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The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

Review By:  Jared Black

Developer:   WXP
Publisher:   Black Label Games (Universal)
# of Players:   1
Genre:   Adventure
ESRB:   Teen
Online:   No
Accessories:   N/A
Date Posted:  

10-22-02

As with any game released following a wildly successful movie, expectations for this fall's Lord of the Rings games (Universal's based on the books; EA's based on the movies) have been high ever since their announcement. This is a special case however, as they not only have an excellent movie to live up to (and the book trilogy behind it) but also year's of gamers frustrations. Past Tolkien games have almost universally (Get it? Universal? Ehhh…) been crap.

Most would guess that newcomer WXP (made up of ex-talent from a number of large publishers) couldn't possibly live up to these huge expectations, and unfortunately most would be right. While The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring is a competent adventure title, it falls well short of what Tolkien fans have really been yearning for. That is a chance to accurately recreate the Fellowship's journeys through Middle-Earth, while at the same time capturing the sense of wander and amazement the hobbits must have felt exploring a vast world so foreign to them.

As one would imagine, the storyline closely mirrors the events that take place in the original book and not the movie. As a result, players will experience events that took place in the book (such as meeting Tom Bombadil) but not in the movie. This is both a blessing and a curse. It's great because many hardcore fans were appalled by some of the things the movie left out, but it's also bad because many casual fans that never read the book won't know what to make of these events. Naturally the game can't recreate every single thing that happens in the book, and as a result fans of the book will likely still be disappointed that it doesn't stay truer to the story than it does.

Personally I'm somewhat satisfied, but not overly happy, with how the story is presented. I didn't expect it to be a step by step recreation of the book, and I think WXP included most of the significant events they needed to. Unfortunately almost the entire dialogue and events feel rushed, reduced to only the basest elements needed to move the story forward. As a result almost nothing carries the needed "weight" it needs to…you reach that point, the event plays out, and then you move on.

More disconcerting are the radical genre shifts the game undergoes. As things start out in the Shire, the player is presented with a number of different optional side quests to undergo in order to acquire items and purity for Frodo (more on that later). As soon as the Shire is left behind however, the rest of the game plays out on an extremely linear path with little to no side quests to undertake. Bree is the only other somewhat open area, but even it is limited to only a few side streets. I can't possibly imagine that this was planned from the beginning, so I'm assuming that WXP realized they would never finish the game on time if they continued to add in side quests and thus just dropped them after the Shire. It's a shame too, because they not only allow the player to explore and interact with the surrounding world a bit more, but also provide some variety in gameplay.

Over the course of the game the player will control Frodo, Gandalf, and Strider at various points. For attacking they all play very similar, with one normal weapon (stick, staff, and sword respectively) and one or two projectile weapons (such as rocks, magic, and bow). Frodo also has the ability to sneak around, and has a secondary meter that measures his purity level. Each time he wears the ring or does something he shouldn't (like breaking an object in someone's house), it goes down a bit. Once it reaches 0, he'll be totally corrupt and die. The beginning of the game gives the impression that there'll be lots of chances to gain back purity through side quests, but once the side quests stop so does that opportunity. So be careful that you don't use it all up too early in the game. Gandalf is the most powerful character thanks to his wide array of magic abilities, but is a weak attacker. He also has a secondary meter, this time focusing on magic reserves. Strider is by far the strongest attacker.

A Fellowship they may be, but rarely do they act like it. Sometimes the NPC characters will help out, and sometimes they won't. For example, in the Old Forest the other hobbits won't lift a finger to help out with defeating enemies. They'll just stand there, neither to be attacked by the enemy nor to help attack it. Worse, sometimes the Fellowship is represented with characters trailing Frodo (or whoever is in the lead) and at other times they all merge ala Final Fantasy (one character representing the entire party). In the latter instance they'll sometimes help out in battle, but only at pre-planned points in the storyline. C'mon, this is a Fellowship we're talking about here! How hard would it have been to give NPCs some basic A.I., so they'd at least act like they're fighting the enemy? It's not as if the Xbox can't handle it. Having the entire party represented by one character in a Lord of the Rings game is just wrong. It totally misrepresents why they're all traveling together in the first place…to work as a team. If WXP wanted to make a design decision to have the party represented as just one character, then they should've at least stuck with that throughout the game.

The graphics are alternately wonderful and subpar. Once again the Shire shines here, with excellent interiors, falling leaves, and other shrubbery that really reflect the feel of the area as told in the book. Leave the Shire (about the time the game becomes totally linear and abandons side quests altogether), and corners start getting cut. Backgrounds are often static bitmaps reminiscent of the last generation, and fuzzy ones at that. Perhaps worst of all graphically, texture work is incredibly repetitive. Every alley in Bree is layered with identical building and road textures, the Old Forest looks identical everywhere resulting in confusion (that's somewhat forgivable though given that it was supposed to be confusing in the book), and Moria is the same room and area over and over and over again. Proficient technically, but obviously very rushed and poorly thought out.

Sound fares better though. The voice acting is actually pretty good, but unavoidably sounds somewhat unusual after hearing the same characters played by different people in the movie. WXP did as good as they could have though, and the song parts are particularly amusing. The sound effects are passable, but the music is very nice. The music does a nice job of blending a medieval sound with a fantasy sound without straying too far into "renaissance festival" type stuff. It really fits the world of Middle-Earth, and goes a long way towards creating a convincing environment.

Highs:

  • The music score fits the mood and atmosphere of the game perfectly, and in fact helps in large part to create it.
  • The game hits on virtually everything important from the book, whereas the movie (and as a result EA's offerings probably) didn't.
  • Good voice acting.
  • Saves are nearly instant anywhere in the world.

Lows:

  • The storyline is much too streamlined and de-emphasizes most of what happens in the book.
  • Most of the game is entirely linear; leaving virtually no room to explore what should be a vast Middle-Earth.
  • Weird genre shifts leave the player confused and frustrated.
  • The game locked up twice on me from start to completion, but I've heard of it happening far more often with other people.
  • Horrible load times regardless of what is being loaded up.

Final Verdict: 

As a big fan of the franchise (both the movie and the trilogy), I'm disappointed by how things turned out here. It's obvious the game was rushed tremendously in order to meet a deadline, and it really suffers as a result. The radical genre switches (adventure to action to puzzle solving in Moria) are really disorienting, and the flaky Fellowship (sometimes they attack and sometimes they don't, sometimes they're represented as one and sometimes they aren't) is baffling. I could forgive all of these inconsistencies if the gameplay was stellar, but it's pretty average as far as action titles go.

And despite all of this, I really had a lot of fun with the game. I enjoyed seeing the things they didn't include in the movie, and the parts of Middle-Earth that were shown were well represented. The action stays pretty fast and enjoyable, and the array of enemies and different controllable characters keeps it feeling fresh.

So the bottom line is this: if you're not a fan of the franchise, there are much better places to spend your gaming dollar. If you are a fan of the franchise, you'll enjoy the experience despite the tremendous shortcomings in this game. Either way you're better off renting first, as it can easily be beaten in one sitting and it's doubtful you'll want to play through it again.

Overall Score: 5.6

Additional Images:

 


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