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.
The four classes are mostly balanced, slightly favouring the archer for those players with a steady eye: headshots will kill most enemies in one hit, while hacking at them with swords will take three or four. Magic refills as you attack and so, when caught in a close scuffle, you can drain and refill your magic attack gauge in seconds (especially when playing as the Warrior), slicing through enemies with wide, sweeping magical gestures while simultaneously recouping the power to repeat the movements moments later. In this way the game's at its most frenetic and enjoyable in the heat of Dynasty Warriors-esque melees (although, sadly, Conquest's on-screen enemy numbers never come close to matching those seen in KOEI's games).
But there is also a lightness to the combat that's unsatisfying. Through a combination of sound design and animation, strikes don't connect with the weight and power one expects of this universe. Jump or fall from a 25-foot wall and your character won't so much as buckle at the knee, giving the game a weightless, videogamey feel that's at odds with the supposed grand scale and gravity of the universe.
Each stage lasts for twenty minutes or so and is divided into subtasks such as having to kill a certain number of enemies within a time limit, take out specific enemy generals or capture territory by standing within a specified area for a set amount of time. The range of tasks is limited and uninspired but, as mechanical building blocks for driving the action along, they are perfectly functional. More problematic is the instant death. As if being plucked into the air and killed at random by a fell beast or giant eagle weren't enough, so much as dip your toe in water and you'll fall over dead, even the gentle river flowing through Rivendell acting as kryptonite to Tolkien's mighty warriors.
And the moments that should shine, such as the chance to take control of an Ent, or a Balrog or, much later in the game, an Oliphaunt, are spoiled through clumsiness of design. Gear of War 2 proved in its final act that controlling giant beasts needn't be completely inelegant, but taking control of Conquest's giants is a slow-moving, frustrating experience that in no way matches the spectacle of the role.
The game's visuals also disappoint, failing to match the lavishness of production seen Peter Jackson's trilogy. At points you'll find yourself facing a battalion of Elves, every one identical save for hair colour. Glitches further undermine the graphical experience: often when sneaking up behind an enemy to score a silent kill as the Scout we found our character scooting across the floor in a comical, Yakety Sax sort of way, wholly at odds with the subject matter. Of course, the overall package benefits greatly from the familiarity and quality of its subject matter. The integration of film clips, fonts and, of course, Howard Shore's excellent soundtrack lifts the experience but not so far as to forgive the game's obvious visual shortcomings.
The main campaign, which can be played co-operatively online, is bolstered by four Instant Action modes: Capture the Ring (like Capture the Flag but with a ring), Deathmatch, Hero Team Deathmatch and Conquest mode, in which you must capture all of the territories on the map. On the EA servers all of the games we played were plagued by connection problems and lag, even with far fewer than the maximum sixteen slots filled. The wide open levels felt sparse and under-populated, especially without the option to add bots.
While there is some enjoyment to be had here, it is hard-won and rarely fulfilling. The imprecision of the combat and its lightweight feel combined with the ropey visuals conspire to date the game considerably. The chance to play as heroes and giants is its gimmick, but it lacks the strength of execution to carry the rest, and the result is a game that, while it stops short of doing a disservice to the Lord of the Rings name, does nothing to embellish it.
5 / 10