Lord of the Rings: the Third Age Review
by Lassarina Aoibhell
Given that I have an almost obsessive love of the fantasy genre, it comes as something of a surprise to my friends that I have never read the Lord of the Rings trilogy in its entirety. In fact, I never read any of it until after I had seen The Fellowship of the Ring (which was all of about a month before The Two Towers hit theatres.) To this day, although I love the movies, I've never managed to plow through all three of the books. It's on my "I'll do it when I have time" list.
Regardless of all that, I enjoyed the movies sufficiently to spend the money for Lord of the Rings: the Third Age. (Besides, I was bored and wanted a new game.) I picked up the GameCube version and sat down with a very good friend who loves Lord of the Rings to see what it was all about.
In many ways, this game reminds me of Final Fantasy X and Final Fantasy X-2. You have a three-person party and at any time you can swap in your dormant party members to take the place of an active one. Each character has two skill trees that they can build up by using the skills over and over again. You select a skill that you want to learn, which requires a particular number of points (much like the Dressphere system of FFX-2). Each time you use an already-learned skill from that tree, you earn points toward that particular tree. After you've accumulated enough points, you learn a new skill.
In addition to the two skill trees innately possessed by each character, there are various orbs and other shiny things you can equip to gain other abilities, such as an item that allows you to craft healing or attack items in mid-battle. This allows for a certain amount of flexibility among the characters in terms of battle strategy. The option to craft healing items is also particularly useful, as there aren't any handy shops or wandering merchants to sell you new items and equipment. (However, dropped items after battle and equipment found in dungeons are fairly common.) One nifty aspect is that putting new equipment on a character changes their appearance, as in a game like Neverwinter Nights.
One cool aspect of the gameplay is the option for Evil Mode. After completing an area, you can return to it as the minions of Sauron that just got their butts handed to them by the heroes, and return the favour. Completing an area in Evil Mode unlocks pretty shinies that can be used to boost your characters, which is kind of neat.
The plot is not in any way original. Your characters are a group of warriors and adventurers trailing along in the wake of the Fellowship. Berethor, the party leader, is for all intents and purposes, Aragorn all over again. You have Hadhod the dwarf (aka Gimli), Morwen the Rohirrim (chick with dual axes who steals stuff), Idrial (an elf with a sword and some of Arwen's nifty spells), a Rohirric warrior named Eomer (horse-less, for some reason) with a big spear, and other familiar faces. The characters, like the plot, are nothing new and special. I didn't really care one way or the other what happened to any of them. Since a good story and good characters will make me put up with absurdly bad gameplay, the lack of memorable characters and plot counts severely against this game. (I had to really work at it to remember the names of most of the characters!)
As your little band of ragtags wander around Middle-Earth, you occasionally intersect with characters from the movies. You get to fight the Balrog with Gandalf; you fight alongside Aragorn and Gimli at the battle for Helm's Deep; you get to fight alongside Legolas and Eowyn. The intersection with the movies is fairly substantial. Indeed, most of the cutscenes (and there are a plethora, which cause this game to span two discs in the GameCube version) are footage drawn directly from the movies. While on the one hand, it's nice to revisit aspects of the movies, I was left feeling like the game was an immense cop-out. There was very little new and interesting.
For all its lack of originality and occasional annoying gameplay flaws, Lord of the Rings: the Third Age has two excellent strong points: graphics, and music. The graphics are really excellent, with detailed textures and lots of strong colours. Wandering around in the Mines of Moria, you view a very shadowy environment composed largely of massive dark-grey stone, while the plains of the Riddemark are open with vast blue skies and endless waves of rippling green grass. Movie clips aside, the in-game graphics are quite excellent. The Balrog is thoroughly terrifying, as it ought to be. The music is certainly on par with the movies, so if you liked the music in the movie trilogy, you will like the music in this game.
One other thing worth mentioning about this game is the difficulty level. It's not that the game is unduly hard; it's that the difficulty curve was set poorly. There are swathes of the game where it's very easy and normal enemies barely touch you. Then, as you shift from one segment of Middle-Earth to another, the difficulty skyrockets. The rise in difficulty level is very uneven and can get annoying when you're used to skimming along barely paying attention to what you're doing and suddenly that one random enemy guy wasted your party. The game is of a decent length, running between 40 and 60 gameplay hours depending on how much you want to build every skill tree and skill accessory to the maximum.
Overall, I found this an enjoyable, if forgettable, game. If you're looking for a bit of brain-dead RPG fun and you love Lord of the Rings, it's probably a good choice for you. If you're looking for genre-changing experimentation, bold new plot devices, and intriguing three-dimensional characters, you'd be better off somewhere else. Still, I consider the money and time well-spent.
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