Middle-earth once again invites us into its magical forest realms, mountain fortresses and fire blasted ruins to battle for control of the ring of power. However, this time developer Pandemic Studios along with publisher Electronic Arts enable us to enter the fray not only for the forces of good, but also on the side of evil.
In Lord of the Rings: Conquest you can take the part of many of the film's leading characters such as Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli, but you also can fight as many of the film’s secondary characters including Eowyn, Lurtz and The Witch-king of Angmar. Ultimately you can control Middle-earth’s destructive powerhouses like the Ents, the Trolls as well as the Balrog and Sauron himself. In Conquest you can charge into all of Middle-earth‘s epic battles, from Helm’s Deep to Mordor, and you also get to participate in an alternative storyline that follows the course of the war after Frodo is killed on Mount Doom and The One Ring is returned to Sauron.
Added to the mix is a multi-player player co-operative mode, and extensive online options, that allow you to forgo grenades and chainsaw mounted assault rifles for swords, bows and staffs while participating in familiar death match and capture the flag tournaments. In fact, there is a sense that this online component is what Lord of the Rings: Conquest is all about. This emphasis on online play is also reinforced with the brevity of the single player campaign.
For those who played the LOTR games that came out with the release of the movies, the gameplay and structure of the single player campaign will be completely familiar. Heavy and light attacks are handled with the face buttons while grabs, throws and special abilities are accessed with the triggers. All your combo strings are available from the start meaning the learning curve is simply getting used to the abilities and attributes of the four basic classes, as well as the character specific hero abilities.
At the beginning of each mission you get to choose from the four basic classes; the warrior, archer, mage and scout. While the warrior and archer relay on the expected melee and ranged attacks, the mage has powerful area affect lightening and fire spells and the scout can turn invisible and deal instantly fatal strikes.
Each mission is set in a specific battle, from Gondor and the Gates of Mordor, to Weathertop or Rivendell. The missions are broken into a series of short and relatively simple objectives usually beginning with fighting your way to a location, where you might have to destroy something, capture something or simply hold a position for a set time.
At some point during the missions you get the choice to take the part of a hero character. These heroes can be good or bad characters and may just about be the most fun part of the game. Although smashing everything in sight as a Troll or Ent is every bit a fun as it sounds, dealing deadly sneak attacks as Grima Wormtounge is also very satisfying.
That said, there is no escaping the fact that Lord of the Rings: Conquest draws greatly from the movie tie-ins. Although this latest addition to the LOTR cannon emphasises its new elements, it can’t shake the feeling that it’s a movie tie-in game, a tie-in game to a movie that’s more than six years old. All the clips, characters, dialogue, situations and settings are old enough to have lost their freshness but not so old as to have acquired any sense of nostalgia.
If Lord of the Rings: Conquest had excelled in other areas it could have overcome the historical dark shadow cast over it. But, unfortunately it is too limited in other areas. The single player mode is very short, as we are coming to expect with online focused games. Also, at its heart it’s a button masher, and while the instant kills are fun when you’re doing them, they are irritating when they happen to you at the back end of a mission. There are no mid-mission saves here, loose all your lives and its back to the start of the mission.
The music and dialogue is standard fantasy epic fare, although delivered flawlessly. The locations and graphics are adequate, without being spectacular, and the character models are smooth and serviceable, perhaps a consequence of the game’s online focus.
It's strange to think that it’s been a decade since Peter Jackson began making Lord of the Rings, and a little longer than that since he shopped his LOTR script around Hollywood after his first try to make King Kong bit the dust. Ten years since seemingly every paper in the country began advertising for extras and the mildly famous cow-eyed waif Elijah Wood, and the not at all famous Orly Bloom were on the front page of The Dom jumping into the bay.
The games that came out back then were good movie tie-ins with plenty of extras to add to the hype of the films. Now that the hype is gone, at least till The Hobbit starts filming next year, what you get with Lord of the Rings: Conquest is a reasonable week-end diversion for the casual fan, or a solid sword and sorcery alternative for the online gamer.