Reviewed: November 19, 2002
Released: October 22, 2002
Basing a computer game on a popular book or movie (or both) will always be sound marketing strategy for game developers and publishers. After all, there is already a strong fan base waiting to buy your product, and much of the game’s universe- the characters, settings, and background story- is already in place.
So it comes as no surprise that the Lord Of The Rings franchise, with its blockbuster movies and best selling books, has once again become the focus of computer and video games on all platforms.
Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (FOTR) for the PC is an action/adventure game, with some puzzle solving mixed in. True to the story, it follows the quest of the “Fellowship”, a group of hobbits, elves, dwarves, and humans charged with destroying the “One Ring” a source of great power- and great evil. The ring is sought by its creator, the powerful Sauron, who would use it to rule over middle Earth. As the Fellowship journeys to Mordor, where the ring was forged and the only place where it may be destroyed, the adventurers must face Sauron’s minions and a variety of other challenges to the completion of their quest.
With high production values, great graphics, and a solid storyline, FOTR has most of the ingredients in place for a terrific game. But once again (this comes up in way too many reviews) control issues and some questionable design choices conspire to take Fellowship down a few notches from what it could have been. I recommend it only with some reservations.
The game begins with a beautifully rendered cutscene in which Gandalf, a wizard, tells the hobbit Frodo of the true nature of the One Ring. From there, the game pretty much follows the path of the book as Frodo leaves his home at Bag End on his quest to destroy the ring. Along the way, the player passes through most of the noteworthy locations in the book, such as Rivendell where the Fellowship is formed, and the mines of Moriah, continuing all the way to the river Anduin.
The cutscene and the opening gameplay hold a lot of promise. Navigating Frodo from a third person, over the shoulder perspective through a faithfully designed Shire, one has time to enjoy the beautiful graphics and become accustomed to the controls of the game. There are only simple errands to run such as bringing the deed for Frodo’s home to Lobelia Sackville Baggins, and there is no sense of urgency, presumably to lead the player into the game gently.
And yet, as the game progresses from location to location the puzzles never really become that difficult, the sense of urgency never really increases, and one has the feeling that the game can be muddled through and completed without great difficulty. In fact, the greatest challenges to the player are his own controls and the camera angles, which sometimes make it difficult to fight the bad guys.
Older games have made good use of over the shoulder camera angles without major problems. But Fellowship’s camera had a difficult time maneuvering in the tighter spaces, most notably the mines. Trying to fight multiple enemies while fighting the camera is bad enough- figuring out exactly where to stand to execute a required “finishing move” on an opponent worsens matters even further. This is not a good thing when fighting makes up a large part of the game.
At set points in FOTR, player control switches between Frodo and one of two other characters; Aragorn and Gandalf. All three characters can fight up close or at a distance, and each has a traditional health meter. But each character also has unique strengths.
The hobbit Frodo, weakest of the three, is a stealth character. He can sneak around and avoid enemies; a “sneak icon” lets the player know if he’s been detected. Frodo can also make use of the One Ring to render himself invisible, but prolonged use exposes him to corruption. A purity meter decreases as the ring is worn, if it runs out, Frodo has been corrupted and the game is lost. Frodo’s levels involve quite a bit of puzzle solving as opposed to combat.
Aragorn is a fighter, plain and simple, with stronger attacks and a special kick move that packs a wallop, while the magician Gandalf’s “ranged attack” is his arsenal of offensive spells. He also has healing spells. Gandalf’s magic meter depletes with each spell cast, and regenerates with potions.
Fans of the book will be disappointed by the fact that the Fellowship doesn’t really feel like one. Much of the time you’re quite lonely, seeing only the character you are controlling and not the rest of your party. It would have been worth the effort to include all of the members of the Fellowship as player characters with unique skills, and to be able to switch among the adventurers at will, making character selection for a given task an element of the gameplay. For example, the player chooses an elf to translate an Elven inscription. This way, even though you are only seeing and controlling the actions of one character, you feel that your comrades are “with you”, available should you require their help.
FOTR also suffers from another illness common to book and movie tie-ins; too much focus on the franchise, and not enough focus on the gameplay. The developers undoubtedly pondered such issues as how to make the game true to the book, what locations to include, and so on. Who can blame them? Many Tolkien fans will no doubt obsess on these same issues in their assessment of the game.
I feel strongly that no game should be so much like the book on which it is based that the player anticipates what will happen next. This is not supposed to be a re-enactment. To design a game as such is to cheat the player out of any sense of exploration, any sense of discovery, which is a major part of the gaming experience.
This is perhaps, at least in part, why FOTR never develops a sense of urgency. Knowing the story as I do, I kept anticipating, kept comparing what happens next in the game with what happened in the book. So I never found the game to be as interesting in its own right as it might have been.
I could not get FOTR to run properly on my system, a 1-gigahertz Pentium with an Intel motherboard, 128MB RDRAM, and a Hercules GeForce 2 Ultra video card. I could hear everything spoken, but all that appeared onscreen were spreading circles of white light.
The game played fine on a PIII 650 with SDRAM and a TNT2 video card. Cutscenes and in-game graphics were absolutely beautiful and well detailed, despite being viewed in low resolution on a minimum spec system. They also remained true to the images created by the books and the movie.
One graphical glitch, which slightly spoiled the otherwise perfect scenery, was that the square patch of ground under my character’s feet appeared, for lack of a better word, untextured. This was most obvious in the sunny, grassy opening areas of the game, though it occurred elsewhere as well.
The voice actors seemed to really put feeling into their characters, without being too over-the-top. The voices were about as good as one could expect for a computer game.
Although not memorable, the music was quite good as well, fitting in nicely with what we’ve come to expect from a fantasy setting.
Fellowship is a fairly short game, taking no more than seven to ten hours to complete even if one takes his time and goes through all of the little side quests available. Despite these errands, the game is fairly linear, and none of the puzzles are really that difficult.
It’s unlikely that anyone would play FOTR a second time, another run through wouldn’t yield anything new. Had the game been designed differently, the player might have been encouraged to try repeating an area as Aragorn or Gandalf instead of Frodo, requiring a completely different strategy to finish the level. But such is not the case.
There is also no multiplayer support, or any other feature that would add value to the game.
Although Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring is laden with design and control issues that will frustrate even die-hard Tolkien fans, these problems don’t render the game unplayable.
Fellowship could have been so much more, but it is still a decent action/adventure game with good production values and a great setting. The game’s faithful recreation of the characters and places in the book will definitely appeal to many gamers looking to return to Middle Earth. Lord of the Rings fans and others may enjoy it as a short diversion if they can overlook its flaws.