The Lord of the Rings: The Third Age
After two excellent hack ‘n’ slash games, EA decided to squeeze some more money out of their costly LOTR-license and started developing a console-only RPG. They already had The Battle for Middle-Earth for PC, remember?
The Third Age (TTA) is a turn-based RPG, comparable to Final Fantasy X and X-2. It’s even clear that EA based the game on these 2 Square-Enix beauties, because several of FF’s elements (Action Points to name just one) appear in this game, but luckily, EA covered it all in a unique setting.
For once you won’t play as a member of the famous Fellowship of the Ring, but with some brand new characters. For starters there are Berethor, a member of the Gondorian guard and Idrial, a female elf with magic powers. Later you will be joined by Elegost, a Dunedain Ranger and Hadhod, some kind of Gimli-wannabe. Once you’ve reached the steppes of Rohan, Morwen, an axe-fighter and Eoden, a heavily armoured horseman, will fill the vacant spots in your party. During the game you’ll follow the tracks of the Fellowship. You’ll rampage through the mines of Moria , participate in the Battle of Helm’s Deep and defend Minas Tirith from Orcs and Nazgul.
Once in a while, you’ll even get help from Aragorn or Gandalf. Although is this an original approach, I would have preferred playing with the “real” Fellowship and experience their adventures. Now the story is filled with pretty events that are barely believeable, but still don’t screw up the storyline from Tolkien’s books, or better yet, Peter Jackson’s films. For instance, at the end of the Moria-level, you’ll assist Gandalf in fending of the Balrog, just before he yells the words “You shall not pass” and falls into the (not so) endless void. You’ll even defeat Sauron (indeedy, the oversized eyeball), a scene not exactly shown in the films.
Apart from these minor flaws, TTA is still a wonderful experience. the game succeeds in creating the epic LOTR-atmosphere we all loved so much. To do this, Howard Shore’s wonderful music score was used. All of the themes from the trilogy are incuded and the sound effects are very impressive (perhaps this is due to the THX-support). The sounds of dueling swords, growling orcs and screaming Nazgul really take you into Tolkien’s amazing universe.
Furthermore, the game isn’t exactly what you can call difficult and experienced RPG-players will think it’s a walk in the park. Each chapter doesn’t really have a lot of quests and they’re even marked on the mini-map to easen the search. Practically every quest also boils down to reaching a certain place and killing some fiends there.
EA clearly tried to make things easier for beginners, but as a result the game lacks the depth of other games like Dark Chronicle or Final Fantasy X. The combat system is a dumbed-down version of FFX-2′s. Each character has 2 kinds of skills (e.g. Berethor has Swordcraft and Leadership) that both offer different moves. You can learn new moves by gathering Action Points, which you’ll recieve when using skill-based moves (e.g. Leadership – War Call). The skill-tree isn’t exactly overwhelming, but this is slightly compensated by the Perfect meter. This meter fills automatically as battles are won and once filled, you can call forth the help of Wargs or even Ents. This creatures deal tremendous damage and look great too. Unfortunately we can’t say the same for the menus, because some them aren’t as user friendly as I would have liked (the Equip-menu could have been way better). These are all minor flaws, but they must be mentioned nonetheless.
Even though TTA lacks some depth (as we expected) it still plays nice. It’s even pretty addictive, at least until you’ve played through half of the game, because that’s when the game can be a bit boring. In the beginning you won’t be annoyed by the limited freedom and the linear character, but after a while the set paths and invisible walls can really get on your nerves. The game also isn’t too lengthy for an RPG. In about 20 to 25 hours you can finish the game with a 100% completed score.
The Evil Mode is one of the game’s cool features. After you’ve completed a chapter, you will be given the opportunity to replay the most important battles. Not with your party, but with Sauron’s troops. It’s a real kick to play with the extremely powerful Balrog and annihilate Idrial and the rest of the bunch -Gandalf included -. As a reward you’ll be given new items, such as the deadly Sword of Isildur, to use in the main game.
The further you’ll get, the more Epic Scenes you’ll unlock. These are short videosequences from The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and Return of the King, commented by Ian “Gandalf” McKellen himself. The will to collect them all keeps you going on until the end. They also look a lot better than the ingame graphics, that are just mediocre. The previous LOTR-action games looked a lot more impressive. You’ characters aren’t very detailed (they even look blurry in several cutscenes) and the special effects lack the wow-factor. Of course, great graphics aren’t a requirement for the genre, but if EA can make their other games look good, why not this one? Final Fantasy X-2 and Star Ocean: Till the End of Time already proved us that RPG and great visuals can go hand in hand.
The Lord of the Rings: The Third Age is a pretty enjoyable RPG with superb audio, but it’s not a must-have. But since there aren’t many RPG’s these days, it can keep you busy till better RPG’s arrive (Xenosaga 2 anyone?). Beginners should definitely give this game a go, before trying more advanced (and more difficult) games.