It's proven fact that nerds and dweebs have established "dream unions." Such unions usually come in the shape of fantasy matches - Aliens Versus Predators and Obi Won Kenobi Versus Luke Skywalker, for example. And while many of these imaginings will never see the light of day, some eventually transcend the barriers of geek fantasy into reality.
A Tale of Two Towers
Much like The Two Towers and The Return of the King, both released by EA in 2003, The Lord of the Rings: The Third Age delivers one of those "What if" experiences. Instead of just watching Gandalf fight the Balrog in the bowels of Moria, you actually get to take him out yourself. Instead of sitting back and watching Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli defend Helm's Deep, you get to step in and do it yourself.
But is it the dream RPG everyone hoped it would be? Does The Third Age distil the essence of the film trilogy and pump it into a complex RPG? Has the emotional depth of the characters and story survived the translation?
Aesthetically, will gamers recognize their favorite locales from Middle Earth? Will the Balrog look just as menacing in the game as it did in the movie? Will it sound like it did in the movie? Above all, will The Third Age ground the eye candy and aural delights in satisfying game play?
Graphically, most of the The Third Age looks damn sweet. The spell effects conjure the same kind of flashy coolness of the films and look downright awesome. In terms of pure aesthetic value, there's nothing cooler you can do in The Third Age than to unleash fiery death on your opponents using the "Dragon Calling" spell, or summoning a giant Ent to come smash everything in sight. EA did a magnificent job of bringing the grandeur of Middle Earth into The Third Age.
Wargs, Goblins and Uruk-hai look magnificently detailed. Everything from swords and armor, to pendants and boots, look just as cool as they did in the movies. Each local, whether it be Helm's Deep, Osgiliath or the plains of Rohan, reflect the same amount of detail and care shown in the making of their big screen counterparts. The only real complaint here is the stiffness of the characters when moving around the game world. They just don't look very fluid, as though they each suffer from a heinous case of arthritis. Plus, some of the textures could have been sharper.
Those complaints aside, The Third Age won't dissapoint in the visuals department. Thankfully, The Third Age marries its cool visuals with thoroughly satisfying game mechanics. Those of you who have been keeping up with IGN's coverage of The Third Age know comparisons have been drawn between EA's latest effort and games such as KOTOR and Final Fantasy X. In fact, pretty much anyone who spent time with either of those titles will undoubtedly draw a few comparisons of their own. Put simply, The Third Age combines the combat system of FFX (and the way characters move around the game world) with the mythos of Middle Earth.
Gamers follow the movement of one on-screen character, with remaining members of the party only making appearances during cutscenes and combat. The Third Age lets you choose what character you want representing the party at any given point, but it makes no difference in combat or how your party interacts with NPCs. The left analog stick controls character movement while the right stick controls the camera. In this regard, The Third Age style of adventuring resembles the type seen in both KOTOR and FFX. A map on the upper right hand of the screen displays the different paths around a given environment, with glowing red dots directing you toward key areas you need to reach in order to complete a quest.
Take up your Sword.
Once engaged in combat, you'll fight countless orcs and goblins using a turn-based battle system. This means players will have all the time they need to focus on strategy without penalty.
Each character boasts a number of options, including a basic attack, Spiritual Powers, Weapon Craft, Change Weapon and Item. Some options are only available for certain characters. A character who joins your party late in the game is the only one who can use Thief Craft, for example.
The basic attack is exactly what it sounds like; a character will perform either a ranged or a melee attack depending on his or her specialty. The Spiritual Powers tab holds all of a characters magical ability, whether they are healing, offensive or defensive spells.
What's more, each character can execute a variety of special techniques based on their weapon of choice. For example, the Dwarf Hadhod can perform various Axe Craft techniques while the Ranger Elegost can perform long ranged attacks using Bow Craft techniques.
The process of learning new skills is a simple one. Each character has a predefined list of locked abilities. The Third Age splits these abilities into different categories, ranging from Spirit Powers for the magically inclined to Weapon Craft for those wielding swords and axes. Regardless, each character can learn a number of Passive Skills, which enhance attributes and are always working behind the scenes.
Craft Skills enable a character to make items (such as healing items) mid-battle. The coolest set of skills is undoubtedly the Perfect Mode skills, which play very much like The Third Age's answer to summon spells from the Final Fantasy universe. Since the player determines what skills a character will learn and in what order, there's ample room for individual growth and development.
As previously stated, combat itself feels very reminiscent of older RPGs. The Third Age follows the same basic combat principles of FFX and umpteen other "old school" Japanese RPGs in that it ditches real time skirmishes in favor of turn based battles. The player issues commands using a series of pull down menus, one for each method of attack. An initiative meter on the left side of the screen dictates the flow of a given battle, which of course lets you know when it'd be a good idea to heal one of your comrades before he or she kicks the bucket.
One major flaw with the combat system has to do with the intrinsic lack of difficulty in The Third Age. From the moment they brandish a weapon in-game, RPG veterans will most likely tell that EA went to great lengths to make The Third Age as accessible as possible. Representatives from EA have stated they didn't want to alienate the action-oriented gamer who enjoyed the hack n' slash mechanics of The Two Towers and Return of the King, and in this sense they succeeded somewhat. Regardless of how smooth combat plays out, The Third Age is still an RPG, albeit a very skimpy one (more on that a little later.)
Like the rest of the game, combat pacing feels brisk. All but the toughest of engagements will rarely last more than a few minutes. Which brings up another flaw: difficulty. On medium difficulty (you change settings in the options menu), it's totally possible (and more likely, very probable) gamers won't die until they encounter the first real boss battle. There's no gradual increase in difficulty. All of a sudden, you'll be face to face with a fire breathing demon from the ancient world capable of wiping out half your crew with a crack of his fiery whip. Obviously, the encounter in question is that between your heroes and the Balrog of Moria.
Granted, the Balrog shouldn't go down easy, but when all encounters up until that point could be beaten while blindfolded and severely inebriated, it makes The Third Age feel a little unbalanced. The game feels unbalanced in other areas as well.
Your party is usually hugely overpowered. It's not uncommon for an enemy to land a blow of 350 hit points and you answer with an attack delivering a mind-blowing 3000+ hit points. And not by using magic-sucking, uber-attacks either, but a middle of the road Weapon Craft technique.
Certain spells, once learned, will nearly always guarantee a victory in normal skirmishes. Here's one example: Aura of the Valor, one of Idrial's Spiritual Powers, will automatically revive a single character once knocked out.
Thing is, the battle system automatically grants revived characters a turn just as soon as they're standing again. So, casting Aura of Valor on Idrial herself and then on one other character creates an endless cycle of death and rebirth. Since resurrection completely refills a character's health and magic, victory is virtually guaranteed.
In a way, The Third Age plays like an RPG for people wouldn't normally play an RPG. For starters, EA has eliminated the need for power leveling. In fact, you level up so quickly in The Third Age, you'll never spend time trying to "get to" a certain stage in your characters physical development. The game also does away with any kind of in-game economy. There are no shops to visit and nothing to buy.
Everything you'll ever need is found in conveniently located treasure chests and off the bodies of your fallen foes. Sure, you'll engage in turn-based battles, distribute skill points and upgrade weapons and armor, but The Third Age is lacking in a few key areas integral to any successful RPG. First, gamers will be hard pressed to find an ounce of character development throughout the entire adventure.
Each character, essentially, is the same when you first encounter them until the very end. It doesn't help that EA chose to cast relative unknowns in place of the original fellowship. Where a game starring the endearing Samwise Gamgee or the benevolent ass-kicker Gandalf might have roused emotional investment on the part of the player, playing as a bunch of soulless archetypes does little in the way of making you care whether each lives or dies (in terms of story.) Make no mistake, EA designed The Third Age as a very combat-centric game.
Instead of your adventurers making history alongside the Fellowship, they labor in the shadows and never get noticed. While taking a different road is admirable on the part of EA, the effect just backfires in this case. Instead of experiencing the climactic events of Middle Earth through a new perspective, the blandness of Berethor, Idrial and the others just steals from the experience. In the end, not playing as the fellowship makes The Third Age that less exciting.
In addition to the main adventure, The Third Age comes packed with some noticeable extras. First, you can experience the seedier side of Middle Earth with Evil Mode. Here, you can take up arms as part of Saruman's army and battle the good guys as Uruk-hai, Orcs and Goblins. Doing so grants you special (read: evil) armor, weapons and items. You can also play co-op with a friend. By selecting co-op in the game menu, and by plugging in another controller, gamers can share in their orc stomping duties. When playing co-op, one player will receive exclusive navigation of the menu, so there's no need to worry about your friend messing anything up.
You will still only see one character while moving about the game world. The only time the second player will join in is during combat. As most fans of the genre know, RPGs are usually a solo affair. Thankfully, this mode alleviates a bit of that loneliness by allowing spectators to join in easily, without the need to reset the game. It's a small little addition that wounded up adding an extra dash of fun to the title.
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