Whether you're a fan of the J.R.R Tolkien novels or not, there's no denying that Peter Jackson's movie adaptation was a fine achievement, and was received as rapturously by the critics as the public. Indeed, its recent DVD release broke sales records, while the forthcoming follow up, The Two Towers, is guaranteed to be another cinema blockbuster.
Strangely, Electronic Arts passed up the opportunity to rush release a Fellowship Of The Rings cash in videogame, and instead held back the game to incorporate the best bits of the first two movies. But when you're the world's biggest games company, you can afford to make these kinds of decisions - and it is perhaps a sign that EA is no longer prepared to fob off gamers with half-baked cash in releases, as it used to with monotonous regularity.
Lavish and polished
And if you're expecting a half baked cash in piece of 'interactive merchandise' then think again. The Two Towers has been lavished with the kind of polish and attention to detail that EA has become famous for.
Playable as three different characters; Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli (and other movie characters pop up at various points to give you a hand) and across 16 levels, the game is ostensibly an all out hack and slash action game in the tradition of Golden Axe, albeit hung convincingly onto an already lavish movie scenario. Throw in elements from modern slasher classics like Devil May Cry and Dynasty Warriors, and you'll have some idea of what kind of gameplay prospect to expect.
Early forays into the game immediately show off the quality of the game engine, the animation and the huge amount of simultaneous on screen action. Sets from the movie have been recreated with impressive results, and the dark, foggy atmosphere utilised is spot on. A roving camera system has been employed to give you the best view of the action at all times, although your freedom to explore the environment is restricted to preset boundaries, which can feel a little artificial at times, but are necessary to conform with the tightly scripted events that unfold..
And talking of scripts, each scene is bookended by film footage borrowed from the movie, which cunningly blends into FMV, although the quality of these recreated scenes isn't always as good as it could be, thanks to some less than cutting edge rendering. That said, it's still a nice way of introducing a new scene, rather than just randomly dumping the player into a battle sequence.
While admiring the graphical polish, you'll be invited to try out the game's control system, which for the early part consists of a few key manoeuvres: X is a quick attack to dispatch unshielded foe, triangle a more forceful lunge to break through shields, square is a basic slash, while circle kicks opponents away. Shoulder buttons come into play too, with L1 enabling the bow (fire with X), L2 performs a quick retreat, while R2 stabs the sword into the ground (or floored enemy). It's all fairly basic stuff for the first four or five levels, and in fact progress can be made by mainly stabbing triangle. It's hardly a challenge - even on normal difficulty - with only the various fearsome bosses providing a serious obstacle. Sometimes the sheer amount of carnage on the screen at once is the major challenge - picking out yourself among the lunacy can be a challenge in itself, although it does add somewhat to the illusion of a massed battle going on.
One area The Two Towers gets absolutely spot on is the audio. Replete with splendid surround sound, a dramatic score, and correctly voiced samples, the developers have done a great job of heightening the atmosphere. If you've got the kit, this game really does deliver in this department.
In between each level players are awarded points for how well they have executed their manoeuvres (borrowed liberally from Devil May Cry's combat system) ranging from Perfect to Fair. If you manage to impress the game enough, you'll be able to use the points as currency to buy yourself new combat moves and combos, which go some way to making the game more than a triangle pressing marathon.
The triangle death manoeuvre
As you work your way up the experience ladder, more complicated and powerful moves will be revealed, which you'll have to use as the going gets tougher. As we mentioned, you'll happily get through just using the triangle attack for the first third of the game, especially as worrying about health isn't too much of an issue - as soon as you get close to the point of death, your thoughtful enemies will drop green health vials. This renders a lots of The Two Tower's challenge redundant, and in certain sections it's actually possible to ignore the enemy hoards and simply run onto the next area.
However, once you're expected to dispatch bosses, the challenge ups dramatically. The first is a kind of Loch Ness monster, and only chopping off its tentacles prevents a very quick death. Following that, the Cave Troll is a pretty fearsome adversary, especially once you find you've got to fire off about 50 arrows to get rid of the blighter - and all that while he's furiously whipping a chain in your direction. Sadly the camera behaviour tends to make these sequences harder than they strictly need to be, and you'll often also get caught out by odd path decisions that seem to 'snag' the player just at the crucial moment.
Still, a careful aim and observation of a boss' attack pattern, and it's onto the next beautifully recreated section, but what you get is ultimately more of the same. The enemies do get more challenging, and time restricted levels come into play, but ultimately it's a case of hacking through a few minutes worth of endless hordes, before you get to do battle with a boss. Experienced gamers will probably finish the game within 10 hours, although there is the temptation to replay the game as one of the other two characters.
One of the more pleasing factors is the way it integrates the 'DVD extras' into the level select system. Finishing a level will more often than not result in an interview extra becoming available, or some photos, and so on, and gives a certain amount of incentive to carry on. Also, given that the game incorporates the as-yet-unreleased second movie into the footage, you also get a sneak preview of key moments - something that die hard fans will undoubtedly kill for at this point in time.
But whether you'll want to invest Ł40 of your hard earned cash into the game of the movie comes down to a few key factors: how much of a Lord Of The Rings nut you are, whether you like relentless Final Fight/Double Dragon style gameplay, and just how much cash you have to spare. It's fun while it lasts, but requires relatively little skill - just an iron will and determination to progress through 16 lavish, on rails, scripted levels. And once you've finished it, we doubt whether you'll be coming back for more.