Aside from all the action figures the Lord of the Rings franchise hasn't spawned more of any other merchandise type than videogames. With a highly anticipated real time strategy game coming soon and a couple of hack and slash titles behind it all it really needed was a role playing game. So with that we have Lord of the Rings: The Third Age, a turn based Final Fantasy-esque RPG introducing original characters on a quest during the events of the epic saga and sometimes even altering history of Middle-Earth by fighting alongside our fabled Fellowship.
From the outset you'll begin with one character in your party named Berethor, a headfast warrior from the land of Gondor. He's out to find Boromir, a man from his homeland, and the representative of that land in the Fellowship we've become accustomed to. The Third Age centers its plot around Berethor and his history and follows him through whilst he is joined by a Fellowship of his own. The characters which comprise this games Fellowship are sort of cliched, you have your sturdy dwarf, a mystical elf and a strong-headed and brash Ranger. It sort of feels almost like an alternate Fellowship of the films and novels but with a few characters mixed into one to keep the party numbers down.
The main portion of the game is in its Adventure mode; here you'll be exploring familar locales of Middle-Earth from the caves of Moria to the gates of Mordor. In each new area be it a forest or a village you'll be given a certain number of quests. Most of these quests aren't vital to complete but will earn you a 100% completion bonus. One thing this RPG lacks which most others have is a currency, but this isn't all that bad. Since there are no shops to speak of all the items you acquire are gained from battle, defeat an enemy, and gain an item. The most distinctive item you can get yourself is the various armours which can literally transform the look of your character dramatically. The elve starts of in a modest gown but can end up wearing armour similar to those Elvish warriors seen in the opening of The Fellowship of the Ring. Obviously it isn't all aesthetic and for the most part the better looking the armour the stronger it is. And common to other RPG's are the mysterious hidden chests which contain other various items from potions to weapons.
The combat system in The Third Age is most similar to Final Fantasy X in that you'll be beset with random encounters and have to navigate your attacks via menus looking almost exactly the same. If you've played Final Fantasy X, or any other turn based RPG then picking up Third Age's scheme will be extremely easy. Combat is quite fast paced and does allow for some quick and easy leveling up but it does occur a little too often, you're given a small indicator in the corner of the screen in the form of Sauron's Eye and it will grow brighter the closer you are to an encounter. You'll find yourself for the most part walking for at least 10 seconds before swinging back into battle again.
Engaged in combat you'll be restricted to using three party members at a time but are given the opportunity to switch back and forth at will (provided it's your turn). As per tradition enemies will be on one side and heroes on the other, each enemy and hero has a small avatar to the sides of the screen illustrating important information regarding stats like current Hit Points and the like. This is quite a nice touch as having these details float above a characters head as they usually do can be somewhat obtrusive.
Skills are something which you can continually advance throughout the game, with every attack you'll gain a single skill point and eventually be able to spend those points on upgrading you weapon or magic abilities. Since gaining these points takes some time patience is your best friend and fortunately it pays off well by providing some very well rendered attacks. On the negative side it does mean that you'll be forced to watch these nice looking attacks over and over again making them feel old, that is until you're able to upgrade again. Though they look nice it's the actual effect they have that is a little off. Sometimes you'll find yourself being attacked by an enemy magic but will not be told what exactly it was forcing you to waste cure potions on the wrong infliction. Also, when using a stun spell for example sometimes your enemies will keel over but once their turn comes they'll still be able to attack with the same speed and accuracy as they would've pre-spell.
What intrigued me the most about this title was the inclusion of an evil mode, sounding like an excellent idea, as we all love the bad-guys, I was keen to try it out. Unfortunately it was quite a disappointment, rather than be an evil adventure it's simply a selection of battles wherein which you control the dark forces of Mordor. Levels for this mode are opened up on completion of chapters within the heroes Adventure mode but aren't overly interesting, it's only when you're controlling a Balrog wreaking fiery inhumane justice does this mode feel really necessary.
Graphically this game is a wonder to behold but in so suffers from some slight frame-rate issues when in combat with graphic intensive enemies. Though not as deterring as the PS2 version it is still noticeable and does provide to be off-putting to the immersiveness RPG's try to deliver. The greatest part about the visuals is the diversity in the character designs, each enemy and hero continuously looks unique. Each enemy fits their environment well and with each armour upgrade a hero receives they will look that much more appealing. Special effects are handled very well; including some of the more intricate ones involving powerful magicï¿½s of the like borne from Gandalf's own staff when you get to fight the Balrog of Moria.
As of late games seem to have really taken to perfection the art of Sound Design and The Third Age is of no exception. Borrowing Howard Shore's Academy Award winning score the game's tone is set perfectly and its battles feel as raw was the roaring trumpets and powerful chorus that play behind them. Further to the authenticity is actually using Sir Ian McKellan's distinctive voice as Gandalf. Dialogue of our heroes is well written and feels very much similar to that of the films so it is a little disappointing that we don't get enough of it, but what we do get is still fantastic. Sound effects are heavy hitting so if you have a subwoofer it'll provide vibrations more intense than in your controller. The screams of the Nazgul to the clanging of the blades, it's all just like in the movie and of the same high caliber.
At about 20 hours to complete The Third Age isn't exactly the longest RPG on the market, nor does it deliver too many extra features. However it does come with a co-op mode but is implemented in such a way which makes it useless, the second player only gets to play during combat and otherwise is just left waiting around for player one to find an enemy to slay.