There's a limitless source of material with a property like The Lord of the Rings. Most of the stuff comes from the latest film trilogy, including videogames, toys and new editions of the classic books. And it's a safe bet the tie-ins will continue for years. When it comes to videogames, Electronic Arts is all over the Lord of the Rings. It recently picked up the rights to publish everything in the Lord of the Rings literature that wasn't in the film versions, in addition
to everything you've seen at the theater.
And damn has it ever made use of it. EA has released action games such as The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers and The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, as well as adventure games such as The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring. It even released a full-fledged role-playing game, too, with Lord of the Rings: The Third Age. And now, EA is set to release The Lord of the Rings Tactics, a combat strategy title for the Sony PSP handheld. Like every other game set in the land of Middle Earth, LOTR Tactics takes the characters and locales from the books and film and tries to offer something unique.
And while Tactics offers a solid strategy experience, it fails to capitalize on the persistently-cool Lord of the Rings license. That's not to say EA neglected certain characters or left out famous locales. On the contrary, LOTR Tactics packs plenty of recognizable heroes and villains, as well as an assortment of lesser characters. There's even a good amount of maps ranging from Helms Deep, the Plains of Rohan, the Mines of Moria and Minis Tirith. In terms of story, there's stuff in Tactics that didn't even make into the theatrical release of the films, so that's not the problem either.
A Tiny Middle Earth
Where LOTR Tactics doesn't get it quite right is in the presentation of the above elements. The characters are all there, but apart from the FMV sequences, there's no real character interaction or development. Granted, many strategy RPGs come off as a little weak when it comes to narrative, but that doesn't mean they should be that way. Take the pinnacle of the genre, Final Fantasy Tactics, for instance. It wove an intricate, moving story to help "prime" the strategy elements. In addition to offering deep, satisfying gameplay, the story and characters in Final Fantasy Tactics gave you a compelling reason to keep playing.
In LOTR Tactics, you're treated to a bunch of FMV sequences ripped from the film trilogy, but if you haven't seen the movies, they won't mean very much. In fact, the movie sequences have been re-edited to a point of feeling almost useless to anyone who hasn't seen each movie at least a few times. They don't really setup the combat encounters, and they certainly don't help you understand the plight of the characters, so there's very little reason for them to be there except to form a weak substitute for story. To be fair, the video quality is pretty decent and those that don't care whether their strategy is served with a nice dish of narrative won't really care. On the other hand, those that do care will find LOTR Tactics doesn't feel as epic as other LOTR videogames. Command the Troops
But what LOTR lacks in presentation it makes up for in solid strategy. LOTR Tactics packs a good amount of depth into such a small package. You move your troops along a linear path through Middle Earth, represented by an overhead "world map" with icons representing mission locations. As far as units go, each unit in the game boasts the usual attributes such as strength, speed and dexterity, all of which go up automatically with every mission you beat. In terms of structure, the game splits between two campaigns, The Fellowship and Host of Mordor. Each campaign has about 24 missions, including a handful of optional missions that only offer more experience points and (sometimes) a special item or two. The story in each campaign is different, but doesn't feel as different as it should. Since you don't really care for the units as much, righteous or evil, killing Frodo doesn't feel as evil as perhaps it would if the game set up the Mordor campaign a little better and vice versa.
It features a two-step combat system split between a movement phase and a combat phase. First, you decide where you want your units to go on the grid-based map. Instead of moving one unit at a time like in most strategy RPGs, you can move every unit in your army during the same movement phase. Once you've moved your units (and the opposing army has moved theirs), the game switches to the combat phase. Should opposing units cross paths before they finished their allotted movement path, the two units will lock into combat stance early. You can also choose to pursue certain characters to block their movement.
The fact both armies (allied and enemy) plan their movements and attacks simultaneously lend LOTR Tactics a nice twist and helps keeps things fresh. It forces you to think ahead, even more than usual for a game of this type. You have to consider what you need to do in terms of offensive objectives, but you also need to consider where the enemy will move each of their units. This style of play also opens distinctive strategic opportunities as you can delegate certain characters to block the paths of stronger characters. For example, you can easily take the weakest character in your party and force him to participate in suicide encounters against much stronger characters, effectively blocking their path. The weaker character will of course perish in glory, but it can buy you enough time to move other, more important characters across the map.
Thing is, even the weakest characters can block the path of stronger characters. For example, if you want to stop the fire-breathing Balrog or even Sauron himself from making it across the map, all you need to do is send Sam or even Frodo to stand in front of him. So while blocking and pursuing characters is a cool addition overall, it's not entirely realistic. Not that it needs to be, we're dealing with hobbits and goblins after all, but it may irk those looking for a little "realism" mixed in with their fantasy.
The units themselves present a funky mixture of cool and not-so-cool. Cool in that units look like their big screen counterparts. There are also plenty of them. Not-so-cool in that the units here don't really impress. Aragorn, Legolas, the Balrog, the Witch King, cave trolls, Rohan riders, elves; they're all here, but none really stands out. Take the Balrog, for instance. He's one of most visually stunning and badass creature in the whole trilogy. Here, though, he feels like somewhat of a pushover when you're fighting against him. And when you get to play as him, you find he has one sword attack and one ranged attack. He can't squash units or perform moves that were as cool and as devastating as they were in, say the LOTR: The Third Age. And when playing as Sauron, the guy that was killing 40 soldiers in a single blow in Fellowship of the Ring, you find he does moderate damage at best and doesn't really start with any cool spells or attacks. You can actually say the same thing about many of the characters in the game. Their basic attacks lack visual flair and, more importantly, so do their special attacks. It's also hard to purchase new, more powerful attacks through the in-game skill shop as well, since you're always hard pressed for money. You wind up spending all your cash on single-use healing items and maybe one or two powerful spells every other encounter. This makes battles entirely about the strategy, which is cool, but it would have been cooler if you could unleash dozens of devastating attacks against your opponents and look cool doing it.
The Lord of the Skills
Speaking of the skills shop, you purchase permanent skills and single-use items in LOTR Tactics through the same menu you use to check character stats and inventory. You can't physically maneuver your band of heroes across the world map to find item shops and weapons shops. While this may streamline the process, it also robs the game from a deeper level of immersion. It's fun traveling the countryside in search of special items and merchants in hopes of scoring that one, special weapon or magic spell. Here, it's just presented to you though a black and white text-based menu. So while it works fine, it's just not that exciting to use. Also, you earn weapon and armor upgrades automatically after certain encounters. You can't actually pick what armor you wear or what weapon you'll take into battle. Being able to purchase weapons and items at shops would add more strategy and many more hours of gameplay. Completionists would undoubtedly scour the world map for shops or merchants that bartered those special items.
Like most things in LOTR Tactics, the skills themselves are partly cool and partly boring. The best skills look great and devastate the enemy when used in battle. Saruman's Black Thunder attack is a good example. It fries the main target and everyone within two squares, plus it has the added effect of 50% chance of stunning enemy units. You can purchase this skill early on and it's a great help in battle. On the flipside, many of the skills in the game won't excite you too much. Instead of offering a slew of unique offensive and defensive options, each unit only claims a handful of unique skills while sharing about a dozen others with fellow party members. So where Saruman is the only character who can use Black Thunder, he shares a bulk of his skills with every other character in the game. These shared skills typically include things like Token of Valor, Token of Vitality and Token of Strength that increases character attributes by a point or two. Others increase resistance to fear, stun and other like conditions.
Fellowship of the PSP
Multiplayer in LOTR Tactics is purely skirmish-based, meaning there are no capture the flag modes and the like. Still, it's fun and offers plenty of flexibility. Up to four players can compete in quick-and-dirty battles across a slew of famous locales. Setup will feel pretty standard for anyone who has played multiplayer games on the PSP. You access multiplayer from the main menu and from there you're taken to a screen where you can decide player count, map location and time limit. What makes multiplayer unique in LOTR Tactics is the fact you need to custom build your army using an allotted number of points. Whoever hosts the match decides how many points each side has. And what, precisely, can you buy with these points? Pretty much any unit in the game, is what. Each side gets to choose two heroes to bring into battle, as well as three support classes. You can also decide which level character to bring in, with higher level characters costing more points, of course. This makes each encounter not only fun, but different almost every single time. And you really don't know what you'll face in battle. Will it be a small group of high level characters or a swarm of low level grunts? It's fun, engaging and more importantly, surprising.
You can play in every map from the single-player portion of the game as well, so that's definitely a good thing. While maps aren't the most exciting examples ever, they each offer strategic opportunities regardless. In short, multiplayer is clearly one of the more enjoyable, well-designed things about the whole experience and will undoubtedly steal hours upon hours of your time.
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