It would be impossible to argue that EA had done a bad job of its partnership with New Line and the Lord of the Rings films so far. The Two Towers and The Return of the King were shining examples of the handling of film licenses, if not the brightest instances, showing a commitment to the property's assets and the mirroring of the movies themselves in taking a full action stance. Everyone wants to be Ian McKellan in a huge beard with a death wish, don't they? It turned out they did. The games were huge successes, and rightly so.
But the films are no more, and now EA has to eke whatever it can from the remains of the day. The fair-weather action fans have had their fill. The obvious next step was role-playing and strategy. Role-playing comes first.
Ring "gags" are so last year
The Third Age is the first EA LOTR title to be released since The Return of the King, a console RPG in the tradition of Final Fantasy (very in the tradition as it transpires), and as such has been the subject of wry interest. EA has never made a game like this before. There was never any doubt the publishing giant would handle the subject matter with ease, but could it produce an RPG capable of pleasing the crowd and the hardcore alike?
Half a point. As could have easily been predicted.
From the outset The Third Age is slick and involving. It starts with footage from the movie and a crash course in Middle Earth - the waning of the elves, the rise of men, the cutting of the ring from Sauron's hand by Isildur, the finding of the ring by Smeagol, the starting of the third age, the formation of the Fellowship, and so on - and then shows the main character standing in a wood. We're off.
Berethor is a warrior of Gondor. Immediately he faces a pair of Nazgul. A cut-scene explodes, as in Final Fantasy, into a turn-based combat sequence with character order at the top right of the screen. As in Final Fantasy X. You hit him. He hits you. You fall over. A cut-scene. A woman who casts water spells appears, a warrior elf called Idrial. A bit like Final Fantasy. Get used to the "like Final Fantasy" bit.
You move off together, although only Berethor is shown in the adventure section. The Third Age looks amazing, as you'd expect. The right stick spins the camera. A map in the top right hand corner tells you where you're going (like FF... you get it). You find a chest, and open it using A to find a shield. You equip it. Your character in the real-time section is now bearing a shield, and very nice he looks too. Then you hit your first battle (when you're trotting along, the Eye of Sauron appears and grows in the top left of the screen to show whether or not you're in an area likely to involve fighting). Joy. You kick the orc's tail. The game even plays a posturing sequence at the end of combat. Just like Final Fantasy.
Round One - Fight!
EA has taken great pains over the combat in The Third Age. It's an entirely turn-based affair, with each character shifting around in the hit order depending on attributes, magic, the effect of attacks, and so on. On his or her turn, the character is given the option of Attack (single, double and triple Critical Hits all make an appearance), Sword Craft (costs APs), Spirit Powers or Items, although other options show up as you progress. Magic, such as the Murder of Crows from orc captains and the fire spells from the dwarf you pick up later, is beautifully realised. You can taunt single opponents to shift the order of combat and ensure they hit the party in the desired place. You can miss, obviously, and so can your green opponents.
The animation is fantastic, characters showing facial expressions as they attack and defend. Bow craft, Ranger craft, Sword craft, Spirit craft, and so on are added when you acquire a ranger. There's a Momentum Meter that fills up as you attack in sequence, until your party reaches Perfect Mode, which then gives you exponentially more powerful strikes against larger foes. You can have three characters on screen at once, but you can bring in fresh characters during combat by pressing the white button. If you've played Final Fantasy X, there's a chance you may be wearing a slightly shocked expression right now. It really is very similar, but it's no bad thing. It's a great formula. It's been dumbed down considerably from the Square offerings of late, but it's easy to navigate and quick. But there's nowhere near the depth.
The presentation of the combat sequences will leave Tolkien fans in absolute ecstasy. Orc arrows remain in characters after being fired in, the music roars, the spell and attack graphic showing nothing short of sensation and general lighting effects sure to draw round of applause from the fantasy faithful. If you like The Lord of the Rings, you'll need to own this.
At the end of the fight you're given experience and lightning-style notifications of levelling up, and items - such as the elven bread, lembas (AP boost), kingsfoil (health boost), Ent draught, Old Toby tobacco, etc - in separate screens. Just like Final Fantasy X. Just like it. We're not kidding, it's amazingly similar to FFX at its core.
You add attribute points once you earn them in combat. Core character facets are Strength, Spirit, Constitution, Speed and Dexterity. You can also obviously equip items you discover. The system is further deepened by the inclusion of magic Elfstones, which can be given to characters to increase attributes. Again, Final Fantasy players will be very familiar with the concept, but again, it doesn't really matter. It's still great fun, it just doesn't has the weight an aficionado will need to keep him stuck to a pad for 60 hours. Nowhere near it.
I'm going to tell you a story...
But there are major plusses. The Third Age is an entirely new story from the LOTR universe with brand new characters, which in itself is exciting, if you're liable to get excited about that sort of thing. The story told in Epic Scenes, opened as you go along (there are 109 in total), and real-time scenes shown at various points on the map. The Epic Scenes take the form of movies narrated by Gandalf, all using footage from the films.
The story itself is actually very cool, and for LOTR fans the game will be a must-have for this alone. As the story is completely fresh and sits alongside the timeline of the films (to be more accurate, slightly behind the story of the Fellowship), playing The Third Age engenders the genuine excitement of playing pen and paper RPGs like Middle Earth. The source material is so solid and well known, and the presentation and story so well thought out, that anyone with a passing interest in the Lord of the Rings will enjoy it. And it's really great to step away from the now-battered tale of the Fellowship and see EA forge its own sub-stories. We hope this is not the end of the trend by any stretch.
The game environments are spellbinding, if hilariously linear (what did you expect, though?). You'll get snow, mountains, wargs, forests, castles: the full nine yards. The sense of space in the mountain scenes is excellent and engaging, despite the linearity, and the attention to detail never falters. There are also frequent save points, which is great if you need them, but are also indicative of biggest problem with The Third Age.
You shall not pass!
It's too easy. Yes, there's a Hard mode, and Evil mode if you can be bothered to play through it that many times, but if you've got a solid grounding in role-playing games, you'll walk through it. Even the tougher battles can be overcome first time without any real planning further than "make sure you're all tooled up" due to the relative shallowness and linearity of the character progression system.
But we're picking holes, and they're holes that were always going to be easy to pick. The Third Age is a highly enjoyable, if throwaway foray into the world of the Lord of the Rings films, and has much to recommend it for a casual purchase, especially for Tolkien completists. But RPG mentalists will be bitter from the outset and will care little for the unparalleled presentation; there's little to truly root anyone looking for a serious challenge. You can't really blame EA for that. This is a good game, it's just too shallow; an entry-level RPG at heart. But it's so nearly an 8 it hurts. And God knows what EA would have come up with if it really had gone for the absolute hardcore. If The Third Age shows anything, it shows that EA is capable of anything. What could have been, it doesn't bear thinking about...