The slippery so and sos. No sooner had EA bagged the rights to the movie, Vivendi Universal Games thought it'd be a really good idea to get the rights to the books, and so gamers are faced with having to choose from two titles based on the phenomenally popular J.R.R Tolkien story.
But whereas EA's slick effort concentrated strictly on events in the movie (including the second in the series, The Two Towers), developer WXP has had a more free reign to create a game to do the actual story justice, as opposed to one that has more in common with hack and slash Golden Axe-style gaming than anything as trivial as story line.
Better late than never
Ok, this has been out for a few weeks now, but our review copy slithered its way onto our desk better late than never. No doubt the postman got savaged by black clad horsemen, otherwise known as the gaming patrol - a bunch of shady vigilantes hell bent on stopping bad gaming experiences from breaking through and scarring our consciousness. But the posties round here are tough little fellas, and by creeping slowly past the gang of Goths, they evaded their attentions. So here we are, duty bound to deliver the news, good or bad.
The omens haven't been good for FOTR; save for one good 'world exclusive' PC review; this has been attracting almost universal bad press from a press under siege from a deluge of top-notch games. Put simply, if it wasn't for the attractive license, we'd have probably filed this game under "don't bother even looking at", but seeing as it has sold in significant numbers (sitting pretty at No.12 in this week's All Formats chart) we thought it would be wise to deliver our considered verdict on whether its worth spending your hard earned beans on.
If such things matter to you, the storyline is faithful to the novel, so you get to "relive the experiences of Frodo, Aragorn and Gandalf as they journey from the peaceful lands of the Shire through the darkness of Moria to the River Anduin".
It's got more rabbit than Sainsbury's
What this translates to as a gaming experience is a third person action adventure where you wander around talking to characters in an attempt to move the story on. As you move through the various characters, you get given sub quests that usually involve fetching an object and bringing it back to them. Some are compulsory, while some are purely there to make you feel better about being a Hobbit - and also to increase your purity rating.
The initial quests take place in a non threatening environment, and as such feel like an over long training mission - without too much of the training, so you inevitably end up wandering around for ages like an idiot trying to find something locked away in a chest somewhere before you can actually get to the real meat of the game.
Eye candy? Not here, sir
But what is obvious from the get go is the visuals are lacklustre, with an environment closely resembling the fluffy Herdy Gerdy game engine. The PR spiel talks of full scene anti-aliasing, vertex shader effects, and an advanced particle system, but frankly we don't see any evidence of that. The depiction of a medieval village is just totally fluffy and unconvincing, and anyone hoping for a bit of eye candy to get them into the proceedings will be utterly nonplussed by the bland texturing and half-hearted recreation of the Tolkien world, with a succession of uninspiring levels that seem to make do, rather than ever innovate.
The character models hardly help matters, either, lacking any sort of convincing animation or the attention to detail that you would expect for a modern game released on powerful systems, and next to its rival product, EA shames Vivendi's effort for presentation and general slickness. In general, the whole package looks and feel years out of date - and that's before you're even allowed to get into the main part of the proceedings.
Even the camera system and controls are consistently annoying. Employing the now familiar system of movement with the left stick and camera with the right, you're expected to give your character the best view all by yourself - which is fine when it works, but given that you can't even reverse the camera controls to the industry standard setting, you're in trouble from the beginning. Luckily an inverse look option at least cures one of the two 'reversed controls' issues, but even so, the whole thing feels unnatural, and constantly trips up on scenery - and fairly ugly scenery at that.
The controls never feel intuitive either - thanks to an awkward inventory system that insists the player calls up the object in question with either the D pad or the triggers, and then selecting the item with the little used 'black button'. Even something as fundamental as lock-picking takes a ridiculous amount of time to get the hang of, while the combat system of first pulling out your weapon with B, locking on with left trigger and striking with the A button, while simultaneously having to wrestle with the movement and camera controls feels like we you're constantly fighting against the interface, rather than the fictional monsters presented to you. Even when you get the hang of combat, it never feels like fun - you just spend your time stabbing the same button and repositioning yourself to wherever your target has moved to. Beat 'em up fans will want to kill themselves, never mind the baddies after a few hours in the company of this game.
But it's not all a glorified point-and-click adventure with some ill-conceived combat elements. There's stealth in them thar hills too, and "full use" of the analog stick means you can - and have to - tip toe past your numerous assailants, with a detection meter showing you how stealthy you're being; green for ok, yellow for "aware of you, but haven't seen you, to red, meaning get the hell out of there! In most cases the AI is laughably bad, with guards standing right next to you, yet somehow unable to see you. It's a step back to the line of sight school of AI, and the light and sound tricks in Splinter Cell seem a world away in comparison.
There is, as with the EA title, the opportunity to play as three different characters at various points in the game (Frodo, Aragorn and Gandalf), but this does nothing to mask the flaws already mentioned. It's more of an obligation to Tolkien Enterprises than anything genuinely creative.
If you can live with all the problems, irritations and lack of inspiring gameplay, there's actually a reasonably big game locked away. Real, hardcore Tolkien nuts, who live and breath the man's work, may get something out of this, but for everyone else, this has "licensed toss" written all over it, and yet another reason why licensed games are inherently evil in the wrong hands - rather like the ring Frodo and co. are trying so hard to get rid of. The goal was "to create the most authentic 'Lord of the Rings' game experience possible". Quite honestly, Melbourne House's 1985 text adventure had more going for it.