, the shape of the maps is just oblong all to heck. What this does is have you running towards a poorly defined 'glow' on your mini-map but with just a general indication of direction rather than a solid idea of where it is. You can zoom out, but oddly never enough to see where you are going. That is just awkward. What would I do better? I'd either break the maps into smaller chunks or have a visible 'over-map' for an area in the menu.
- Too many chests. I never thought I'd say this, but there are too many chests in this game. In a true RPG the presence of a treasure chest is a rare treat and a cause for a celebration. Here I'm thinking "Ugh, again? What useless crap is in this box? Is Gandalf going to pop out and spout pointless exposition?"
- "Epic Scenes From Middle Earth" - I understand that having Sir Ian McKellan in the studio makes it tempting to use him, but for crying out loud these are boring and pointless! And there are almost a hundred of them! Every dang time I open a chest it asks "Would you like to hear poor Ian ramble on for two minutes while we show ambiguous clips from the movies?" NO!
- Although there are maybe three or four complete sets of armor for each party character there are at least 25 different swords for the main character - why in the heck do I need so many?
- Just like ,Legaia 2: Duel Saga this game is bogged down in stats that really don't mean jack squat to me. Every piece of equipment in the game has modifiers for elemental resistance, that change your core stats, as well as complicated armor values against piercing/blunt/slashing - Why? There are less than two dozen distinct enemies in the game, why is it acting like it is some grand open-ended RPG? Even the Final Fantasy series, in its hey-day, didn't bog combat down with meaningless stats. What the heck do I care for water resistance stats?
- The items are atrocious. I know I complained in my Legaia 2 review about useless items but this game takes the cake, there are pages of status or stat changing items that you will never use. This game does not require the level of tactics that the items suggest.
- Item crafting. Again, this game forgets its scope! You really think I want to spend that many turns in battle crafting items? I added it up, it's about 500 turns to get to the last item you can craft. You'll understand what I'm complaining about in a few seconds here.
- Where do I buy stuff? I know that in the movies they didn't have time to stop by 'ye store', but a staple of traditional RPG's (by which I mean the ones with all of the stats and equipment) needs to have stores.
- They could have made more content when it comes to monsters. As I said there are maybe two dozen unique enemy types.
- The real pitfall here is the ascribed blandness of the characters. Ironically, more than anything, it feels like a D&D game where the characters are in it for the combat and are not interested in playing their characters. You might as well call the Elf 'Elf', the Dwarf 'Dwarf', and the Ranger... you get the idea. They really are pale versions of the character (in the story) their class hails from. In a strange way this is circular, our (D&D and RPG) idea of what an Elf is like derives from LOTR, same with a Dwarf, so the stereotypes do not work well here.
- Finally we get to the beef! I have never seen sound design (and I'm not even talking voice acting) destroy a game before. I can't believe I played this some five years ago and didn't remember how bad it is. Maybe I played it on mute or something. One attack you will use often is your Ranger's 'aimed shot ability'. This involves him drawing a bow and firing one shot.THX technicians live in a bizarre world where the sound of this bow drawing is a mix between a circular saw, an elephant roar, a .45 caliber gun cocking, and buried in the background the sound of a rope stretching. Honestly, nothing in this world sounds right! The special attacks are just cringe-worthy, but even the normal effects are ridiculous. Sword strikes on flesh sound like striking sheet metal with a lightning rod! What in the hell?
- The noises the enemies make are loud, repetitive, and equally silly. In one boss fight you face two Uruk-Hai spearmen who do nothing other than scream at the top of their lungs (phlegm shooting everywhere) for a full five seconds before running forward and stabbing you. This is all they do.
The Bottom LineThis game has a serious disconnect between what it is and what it thinks it is. The writer and the director did not get together on this one. It plays like an action RPG but it is built on a very complex (like Final Fantasy Tactics complex) system of rules that you will never care about because it is an action RPG! How Electronic Arts failed to see this is baffling - they had already made action RPG's out of the movies, hell, they were good ones too! And all you had to do in them was get XP and level up! Just add simple armor elements to your existing formula and call it a day.
At the end of the day this isn't a horrible or unplayable game, if it had nothing to do with LOTR I would call it absolutely mediocre. The fact that is does have to do with LOTR actually does nothing for it - it's getting away without having to come up with original locations or monsters in return for the cheap thrill of playing as the Balrog.