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