Monday, November 08, 2004

They need spikier hair, though

One of the games I'm currently playing is Lord of the Rings: The Third Age (for the PS2), which bills itself as "the first console RPG set in Middle-Earth", which is certainly true (there were earlier RPGs based on FotR and TTT, but they weren't on consoles). Quick summary: It's Final Fantasy X in Middle-Earth. In more detail, on the plus side:

  1. It may be a blatant rip-off of Final Fantasy X in terms of gameplay, but that means it's a pretty good game they’re ripping off.

  2. Taking an essentially fun system of play, and moving it from a generic sci-fantasy world into Middle-Earth is a good thing. It’s inherently more fun to run through Moria than to run through Generic Dungeon #219.

  3. One cute, creative feature: "Evil Mode" – after you’ve completed a chapter, you can go back and play through several of the battles from that chapter as the bad guys. Mostly, it's a way of obtaining some bonus stuff, but it's sort of neat to be able to go back and kill those goody-two-shoes heroes you’ve been playing as.

  4. Good graphics. Everything matches the look of the films pretty well, and it has a very good sense of scale. There are some great scenes up in the mountains around Caradhras where you can look out and see the massive range of the Misty Mountains stretching off to the horizon, and places in Moria where you can look across a vast pit and see precarious stairs which you can then work your way over to and climb around on.

  5. It has footage from the movies, so those cutscenes are of rather higher quality than you usually see in videogames.

However, there are also some problems:

  1. It has footage from the movies, so those cutscenes are all things you've seen already. The footage from the movies also doesn't particularly advance the story of the characters you're actually playing. It fills in some small amount of history, and lets you know what the Fellowship is up to, but has little to do with the story you're playing through, which is meant to be a parallel story to the quest to destroy the ring.

  2. That story, so far, is pretty thin. You start out as a Gondorian who's trying to meet up with Boromir for some (so far) never-adequately-explained reason. Some other characters join up quickly for, as far as I can tell, no reason at all except to become an adventuring party. They might just as well have had everyone meet in a tavern and overhear a strange man talking about treasure in the mountains... There is a tradition in console RPGs of some mind-blowing plot twist about halfway into the game, so maybe there's something interesting ahead, but I'm not counting on it.

  3. That adventuring party isn't The Fellowship, but boy, the characters all sure look familiar. They managed to resist the temptation to include any hobbits, amazingly enough, but otherwise the characters you play are the aforementioned Gondorian (i.e., Boromir), a Dunedain ranger (i.e., Strider/Aragorn), an elf healer/swordwoman (i.e., Arwen), and a dwarf axe fighter (i.e., Gimli). I gather that later in the game, Legolas-with-the-serial-number-filed-off joins the party, and I think one more human character I don't really remember. Probably PseudoFaramir or Not-Eomer or something.

  4. The characters' personalities are probably similar to the "real" characters, but I wouldn't really know: There's virtually no character interaction. The longest conversation I've seen so far was Don't-Call-Me-Gimli telling Aragornish to be more respectful of the ancient Dwarven relic axe he picked up off of an altar in Moria and tossed from one hand to the other. Shortly after that, they opened an ancient crypt deep in the ancestral homeland of the Dwarves, and Gimli-like's entire emotional response was approximately, "Hey, neat, a new axe I can use!" The longest interaction with people outside the adventuring party was some elves thanking us for driving the orcs away from their caravan. Maybe that will change once I get past Moria and into Rohan or Gondor.

  5. Peeking ahead in the strategy guide, it appears that they were not able to resist the urge to make the Obligatory Big Final Boss Battle a fight with, yep, Sauron. Given that the game is specifically based on the films rather than the books, I expect this means the climax of the game will be all of my characters gathering around the base of a huge dark tower with a burning eye at the top and swinging their swords at it (and I am suddenly reminded of Lancelot taking one swing at the wall of the French castle in Monty Python and the Holy Grail). Sauron will probably attack by shooting flames out of his eye or something. Yeesh.

  6. The skill advancement system is broken. The basic idea isn't bad: Each character has a couple of skill trees, which you advance along by earning skill points. You earn skill points by actually using your skills. The problem is that every use of a skill costs "Action Points", whether it is a physical combat move or a magic spell. Because of the advancement system, although every character has a basic, free attack move, it's never a good idea to use it, since doing so doesn't earn any skill points. Which means every action in combat costs AP. Which means every character, fighter and spell-caster alike, needs to beef up the stat that controls how many AP you have, especially considering the skills often have absurd AP costs (one character's first skill in one area costs 75 points to use, and it must be used about 20 times to earn enough skill points to acquire the next skill in that tree), and AP restoration items are relatively rare (healing items are easier to find). To make up for this, characters' HP and AP are fully restored every time they go up a level (which is separate from skill advancement), and this tends to happen about every 2 or 3 battles.

  7. Instead of a magic system tailored to the world, they have what appears to be a pretty uninspired air/earth/fire/water/light/shadow system, just like every other console RPG. Among the problems with that is the fact that in Middle-Earth, even assuming there are more than a handful of entities in the world capable of using magic, the only ones who would use "shadow" (i.e., evil) magic would be servants of Sauron (well, Morgoth if you wanna go way back, which we won't if you don't mind and I ain't askin').

Having said all that, on the whole, I'm still enjoying the game, largely because it's inherently cool to do things like climb the delicate spiral staircase to an elven shrine in the forest, and walk through the halls of Moria, following the still-burning footsteps of the Balrog chasing after Gandalf and the rest. Although that leads me to wonder, since they got Ian McKellan to do voice-over narration as Gandalf for the movie footage, whether those cutscenes will suddenly be without a narrator voice after Gandalf falls, and then bring the voice back when he returns in white?

No, probably not. That'd be too creative, wouldn't it?

(One more bonus point if you can identify the "hidden" film quote in this post. Collect them all! Trade them with your friends!)
(However, no bonus points for identifying missing diacritic marks on the Tolkien names. I'm just too lazy to look up the proper HTML codes for them.)

No comments: