Lord of the Rings: The Third Age is the last of the games that Electronic Arts will release from their series based on the hyper-popular film trilogy that recently stormed globally through movie theaters. Making the game a turn-based RPG (a la Final Fantasy) sets The Third Age apart from previous series titles, which have all been hack and slash or strategy based. On top of that, EA made the decision that this new game wasn’t even going to feature playable characters from the movie. A risky move, when you take into consideration how popular Tolkien’s original characters have become. Some would liken this decision to making a Mario game without Mario; not using established characters is undoubtedly a dicey move for EA to make – but one that has paid off in spades.
While the well known and loved characters from the classic novels and films are not featured as main characters, they are still in the game. You control a party of all-new characters that trails a few days behind our beloved fellowship. As they journey, they repeatedly see signs and evidence of the fellowship’s passage in the form of old camps and recently scarred battlegrounds. The party will even run into some of the movie characters every once in a while, if only briefly. In essence, you control a party of characters that, although not encountered in either the films or the book, affect the outcome of the story we all know and love by pursuing a quest that follows in the footsteps of the fellowship. It’s a fresh take on the Tolkien epic, and provides us with a new perspective. After seeing the movies and playing the (previous) games, it is extremely refreshing to experience events from a different angle. This was definitely an inspired move on EA’s part.
You begin the game by controlling Berethor, the Captain of the Citadel Guard of Gondor as he travels through the forest towards Rivendell on orders to track down his missing friend Boromir. Almost immediately he is attacked by the Nazgul and forced to fight for his survival. Luckily a female Elf from Lothlorien jumps into the battle and uses her magic to repel the Nazgul. This is where the story begins, as the Captain of the Citadel Guard teams up with the Elf that saved him. Since he is trying to find Boromir, his journey traces his friend’s footsteps and that of the fellowship he is assigned to. The party you control must take different routes, which from time to time leads it into regions far from the fellowship’s trail.
As you progress through the game you gain a number of new party members, including a Dunedain Ranger, a Dwarf, and two warriors from Rohan, all of which possess their own individual attacks and abilities. For instance, the Dwarf is a fighting machine with extremely high resistance to damage, while the Elf is notably weaker but has extremely powerful healing and attack magics. The Ranger is good with a bow and dealing with animals, while the Citadel Guard from Gondor is skilled with a sword and possesses party enhancing leadership skills. The differences between the characters and their abilities are vast, which makes for a great team dynamic. You can’t favor just one or two of the characters; you must use them together as a cohesive unit. As you travel through Middle-earth, occasionally your party will be joined by characters from the films. You can fight alongside a total of nine different established movie characters, including Aragorn, Gandalf, Gimli, and Legolas. You can help Gandalf the Grey fight the Balrog of Morgoth, or defend Osgiliath shoulder to shoulder with Faramir. Their interaction is only fleetingly temporary, but it’s fun while it lasts.
As your characters gain levels, you choose which individual stats you want to strengthen – just like in any other tried and true RPG system. All of your characters have special abilities that they can use in battle; these abilities come from skill trees, and cost action points. All magic and special melee attacks use up your action points. The cool thing here is that each character has multiple skill trees. Your characters gain special experience points for a particular skill tree every time they use any skill from that tree. This special experience goes towards learning the next skill on the skill tree. For instance, the Ranger has the Bow Craft skill tree and the Animal Craft skill tree. If he uses the skills from the Bow Craft tree more often, then he will learn the bow skills at a faster rate than those found in the Animal Craft tree. In addition, the characters can gain new skill trees through special items they find as their adventure unfolds. One such tree you can gain is the Crafting Tree, which actually allows whoever has the skill tree to learn item crafting skills. With the ability to create items that will heal your party, you can stop depending on the spoils of battle to provide you with the medicinal items you need. With each character having a number of unique skill trees, the amount of individual abilities in the game is massive. The skill tree system is not a new idea, by any means, but it definitely works well here.
As already mentioned, the combat here is turn based and will have an extremely familiar feel to anyone who has played the more recent Final Fantasy games. Since it uses such a similar system to the Final Fantasy series, it really works well. You have three characters on screen at one time, and take turns choosing your attacks or which items to use. At any time you can switch out your currently selected character for one of the party members not presently in the battle. This is terrific. Many fights can be lost in an RPG through having the wrong party characters embroiled in the battles. Now, you can bring any party character into a battle – at any time. This allows you to use your three biggest hitters to fight a boss, and then switch one for a healer whenever your characters need help. This is a great battle system feature that quickly proves to be invaluable.
During battles, there is a meter on the right side of the screen that slowly fills as you defeat enemies. It takes multiple battles for the meter to fill completely but, when it does, it unlocks a special attack that inflicts insane amounts of damage to all on-screen enemies. Once you use the special attack, the meter is then emptied and starts the filling process over. Just like all of the other special skills in the game, this one has its own skill tree. The more you use the special attack, the more new abilities from its skill tree will be unlocked. A nice feature of the special attack meter is that, once it is filled, it remains that way until you use it. So, you can save it through multiple battles until you really need the extra help. Often, the special attack defeats all on-screen enemies in one mighty blow, so it is great for those awkward situations when the battle isn’t going in your favor.
For the most part during battles, your party is lined up on one side of the screen, with your enemies straight across from you. Some areas have multi-level terrain, though, with enemies on ledges above you that require you to use ranged weapons. In a few instances, your party can find themselves surrounded by enemies and have to fight back-to-back in a circle. At certain points you are also allowed to have more than just the standard three characters on screen at once. Variations such as these really help to change things up every so often, and make the battles less repetitive.
With earlier builds of the game, there were complaints that enemies were killed too easily, and that the characters gained advancement levels too quickly. In the final version, enemies are a lot tougher and deal out a lot more damage, but it still seems the characters gain levels too swiftly – party members sometimes gaining levels after every second or third battle. Since character energy replenishes when leveling up, healing items like Lembas and King’s Foil are rendered useless. Also, the insane number of healing items to be found along the way seems like overkill when coupled with the healing that takes place each time your characters level up.
Another impressive aspect of the game is the incredible amount of individual pieces of equipment you can acquire. There are so many different pieces of armor and unique weapons for each of the characters to use that the number of combinations one could create is staggering. A complaint this reviewer has always had with RPGs, in regards to the equipment, is that while acquired helmets, armor, and weapons alter character appearance when adorned, the smaller details like belts, rings and necklaces never seem to register visually. Indeed, you often have to assume that ornamentation is there. Not so in Lord of the Rings: The Third Age. Almost every wearable item that you can equip will show up on your character. Belt buckles, necklaces, pendants, broaches – you name it. Little polished elements like this really help the game stand out among other RPGs.
Good Lord! That is what you’ll exclaim when you first witness how well the game’s environments are put together and presented. EA have taken all of the landmarks and familiar areas from the movies and have recreated them perfectly here. Not only that, but they have expanded on them, too. You can explore the outlying areas that you didn’t quite see in the films. Of course, a slew of never before seen locations have been thrown into the mix as well. Either way, the environments are astounding; every location has a unique feel, be it weird rock formations, background waterfalls, or the ruins of an ancient temple; some games have a lot of repetitious terrain, but not The Third Age. It’s staggeringly impressive how great a job the level designers have done with this visual aspect of the game. To make things even better, the camera is controlled by the player and has a full range of motion. This gives you the ability to see your surroundings in their entirety. You’ll often find yourself simply wandering around with the camera simply to check out the cool landscapes.
The characters, be they members of your party or the enemies you are fighting, are rendered extremely well. The sheer amount of graphic detail in evidence on the characters is beautiful to say the least. Their facial expressions, outfits, and individual animations are all realized flawlessly. The animation is particularly well executed because all the game’s motion capture was actually performed by the stunt people that worked on the films. With the camera’s zoom capacity, it was important that the characters looked good from both far away and close up, and EA have accomplished this with flying colors. The effects that you see during battles are just as impressive. When someone is shot by an arrow, you actually see the head protruding from them for a while. The spell effects look great and, amazingly, only get better as you progress through the game; spells of fire, water, glowing and glittery magical effects?it all looks astounding.
The sound, of course, is just as good as the graphics. With all of the actors from the films doing the voice work, it’s really no surprise that the audio turned out so well. The characters in your party are voiced magnificently, and the sound from the surrounding environments completely envelops you in the game world. Especially impressive were the sound effects and voices of encountered enemies; don’t be surprised to find yourself turning the TV volume down when battling multiple Wargs, because their combined growling and snarling can be extremely loud.
Lord of the Rings: The Third Age is nothing short of impressive. It spans all three films and, not only relates the story that we already know, but also spins a new one too. There are no real areas of weakness here. The turn-based gameplay is solid, the graphics look great, and the audio is phenomenal. The extensive amount of weapons and equipment will keep any RPG junky happy, and the special effects are continually dazzling. Perhaps the game could have provided a little more difficult, but – honestly – that’s the smallest of notable criticisms. In fact, it’s more of a weak-willed whine, but the damage the lack of expanding difficulty does to the overall game is purely minimal. The pairing of a Final Fantasy style RPG and the Lord of the Rings franchise is a solid gold winning combination. Should you fork out the money to add it to your collection? Absolutely!