You would think that a guy like me who earns his living writing game reviews, thanks to a lucrative 3 year/$11 million contract with the venerable GO Network (regrettably without comprehensive dental coverage), would play tons of games almost continually. That turns out not to be the case. I by and large play only the games I’m reviewing, and spend my remaining spare time on my other hobbies: care and feeding of my tribbles, competitive downhill juggling, and quick, torrid threesomes with Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. It’s ironic, then, that the first game I’ve picked up in several months just to play with it, LOTR: ROTK, I end up accepting as a review assignment after the fact. And to make this review even more peculiar, I played the game about three weeks ago, uninstalled it, and am going to be writing this review entirely from my vodka-infused memory. Finally, while I liked the LOTR trilogy, I’m not what you would call a Fan with a capital F, meaning that I don’t have LOTR sheets on my bed, I don’t wear elf ears (not in public, at any rate), and I’m not going to buy a replica of the One Ring from the Franklin Mint. What I mean to say is that I’m going to get some names and places wrong, so don’t send me 4300 angry emails that it’s Helmsdeep, not Helmskeep (or whatever), and I promise not to laugh at you when I find you in public playing with your Gimli action figure. Capish? Good, then let us venture forth.
Some of you may remember my earlier brush with the less-than-stellar LOTR: Fellowship of the Ring, which checking my review I gave a whopping 54%. What then would possess me to pick up the sequel, especially recreationally? Well, a friend of mine got both ROTK and GTA: Vice City for Xmas, figured he would be busy with GTA for awhile, and chucked ROTK my way, gratis. I rarely turn down free games, even those that I suspect might suck. All the more pleasant then to find that it doesn’t suck; it’s actually pretty good. ROTK is a kind of plot-driven, 3rd person arcade-ish fighting game that is frequently seen on consoles, but doesn’t show up on PCs all that often.
Unlike FOTR, which had you undertaking such death-defying feats as selling your house and ringing the town bell, ROTK wisely concentrates on the most exciting and pivotal battles of the story. Beginning with the defense of Helmsdeep, you can choose to play as any of the film characters that were there – Gimli, Legolas, Gandolf, or Aragorn. I chose Gandolf because I thought the magic would be cool, though it turns out that there is very little magic involved. Gandolf’s magic is limited to hurling fireballs (lightening balls?) from his staff, and temporarily raising a shield around himself that deals tremendous damage to anyone unfortunate enough to run into it. Mostly what Gandolf does is bash people with his staff, which strikes me as a very un-wizardly thing to do, but he’s plenty tough for an old geezer. Orcs and hobgoblins are thick around me, and the game almost becomes a clickfest as I lash out at all within bashing range. Stringing together groups of attacks does increased damage and earns me points. There are also siege ballistae that I can activate to knock enemy troops away from the main gate in sort of mini scripted cinematic events. Whole lot of orc smashing fun. Finally, and I’m not sure if the level was timed or if I killed enough critters, the defense of Helmsdeep is complete.
Here a little RPG-like strategy comes in. The points that I’ve earned during the mission are used to increase the character level. They are also used to improve the attacks that I have, buy new attacks, or increase armor and hit points. For 5,000 points, for example, I can increase Gandolf’s hit points, or for 15,000 points I can increase them for everyone. Is it worth it? The 5,000 points could also buy an attack called “the shieldbreaker,” which can be everyone’s for 15,000 points. Some attacks, like the staff lightening strike upgrade, are clearly only applicable and available to Gandolf. Other attacks are not yet available at all because the character isn’t of high enough level. Still others seem to involve keystroke combinations so arcane (LMB, CTRL, SPACE, RMB, SHIFT) that I’m unlikely to ever use them. I suspect they would be easier to use with a console gamepad, which I don’t have. How to spend my points?
I ultimately choose to spend the vast majority of the upgrade points on Gandolf and Gandolf alone, which maybe turns out to be a mistake, because the game then splits into three separate but parallel storylines: The Path of the Wizard, The Path of the King, and the Path of the Ring. The POTW follows Gandolf on his journey to defend the big white castle (Mantherin? Manderin? Manfred Mann?) and there his upgrades serve me well. But in the POTK, which follows Aragorn et al on their journey to the Hall of the Dead, the Gandolf character isn’t available, and I’m working with unadvanced characters. The difficulty level of the game does not seem to overwhelm me, so perhaps the game accounts for this. Still, the more upgraded a character becomes, the more damage their attacks do, the more points they earn, and hence the more upgrades that can be bought. There is considerable momentum in the game that once you use a character you’re going to keep on using them and ignore the others. Maybe you’ll play with the other characters on subsequent runs through the game, but I only played it through once using Gandolf (POTW), Aragorn (POTK), and Sam (POTR), and hence know almost nothing about playing as Gimli, Legolas, or Frodo.
The levels are well laid out, though largely linear and with fixed save points, and filled to the brim with enemies. Similar to the siege ballistae of the Helmsdeep level, there are a number of mini-scripted points where I can pour boiling oil on the troops or smash them flat with rocks or a chandelier. Some missions have you running back and forth over the same area repeatedly, like to knock enemy ladders off the wall in the defense of the white castle, and these feel a little burdensome, especially as they are some of the most difficult ones and I had to play them several times to win. When other characters are along on a mission with you, I found that I had to either frequently work to keep them alive, or had them stand idly by while I got the snot kicked out of me, either of which I wasn’t too happy about.
The graphics are great. Dirty, gritty, not flashy, with a good variety of textures and some nifty architecture. The camera, floating around in its 3rd person perspective, sometimes ends up too close or at the wrong angle, forcing you to fight with an enemy you cannot see. FMV and music from the movies are blending into the gameplay as seemlessly as I’ve ever seen it done. Rousing battle sound effects, yells, the ringing of swords, abound, and the voice work is all either done by the original actors or taken directly from the movies. Incidentally, as you complete missions to unlock new ones you also unlock things like interviews with the cast and crew, storyboards, working sketches, and the like. I gave them only a cursory look myself, but then again I own only the two DVD version of FOTR, not the 5 disk mega-box. The real LOTR Fan might find these to be valuable gems.
The final level, which from the movie predictably pits Frodo (who for me was almost entirely unadvanced) against Golem over the fiery pit of Mount Doom, resorts to a sort of gaming trickery instead of straight combat to solve, and I felt was and unfortunately weak level to end on. Beyond that, ROTK is a fine game, and vastly superior to FOTR by any measure. You often feel like you are taking part in some vast battle, man and beast fighting all around you. It’s the kind of fighting game that sometimes almost drives me to get a console, and I wished showed up on the PC more often.