Either you were a cave troll dwelling in the Mines of Moria, a blind Dwarf living under a few hundred tons of rock, or simply not a fantasy novel fan to recognize the sheer spectacle and grandeur that was The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings. (Personally, I know I was in line the first night it opened.) If you bear in mind the fact that shepherding, creating, and penning the world of Middle Earth took Tolkien almost thirty years (and he didn’t even feel finished when he died!), capturing the essence of this seminal piece of literature in a movie seemed to be a Holy Grail of sorts. Somehow, Peter Jackson and his crew of wizards managed to bring the nigh-impossible into being with last year’s epic hit, and look poised to do so again with The Two Towers, which opens in a few weeks. Fortunately, his rendition has found good hands in Electronic Arts, a company who’s known for avoiding one of gaming’s largest pitfalls concerning movie properties: that of making a title suck. I’m going to put in my pitch to cynical or non-fantasy gamers now: The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers is one of those titles you’ll want in your collection.
For fans of the books or the movie, you’ll already know the plotline, so bear with me as I give an unbelievably shortened summary. Basically, within the first movie, a group of adventures join forces to destroy a magical ring sought by an evil warlord. This ring has the power to ensure victory against the rest of the world. After suffering a few setbacks, the party disbands, with some members continuing the journey while others strike out in search of captured friends. The Two Towers actually performs a service to players who might not have seen the first movie or even read the books by encapsulating the most action-packed, important sections of the first movie before getting into the thick of the sequel it’s named after. So, for example, you’ll visit the Mines of Moria, the Borderlands of Gondor, and the charred fields of Mordor.
Aside from the opening battle sequence (mirrored on the opening battle from The Fellowship of the Ring), you’ll take control of Aragorn the Ranger, Legolas the Archer, or Gimli the Fighter. Each character has their individual strengths, and battle their way through levels in different ways. Gimli is the powerhouse of the three. Easily the strongest, the proud Dwarf swings a large battleaxe that he uses to cleave opponents in two, and pulls out hatchets to dispatch enemies at a distance. Contrasting him is Legolas, a lithe Elven archer whose skill with a bow is unequaled. Wielding two short swords for close quarters combat, Legolas is the fastest fighter of the group. Aragorn is a balance of speed and power. Just as efficient with a bow as he is with his long sword, he’s an effective fighter for many “situations.” That’s putting it mildly considering the forces you’ll have to face. Ranging from the lowly Goblins and Orcs to the fierce Uruk-Hai and lumbering but strong Cave Trolls, you can expect a pretty tough fight on your hands. Plus, later on in the game you’ll be placed in huge, rampaging battles, with waves after waves of opponents launching themselves at your characters.
Sounds pretty daunting, isn’t it? Well, fortunately your characters are exceptionally skilled with their weapons, and have numerous attacks available at their disposal. Aside from the ranged attacks, they have two strikes of varying strength. A Speed attack is good for weak opponents or as a set up for the stronger, Fierce attack, which can shatter shields and fell most opponents. To avoid incoming blows, each character can either jump out of the way of a weapon, or parry blows and arrows. Finally, each one can knock back enemies that are getting too close with a good, solid kick, and, if their foe falls to the ground, perform a killing blow on the unlucky victim. Clearly, stringing together combinations of maneuvers will dispatch enemies more effectively than blatant button mashing, and The Two Towers encourages the strategy involved in planning specific moves by providing a two tiered system. First, it ranks the elimination of every opponent on a scale from fair to perfect, giving you experience points at the end of a level that can be used to upgrade your character’s health, weapons, or give them even deadlier combos. Secondly, successful strikes will add to an onscreen gauge, which, when full, provides increased damage and experience points for every blow.
Easily one of the most striking titles of the year, The Two Towers features not only footage from last year’s movie of Fellowship of the Rings, but also “sneak peek” footage of The Two Towers. However, it’s how the footage is used that is the most eye-catching and stunning effect. Clips from the movie blend seamlessly into rendered graphical cutscenes in a manner that is so natural, it gives the impression that the player is not playing a game, but rather is progressing through as a part of a movie or illustrated story, where their actions make the rest of the story come alive. (It may sound like a cliché that’s been bandied about from game to game, but this one actually works.) At E3, observing this effect consistently gained applause, oohs and ahhs every time the trailer for the game was played, and for good reason. It truly is a phenomenal effect, and one that will hopefully become a standard for any game that incorporates live action footage.
In-game camera angles, often the bane of an action game’s existence, are rather well placed and intuitive, following the action with both a cinematic eye and, more importantly, a gamer’s eye, so you won’t feel like you have to fight with the camera for the onscreen action. Character models are amazingly done, with creatures and protagonists looking exactly like their movie counterparts. John Rhys-Davies’ Gimli does look a tad bit pixilated and not entirely accurate, but I can only imagine how hard a time an artist would have to draw that much detail on the character’s face given the PS2 hardware. Even more awesome is how the character models animate, so the scuttling motion of the Goblins and Orcs, the large swaths cut by Uruk-Hai with their blades, and the measured lope of a Cave Troll can send a shiver of pleasure and fear up your spine as they sprint towards you. Similarly, the responses that your characters make are just as sweet. Seeing Aragorn kick a few Goblins away from him, Gimli slice through two or three Orcs, or Legolas take out an Uruk-Hai with rapid-fire arrows is enough to make you raise your own battle cry and charge the screen. Plus, when you wade into twenty or thirty enemies, each one swinging or jumping at you, and you can’t detect a hint of slowdown, you’ll really feel like you’re in the midst of a battle.
Players also are in for a rare treat with The Two Towers, as the stars of the movie also provided voices for the game. Orlando Bloom, John Rhys-Davies, and Ian McKellen lent their individual nuances to the characters, adding depth and richness to the gameplay. While Viggo Mortensen didn’t add his talent to the game, his replacement is pretty accurate with his vocal rhythms, and can actually fool your ears a majority of the time. Otherwise, the effects in the game are taken exclusively from the movie. The first time you’ll hear a scream from an Uruk-Hai, you will definitely be worried about how you’ll survive your encounter. Crisp down to every last little detail, the game even carries the individual zings the arrows make through the air as they speed their way to a target. Musically, it’s much of the same, with the musical score from Fellowship of the Rings and the upcoming Two Towers lightly playing through the background during “calm” moments, ramping up to the more dynamic, action filled scores in heavy battle sequences. It’s definitely an aural immersion into this world, and it’s beautifully done.
If you’ll notice that second to last sentence, I placed calm in quotes…that’s because there are very few moments in this game that you might actually feel yourself as quite calm, a testament to the designers in balancing the action within the game and the tension of what’s going to be flung at you next. While the initial levels may seem rather inconsequential, by the game’s end you will have fended off virtual onslaughts of enemies that seem to come from everywhere and have no end in sight. Needless to say, finishing off the game feels like a true accomplishment. The game is still rather short, and experienced game vets will probably be able to finish off the title within a few hours. However, considering that there are three characters to play through along with the continual ability to better your score for each level, and hidden modes and interviews with the cast, the replay value is surprisingly solid.
One of the standout features within the game is the battle system, which is modeled off realistic fighting methods. Taking many of the fantastical combos out of the equation, performing a quick strike versus that of a powerful strike will come across completely differently depending upon the weapon wielded, and Two Towers does a very good job of conveying that sense. Just as in real-life, making an ill-timed swing can leave you wide open to an attack. Additionally, unlike many games where you can hold a block button and become practically invincible, the parry button works for only one strike before you have to hit it again. This makes you think about whether it’s better to block an incoming attack, jump out of the way, or maneuver the character away from an attacker. I can’t stress the inherent strategy needed in planning your attacks, because the AI in this game knows and learns your tactics well, blocking and countering even the most effective strikes if you use them often.
There are a few issues that do arise, however. One is the lack of save points within the game, forcing you to play through an entire level all over again. Again, on the earlier levels this isn’t too bad, but once you get into the larger skirmishes, it sucks to watch your hard work and effort go down the drain based upon some archer’s lucky arrow or a measly little goblin and it’s axe. Another one is the inability of skipping cutscenes, which can make for a very long reload process if you’ve just suffered the sting of defeat I just mentioned. Finally, (and probably one that can’t really be avoided) there are a few boss battles strewn throughout the game, and with the exception of a few instances, many of them do seem to run into the usual action genre gimmicks. This isn’t a big issue, but it’s one of those situations that tones down certain sequences in the game.
Overall, Lord of the Rings fans probably have this game already in their collection, and beam about it often. However, action gamers or fans of solid gameplay should seriously pick up this game even if they don’t like fantasy based upon the game mechanics and the technical skill demonstrated by EA in bringing this masterpiece from the literary page and the big screen over to the small screen.