With every Lord of the Rings
movie release comes a videogame rendition. But the trilogy's over; Electronic Arts intends to keep the momentum of the J.R.R. Tolkien series going in videogame form with The Third Age,
the company's first original game based on the collective three films. On the console Electronic Arts went with a role-playing adventure, but for Game Boy Advance audiences we get a turn-based strategy that owes a lot of its design elements to Intelligent Systems' Fire Emblem
series. Just because it's based on a hit design doesn't make the copycat an instant success. It's at the very least a challenging, slightly altered take on the turn-based strategy genre with lots of references to the film that'll please the LOTR fanbase, but The Third Age
can't come anywhere close to Fire Emblem
's appeal because of its clumsy interface and sluggish missions.
The Third Age
- Dozens of missions based on the three films
- Hot seat multiplayer
- Link cable support
- Wireless Adapter support
gives players the opportunity to "act out" battle sequences either within the books or film, or inspired by situations from the series spread out along the three novels. Players can either side with good or evil, and they'll earn specific experience points on either side of the spectrum if certain good or bad criteria happen within the mission. For The Third Age
, Griptonite strayed from its past two LOTR
games' action-focused design and went in a completely different direction.
Fire Emblem is the game's inspiration, but it's definitely not a direct clone. Players will command a series of soldiers within each battle map, and earn experience points for each enemy defeated by utilizing their up-close and distance combat skills. The playing field is segmented into left, middle and right partitions (with borders drawn by cool elven text), and at the beginning of each turn a roll of the dice determines how many turns each player gets per section. Special instances will reward players with additional moves.
This "random move allocation" element is certainly unique for a GBA strategy game, but it actually drags out the missions far too long because the players only get a handful of moves each turn. And by a handful, we mean an average of three or four. And when you've got a field of a dozen or more soldiers to command, there will be a lot of downtime for these guys as they wait out the action in favor of the troops you do decide to send into combat. And missions that feel like they should last minutes extend for a half hour or more...and when players can't save their progress within the mission, it's even more of a drag. A Sleep Mode is in place of a save state, but it's a poor substitution, especially if you want to take a break with a different game.
Griptonite tried to offer a simplistic, cut and dry strategy game that anyone can play and understand, but as simple as the design is, the interface and presentation is not as clean and precise as it should have been. Character detail and information to the player seems like an afterthought, sandwiched into tiny little icons instead of in some easy-to-read on-screen menu. With the designers lifting a bunch of elements from Fire Emblem for The Third Age's design, these guys should have looked at how Fire Emblem streamlined its presentation to keep things quick and easy to read. For a game that offers technique and strategy, the designers never clearly show all of the strengths and weaknesses of the numerous units. Troops tend to spread out in all directions, and there doesn't seem to be a way to view either side in their entirety...so a single member in a remote location can easily be forgotten if he strays too far from the pack.
The art style used for The Third Age works well for keeping the game's look along the lines of the art direction of the three movies (and Griptonite's past two GBA games). But its intentionally gritty appearance makes it hard to see soldiers lost in foliage or against the side of a building. And the top-down perspective makes it difficult to tell team members apart, regardless if they're on the player's side or the opponent, and the only clear way of seeing which troop belongs to the player is to put the cursor over that character to see which icon pops up. The game really needed more attention placed on actually being able to "see" in this strategy game, especially since battlefields can be dozens of GBA screens big in all directions.
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