To me, no book compares to Lord of the Rings. Its story is spectacular, and has been the inspiration for many authors and even game designers. There is simply something magical about the book that makes almost every reader form a special bond to it. No other book has done that for me.
Ever since the movie was released we’ve seen how one book (or a small series) can expand to a huge franchise. Currently there are several new games for both PC and console, and we’ll do our best to cover them all. This particular review is about the first of the newly released games: the PC version of LOTR: Fellowship of the Ring.
Since the manual did a good job summarizing the plot, here it is:
”In ancient days, the Elves created the magical Rings of Power. They gave these Rings to the rulers of the Elves, Dwarves, and Men that they might heal the hurts of the world. But the Dark Lord Sauron forged the One Ring to enslave the other Rings.
In a great battle, the Free Peoples of Middle-earth overthrew Lord Sauron, and he lost his Ring. But now the Lord of the Rings has returned to his Dark Tower in Mordor. And he needs only one thing to cover all the lands in a second darkness. He needs the One Ring.”
Obviously, avoiding a second darkness would be great, but doing so is difficult. The only way to destroy the ring is to throw it in Mount Doom, which happens to be in the nastiest, most evil place in Middle-earth. An army couldn’t possibly invade it, but a small group that based itself on stealth just might. Frodo gets chosen to lead the group, and with eights helpers of many talents you just might pull it off. Since this is just the first part in a trilogy, you only cover some of the story, which is mainly about traveling, and you will only get to play as three of the characters, but more on that later.
Those who have read the book or have seen the movie should appreciate how a good portion of the game, including the dialogues is accurately portrayed, even though it’s obvious that the visuals are based more on the movie than the book, since Frodo and his initial companions are by far not as old as they were in the book. People from Tolkien Enterprises were consulted during the development process, and it shows. This game gets to tell the story over a longer period of time than the movie, so players who haven’t read the book should get even farther into the story by playing this game.
Viewed by default in a third-person view, LOTR: Fellowship of the Ring is not hard on the eyes. The 3D engine that the developers chose to use doesn’t pack tremendously awesome features, but volume lights (occurs for instance when light shines through a window, creating “visible” light), and advanced shadows (a slightly cheap form of self-shadowing is used in the real-time rendered cut scenes where for instance Gandalf’s face gets partially covered in shadows as he talks etc.) Even though the engine isn’t great and the overall polygon count isn’t terrific, the levels are nicely done; filled with minor things like birds, kids running around and plenty of vegetation that seems very natural in Hobbit-land.
In the beginning of the game you’re in Bag-End; your warm and colorful home, but farther in the game things get darker and grittier, and for most people also more entertaining. You’ll face plenty of wolves, orcs and spiders that look and move okay, but their sheer presence isn’t enough to be particularly scary. The dark riders are larger villains, who not only look and move better, but they only need to see you for a short period of time for you to loose, so that’s where you’ll need to be clever.
The environments you play in are fairly colorful and detailed, but it could’ve looked spectacular with a better engine. It could’ve been very interesting if Surreal Software chose to use the NetImmerse engine that we saw in Morrowind instead, since it does a very nice job on both indoor and outdoor rendering. Even the NetImmerse engine could get into trouble when rendering the more advanced character animations, but the overall result could be very impressive.
Sounds / Music:
Immersing a play in a game isn’t easy. In this case things are different than in many games because many have already made up their own opinions about the Lord of the Rings universe through the book and the movie. Graphically this game isn’t too bad, but its music and voice acting is mostly great. Brad Spear was in charge of the music and sound editing, and it’s clear that he did an awesome job. The soundtrack is near perfect for the game, featuring advanced compositions with a varied selection of instruments. Most of the tracks fit the classical music genre, and I don’t know a whole lot of games where a mildly exciting fight could get this great only because of the music.
The only letdown when it comes to this game’s audio has to be the voiceovers. They are by no means bad, but since the box cover says Official Game I for one had hoped the cast from the movie were used in this game. Obviously that would’ve been expensive, but the voice talents they did choose are luckily talented. Most of the ingame characters have specific people speaking for them, like Tom Kane, who we’ve heard in Grim Fandango and several Star Wars games, does Gandalf’s voice.
In this part of Lord of the Rings, which happens to be the first one, most of it is about traveling. The path is dangerous and filled with many obstacles. Through the game you’ll get to play as Frodo, who specializes in stealth, Aragorn, the strong warrior, and the almighty wizard Gandalf. You won’t get to choose which character you’d like to play as, but in exchange you get levels that are specifically designed for the characters' abilities. The objectives aren’t particularly brilliant, as many are just about making way for the rest of the gang, but some are actually quite exciting, such as when you have to defend an injured Frodo against a horde of enemies, and when you head out to find parts for a decoy. There are also a few bosses who need a good series of whacks. They aren’t incredibly hard, but provide a fun challenge. Mostly you can’t just attack them mindlessly, so in order to defeat them you’ll have to think a little bit.
The gameplay reminded me of the somewhat old game Rune, since it plays more like an action-adventure than a role-playing game. There are a nice number of characters to interact with, but you don’t earn experience points, so the characters only evolve when they get new weapons, which is something you can’t miss. Throughout the game Frodo will go from having a basic walking stick, to a Westernesse Dagger, to Sting, which is a blade that glows blue when near orcs. As a ranged “attack” Frodo has a limitless supply of rocks that are mainly used to distract enemies when you’d prefer to sneak past them than to do a full-frontal attack. As a special ability Frodo can also jump. Aragorn starts with a long sword, but moves on to AndÃºril, which is basically the most powerful sword in Middle-earth. Aragorn can also use a bow when ranged attacks are needed, and they pack more of a punch than you would think. Aragorn’s special ability is to kick enemies, which briefly knocks them to the ground. If you move quickly over an enemy that’s on the ground, yet not dead, you can sometimes do a finishing move, which makes sure they stay down. Gandalf only has the Glamdring sword, which is fairly powerful, but he also has a staff that lets you do three offensive spells and two defensive ones.
To me playing as Aragorn and Gandalf was the most fun, since Aragorn can handle huge monsters, and because playing as Gandalf efficiently requires you to use both the sword and a series of spells. Since Frodo is fairly weak playing as him is an interesting challenge too. His skills are based on stealth, but if you ever get in over your head you can put on the almighty ring as a last resort. Doing so will make you invisible, but you can only have it on briefly, or you’ll end up corrupted and dead. I finished this game during a weekend, and I never actually needed to use the ring. Since you don’t earn experience points by killing enemies you can usually just run through crowds, not that any thrill-seeking gamer should do that.
This is a game that people actually warned me against. Most likely it would be a game I’d butcher, but I ended up not doing so. Its graphics might not be terrific, and the gameplay leaves some to be wanted, but that doesn’t change the fact that the original story is terrific, and the way it is told in this game would probably even please J.R.R. Tolkien himself. Keep in mind that this game is fairly short, and doesn’t have much replay value, so my advice for fans of a good story is to watch out for this title in the bargain bin.