Publisher: Black Label Games, a studio of Vivendi Universal Games
Pricing and Availability: $50.00 USD, currently available (see link below to purchase)
ESRB Rating: Teen (Blood, Violence)
Review by Pipesmoke: Many of us have been waiting for years to see a decent Lord of the Rings game. With the release of Universal Interactive’s The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring on XBox, that has finally happened. However, the key word is “decent.” This game is most certainly a mixed bag, if there ever was one. The title is marred by several technical issues, which stop it short of greatness (far short of it in fact.) Nonetheless, if you’re a die-hard Tolkien fan like I am… and you have ANY interest in video games whatsoever, this game is most certainly worth checking out.
As the name indicates, this game covers the first book, and so naturally it begins in the Shire. I really can’t say enough good things about the Shire segment of the game… I found it to be very enjoyable, and filled with things to do and see. During this first portion of the game, you really feel like you are in the Shire. I daresay, Frodo as portrayed in this game seems to me to be more accurate to the books than Elijah Wood’s portrayal in the film. We see here a more courageous Frodo, more mature and self-reliant. While in Hobbiton, the player has the opportunity to meet and converse with several inhabitants. Many of you will recognize names pulled from the book which have been over looked in the past by the various film versions of the story. The visual aesthetic and design of the Shire, and indeed every portion of the game… is spot on in my opinion (or at least well within the reasonable interpretations possible from the source material.) The number of civilian Hobbits you can interact with is really great, and nearly every one of them has some sort of errand or favor to ask of you. This may seem annoying, but due to the fact that these are entirely optional side-quests, they do nothing but add depth and fun to the game. Much needed depth and fun, I might add… because even if you do choose to perform all of these tasks, you will still find this to be a fairly short game – depending on your pace of course, so it is best to squeeze every drop of play time out that you can.
The overall presentation of the game is very well done, the menus look good… and the player is provided with several sub-screens which range from the obligatory (inventory) to the surprisingly cool (the Fellowship and world map screens.) The Fellowship screen, for instance… provides you with a rundown of everyone who has joined the group thus far, and a bio for each of them… accompanied by their picture and statistics which vary from person to person. The developers could’ve easily left this out, but it is a nice touch that I was glad to see. The world map is well designed, and right from the start you can use it to focus on any of the game’s eight locations and see a description of it. Looking at this map, one can’t help but feel a little excited at the prospect of one day seeing the same map with more locations added, for a Two Towers game. Even the load screen is pretty cool, with the familiar elvish ring verse in fiery lettering scrolling past.
The quest log, which can either be accessed along side these other menus, or opened directly with the “back” button during gameplay, gives you a list of all tasks you have adopted, and whether or not you have completed them. This too, is done well and looks good. Although, once you’re out of the Shire it becomes fairly obsolete. Still on the topic of presentation, a word on the cinematics… they’re very good. They probably won’t be the best you’ve ever seen, and the handful of them in the game are fairly short, but they look nice and they do a good job of conveying scenes which the in-game cutscenes would’ve had a hard time showing. Speaking of the in-game cutscenes, they are fairly good but occasionally contain some weird teleportations of characters and such… due to a lack of situation-specific animations.
Let me touch on sound related issues, first off the music… it is excellent! It may not be anything you’ll be humming as you drive in your car, like Howard Shore’s score. Nonetheless, it is all very good… and captures the tone of each locale you are visiting at the time perfectly. The sound effects are a combination of original work, and some of the old battle standards which you can find in many games and films. Things such as a chest or door opening, you may find yourself recognizing the sounds for, but… how many ways can a door opening really sound? I didn’t find this annoying as I have in some other games. Also, the vast majority of the effects seem to be original, and whether original or sampled… all of them sound good. The final point on sound to mention, is the voice acting. The voice work in this title is almost uniformly excellent, and each actor portrays their character very well. I particularly liked Frodo’s voice. Our own Quickbeam voiced Samwise Gamgee, and he does a great job too. Again, everyone does a great job. Although, if I were to point out one possible negative in this area… it is that it is a very strange experience to hear Buttercup of the Powerpuff Girls voicing Arwen!
As far as the graphics are concerned, they range from mediocre to great. Being that this is an XBox title, you may find that this game does not push the power of the system quite as much as you might have hoped, but it certainly doesn’t look bad by any means. On occasion, it looks excellent. Intermittent use of bump-mapping does a lot to make a few choice areas or objects (like water) look a cut above the rest. In some of the caves you’ll find, this technique has been employed to great effect on the walls to make them look very convincing. If a sequel is ever made, the team behind this game will clearly have no problem making The Glittering Caves of Helm’s Deep convincing and beautiful.
Lighting effects, such as what you will see from Gandalf’s glowing staff in Moria, or one of his fireballs… are very nice too. The design of the characters and locations is typically excellent. The character models certainly could’ve been more detailed and used more polygons, but they get the job done nicely and look good enough by any reasonable standard. The entire fellowship is rendered convincingly, and no character interpretations are going to clash with anyone’s imagination at all. Although, I found myself wondering why Gandalf seemed to have already made his transition to “The White” from the look of his outfit. Enemies and secondary characters are all also well done, and there is a nice amount of variety (about as much as could be drawn from the book.)
If there is a truly weak point to the graphics, it would have to be the animations. They aren’t terrible, by any means… but in certain cases (such as Aragorn or Gandalf swinging their swords while running) they can appear very stilted and robotic… this is definitely an area in the game where a lot more polish could’ve helped. The entire game really could’ve used a few more months of development time, to work out some of the kinks. As of yet, I haven’t mentioned that many of the kinks… as they are mostly contained in the most important topic of all: gameplay.
The play mechanics in this game, leave a lot to be desired. You’ll typically end up feeling like you’re battling your own character as much as you’re battling the current crop of orcs you’re up against, or what have you. It becomes a real chore to engage in combat, and once the game becomes mainly combat… I’m afraid it begins to fall apart. One of the biggest mistakes, in my opinion… was making it so that in several instances, you would have to wait for one sword swing to complete to begin another. I don’t know or care if this is realistic, all I know is that when you prevent the player from beginning a new action, whether it be another sword swing or movement… or whatever, until the current one is finished, you really begin to erode the feeling of freedom and control which is crucial to a fun experience.
Given enough time, you can learn to get somewhat used to the fighting system and some of these quirks… but make no mistake, we’re talking about a lack of polish and playtesting here, not a valid combat system choice. One positive thing I can point out about this though, is that the end result (combined also with how much damage enemies do and other factors like that…) is that you actually feel like you’re in real danger when you’re going up against orcs, wargs… trolls or whatever. One thing this game does very well is make you feel like it’s a serious thing, to have an arrow fly at you. Many games you would shrug such a thing off… but not this one. There is a palpable fear brought on by an arrow streaking toward you, which is a nice thing.
Thankfully the game keeps you in the style you’ve become accustomed to, as far as plenty of health and ammunition… considering this fact and the length of the game, it really doesn’t pay off to horde your items. If you do, you’ll most likely regret not using them. Speaking of the items… there is a nice variety, and Tolkien items are implemented convincingly. Hobbits munch mushrooms for health, King’s Foil is used to cure poison, lembas restores full health… cram restores partial health… miruvar restores “spirit” (mana) for Gandalf… etc. So, as I said… Tolkien-specific items we all recognize are put into the mix very nicely. One Tolkien name-dropping which is not done as well as that, or as well as it was done in the film… is the mentioning of chapter names. In Jackson’s Fellowship of the Ring the sparing use of chapter names, adapted as necessary for the moment, seemed clever and cool – here it’s more cheesy and embarrassing.
A nice thing for those of you who wept at the loss of Tom Bombadil in the film, is the opportunity to meet him in this game. Yes, good old Tom is here in all his dancing and singing glory. Unfortunately his house looks a little bit too commonplace, and seems more befitting of Beorn from The Hobbit. I’ll touch more on this when I talk about the different locations you visit.
As you may have already caught on to, in this game you switch between Frodo, Aragorn, and Gandalf. It is not cut into three distinct sections, one after the other… rather, you might find yourself playing as any of these characters several times and switching when you least expect it. There is a method to the madness though, and it basically consists of the developers asking themselves “Who would it be most cool to be playing as at this particular part of the book?” and their decision is usually a good one. They also do a good job of making each of the three playable characters feel distinct from one another. You won’t end up feeling like they’re all the same guy with a different skin. They posses unique strengths and weaknesses, which are basically what you’d expect from what we all know of the characters. It’s pretty fun to play as any of the three also. Another negative thing though, is that Aragorn and Gandalf seem unreasonably easy to knock down. You may find yourself on the floor a lot more often than you’d expect. This is one of the factors which adds to the frustration of combat. The best way to handle a foe is to either hang back and let them come at you, or just go stark raving mad on him. Anything in between those two extremes, and you’re in trouble.
Frodo leans more toward the stealth style of play… with The One Ring at his disposal for invisibility, you can simply avoid enemies altogether easily enough, and it’s probably a good idea. I know I found myself booking past enemies an awful lot, because eventually you figure out that it’s just not worth the amount of health you tend to lose in a fight. Frodo can also do the more traditional method of sneaking… walking slow. You have an indicator in the top left of the screen, along with the health bar (and purity bar, if you’re Frodo… or Spirit bar, if you’re Gandalf) and item/weapon indicators. This is basically a dot which will show green if you’re successfully being stealthy… yellow if the enemy is partially alerted, and red if they are totally onto you. On the topic of the whole onscreen display, I have to say that this is one part of the presentation which could’ve been done better. For one thing it looks kind of cheesy, but also I found myself frustrated often times with getting the item I wanted, or weapon I wanted. It does get the job done though.
On the subject of The One Ring, which you will scroll threw such pedestrian items as chicken eggs and honeycomb to reach in your inventory (kinda funny to see it next to stuff like that) – It is executed fairly well. I mentioned Frodo’s purity meter, and outside of some strange religious games, the purity bar may be making it’s first appearance in a game here. Basically, the more you do good deeds the higher it will go… the more you wear the ring or do bad deeds (like stealing stuff from Sam’s house) – the lower it will go. If you run out of purity, you’re done using the ring until you can get more. Unless you’d like to be a pint sized servant of Sauron! I found that other than in the Shire, the game was sparse on opportunities to stock up on purity. Other than avoiding enemies, the ring also has the purpose of revealing secret hidden areas. These tend to be caves full of rats… and once you’ve killed the roughly four hundred rats (exaggeration) to be found in one of them, you’ll probably find that you lost far more health than you found in the cave. So, all in all these are kind of pointless but… it’s an extra and it’s kind of neat to see. When you approach a secret area the ring icon in your inventory will spin faster and faster the closer you get.
Frodo starts out using a weak walking stick as his weapon, and also has an unlimited supply of stones to throw at enemies or objects too. These stones aren’t of very much use, but you can get improved versions of them later called “Dwarf Shot” and “Elf Shot” – I presume these are meant to be bullets? Kinda strange. I would’ve preferred some buck shot. Frodo has the opportunity, after helping Fatty Bolger get some ingredients for a pie… to receive a slightly less weak walking stick, or “Fatty’s ointment” – I chose the walking stick out of pure fear for the other option. Eventually you’ll acquire Sting, but you’ll still have a heck of a time defeating an enemy as Frodo, in most cases.
As Aragorn your main weapon will be your sword, at first just a generic sword and later Anduril… either way, the sword is weaker than you’d expect. You’ll want to keep an eye out for “Beryl Jewels” which temporarily increase the strength of your sword, and create a green magical effect on the blade. Aragorn also has a bow at his disposal, and there are several types of arrows for you to find throughout the game. As mentioned earlier, sword combat as Aragorn (or Gandalf for that matter) can be pretty frustrating… but once you get the hang of it it’s not too bad.
Playing as Aragorn will be good practice for playing as Gandalf… if you aren’t much of a magic user, they play almost identically. However, Gandalf does have several spells at his disposal. I was very surprised to see just how many, in fact. All of them are pretty standard stuff, but the effects are done well and they’re fun to use. We certainly get to see a more magical Gandalf than in the books or films, but that is a necessary consequence of implementing such a character in a game… subtlety is fine in a book, but you have to deal out some death in a game! Gandalf does a good job of this.
A word on the camera… it’s kind of flakey. Thankfully, the developers realized they couldn’t get the camera to be perfect (or even good for that matter) so they gave the player the option to use the right control stick to adjust the camera in any way you see fit. This is a nice feature, for sure. You can tilt or pan the camera in any which way, and for the most part it’ll stay how you set it. Clicking down on the right control stick will put you into a first person mode, but you are immobile while in this. This is used for more accurate aiming of Frodo’s pebbles, Aragorn’s arrows, and Gandalf’s magic. Or you can just use it to look around at the cool environments. The left control stick, apart from being how you move your character around… also has a camera function. If you press it down, it will center the camera behind your back. This is a common feature nowadays, and I’m glad it is in here because you definitely need it. So, if you leave the camera to it’s own devices you’re in for some headaches… but if you take the reigns and control it yourself, which isn’t too terribly hard to do… you’ll find that it’s not so bad.
Something which needs to be pointed out, is that although you do end up having all nine members of the Fellowship, usually you’ll only be seeing the one playable character you’re controlling. You basically find yourself needing to pretend that the other eight are right behind you… because, they only appear when a cutscene or camping takes place. Speaking of the camping sessions, they are a neat touch… because each time you can go around and talk to each of the Fellowship members and hear them comment on the current situation. I found myself enjoying these moments. One might lament the fact that you can’t have all the other members of the Fellowship running around with you at all times, but then one realizes that it’s a pretty good be that the amount of pathfinding headaches and people getting stuck… etc, would really make it more of a curse than a blessing. Also, if you had that much backup the game might have become a little too easy.
Another thing which bears mentioning, is that the game is very linear… this isn’t an uncommon thing, and considering that it’s based on a story like this, it’s not surprising. However, one way in which it is sort of annoying is the fact that if you see say… a small river or creek, you simply cannot walk into it. Same with most cliff edges, there will just be an invisible barrier there impeding your progress. Now, most times you’d probably die if you could do this… but I’m a big believer in giving the player a lot of freedom. If I want to be an idiot and drown, or throw myself off a cliff… let me! There was one moment in Bree when I thought there was a cool fork in the road, as far as what could happen… but then I learned that the outcome was the same with either choice I made. That was a little disappointing.
Speaking of Bree, and the other locations… as I said earlier they are all done well. Moria feels like Moria, the Shire feels like the Shire. They’re all very nicely put together and they give you the right feeling. The music for each of them is appropriate, and sometimes appropriately freaky. They also do a good job of drawing them out a bit… Moria is quite long, and the Old Forest is too. Each location gets a nice showing and you don’t feel like you’ve rushed through any of them. Unfortunately the end result is still a short game, but this is more the fault of the book than the game. They did as best as they could on this count, I think.
The developers did an admirable job at the unenviable task of coming up with plenty of fights, where there might not have been any in the book. The need for “boss” monsters has also been effectively done. None of it seems too terribly cheesy, or disrespectful to the books. You might be scratching your head as to why the trolls are so small, though. They certainly don’t force combat into areas where it would make no sense, like Rivendell or Lothlorien. They do it tastefully and only when necessary. Playing through this game you get to see all the locations the book covers, and that is definitely nice.
Another note on play mechanics: One touch I found to be cool was the use of “enemy spawn points” and to clarify what I mean… an example is these cave openings which you’ll find on walls where orcs trickle out periodically. You can destroy the cave opening to stop the flow of orcs, and it’s usually wise to go after these spawn points before anything else. This is used for a few other enemies as well, and I thought it was a nice touch. It added just a touch more strategy to the combat with monsters.
Some of you may have heard the reports of glitches in this game, and I’m sorry to say I did run into a few. My game locked up three times, twice during boss battles and once when I simply stood on a switch. This speaks to the overall lack of polish in the title, and makes you wish that more time had been devoted to the game. The game definitely feels a bit rushed and it’s unfortunate because it could’ve been a lot better with some more time devoted to it. Thankfully none of these bugs were total show stoppers, and restarting the XBox did the trick. You’ll be wise to save often though. Though not exactly glitches, there are also some things like unnecessary slowdown… sometimes it’ll get just a little choppy, but for the most part it runs smoothly throughout. Some people have complained about the way that you might open a door to a new area to find only blackness, because the next area is still loading. This definitely is weird, but I suppose it was either that or take you out of the game again to a load screen… same thing either way, you’re waiting. I think I prefer to stay in the game for it, so it’s not too terrible.
The final verdict on this game, is that if you are looking to experience The Lord of the Rings first hand, and you are willing to put up with some frustration to do that… you should probably pick this one up, or at least rent it. I would even go so far as to say that any Tolkien fan who has any sort of interest in gaming, should definitely play this game. You might end up happier waiting for the PlayStation 2 or PC version due out later this month though, because there is reason to believe those versions will end up being superior, and more stable. In the end, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring is a game which manages to be charming and fun, despite it’s many drawbacks.
[Score: 7.5/10] = Good