The Lord of the Rings: The Third Age - Staff Retroview  

Scribbling in the Margins
by Mike "JuMeSyn" Moehnke

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20-40 Hours
+ Fun combat
+ Moves along rapidly
- Unwisely reminds of the movies
- Unique storytelling approach is not successful
- Limited enemy roster
- Mammoth equipment compendium
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   Electronic Arts had been doing steady work with The Lord of the Rings film license for several years before taking the plunge and making a console RPG. Of all the possibilities for structuring The Lord of the Rings as an RPG, it seems someone in the EA offices deliberately tried to come up with something no one had used before. The Lord of the Rings: The Third Age is analagous to LucasArts funding a Star Wars RPG, only instead of Knights of the Old Republic it would focus on heretofore unseen characters who clandestinely followed Luke Skywalker and Han Solo around the galaxy, taking on the Empire without ever showing up in the film record. Maybe such a stratagem could have worked at creating a new story around Peter Jackson's vision for The Lord of the Rings, but the approach instead seems uniquely bent on reminding the player that those movies exist and are worth watching multiple times.

   The Third Age begins with a Gondorian man named Berethor en route to find Boromir. A pair of Nazgul seem to put an end to that quest with a single blow, but he is saved by an elf named Idrial, and the two promptly pick up additional companions in the form of a ranger and dwarf named Elegost and Hadhod. Their mission is to find the Fellowship by following it through Moria, a task that becomes impossible after it dissolves following Boromir's grab for the One Ring and subsequent sacrifice. Berethor and his companions, who eventually number six once Rohan residents Morwen and Eoamer appear, find themselves aiding the defence of Rohan against Saruman's assault, culminating in the battle of Helm's Deep. Completing that task steers the group south to battle Sauron's onslaught upon Gondor at Osgiliath and Minas Tirith.

   For being on such a dangerous and monumental undertaking, The Third Age's characters sure don't have much to say. The scenes focusing on them are very brief, even late in the game when attempts to provide character development are given and quickly cut away from. The player will be left wondering just why these characters unquestioningly follow Gandalf's instructions with no discussion, no matter where they are directed. Later parts of the game are particularly bad about transitions, showing that these characters have the ability to magically move over Middle Earth in what seems to be an instant, and still without doing more than hinting that they have any personalities.

   The Third Age begins with Ian McKellen as Gandalf narrating footage from The Fellowship of the Ring, providing a Cliff's Notes version of events in Middle Earth — and providing him with more lines than the game's unique sextet of characters combined. This is but the first of 109 Epic Scenes of Middle Earth that will be accessed through playing the game, almost all of which try to repurpose footage from the films to serve this game's narrative. Some of the things Gandalf says casually contradict established Lord of the Rings canon, and many Epic Scenes take moments of great drama from the films and remove all tension and suspense in the name of briskly conveying information. How Gandalf acquired the necessary leisure time to telepathically send these Epic Scenes to Berethor is another question raised by this material that will not be answered. All the film footage is effective at reminding players of Peter Jackson's strong vision, but does not do such a good job of tying The Third Age's narrative into one that coheres with the movies, particularly when it almost completely ignores the hobbits. Interjecting scenes of characters with distinct personalities from the films was also not the wisest move, because comparing the player's group with those seen in the clips does no favors to EA's writers. Having Berethor and company participate alongside Gandalf in battling the Balrog or assisting Eowyn tackling the Witch King just raises the incredulous nature of the player when bookending film clips ignore those efforts.

An unholy amalgam of the Wicker Man and a gargoyle awaits.... An unholy amalgam of the Wicker Man and a gargoyle awaits....

   When Berethor's group gets into battle, combat is a breeze. Three characters are onscreen, though for special occasions such principals from the films as Faramir and Aragorn will take up a fourth slot. The three onscreen characters can be instantly swapped for their compatriots waiting in the wings, status effects make a massive difference in the battle's flow, and a handy turn meter in the upper right of the screen displays who will move next and the difference using certain techniques makes with regard to when the next actions fall. If this sounds familiar, that's probably because EA snagged Final Fantasy X's conditional turn-based battle system and applied it wholesale. It may not be original, but what worked in FFX by having dangerous enemies that require intelligent tactics to defeat is still a fun and entertaining system here.

   EA deviated sharply from Final Fantasy X with the inventory management, however. Seemingly as a way of shoehorning additional Tolkien references, the sheer quantity of equipment to be acquired during The Third Age puts games with twice its playing time to shame. Each character has eight regular equipment slots and four for stones that grant additional effects, and the combination of treasure chests along every corridor with enemies that are generous in death means that the player will have to go into the menu every two minutes to see what the latest acquisition does. For a game that can easily be completed in twenty-five hours, The Third Age also uses a very time-consuming method of skill acquisition, in which characters have two ability trees that are advanced by using any technique in their discipline. The growth is fixed at one point per ability use, and unlocking later skills requires hundreds of points in total. The game isn't long enough to allow much to be learned except by deliberate grinding. At least when the game gives points at level up for the player to increase character statistics, doing so is quick and easy.

   In using the assets from the movies, EA had the slight problem of not very many enemy varieties to work with. The player thus gets to fight many renditions of orcs and wargs, with some trolls and goblins plus the occasional wild man to spice things up. By sticking to where Gandalf was active in the story, the game is unable to visit locations Frodo and Sam did, which could have broadened the gamut of foes faced. Particularly when fighting successive battles starting at Helm's Deep and continuing to the Pelennor Fields, killing pretty much the same swarms from Mordor gets monotonous. Even the fearsome Nazgul become somewhat tedious to fight frequently, though at least the combat engine still provides some enjoyment.

   The Third Age has THX certification, and indeed its sound does justice to the films from which it is mostly taken. The music is exclusively a selection of Howard Shore's fine compositions from the movies, some of which hold up to repetition in battle well. Most of the sound effects also seem to be taken directly from Peter Jackson's team, though some baffling ones such as the oddly electronic noise of a bow charging are unique to this game. Ian McKellen did not put everything he had into his voiceovers, but is enough of a professional that it does not adversely affect hearing what he has to say. Brief snippets of other actors from the films are included, but the only other performances unique to The Third Age belong to the protagonists. They suffer from a paucity of screen time, but would probably be bland even with massive monologues to deliver.

You slaughtered dozens of my clan members earlier?  No matter, for I cannot help but succeed where they failed! You slaughtered dozens of my clan members earlier? No matter, for I cannot help but succeed where they failed!

   All the equipment collected at least makes a definite difference in the look of the characters, and the environments look pretty much like the locations of Middle Earth they represent. The characters are rather nondescript and the locales are fairly bland, though, especially when the Epic Scenes constantly display pieces of the films for comparison. Nothing looks terrible, but EA didn't supply any eye candy on the level of Peter Jackson's.

   The major extra of The Third Age is Evil Mode, wherein the player gets to take set groupings of enemies and fight the protagonists to the death. Evil Mode's great potential of spending some time with Sauron's hordes is not met, as these fights come devoid of context and often rely on the AI being too stupid to win thanks to the player being forced to work with what the game supplies. The reward for plowing through a succession of these trying battles is some items that are generally not worth the effort. Otherwise, The Third Age's difficulty can be altered at the player's whim, though acting foolishly in battle will be punished regardless. With abilities that absorb massive amounts of damage and revive characters fully with an immediate action at death, The Third Age is generous in providing means of survival.

   The Third Age is an odd concoction, one that seems intent on reminding players of other things constantly. Its combat reminds one of Final Fantasy X with a lower enemy variety, while its entire setting and story are determined to make clear that EA still had The Lord of the Rings license and was going to put it to use as much as possible. Crafting a tale centered around characters who follow in the path of a story's original heroes could easily work, but EA went about it by putting barely-characterized ciphers into the lead and incessantly reminding the player of what a gripping epic Peter Jackson directed. The Third Age is one of the strangest RPGs I've ever played for these reasons, and its odd experiment (especially considering it came from EA) is unlikely to be repeated. Watching the director's cuts of The Lord of the Rings trilogy takes about twelve hours, significantly shorter than this game and riveting to boot.

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