Orks on the left of him, Elves on the right… Andrew Bryant is stuck in the middle with a licensed game.
Game Title: The Lord of the Rings: Conquest
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: Pandemic Studios
Format Reviewed: PC (Retail Copy)
Also Available on: Xbox 360, PS3, Nintendo DS
Price: £24.99 – £39.99
In the closing months of the 20th century, Digital Illusions released a little effort called Codename: Eagle. Despite being several shades of rubbish, it developed a cult following at LAN parties who loved its particular unique brand of vehicular mayhem that hadn’t been seen before. DICE went on to develop the idea into the Battlefield series and the rest, they say, was history.
Whenever there’s a commercial success, you can guarantee that others will want in on the action and it wasn’t long before Lucasarts commissioned a Star Wars-based clone. Battlefront was the name and it was Pandemic’s game. Years passed, deals were done and Pandemic has ended up under the wing of Electronic Arts. Lacking the Star Wars license, EA decided to put them too work on a license they did own – The Lord of the Rings.
First impressions on loading the game are typical EA – high production values that are incredibly complimentary to the license. Cutscenes are interspersed with clips from the films and the music is straight from the official soundtrack, but unfortunately, such the pomp only serves to disguise several flaws that affect the game so deeply that it’s almost impossible to recover. Performance wise, the game is well optimised, but this is unsurprising when you consider how small the arenas that the games take place in actually are. There’s a lot of spectacle going on, with hordes of armies in combat (apparently gleaned from WETA’s original source models from the films), but this serves only to disguise the fact that only a handful of enemies actually exist and participate in the battle at times.
In the single player mode, the game operates on a campaign system, loosely reliving the canon story of the trilogy (apart from a few glaring canonical mistakes, such as the massed existence of mages and numerous magical fire swords) for the side of Good. Once completed, a non-canon ‘what if’ scenario is opened up, allowing players to find out what may have happened had Frodo not destroyed the ring and Sauron had reclaimed it. Like all LOTR games, the levels chosen seem quite predictable, which is a shame as levels such as nobody ever seems to what to create levels based around anything from the Fellowship of the Ring (well, apart from Moria, because everyone loves a Balrog).
Playing as one of 4 classes (Warrior, Archer, Mage or Scout), the players is tasked with performing several jobs, most of which boil down to capture the flag, destroying a piece of battlefield artillery or assassinating a particular character. Problems arise as the level progresses, as very little happens without your direct intervention, which serves to keep the player at the centre of the action, but there is little independence or intelligence from the allied armies, which cannot even capture strategic points unless you start the capture by standing in them.
More often that not is your sole officer character standing alone in the breach (in Helm’s Deep, quite literally) as the AI comrades fail to find their way to help and (more importantly) heal your character, not that it matters, as combat is spammy and imprecise at the best of times, with the Breaker move existing as a deux ex machina for all situations, allowing you a respite as it blasts (and often kills) all nearby enemies away.
Like the Battlefront games, there is an emphasis on hero characters appearing at crucial moments in the game, with each representing an enhanced version of a standard class. They do bring unique (and hidden) special moves too the field on top of stronger combos than the standard units, but represent a mere side diversion since they only have 1 ‘life’ before you’re back to the standard units as the nearest mage was too busy staring at a wall to heal you. Annoyingly, when a hero does become available, the game decides to present a large intrusive dialogue box that fails to capture the mouse properly. I had to have a look on the games official forums to find out that it’s because the Yes/No prompt is mapped to the cursor keys, with no mention in the options, which is disconcerting and jarring at best.
The multi-player potion of the game is no better than single-player, albeit for different reasons. Firstly, the game uses EA Nation for match-making – despite accepting the username & password from any other EA account (for example, one used to download the game from EA Store), the game will not connect, with the only known solution to create a new account within the game using a different email address. Once finally in, the games built-in server browser allows the sorting of games by type, map and player count, but there are no filters to remove full games or high-latency servers and the ping indicator did not seem to do anything meaningful, making finding a decent game literally a minefield.
Once you do find one, assuming it’s not a player-hosted lag-fest, the game places you in identical situations as the single player game with the reinforcement ‘lives’ replaced with a scoreboard, time-limits and frag counts. The combat is just as inconsistent as the offline play, but lag and lower player counts (there are no grunts, as everyone plays an officer) make the game considerably less interesting.
Overall, it is really hard to recommend this game to anyone. It takes too many wayward liberties with the LOTR license & canon, enough to cause ol’ J.R.R. to spin in his grave some more & turn away any diehard fans whilst lacking the more interesting aspects and dependable gameplay of the Battlefront & Battlefield games respectively. Incidentally, both games are available for significantly less than this sweat-shop fresh waste of a license.