Pandemic Studios, having enjoyed some success with their release of Star Wars: Battlefront II, sought to bring their style of action game to the Lord of the Rings universe as well. Since both Star Wars and LotR are widely regarded as classics in their respective genres, and both have a rich, deep fan base, the task would appear to be similar in scope. Many were expecting Lord of the Rings: Conquest to be, if nothing else, a playground for Tolkien fans to revel in the environments so vividly brought to life by the movies. Unfortunately, between the short, simplistic campaign and the shallow, uninspired combat, LotR: Conquest merely relies on its name for success, failing to bring the innovation or cleverness that the franchise deserves. Read on for the rest of my thoughts.
- Title: Lord of the Rings: Conquest
- Developer: Pandemic Studios
- Publisher: Electronic Arts
- System: Windows, PS3, Xbox 360, Nintendo DS
- Reviewer: Soulskill
- Score: 5/10
LotR: Conquest starts you off with a training scenario in which you learn how to play each of the four classes: Warrior, Mage, Archer, and Scout. Each brings a set of unique attacks and special abilities to the table. Warriors flail about with swords, having standard attacks of different speeds and strengths. You can chain multiple attacks in a row, and you can use specific sequences of attacks as "combos," which can have a devastating effect on enemies. They are also able to parry attacks, and to occasionally toss a throwing axe at somebody, dealing damage and knocking them down. It's very effective for closing on those pesky mages and archers who like to stand at range. As warriors cleave their way through enemies, they build energy for special attacks, which imbue their sword with fire. One such attack drops the warrior low to the ground and charges enemies, effectively getting under their guard. Another is a flaming whirlwind, suitable for demolishing large crowds. The third is a powerful direct attack that can punch through an enemy's defenses, and there's also a powerful, spinning slash called a Crowdbreaker — it requires a full bar of energy to use, but can take out a group of enemies with ease.
The other melee class is the Scout. Their basic attacks are quick and less powerful. They also have combos, and more importantly, the ability to cloak themselves, turning almost invisible to their enemies. Anyone who knows you're there can still see a faint outline of your character, but it's easy for an enemy who's focused on something else to overlook you. You can pop out of stealth and attack as normal, or you can try to sneak around behind somebody for an extremely powerful backstab, which will kill most units by itself. However, it can be tough to do if your opponent is moving, and missing your opportunity will cause you to fall out stealth and be very vulnerable for a few seconds. Scouts also work on an energy system, though in a slightly different way; in addition to generating energy by normally attacking enemies, you gradually refill your bar just standing around. Using stealth slowly drains it, as do special movies. Scouts can move quickly by rolling, and they can chuck satchel bombs, which can be entertaining.
Archers are perhaps the simplest class. Most of the time they stand around shooting arrows in a manner reminiscent of Legolas. They have three ways to modify their arrows; multi-shot, which sprays several arrows out at once, fire arrow, which explodes wherever it lands (think Rambo), and poison arrow, which drops a cloud of poison where it lands, slowly draining the health of enemies nearby. The abilities are all on timers, so once you've used one, you simply wait for it to be available again. They can also throw a kick at anybody who gets close. Their range and mobility make them fairly powerful. Their arrows are easily dodged, especially from far away, but Archers can zoom in on somebody and hit them with a headshot, causing massive damage. Mages are probably the most interesting classes, primarily because they can interact with friendly units in addition to enemies. Their main attack is a bolt of lightning. The damage isn't high, but by holding the button, you can charge up the attack, which allows it to chain up to two times. Their special attacks are also on timers. They can throw a fireball, which will create a deadly field of fire wherever it lands, and they can knockback nearby enemies with a shockwave. They can also heal themselves and friendly targets, and they can put up a large spherical shield that will protect anyone inside from ranged attacks. A mage escorting a group of archers and warriors by using the shield to protect them and heals to keep them alive can be extremely tough to defeat.
There are two single-player campaigns — one for Good and one for Evil — which have seven or eight missions apiece. Each mission takes somewhere around 20-30 minutes, and you'll make it through the whole game in 8 hours or so. It has three difficulty settings, so if that doesn't sound like a lot of time, bump the AI up a notch so you don't just breeze through it. The game draws heavily upon the movies to tell the story. A narrator (Hugo Weaving) provides background information while clips from the movies are show overlaying a map of Middle Earth. They're often stitched together in a way that suits the purposes of the game's plot, so if you're a diehard fan, there will be opportunities to nitpick. The first campaign focuses on the forces of Good, and it provides a rough outline of the story in the movies, with some liberties taken to add to the gameplay. You start out as a soldier in the battle for Helm's Deep. Your character takes part in a series of objectives — defending the walls, falling back to the main gate, saving King Theoden, then re-taking the wall and beating back the Uruk-hai. If you're familiar with the story, it will play out mostly as you expect. You'll stumble across some of the main villains, such as Saruman, Wormtongue, and a Balrog, and do most of the fighting yourself. Periodically throughout the campaign, you'll be able control the familiar good guys — Gandalf, Legolas, Aragorn, etc. — who are slight variations on the archetypes you've been using, but rather more powerful.
The Evil campaign is a new story, beginning with Sauron's recovery of the One Ring, and his subsequent rampage through Middle Earth. That's not a spoiler — they tell you as much going into the first mission. Most of the missions are like that; you'll go to a well-known location (such as the Mines of Moria or Rivendell), fight through a series of destructive objectives, and kill a major character at the end. There's no suspense, no drama, and the major Good characters are brought into the fray with little fanfare. That's not to say the campaign is without merit; several mission objectives are very nicely done. For example, when attacking Rivendell, at one point you're ordered to storm the buildings and burn all of the books, while the elves panic and fight back around you. It's a nice touch; it feels like something the Uruk-hai would do. Another mission has you razing the Shire — again, something completely unnecessary and completely in character for Sauron's legions. The hobbits don't put up much of a fight, and it has a very brutal feel.
Throughout both campaigns, you'll occasionally get to fight some of Middle Earth's more impressive inhabitants, like the Trolls and the leafy Ents. Melee classes can climb on the backs of trolls and perform a devastating attack to fell them. It's a good thing, too — best of luck going toe to toe with one. Later, you're able to actually take control of your faction's giants. It's fun to run around smashing things as a troll, but it gets old quickly, and other games have been doing it better for a long time. You can also ride horses and Wargs. You can knock people over by riding into them, or flail to the sides with your weapon, but you're much more likely to just fall off as soon as an enemy gets near you. Maybe Pandemic was simply erring on the side of caution with regard to game balance, but riding is awfully unsatisfying. You'll encounter the giant, tusked Oliphaunts carting invaders around. Neat to see, but ridiculously easy to defeat by tapping the series of button presses that show up on your screen.
The AI in LotR: Conquest is more comical than effective. As your mage launches his fire nuke at a group of enemies, they'll alertly shout "Watch out, Fire Wall!" while blithely standing in the fire and dying. Nearby enemies won't hesitate to walk into the fire and immediately die if it lies between you and them. You'll also see the occasional enemy standing around, facing the wrong direction and trying to decide what to do for far too long. The AI also isn't good at backing off for the sake of fun. Oftentimes you'll get knocked down and surrounded, then beaten to death without regaining control of your character. Scouts pick odd times to one-shot you, as will archers, which can be frustrating as well. When discussing balance, game developers often say "It's easy to kill the player." This game is proof of that. Members of your own faction aren't any more helpful; progress made fighting toward your mission objective will often be lost when you die, as your allies quickly crumble without you.
The art is a mixed bag. The maps are pretty enough, and it's cool to see and interact with places like Rivendell and Isengard. The scale doesn't seem quite right, though. Everything is smaller than it appeared in the movies, and places like the Mines of Moria and Helm's Deep don't have that epic feel to them. The character models look pretty good, but there isn't much variation between the generic versions. It can be distracting to wonder when that group of orcs or elves running toward you acquired cloning technology. The Balrog is very cool-looking, though. The music is, of course, fantastic; they've added sections of the movie soundtrack to the game, and they did an excellent job of timing it for objectives and victories.
The game has several multiplayer modes in addition to the typical deathmatch scenarios: Conquest places a series of flags throughout a map, and your team needs to control each point long enough to raise your banner there. Capture the Ring places the One Ring in the middle of the playing field, the goal being to grab it and take it to your enemy's base. There are also a limited number of larger units (i.e. trolls, Ents, horses, etc.) that players can control, but they are not noticeably more powerful. You have the option of running with a bunch of AI friends and foes to fill out the field of war. They don't have much of an impact, but it makes things look more like an actual battle. Melee classes seem to be at a slight disadvantage here — between typical online latency and the propensity for real players to move away, it can be very hard to actually hit anything. Scouts in particular have a rough time. Anyone who's played for a while can pick up the blur of a cloaked Scout, and it's almost impossible to backstab somebody who is specifically trying to avoid it. Given that missing a backstab leaves you exposed and vulnerable, you're better off looking for another target. There's also Co-op play, which can be more entertaining if you've got a friend or three to play with. Perhaps the nicest part is having teammates is that they'll know to peel a pesky Warrior off of you before you get killed. A coordinated group is very, very tough to beat. Unfortunately, the combat, while more frenzied, is even less forgiving to your character's recovery time after performing a move. Completely miss with that heavy attack? Time to respawn. Again.
LotR: Conquest relies heavily on the movies to establish its style. Perhaps too heavily; there's not much in this game that will surprise you or make you wonder what's around the next corner. If you're not a fan of Lord of the Rings or you don't particularly care for this type of action game, Conquest doesn't bring anything new that would change your mind. On the other hand, if you're a nut about the books or movies, and would like a light, quick romp through Middle Earth (without minding the liberties taken with the plot for the sake of gameplay), this will fit the bill. The environments, regardless of scale, are quite recognizable, and it's neat to participate in the same fights you've seen in the movie theater. If you were waiting for the One Game to do justice to Tolkien's universe... well, keep waiting.