The Xmas gaming season is bearing down on us like a herd of fat women at a bake sale (to borrow a line from Married with Children), and it’s all I can do to play them all, let alone write about them. All the more reason then to spend as little time as possible reviewing Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. Much like the ring that the game purports to be about (though the ring in fact plays very little role in the game), FOTR is all glittery golden on the outside, soulless, sucking void on the inside. Voice acting by many of the original cast members, or at least pretty good facsimiles, a fine soundtrack, groovy graphics, all complimented by gameplay that could drop a hardcore insomniac into blissful sleep inside of an hour. It stands as a shining example of the fact that nothing, even with a pretty wrapper on the outside, is still nothing, which I suppose summarizes J. Lo in a nutshell.
The plot of the game more or less follows that of the movie. A friend tells me that the inclusion of Tom Bombadil and Old Man Willow and such, that did not appear in the movie, were in the book – I’ll have to take his word for that having never read the book myself. The entire back story – the forging of the ring, Sauron and his defeat, Gollem, and Bilbo – is all covered in a bland cinematic sequence about two minutes long. It remarkably conveys absolutely everything, yet somehow in a fashion that leaves you entirely uninterested in undertaking the quest to destroy the ring. But I can’t write an entire game review based on an opening cinematic sequence, can I? Hmmm. I guess not. I shall venture farther, but you people owe me big time.
Finding myself as Frodo standing in Bag End, the game wastes almost no time at all in going down the dumper. I’ve got to find the deed to Bag End so I can sell it before I leave on my quest. Let me explore my little home! It’s filled to the rafters with boxes I can’t open, dressers I can’t search, and bookcases I can’t touch. What’s cooking in the kitchen? I don’t know! Pot lids I can’t lift, and an oven door that won’t move. There are a grand total of three chests that I can open in the entire damnable household, and on of them holds the deed. Wahoo. Perhaps things are more interesting outside.
The Shire is lush and green, Samewise Gamgee works in the garden, fields with softly rolling hills stretch away into the distance. Oh the promise of adventure to be found! Oh the lies! I’m trapped on a path that runs between the houses of the Shire by fences and stone walls. If I do manage to jump over one of the stone walls, an invisible barrier blocks me from going too far into the endless fields. I’m no more free to adventure than a cow in the chute at a slaughterhouse, only I suspect the cow is having more fun. The entire town is as untouchable as my home. I can talk to the townpeople, for what that’s worth, and pick up glittering mushrooms (health potions). My first mission – to sell Bag End – runs into a snag when the woman I’m supposed to sell it to wants me to ring the town bell to call the sheriff (she’s seen wolves in the Shire) before she’ll talk to me. The bell is maybe fifteen feet away. I can chuck a rock at it from where I’m standing. I do, and she buys my home. Woo. I’m adventuring now.
At different points in the game you play as Frodo, Gandolf, and Aragorn. Of the three, Aragorn is probably the most straightforward, simply battering your way through you enemies. Gandolf has a number of powerful spells to cast. What does Frodo bring to the fellowship? Well, he can sneak, and throw rocks (from an inexhaustible supply) to fool pursuers, and he wields a pretty mean stick, mostly to squish spiders, and he can run, run like the wind. Frodo is just about the speediest thing in Middle earth, and you can often (with the significant exception of the black riders) simply outrun anything chasing you. Oh, and of course you have the ring – this is a game about the ring, right? When the ring is slipped onto Frodo’s finger he becomes invisible, the catch being that his purity, as measured by a meter separate from your health meter, will begin to decrease. When his purity hits zero the ring has consumed him – game over. Still, given your speed plus a little prudent use of invisibility, not much can keep up with you.
Reviews for the PS2 and Xbox versions of FOTR told grand tales of side quests. The PC version is vastly shortchanged if those reviews are to be believed. The few side quests that I stumbled across often took only moments to solve, and what’s more made no difference in the overall game if you solved them or not.
Combat, when there are other members of the fellowship about, is a truly bizarre affair for the simple reason that they seem to be utterly invulnerable. You can just sit back and watch them fight it out – they’ll never get killed, no matter how much the monsters beat on them. So what is the heck is the point? It’s even more bizarre to be Aragorn and sit back and let the hobbits fight the trolls and such for you. Alternately, it’s surprising how many times you find yourself alone through some goofy game mechanism, like everyone became separated in a heavy fog, asleep, lost, etc – isn’t this supposed to be a fellowship?
The mechanics of this game are so simple, the overall adventure so lame, that you have to go back to something like Final Fantasy 7 to find a comparable game. And as I think about it, that’s an excellent comparison. FOTR, like FF7 (or what I remember of it) has a simple combat model (hit or block), health system, and similar rudimentary inventory management. There are even boss monsters every so often in FOTR that you have to defeat using some trick.
The end of the game, which takes a mere 4 or 5 hours to reach, as far as I know has no analog in the book or the movie, and seems more like a stopping point than an ending. I understand that, like the books and the movies, there are going to be three of these games. FOTR is bad enough. The thought of a trilogy of games this bad is really and truly mind-boggling.