The Lord of the Shmings: The Third Age

by Wardog

Wardog has done nothing but play computer games from her sick bed.
The Lord of the Rings: The Third Age, as far as I can see it, is for people who thought the Fellowship were a bunch of nancies. If you've ever wanted to give a cave troll a good seeing to (in the violent, rather than sexual sense) or open a can of whupass on the Balrog and generally kick the crap out of all the monsters the Fellowship runs away from, this could be the game for you. It's billed as an RPG but it's an RPG strictly in the console sense: there's no character development or meaningful sense of you having any choice at all about what you do but there are sprawling maps to explore, goodies to collect, and level up points to be spent. You can play it in single player mode or co-operatively with a friend (Dan, in my case) and if you set it up right you can play from bed while ill with the flu. Although I can't really speak for the pleasures of the lone adventurer, it may not be the deepest or most original came you'll ever stumble across but for two people in the right mood and bountifully supplied with gaming snacks it's a hell of a lot of fun.

The central character of LotR:TTA is Boromir Berethor of Gondor, a square-jawed Captain of the Guard who, for reasons not entirely clear, has been dispatched in pursuit of Boromir. You soon hook up with Legolas Idrial, Gimli Hadhod, Aragorn Elegost, Eowyn Morwen and Eomer Eoaden. And basically your fellowship (or Shmellowship) winds up following The Official Fellowship around Middle Earth like some kind of remedial adventuring party. It's sort of what I imagine the The Hobbit would have been like had Bilbo Baggins never caught up with the dwarves. It's all kinds of absurd and naturally has no dramatic tension whatsoever because you know exactly what's going to happen, why and how but for some reason I can't quite fathom it seems to work. And you do occasionally brush up against (or catch up with) the main plot, but by the time it happens you've generally lost yourself in 14 year old gamer space and are inclined to respond by eyeing up Gandalf speculatively while saying to yourself "I bet if all five of us jumped him we could take him."

The story comes to you via a series of in-game cut scenes and so-called "epic" movie clips narrated with ever-impressive gravitas by Sir Ian, reprising his role of Gandalf - it's not exactly amazingly powerful stuff but it's reasonably entertaining. The game suffers a little from the fact EA clearly only owns the rights to the movies and not the book because it limits room for manoeuvre and the attempt to weld an original story onto the arse of the main plot of the movies looks increasingly strained as it progresses. It almost means they're trapped depicting Sauron as a huge flaming eye stuck on top of a tower - which didn't work in the movies and doesn't work now either. And the other problem with Gandalf's omniscient narration is that there's a lot of telling not showing going on. For example, at one point he happens to mention that Shmimli (Hadhod or whatever he's called) lost his sons to cave trolls in Moria and that this has made him cold and bitter but we never see any in-game evidence of this and, in fact, Shmimli behaves exactly like the axe-wielding stereotype he is. He doesn't quite say "and my axe" at any point during the game but you can tell he's an a mere accent away. To be honest, though, I don't actually think it's a problem. It's not a Final Fantasy game, where intricate plotting and interesting characters are expected hallmarks and, given Tolkein's own broad-strokes approach to characterisation, it even contributes to the impression of being truly at large in Middle Earth. And for the most part, you do feel that way - or, at least, you feel like you're on the movie set of Middle Earth which is almost as good.

The game consists of adventuring mode, in which Shmoromir tromps around the map getting lost, opening chests and running into random enemies. And then there's the combat mode which is turn-based and very Final Fantasy-esque. I know it's not cool but I'm a big fan of turn-based combat. It's partly because my reflexes are about as poor as they would be if I'd gnawed my own hands off at the wrist but it's also because it's just so decorous: after you, no after you, please I insist. I think it's a very English way to fight. Each of the characters have a range of interesting abilities and spirit powers, most of which are powered by spending action points. The more you use your abilities, the more new abilities you learn and winning a combat grants XP which can be spent on increasing your basic stats at level up. It's simple, intuitive, flexible and fun.

It's also, well, it's also quite broken. Or if not broken, at least badly thought through. There are several abilities that as good as make it impossible for you to lose a fight. Both Shmimli and Shmegolas have stunning strikes that absolutely beg to be abused - it made Moria little more than a line up of stun-locked trolls. And Shmegolas eventually learns an ability that allows her to automatically revive a fallen comrade (or herself) with full health and action points; and, by coincidence, as soon as a character is revived they get, essentially, a free turn. This makes your party unkillable.

And this, in turn, makes the game - which wasn't exactly falling all over itself with challenge to begin with - a total romp. But, again, this isn't necessarily a problem. The Lord of the Rings: The Third Age is too flawed and too damn silly to have any hope of being considered any sort of serious game. And, hell, it's a movie tie-in on top of that. But it's also pure, unadulterated fun. The plot is totally linear and levelling up a character usually entails spending between 2 and 5 points over 6 stats so it's never going to require much by way of brain power of strategising but the pared down nature of it seems to work. It's very pretty (although, as ever, your character jogs along like he's suffering severe constipation) and very streamlined and we've been playing solidly for the past four days with no sign of stopping.

Also you get to stand next to Gandalf and show the Balrog what for. Win!

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Comments (go to latest)
Rami at 15:42 on 2008-02-29
Oooh, that sounds lovely :-) Never having been particular skilled at console (or any other kind of) gaming I quite like the idea of being able to open up a can of whoop-ass on some Middle-Earth monstrosities!
Arthur B at 17:02 on 2008-02-29
So it's a bit like Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance, only turn-based and set in Middle-Earth? Neato!
Wardog at 18:05 on 2008-02-29
Basically. And without housemate Joe sulking because my dwarf is ahead of his elf on XP =P
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