Version tested: Xbox 360
The Sacking of The Shire, the final stage in Lord of the Rings: Conquest's campaign mode, is a distressing scene. In a wicked reversal of the storyline originally laid down by Tolkien, Sauron - the Dark Lord himself - arrives at Bag End cottage with a Balrog on a leash. Amongst the vegetable patches the hobbits run to and fro in the frantic, fearful pandemonium of an unexpected attack. In their fat, stubby little hands they hold nothing to protect themselves save kitchen knives and sapling bows.
Ten, twenty, thirty fall, arrows sticking from their childlike faces like cocktail sticks from tomatoes. The forces of darkness burn their homes with flaming arrows, setting fire to the bushy heads of the Ent tree people who are working to protect their friends and allies. It's no use: they're overwhelmed; massacred. The well-kept flowerbeds offer no stronghold and the midget race is no soldier stock. It is genocide.
Incidentally, I'm the one pulling the trigger. Kill 300 in one go, asks Pandemic: Achievement unlocked.
Lord of the Rings: Conquest enjoys all of the benefits of being related to a proven Hollywood blockbuster - the recognisable cast, characters and clips, the familiar mythology and the evocative soundtrack - but, as the movie's already been out for eight years, it has been free to develop at its own pace and in its own direction. Indeed, half of the game is fantasy fantasy: a reimagining of how the story might have progressed had Frodo failed to destroy the infamous ring. This kind of creative freedom is unusual and welcome in established mythology.
The game follows the template laid out by Pandemic's previous Star Wars: Battlefront series, and, more recently, Enemy Territory: Quake Wars. Two sides, comprised of four different types of soldier, fight to gain or hold territory in a series of locations plucked straight from Peter Jackson's cinematic trilogy. As soon as your soldier's health bar is depleted in battle, you spawn as a new one until your clutch of lives is gone and the game is over. At key points you assume the role of one of the story's famous heroes - Gandalf, Aragorn, Saruman, The Witch King and so on - depending on which side you're playing for, and this character faces up against an opposing hero in what's supposed to be a grand conclusion to the stage.
The campaign, which can be played in single-player, split-screen or in co-op over PSN or Xbox Live, is divided into two distinct halves: The War of the Ring, in which you fight for the good guys across eight stages beginning at Helm's Deep and ending at The Black Gate, and The Rise of Sauron, comprised of seven stages leading from Mount Doom to The Shire. The four classes - Warriors, Archers, Mages and Scouts - are the same on each side, as are their moves. As the Warrior you have access to three standard attacks, a throwing axe and three magical attacks. These inputs can be strung together into combos as you hack and slash your way through the enemy throng, like a deadly spinning top. The Scout is the second close-range class, a stealth warrior who can cloak himself with temporary invincibility and assassinate enemies from behind.
As the Archer you can fire an almost continuous volley of arrows at enemies, with three additional special attacks (poison arrows, flaming arrows and a volley) on offer to deal extra damage when their respective gauges are filled. And finally, as the Mage you can cast spells from your staff, in much the same way as the archer's arrow, as well as healing yourself and your comrades and creating an impervious magical shield for those around you. The heroes you play as generally fall into one of these four classes too, so the move-list is consistent throughout the game.