This is a perverse kind of game. And, perversely, I find myself liking it.
At first glance, you could take it as a continuing example of Electronic Arts' determination to make as much use of the Lord of the Rings licence as possible. Hell, you can guarantee that somewhere in their headquarters there's someone trying to work out a way to make a Lord of the Rings/NBA Live crossover game. It's worth recalling that the film's director, Peter Jackson, was so dispirited with the EA's games of the film that he went looking for a more emotionally adept developer to create the recent Kong game. Anything other than redoing Double Dragon and giving the characters robes instead of killer eighties retro-wear.
You get the feeling Peter Jackson wouldn't like this one. And more fool him.
You see, I think this is going to be one of the cases where the licence is actually counterproductive. The hardcore gamers will be turned off by the stench of a licence - let alone one as widely used as this one. The hardcore fans will be disappointed in how many sweeping liberties the game takes with the world. It's a turn-based tactical battle game, with a couple of campaigns of missions and some sizeable role-playing elements. It just doesn't often feel particularly Lord of the Ringsy.
Take the cut-scenes for example. Despite the fact they're entirely constructed from footage from the film, they just don't really work, at least as narrative entities. Regular Internet surfers will be aware of the recent competition where a new trailer for a film was made by recutting all of the material in a new order. The winner took the Shining, and by artful voiceovers ("He's a writer, looking for inspiration," "He's a kid looking for a dad"), carefully chosen cuts and some fine AOR turned it into a rather different lifeaffirming tale. At their worst, the movies in LoTR: Tactics feel a little like that. As an entity by themselves, they almost make sense... but the weighting is different enough from the film which you're familiar with to make it feel just a little strange. It's not quite right.
The characters in the battles are a decent enough representation of the film's likenesses, but in terms of personality it's nothing alike. Tactical battle games aren't, by their nature, heroic. Heroism is about ludicrous numbers against a tiny brave few. Tactical battle games are smaller, more intimate. To have an orc and Gandalf (or a beleaguered Soldier of Gondor and Sauron, switching it around) on a battlefield where there's only ten or so combatants a side requires a judicious reduction of the heroes' abilities. Sauron is now just a pretty good character rather than someone who can single-handedly devastate armies. It's a requirement for the sort of game LoTR Tactics is, but an absolute anathema for the true devotee. When the dreaded lord of the Nazgul's advance is blocked by a hobbit, there's part of the fanboy which growls that this is not how it should be.
Screw the fanboy. He's killing gaming.
The centre of the game is the battles themselves, each set in a world-appropriate locale featuring a Mordor and Fellowship side. Battles are won and lost depending on the usual selection of victory conditions. While Kill Everyone proves ever-popular, others also include flag-capturing, destination-reaching decapitation games, which require the survival or slaying of one member of the team.
Tactics separates itself from the crowd in two ways.
Firstly, there is no crowd. Sure, this isn't going to last long when put in the ring with Advance Wars, but this isn't in the ring with Advance Wars. There's been a dearth of strategy games on the PSP, and something like this is long overdue.
Secondly, rather than choosing the handheld-dominant alternate-turns system it chooses to implement a simultaneous one. So rather than you having all your moves, and then the computer (or your opponent) having all theirs, both are ordered at once with the results playing out simultaneously (or rather, in the order of the character's speed statistics). While divided into two stages - moves then actions - it means that there's a welcome level on uncertainty to the proceedings.
Playing out according to speed forces you to consider when to heal or attack a little more carefully. For example, if a slow character is extremely damaged, you may figure that he'd have already been killed before he manages to use a healing potion. In which case, it may be better for a swifter character with a healing ability (i.e. Gandalf) to target him first. Hell - even work in advance, realising that by the time you've gone through the turns ordeal, you'll probably need to heal. Equally, you have to consider your attacks more carefully since you have to order them all before you see the results. If an enemy only has a slip of health left, how many of your soldiers should target him? Just one hit would do it, but if they miss, they'll be active (and doing full damage) for another turn. Hit them with five archers, and he'll be going down, but you could have really had used that firepower elsewhere.
Control of the battlefield is applied by zones around each character. If you pass adjacent to one another, they'll have to stop that turn. Also, they'll be incapable of using a ranged attack. While most (though not all) characters have a ranged and melee attack, they're normally of considerably different levels. Locking down archers with melee troops is the ideal, while your own melee specialists try to stop them or lock down the opponents. Other rules add other things to think about, but it's essentially simple and - eventually - instinctive. Friendly characters fighting side by side give a defence bonus to each other. More friendlies around an enemy provide a defence penalty on the opposition. Raised ground gives bonuses. Nazgul get +4 against scarabs on Thursdays. You know the drill. The system probably best comes into its own when played link-up with up to four players, as it's essentially a game of psychology (Where will they move? And if so, what shall I do about it?), but the computer's AI does a decent enough job of playing to the rules. It plays to the victory conditions, ruthlessly concentrating on the target it requires to win in Assassin games, for example.
The role-playing elements elevate the campaign too. At the end of each mission, as well as the characters levelling up and so gaining hit points, you gain gold. The gold can be used to pick up extra skills and permanent statistic bonuses for the heroes and an apothecary of chemical enhancements to imbue when a battle's getting too tough.
However, while the theory of much of LoTR Tactics seems sound, it also seems rushed. It lacks the degree of polish you'd have hoped for. On the tactical side, the biggest problem is being a little opaque in terms of information available. In fact, when the camera gets a piece of scenery in the way of the action, an actual literal opaqueness becomes an issue too (luckily, you can move the camera around, but still). You can study a character's reams of statistics at a button press, but there's no way to directly compare character types to try and work out how the confrontation would end up. When you target a foe for attack, you get the percentage chance you'll hit... but not when using a heroes' special abilities (which is particularly grating when using a special power that gives you +25 percent chance to strike home, and it doesn't tell you what that actually is). A number of icons appear by the characters' statistics, saying what bonuses and penalties they're currently experiencing, but the game doesn't really explain what they mean at any point. Character models, while accurate to the world, at a distance all have a tendency to look a little similar. Was that an Orc Pikeman or Beserker? Oh, it's so hard to tell with these modern haircuts.
There's also some really oddball control issues. For example, different left or right shoulder buttons being used to switch between characters depending on whether you're selecting your team or targeting. Or that when you're in the shops it's the O rather than the X which you use to purchase - the X takes you to the map and the next battle, and it's a mistake I'd make at least a couple of times per shopping trip.
It's most grating comment, however, is a difficulty related one. The spending of Gold to gain new abilities is tense and strategic one, with you having to balance between permanently boosting your characters and collecting potions enough to survive a mission... until you realise the huge hole in the system. You're able to skip back and replay earlier missions at any point. However, the opposition won't have been scaled up. The opening mission, where on normal you just have to do 30 points of damage to the Witch King, is a cute little game first time around. Returning to it as a level 10 character halfway through the game I was able to complete it in a single shot, and pocket the 400 gold in a single turn. It's made worse by this being considerably shorter than most RPG/Tactic games that you'll play. The ability for the game to remain at all challenging is limited by your restraint in abusing this gaping flaw too much.
If you do, Tactics entertains in its slow-paced way. In fact, while in terms of accuracy to the world it's the least accurate LoTR licence yet, in other areas it's terribly close to the books. It's slow-paced. It's a little unwieldy. It's hardly glamorous. However, it's also something which wraps you up in its own world for hours at a time.