Reviewed: November 2, 2002
Released: September 24, 2002
Last year’s Lord of the Rings movie reacquainted a whole new generation with the amazing fantasy series from J.R.R. Tolkien. Sacrifices are usually made when translating a book into a feature film, and while Peter Jackson took special care to keep the film as true to the novel as possible, certain “creative liberties” were taken to condense the book into a 3-hour movie.
Games based on movies are problematic from their conception and when they are based on movies based on books the chance of releasing a real stinker is even greater. The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring is a true testament to designers who take the time and care to keep their game as closely rooted to the original material as possible.
In this case, the designers had the luxury of operating under Universal Publishing’s exclusive, long-term agreement with Tolkien Enterprises to create interactive entertainment based on the literary works. So what you have here is a game that follows the book much more than the movie, and in doing so will probably please or upset fans of the film or the novel depending on which one you are familiar with or enjoyed the most.
Lord of the Rings features:
Fellowship of the Ring allows you to play as Frodo, Aragorn, and Gandalf as you advance through the various missions that make up the overall quest. Each character has their own unique weapons and abilities that keep the gameplay challenging and fresh for the most part.
You start the game off as Frodo and must wrap up your affairs in the Shire before undertaking the quest that Gandalf has put upon you. This initial level serves two purposes. It acts as your tutorial to get you comfortable with the controls, and it allows you to perform a variety of mini-quests to build up Frodo’s Purity meter.
The Purity meter comes into play once you take possession of the One Ring. When you start the game your meter is in the neutral (middle) position. As you do good deeds this meter inches to the right. If you misbehave (stealing from friends or smashing items in their houses) it moves to the left. If it reaches the far left Frodo is beyond hope and the game is over.
Your Purity is not only affected by your actions but also by the corrupting powers of the One Ring. Each time you wear the ring there is an initial “hit” to your Purity meter and then it slowly reduces over time as you wear the ring. A good analogy would be $2.99 for the first minute and .99 a minute after that. Obviously, once you put it on it is best to leave it on as long as you need to rather than repeatedly taking it off and on. Once you leave the Shire your chances for doing good deeds are much fewer, so you need to watch that Purity reserve.
Aragorn and Gandalf also have a similar meter; Aragorn’s is basically a mini-health meter for Frodo on missions where he is charged to protect our brave little Hobbit, whereas Gandalf’s meter represents his Spirit level (or mana). This is the juice that powers all of the amazing spells at our wizard’s command.
Unfortunately, you do not get to pick your hero, so you are at the mercy of the designers and the script. Speaking of the script, I may as well get this out of the way now. This game follows the book very closely, which has both its pro’s and con’s. Obviously, the pro is that this is a great tribute to the original novel. The con is that if you have read the novel then there are no surprises in store for you, much like last year’s Harry Potter movie.
Normally when game designers take an existing piece of work and build a game from it they spin the game design off on some tangent. This title follows the book so closely that you will soon find yourself fidgeting in anticipation of reaching Weathertop or fighting the Cave Troll or tentacle beast in the lake. Soon, the combat and puzzles become annoyances, standing between where you are and where you know you will be going.
The core gameplay is pretty tame by modern day adventure game standards. You spend a lot of time wandering around talking to everyone and collecting all sorts of random items. If you don’t talk to the right person first you may have an item that seems pointless only to have it become a critical solution to a future puzzle after you talk to a certain character.
I must voice my extreme displeasure and annoyance with the inventory system that places the most recent item picked up in my active slot. Imagine if you will, having to pick the lock on several chests. Each time you pick the lock and take the item inside it replaces your lock pick as the current item. This forces you to cycle through your inventory to highlight the lock pick every single time. That’s assuming you even notice. I accidentally used up a Cram and several mushrooms trying to open a chest before I realized my lock pick had been replace with a shroom.
Playing as Frodo in the early levels was the most fun for me. Talking to everyone and completing all the sub-quests reminded me of the good ole days of King's Quest. Once you get the Ring you keep it visible in your inventory and it will spin when you are near a secret area. It spins faster as you get closer to the entrance and when you put on the ring and the world shifts to a black and white shimmer you can enter the secret area.
Secret areas are exclusive to the Xbox and after finding about 6-8 of these I stopped looking for them. They generally consisted of rat-filled caves with a few healing items scattered about. Ultimately, the damage inflicted upon you from the 3-5 rats that tag-team you around every corner is a wash with the healing items. If you are lucky you might make it out with a leaf to cure poison.
Boss encounters seemed ridiculously easy. The lake monster was basically Gandalf running back and forth lobbing fireballs or lighting while dodging the predictable slaps of the giant tentacles. The Barrow Wight looked like a promising encounter until you ended it by summoning Tom who defeats the creature with a silly song. Even the Cave Troll made famous in the movie was easily defeated with a few shockwave spells from Gandalf.
The only encounters that will present any challenge are the ones where you are hopelessly outnumbered. The Mines of Moria come to mind where you play as both Aragorn and Gandalf and will fight hundreds of orcs. Here, the game turns into a version of Gauntlet with orc generators located in the wall that continually spit out orcs until you destroy them.
Once the fellowship is formed the NPC characters all tag along for the cutscenes but during actual gameplay you will only control (and see) one character. When a movie kicks in everyone magically appears (maybe they were hiding under Gandalf’s robe). During some boss fights like the lake monster they will lend their support.
During the adventure you can upgrade various items for the NPC’s like a legendary axe for the dwarf or a new bow for Aragorn. Frodo can upgrade his stick to a bigger and better stick and eventually get a dagger and ultimately, Sting. Unfortunately, once you get Sting you don’t really play Frodo again until the end of the game so benefits of this blade are pretty much lost in the game.
Gameplay is a mix of adventure in the beginning with a splattering of puzzles. These are generally the “find Item A to give to Person X to get Reward G”, although there are a few puzzles involving moving/sliding boxes. The only two puzzles that presented any real challenge were the mirror/light puzzle in Moria and an optional 3-button pressure plate puzzle after I had left Tom’s house. The latter puzzle netted me about 8 item pick-ups but took me nearly two-hours to figure out. None of the items were critical to the completion of the game, but I felt smarter for having figured it out.
Once you leave the Shire the game becomes almost non-stop action no matter which character you are controlling. There are a few quests tossed into the mix like finding a dozen Lilies for Tom or having Aragorn wander through town looking for materials to make Hobbit dummies to fool the Ring Wraiths, but even these quests are hopelessly bogged down with endless combat. There is even the insipid maze puzzle in the form of a dark and nasty forest with trees that move around and block your path.
There is an abundance of health supplies and other pick-ups so you are never in any real danger of not winning this game. You can save your game whenever you like and the game checkpoints and saves itself at campsites between each level.
Fellowship of the Ring looks good on all formats but the Xbox version really shines. The designers have pulled out all the stops and used every feature the nVidia chipset has to offer. The characters are modeled extremely well with ample polygons and great textures and the levels are all populated with charming architecture and ambience.
The levels are good size and incredibly detailed. PS2 gamers will lament the torturous load times while Xbox gamers will endure a shorter initial load and almost instant reloads thanks to the hard drive caching recent levels. A good example is the first time you leave Bag-End. It takes well over a full minute to load the Shire, but once it’s loaded you can enter and exit your home and it all swaps almost instantly.
The various lands are all complimented by excellent time of day lighting and weather effects like fog, rain, and snow. Whether you are exploring the wolf-infested mountain path in the pink glow of sunrise, chatting about food with Pippin and Merry around the campfire, or battling the lake monster in the blue glow of the full moon reflecting off the still pond, every frame of this game is a Kodak moment.
There are some excellent special effects that start with the first box of fireworks you discover. I’ve found at least six of these crates and each one blows up in a spectacular display of pyrotechnics from a variety of thrilling camera angles. I’m not sure if there is a special reward for finding them all, but just watching them blow up was rewarding enough.
There are gorgeous particle and lighting effects, mainly attached to Gandalf’s staff. You have never seen anything as cool or creepy as Gandalf walking through the dark mines of Moria with only the glow of his staff lighting the way casting unearthly shadows on the walls and ceiling. The black and white fisheye effect when Frodo is wearing the Ring is chilling and very well done.
As good as the game graphics are, the cutscenes take it all to the next level with some amazing pre-rendered movies that fall right between FMV quality and game engine graphics. My favorite scene is obviously the movie where the Riders are swept away by the raging river. This scene has been perfectly reconstructed with stunning CG graphics to match the movie almost exactly.
The soundtrack for Lord of the Rings rivals that of the feature film. The music cues to the situation, or rather certain locations so it ranges from pleasant and cherry as you explore the Shire to downright scary when you are trying to find your way out of the haunted forest. The only problem I had with the music was the fact that it changed based on location and not events, so you were often “warned” of impending doom before you ever saw it. Of course the inverse is true as well, so when the music gets pleasant after a brutal encounter you know you have killed everyone.
Sound effects are perfect in quality and placement. Every possible sound has been taken into consideration and recreated and attached to the appropriate items and actions. There are excellent environmental sounds like running water, crackling fire, birds chirping, wolves growling, and whatever that sound is that an 8-foot spider makes when it drops out of a tree.
The game supports and makes use of Dolby Digital 5.1 surround so you can identify targets and their location. This was especially useful in the Shire when Frodo was constantly getting attacked by bees. They would be buzzing around and the sound would literally travel around my 6-speaker setup causing me to instinctively duck and swat at the air.
The voice acting is also feature film quality. Every line of dialog is spoken and it is all delivered by very professional voice talent that actually resembles the voices of the cast from the movie. There are subtle accents and everyone conveys the appropriate emotions whether it be fear, humor, anger, or bravado. Those of you who have read the books will know there are a few musical numbers within the story. The main ones are the scenes with Frodo singing at the bar just before he accidentally slips on the Ring, and of course, Tom’s big song and dance routine. While these were omitted from the movie for whatever reason (actually Tom was omitted from the movie), they have been included in the game and are quite enjoyable.
Despite the high production values in both sound and graphics, when it comes down to gameplay and getting your money’s worth, Fellowship of the Ring simply can’t hold up to the limited scope of the design. Experienced adventure gamers will fly through this title in 10-12 hours while novices can muddle their way through in under 20, making this a great weekend rental. Only the most diehard of Tolkien fans will want to make this a permanent addition to their Xbox library.
The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring is a fantastic game based on a fantastic story. The graphics, music, sound, and dialog all combine to create a truly interactive movie, or rather novel in this case. The only thing that brings this game’s score down is the limited scope and repetitiveness of the gameplay, it’s predicable storyline that actually puts you “on rails” after you leave the Shire, and the lack of any substantial replay value once you have finished the adventure.
Every Tolkien fan should treat themselves to at least a rental, and when this game eventually hits budget pricing it would be worthy of a possible purchase. The groundwork has been laid, and we can only hope for bigger and better adventures in the future using this level of technical achievement.