"An Unusual Blend Leads To An Unusual, Aggravating Adventure."
Challenge Completed? No
How far did I get? 18 hours in
A franchise like The Lord of the Rings can easily be spun off into a myriad of game genres. Hell, even LEGO has a Lord of the Rings game, focused upon a more light-hearted action adventure route. About the only genre I can think of that hasn’t had a major impact from this cherished franchise is the first person genre. One of the often overlooked LotR video game releases was one developed by EA Redwood Shores and released on the Xbox, PlayStation 2 and Gamecube. Lord of the Rings: The Third Age borrowed heavily upon the ideas of many of the great Japanese RPG’s of the 10+ years before its release. While some of those ideas fit the mold of the franchise to a near tee, many of the other concepts, when combined with some of the ideas EA Redwood Shores adopted themselves, drags the game down on a number of levels.
Some of the concepts that harshly attack The Third Age revolve around animations. In perhaps a nod to the grandeur of the more surreal attacks from titles such as Final Fantasy, too many of the attack animations, or just any battle animation at that, are overdone in its presence. It does lend to the moody, well detailed character models during each battle, however many of the attack animations are borrowed from skill to skill, or are so similar that it’s next to impossible to differentiate. It’s easy to see how it tries to emphasize upon how grand the LotR movies were, and they all look smooth, but it adds an amount of padding to the game overall. As a whole, The Third Age, while not drop dead gorgeous by any means, is easy on the eyes, with enough detail in each background visited. There are some frame rate instabilities, though it’s more based around fluctuation from a more than smooth look, to what looks like 60fps when there isn’t a plethora of activity abound. In battle the detail within the scenery isn’t as prominent, and there’s occasional tearing, though the mood remains intact.
Another significant concept that The Third Age adopts is one that leads to a number of frustrations – the lack of any towns. Unfortunately this trickles down to a number of areas that themselves become hampered by the system. In the movies, where The Third Age does follow in its tracks in some ways, our heroes did stop by friendly establishments, cities and such. There are points in this adventure in which the party come across hubs in which they could have been utilized as a town, to purchase weapons and other items. The system could have easily been made into a mostly text run, with point and click powered series of options, not unlike Suikoden Tactics or Wizardry. Instead, players can only come across weapons and items from battle victories, treasure chests, and an extra mode that unlocks its self early in the adventure, with higher levels unlocking with subsequent areas cleared. Often enough, either upgrades come at a snails pace for the cast, or by some unknown reason, equipment that is found prove to be far inferior to what has already been donned. Even coming across healing herbs seems like a chore, as anything but those are readily popping up, and what does pop up has little to no beneficial value in the long haul.
With the aforementioned fresh in mind, The Third Age‘s difficulty becomes significantly impacted by the lack of the luxuries found in most any other RPG of its kind. The first ten hours are pleasant enough, with a streamlined difficulty and little frustrations (until the fight with the Balrog, which seemed immeasurably easier than what I last remembered it as), however the impact of not having healing herbs readily available in general, really begins to take its toll on the difficulty. On top of that, no matter how players level their characters (each new level gained gives two attribute points that can be slotted into a handful of areas), accuracy becomes a major issue, as more often than not, any offensive maneuvers that consumes action points (the game’s form of mana), seem to miss more and more as time goes by. It’s completely disheartening to have a double attack by Hanhod, which costs 80 AP, to completely miss the first hit, this canceling out any attempt at a second. Even with a focus upon Dexterity on such characters as Elegost, his arrows often miss their mark. Factor in enemies attacking harder with each new confrontation, in conjunction with the lack of suitable upgrades on a more consistent manner, and the level of frustration can escalate quickly. I haven’t even mentioned how 15+ hours into the game, one of the two final playable characters makes their first appearance, with only one piece of armor gained and nothing else equipped. making their durability in battle almost non existent.
The Third Age‘s battle system is reminiscent of Final Fantasy X; There’s a list of who attacks next, with certain attacks on the players side either bumping them up in the order, or moving them further down. To gain new abilities to use in battle one simply has to successfully use existing ones in battle. Each successful ability used gains a skill point which, within that attacks tree, will slowly unlock newer and more beneficial offensive or defensive skills to utilize. In the end, there’s not a vast amount of stuff players can unlock when compared to similar titles within the genre, but everything has its purpose. Unfortunately, with the amount of physical attacks that miss, raising SP becomes a chore. That chore then becomes problematic as random battles are…well, random, but probably not in any way one would envision it. There are three different indications that a battle is coming; the first is the random battle, which rarely happens; the second is an indicator getting brighter as the player comes closer to a battle (thus preparing them); third is the same as the second, only even if a player idles without pausing, the indicator grows brighter, until the player is attacked. The problem then becomes the lack of true random battles surfacing, which makes it more difficult to level skills, which is already too difficult due to the ramped up challenge and enemy evasion skills.
By the way, there’s no way of running from a battle. None.
Remember when I mentioned how players can gain weapons and items in a different manner? This comes in the form of Evil Mode. With each major area cleared, a new portion of Evil Mode is opened up. In a nutshell, players become the antagonists, as they take battle against the protagonists throughout a series of several battles in the areas previously cleared. It’s actually a neat little deviation from the main story, though to get anything out of it, that one segment played of the Evil Mode (usually about four battles long) has to be completed. Dying before the end yields no rewards whatsoever. What’s worse is the putrid number of items gained, with only a minor boost in potency over what is already equipped.
Outside the first dozen hours or so, the audio in The Third Age provides its share of pleasure. The music is worth putting the volume up for, as everything fits every situation, and is just plain enjoyable to listen to. What’s a bit surprising was the relatively strong voice acting. There are rare occasions in which the delivery is a bit tacky, but overall it feels natural enough to feel immersed into the adventure with. It should be a given that a franchise such as this would boast a powerful audio suite overall, and thankfully The Third Age doesn’t disappoint there.
Sadly though, the biggest disappointment with The Lord of the Rings: The Third Age was the fact that past the dozen hour mark, the experience drags so much and is plagued with so many nonsensical issues and attributes, that I really couldn’t be bothered to get to the end. About 18 hours in and the listed game completion time is 36, though the final six hours or so have felt like an eternity. I am glad that I gave it another chance, as the first dozen hours or so were addicting, though the experience falters soon after that, making every moment feel like a chore. I’ll more than likely never revisit this non canonical installment to this Lord of the Rings title, even though the game its self is supposed to last under 30 hours.I couldn’t really recommend this either way, since I cut my quest short, though if you can tolerate the combination of repetition, difficulty and The Lord of the Rings fanboyism, you might find a bit more pleasure out of it than I did.