Despite the demise of the films - if you can call it that - The Lord of the Rings is still very hot property indeed. This year's effort from EA seems to be focussing more on the discerning gamer and less on the fair-weather fan devoted to a quick action fix. The Third Age, a turn-based RPG dripping with all the polish you'd expect from such a high-profile franchise, is quite obvious being made with the intention of "mopping up" the afterbirth of what has been a grotesquely successful exercise in franchise manipulation. For the Shire, and all that.
We popped over to San Francisco last week and caught up with Steve Gray, the executive producer of The Third Age and one of the senior members of the entire EA Lord of the Rings project. See him speak through the magic of the Internet, by downloading this movie of our interview from Eurogamer's hosting service, Eurofiles. For the broadband challenged, there's a transcription of the chat below.
Steve Gray: This is Lord of the Rings: The Third Age, the next game EA's going to make based on the Lord of the Rings films. It's a turn-based RPG. We really believe that there are an awful lot of people that are RPG fans that are also Lord of the Rings fans, and that there a lot of Lord of the Rings fans that are RPG fans, so it seemed like a good intersection of gameplay.
Eurogamer: Why did you go for a turn-based RPG after last year's hack and slash style?
Steve Gray: A couple of reasons. We wanted to give people a new kind of experience. We've done the action-adventure game two years in a row and it was time to change the tempo a little. Also, on the team we have a lot of hardcore RPG fans.
Eurogamer: So which team's coding this one? Stormfront again, is it?
Steve Gray: No, Stormfront coded The Two Towers. Return of the King was done here at Redmond Shores by an internal team and a lot of that team are now working on The Third Age.
Eurogamer: What kind of collaboration have you had with New Line for this one?
Steve Gray: We've always worked really closely with New Line and we're continuing to. They're part of the team as far as we're concerned. If we're not in contact with them every day it's every couple of days. It's really an incredibly collaborative relationship and we're really happy about it.
Eurogamer: In terms of the gameplay, you're encompassing all three Lord of the Rings books?
Steve Gray: Our games are based on the movies. They're specifically based on the movies, so they're based on the materials of all three movies.
Eurogamer: Right, so where does the game start? Does it follow the plot all the way through?
Steve Gray: I don't want to give away what the whole of the game is. Conceptually, the game starts pretty much at the beginning of the story and goes all the way through to the end of the story.
Eurogamer: Who do you play as?
Steve Gray: You play as a number of characters.
Eurogamer: You form a team, presumably?
Steve Gray: You form a team that's based on characters from the movies, and throughout the adventure they're constantly meeting with, and sharing experiences with, and coming into combat with the main characters from the film.
Eurogamer: How many do you get to choose from right at the beginning?
Steve Gray: Right at the beginning you start with one. Within probably the first hour you end up with four and by the end of the game you'll have six, but then in the middle of battles, because you're joined by main characters from the films, you may have more than six characters to choose from in that battle.
Eurogamer: Is there direct control? You said that it's turn-based. Does that mean you're just choosing which spell to use, and so on?
Steve Gray: You're choosing which one of your actions and abilities you want to use. You have a skill tree: there's a range skill tree, a hand to hand combat skill tree, a skill tree of special abilities, and then a leadership skill tree.
Eurogamer: Can you tell us some of the features generally, that people who've bought the previous two games would be quite interested in?
Steve Gray: Well, so you're adventuring through a world that's going to be very familiar to fans of the films as well as fans of our games. This year we've added a user-controlled camera so you have the freedom to look around at the whole environment.
Eurogamer: Can you zoom in and out?
Steve Gray: Yep.
Eurogamer: Is it as spectacular looking as the last ones?
Steve Gray: I hope so, yeah. We've made quite a lot of improvements in our rendering technology, so one of the things you're going to see a lot more of is blood and other visual effects. And then, when you're in the RPG combat system, pretty much every element of the system, whether it be a simple hand to hand attack, or bucking up your own party, or slowing down an enemy, or stealing HP from an enemy, or any of those RPG combat elements are all represented by animations and lots of visual effects. So the game's definitely more over the top and gets more in your face visually than the last ones.
Eurogamer: Is there any co-operative play in this?
Steve Gray: There is not a co-op mode, no.
Eurogamer: Any online modes?
Steve Gray: No.
Eurogamer: So no Xbox Live support or downloadable content or anything?
Steve Gray: Unfortunately not this year, no.
Eurogamer: When's this coming out?
Steve Gray: November.
Eurogamer: Can we expect more Lord of the Rings games in the future?
Steve Gray: I certainly hope so.
Eurogamer: Which platforms is this coming out on?
Steve Gray: Xbox, PlayStation 2 and GameCube, and there's the real-time strategy game that we're putting out on PC.
Eurogamer: Any particular reason why this time around you chose not to put this out on PC as well?
Steve Gray: Well, because we're doing a real-time strategy game on PC, and we felt that the design of this game is very much a console RPG.
Eurogamer: You don't think a PC RPG fan would necessarily want to be playing it?
Steve Gray: Not for sure. It's not really that style of game. So it didn't feel like the right thing to do with this product.
Download the interview in movie form here.