The Third Age is the latest of EA's officially licensed Lord of the Rings movie tie-ins, this time destined for the three console big boys (and ominously, not the PC). This time we're in RPG territory, the perfect genre for a Lord of the Rings game. At least, so you'd think...
|Models and animation are great. If only they could do stuff...|
I'd call myself a moderate Lord of the Rings fan. I enjoyed the books, loved the films, and even grew up playing the old Hobbit text adventure game on the Amstrad CPC. I'm definitely not a diehard fan by any means though, I'm not one of those obsessees who sends Peter Jackson death threats for every line of dialogue the films omitted, and I can't ask for a hand job in Elvish or anything like that.
Never the less, I enjoy a solid good romp through Middle Earth as much as the next person, and had high hopes for this game. EA's Lord of the Rings games up 'til now have actually been pretty damn good - the last one was particularly riotous.
Early promotional material for this game hinted at a Knights of the Old Republic style experience - a third-person group based RPG with an epic cinematic storyline. What that game did for Star Wars, I hoped The Third Age would similarly do for Lord of the Rings. Sadly, I was wrong.
Now You Hit Me
Its biggest problem is the fighting system. I know I've said it before, but never the less here we are again; I just can't stand turn-based combat. It never manages to grip me, no matter how pretty the effects are and how sparkling it all looks (and believe me, The Third Age is indeed one pretty game). There's just no edge to it, no fun, no danger and no immediacy with a combat system like this. It well and truly feels like you're playing a board game (or bored
game?). For a film series that can boast fabulous fight scenes to rival the best of 'em, The Third Age fails to do them any kinda justice I'm afraid.
If however, you enjoy Japanese RPGs, the type which The Third Age plagiarises, and can therefore handle such laborious fighting mechanics, feel free to disregard the above. However that's not to say The Third Age doesn't falter in other areas though.
Evil Men Hurts Us
|No it's not Aragorn...honest. It's his twin brother|
There are a ton of other problems, both large and small. You can't see the rest of your party while travelling for one, completely baffling as it is. Even worse, for the most part you never see enemies in the game world either. They simply pop up at pre-determined points when it's time to fight, or when you (thankfully) reach cut-scene time. What this results in, is a very empty, lonely game world. There simply isn't a single other person to be seen.
With such a horrible fighting system in place, the hope of any kind of fun hangs on the shoulders of the remaining parts of the game. Sadly, there is no social interaction of any kind though - you basically can't do anything at all other than run around (on your own) and fight in this game. There's no chatting to NPCs, no multi-choice dialogue, and no quest givers. Literally, all you do is run from fight to fight in the very limited environments until you trigger the next cinematic, which sadly, often has very little to do with the actual gameplay. To call it completely linear is also something of an understatement.
What's there of a story feels lame and very shoehorned in. The world of Middle Earth is limitless in its possibilities for an adventure game. There's so many races, places, people and avenues to explore. So why must we bring it all back to Frodo and that ring every single time? Why not take it somewhere else and give us a brand new adventure, instead of visiting the same old tired locations again and again? In The Third Age we command a group of brand new characters, ones we never saw in the films, yet we interact with the places and events of the film constantly, with supposedly it all happening "off screen". It's all very implausible, and really just a waste of an opportunity to show us something new in this incredible universe.
At the same time, the characters we control are so generic and unoriginal, and rip off their movie counterparts so much that they might as well be called The Fellowship of the Clones. We get the angry Dwarf, the proud soldier of Gondor, the hot Elven chick, and a ranger who looks so much like Aragorn that I presumed it was actually him until someone called him by his actual name. "Who the hell are they talking to?" I pondered. I'm shocked that they could get all this past Tolkien's licensing department.
Actually there is one other thing you can do in this game other than fighting; collect items. And you'll be doing a lot of that. In fact, the game is very generous in this regard - dumping thousands of treasure chests all over the place. You name it, there's a treasure chest there. Hiding in forests, at the top of snow capped mountains, down in dark dungeons - it seems the inhabitants of Middle Earth are just downright clumsy when it comes to leaving their treasure chests laying around. Through this endless looting you'll find such glorious rewards as "Slime of Orthanc" and "Broach of Armour". Come again?
|The Third Age does, admittedly, have some awesome particle usage|
Now don't take this as a completely negative review, as despite all these flaws there are indeed areas worthy of praise. The sound is possibly some of the best I've ever heard in a game, nigh on perfect in fact. There's some nice voice acting and some incredibly meaty fighting sounds that pack one heck
of a punch, and it's all underscored perfectly by the beautiful music of the films. The score flows and alters seamlessly depending on what's happening on screen, and it works impeccably well. Despite the occasional slip into American accents here and there, all in all it's about as flawless a sound mix as you'll ever hear in a game, and is genuinely stunning when played through Dolby 5.1.
As stated previously, it's also very pleasing to look at. Characters are well animated, the world is full of luscious details, and there are some wondrous particle effects. On the downside, the frame rate is all horribly uneven, often halving just depending on which direction you look.
Still, it's most definitely a game that shines both visually and aurally, further enhanced by the usual EA expert presentation. Ian McKellen provides voice over specifically for the game, lending it some gravitas as he talks us through the events and complex back-story. There are also heaps of cinematics too, both in-game and via external film footage. In fact there's so much of the latter, one wonders if the entire trilogy is in fact included on the disc.
Last but not least, there's something oddly addictive about The Third Age. The simple and plain truth is that for all the times I turned it off bored and depressed, it kept calling back to me a few hours later for more. Curious to say the least, when it's not actually that much fun
. Perhaps I find it hard to tear myself away because of the unbridled potential, convinced that it's bound
to get better if I stick with it some more.
Close But No Cigar
Never the less, I'd recommend everyone even slightly interested in this one to grab the Return of the King game instead - it's a heck of a lot more challenging, much more fun to play, and comes complete with its own co-op mode, overshadowing the horribly disappointing one in The Third Age (which might as well not even be there, it's so pap). You may argue that you want an RPG game not a hack 'n' slasher, but my friend that merely reinforces what's wrong with The Third Age; it really isn't an RPG at the end of the day. It's a mere beat 'em up, but with turn based combat.
It's all a bit of a shame, 'cos I really want
to love this one. It seeps with Lord of the Rings ambience, looks just like the films, and in small minute bursts, almost seems cool. The problem is it's just so damn limited and repetitive once that novelty wears off and the grind kicks in. Also, to hammer the nails in further, it's stupidly easy to complete.
The good news is that the franchise still has some pleasing tricks up its sleeve, with the Battle For Middle Earth on the not-so-distant horizon, and Middle Earth Online coming early next year too.
But as for The Third Age? The Turd
Age, more like. Now wasn't that a timeless jab of sharp wit?