Reviewed: January 10, 2005
Released: November 2, 2004
Lord of the Rings: The Third Age is the latest in the ongoing string of licensed titles coming out of EA. If you remember, EA got the license to make games based on the movies while Vivendi Universal got the rights to do games based on the literary works. So far neither franchise has disappointed, at least not terribly, but The Third Age is certainly one of the more remarkable projects to have come from EA’s Redwood studios this past year.
The Third Age doesn’t even begin to pretend to redefine the RPG genre, but rather borrows liberally from every successful concept we’ve seen in dozens of past RPG’s and combines those nuances to mold a stunning role-playing game that can be best described as a “Tolkienized Final Fantasy”.
While simultaneously released on all three consoles, the Xbox is certainly the most deficient when it comes to available RPG’s these days. Give a starving man a cracker and he’ll think it’s a feast. Thankfully, this “cracker” is a Ritz.
Perhaps the most original aspect of the game is that you won’t be playing as any of the main characters that you might expect from the movies. Instead, we get to explore a parallel adventure that is going on while the Fellowship are living out movie moments. Admittedly, it’s harder to get emotionally attached to a group of new warriors, but it does give the designers some freedom to explore new directions with the story.
For anyone who has ever played a Final Fantasy game you will instantly recognize the game design, the flow of the turn-based combat, and even the interface which has been lifted from Square’s series and brazenly reused here with little modification. And why tamper with perfection? This is the same style of gameplay that has literally defined the genre for nearly a decade.
The Third Age plays out in a stunning 3D world where you move your chosen party leader around until an encounter is triggered. The game then switches to a static battlefield where you preload the attacks, spells, defense, or item use for everyone in your party then watch the action unfold. Attack priorities are shown with thumbnails of everyone involved so you know who will be attacking and in what order.
The random encounters are frequent, perhaps a bit too frequent but I guess it helps to level you up quicker. You’ll square off against all sorts of Middle Earth bad guys with a wide variety of attacks and skills. Some characters possess “Crafts” that are very useful and specific to that character, and Spiritual Powers trigger some of the most stunning visuals seen to date in an RPG.
You can control the formation of your party but real-time location has no bearing during combat. This is turn-based, so if you are 20-feet away and perform a melee attack the game will have your character rush forward, strike, and retreat. Ranged and melee combat are based on each characters special skills and your input during the attack phase. Spells can be cast to defend, enhance, or heal your own party or damage the enemy. The various crafts are a brilliant concept and give each character their own moment to shine in battle. The Perfect Mode skills are exquisite and closely resemble the summoning spells from Final Fantasy.
The RPG flavor comes through with a simple but effective set of stats for each character. These are grouped in such a way that you can make a concentrated effort to steer characters toward magic or combat as well as a comprehensive list of passive abilities. You distribute skill points, upgrade weapons and armor, and pick the skills. It’s a great way to make sure the game never unfolds the same way twice, but the character development still seems rather thin by RPG standards.
When not in combat the game has an adventure flair to it. You are free to move around within the parameters of the level and can rotate the camera around in 3D. You can open chests or choose your path as shown on the mini-map insert that highlights spots of interest with red dots.
The only real problem I had with the game was difficulty and pacing. Even though you can change the difficulty in the options menu there is no mistaking that EA has made this game a lot easier than most other RPG’s, either to lure a new generation of gamers into the RPG fold or simply in an attempt to not alienate their existing fans of the franchise. Role-playing certainly exists but takes a noticeable backseat to the fast-paced action elements in the game.
Balance is another issue. You’ll be playing the game for quite some time and not really having much of a problem beating anything. Sure, it’s challenging, but you aren’t likely to die or kill off the entire party. But when you reach the first boss fight things step up a notch and it might take you several attempts to defeat the infamous Balrog. It would have been so much nicer if the encounters leading up to that moment had been building so my skills, as well as the characters, had developed to the point where this moment didn’t seem like hitting a stone wall.
Leveling up certainly isn’t a problem in this game. Normally in an RPG like this I would be forced to wander the countryside triggering a few hundred encounters to build up my party to defeat the next milestone boss, but in The Third Age you level up like you are on steroids. Item acquisition is also simplified, and you can loot just about every significant weapon and artifact from a chest or fallen enemy.
Gameplay balance is also an issue in combat and spells. Observant gamers will quickly realize that certain spells and weapon crafts deliver massive damage, often 10x the amount being delivered by the enemy. Once you learn these nuances of the combat system you can pretty much walk through most all of the non-boss encounters in the game with little or no difficulty.
New to the franchise, you can now play in Evil Mode taking on the role of all the nasty characters that make up Saruman’s army. This is a very clever gameplay device and gives the game some extended gameplay. There is a minimal co-op feature available that allows a second player to join in the main adventure. Of course their involvement is limited to only the combat screens so this plays out much like other cooperative RPG’s such as Tales of Symphonia. RPG’s are a dish best served solo, but it was nice of EA to give us this option assuming you have a friend who doesn’t mind sitting and watching between encounters.
Middle Earth has never looked so good and even though you will be exploring some places not featured in the movies, everything definitely has a feel that it could have been there. Plus, you do get to explore lush locales like Rivendell and the war torn Helm’s Deep. Even transitional locations like simple mountain paths that snake through forests and over rivers are wonderfully created and have a fantasy flair about them.
Character design is outstanding although the animation can be a bit clunky at times. The most noticeable effect has to be that every piece of armor, weapon, and equipment that you add to your character is visibly shown in the game. It’s subtle but once you realize it’s there it never ceases to impress or amaze. The combat animation is simply awesome with powerful melee strikes, animated spellcasting, and impressive supernatural effects that tax the visual abilities of the Xbox. Summoning a giant Ent to do your bidding or unleashing the Dragon Call spell are just two moments that will leave you speechless, but even the simpler spells are given their own flair.
The menus are easy to read and navigate and the in-game HUD works extremely well with drop-down menus and simple stats and icons. Anyone who has played a Final Fantasy game will feel right at home here.
The voice work is excellent and there is a new narration track laid down by Ian McKellen that really gives the whole game some added authenticity. The music and sound effects have been lifted right from the film so everything is totally convincing.
The Third Age makes full use of Dolby Digital and once again we get the THX treatment for those who know or care what that is. There is a wide range of sounds, both environmental and those triggered by combat and it all blends with the flawlessly orchestrated soundtrack to create a truly interactive movie.
Casual gamers will find 12-15 hours of amazing RPG-action gaming here but season players will likely trounce this game in 8-10 hours, even on the medium or hard settings. Like I said, once you figure out the quirks in the combat system it’s hard not to exploit them and walk through nearly every encounter.
There are some interesting bonuses to earn like film clips and the cooperative campaign might extend your gaming pleasure if you have a friend who wants to join in for the combat sequences. The Evil mode is certainly the best reason to explore the game beyond the initial pass, and one of the best concepts we’ve seen in the franchise, or even the genre for that matter.
Lord of the Rings: The Third Age is a great game that will likely appeal to action gamers more than role-players. While there is enough stats and skills to warrant the genre classification there is no mistaking that EA was targeting the action crowd with this new installment.
With that in mind, the game delivers plenty of exploration and intense combat, all within the wonderful fantasy world created by Tolkien and further realized by Peter Jackson in the recent trilogy. There is plenty of familiar territory to explore along with new locations and characters that expand the story beyond what we already know. It’s a tribute to the work that inspired it and some of the most fun I had on my Xbox over the holidays. I highly recommend it.