"The Balrog reached the bridge. Gandalf stood in the middle of the span, leaning on the staff in his left hand, but in the other hand Glamdring gleamed, cold and white. His enemy halted again, facing him, and the shadow about it reached out like two vast wings. It raised the whip, and the thongs whined and cracked. Fire came from its nostrils. But Gandalf stood firm.
‘You cannot pass,’ he said. The orcs stood still, and a dead silence fell. ‘I am a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the flame of Anor. You cannot pass. The dark fire will not avail you, flame of Udûn. Go back to the Shadow! You cannot pass.’
‘Don't worry, Gandalf!’ said some guy named Berethor, ‘we're here to help!’
‘Yes,’ added some random smelly dwarf named Hadhod, ‘we'll show that wimpy Balrog who's boss!’
‘Hey, thanks guys!’ replied Gandalf. ‘You're the best! Let's bust a cap up in here!’
The Balrog proceeds to devour Hadhod whole, while Berethor is burnt to a crisp in its flames. Gandalf trips over the charred corpse and falls into the abyss. ‘Thanks for nothing, losers!’ he shouts, as he plummets into darkness."
Rewriting Tolkien is a bad idea. This is pretty much an established fact. However, the newest Tolkien-inspired title from Electronic Arts, The Lord of the Rings: The Third Age, takes a few creative licenses that hard-core Tolkien-fanatics (myself included) may find a bit... questionable. All arguments aside, The Third Age looks to be a classic turn-based RPG with a solid battle system, stunning graphics, and a creative take on the legend of the Ring of Power and the fall of Mordor in the Third Age of Middle-Earth.
First off, The Third Age comes in two flavors: the console version (simultaneously released on Playstation 2, GameCube, and Xbox) and the handheld version (released on Game Boy Advance). The console version is traditional turn-based RPG all the way and is comparable to titles like Final Fantasy X. This preview focuses on this version of the game. The Game Boy Advance version is more of a strategy title along the lines of the Fire Emblem series.
The storyline of The Third Age begins with Berethor, a guard of the city of Minus Tirith and a blatant rip-off of Boromir. Berethor is sent by Gondor to seek out Boromir, who left Minis Tirith many months earlier in search of the city of Rivendell. During his adventure, Berethor will join with five other eerily familiar heroes: Idrial, an elf maiden from Lothlorien; Hadhod, a dwarf warrior; Elegost, a Dúnedain ranger; Éoden, a rider of the Rohirrim; and Morwain, a maiden of Rohan. Despite their similarities to familiar characters, each hero comes with their own backstory and motivations. As the fellowship of the ring embark on their journey out of Rivendell, the path of Berethor and his companions intertwines with theirs, and the heroes of The Third Age eventually have a hand in many of the major events of the storyline of trilogy. Sometimes this involves a bit of tweaking of Tolkien's vision, one of the most obvious examples being that Berethor and friends get to aid Gandalf in his fight with the Balrog on the Bridge of Khazad-dûm. Sure it's a little unbelievable for Tolkien fans but, taken with a grain of salt, it's hard to deny the coolness factor. As the story, which is divided into 10 chapters, progresses, the player will be able to participate in many of the glorious battles of the War of the Ring, including those of Helm's Deep, Pelennor Fields, and the Field of Cormallen. Members of the fellowship will occasionally join up with Berethor's party for a battle or two during key events in the story. Despite the fact that the overall pace and outcome of the storyline is set in stone, there will be chances for non-linear deviations within chapters.
Battles in The Third Age can be scripted, random, and initiated by coming into contact with roaming enemies. The system is turn-based, and the enemy courteously waits on the player to issue battle commands, unlike the active time battle system of many titles in the Final Fantasy series. An initiative bar shows the order in which combatants will perform their next actions. Standard combat options are available, including attacks, magic (you heard me), item usage, and weapon "crafts." Each character has specific crafts and abilities available to them depending on their race and profession. So far, not much is new here, but there are a few tweaks to the generic RPG formula that set The Third Age apart, if only slightly.
One promising new feature that The Third Age delivers is the tank/protect system. Players have the option to position a party member with strong defense directly in front of an enemy to "tank" all of its attacks for a few turns, keeping the damage down on other party members. Players can also move a weaker ally behind a stronger one to protect them from harm. These two battle tactics add a bit of depth to the tried-and-true RPG formula. Enemy AI can also take advantage of tanking and protecting.
Character customization in The Third Age also looks to be a bit more flexible than in the average title. Skill trees for each character based on melee attacks, ranged attacks, magic, and leadership skills are fleshed out by distributing experience points. Different characters have different abilities available and, depending on how experience points are distributed, one player's end-game elf maiden can be drastically different from another's. The game's characters can evolve to be as diverse or similar as the player desires. For all the role-playing slackers out there, a mode is available that suggests which skills to develop and equips the best possible equipment for each character.
Another potentially interesting aspect of The Third Age comes in a sidequest, of sorts, included in the title. As the heroes progress in the story and defeat the various minions of Sauron and Saruman, the battles that have been fought will become available in a list of executable battles to be played again. The twist comes in the fact that this time around, the player controls the bad guys. If the player manages to defeat their own party, they can unlock new equipment and other bonus features.
Anyone that has played the recent Lord of the Rings action titles from EA, The Two Towers and The Return of the King, will know what to expect in terms of graphics, sound, and music quality in The Third Age. The visuals are stunning. Small details, such as changing the appearance of characters depending on equipped armor and weapons, are also included. A sweeping score based on that of the films is expected. A few stars from the films also lend their voice talents, including Sir Ian McKellen and Andy Serkis. For those that couldn't record new voice work, snippets of dialog were taken from the films.
The lack of much substantial deviation from the classic RPG norm means that The Third Age won't be winning any awards for innovation, but will surely be a safe bet to add to any RPGamer's collection. Besides, the title marks one of the first attempts of a North American company to develop a traditional Japanese-style RPG, so one can see why they would follow the Square Enix formula for success. Whether you're a fan of Tolkien or not, The Lord of the Rings: The Third Age is surely worth a closer look. Watch for its release on November 2nd.