Shortly after the film was released, word was that games were already in
production from Vivendi Universal in anticipation of all the cinematic
hype. They chose, however, to base their license on the book and I
remember reading various interviews about how the developers
painstakingly tried to translate the words of Tolkien into a splendid
looking story-heavy title. The novel, being intricately detailed, was
simple and easy for this task. And my expectations for the title,
especially considering what I saw on the Game Boy Advance, was one where
adventure would take precedence over action. Lord of the Rings: The
Fellowship of the Ring for the Xbox, unfortunately, is one where the
action takes precedence over the adventure and it plays on the game's
weaknesses rather than its strengths.
The first component of Fellowship is where you assume the role of Frodo.
Like in the film, you'll try to escape from the shire but not without
performing some side quests and errands before you're able to actually
leave. This looked like a tutorial section to the Game Boy Advance
Fellowship. In that game, it was subsequently followed up with devious
and sometimes diabolical puzzles based on the fiction itself. The
Fellowship begins as an adventure title when you act as a courier from
one place to another and explore the life of a hobbit. This is arguably
what most of the novel is about, walking from place to place, exploring
the life, pondering about good versus evil and getting a good look at
the different flora and fauna across Middle Earth.
It feels like the succeeding parts of Fellowship were done after the
cinematic cutscenes and the story of the first portion because
Fellowship subsequently degenerates into one combat scene after another.
In this sense, it's a lot more like the film than the novel. By the
very end of Fellowship, it even degenerates to the level of Diablo or
Hunter: The Reckoning because, by that time, it absolutely doesn't need
the plot to sustain the action.
The visuals, unfortunately, follow this downward trend. As you progress
deeper into the game, into settings like Moria, you end up noticing that
the meticulous attention to detail of the first half all disappear by
this time. Elements that were so polished before, including things like
monsters, animation and combat pacing, suddenly walk off a cliff steeper
than banner advertising did with websites. Luckily, the audio remains
consistent and while the soundtrack isn't a smash hit, holistically
speaking, it doesn't waver in its performance until the very last bar.
Unfortunately, the battles themselves are not that interesting. It
feels like they were inserted because of lack of time or out of
convenience to the developer. Neither Aragorn nor Gandalf really turn
the game up a notch. The spellcasting system is arcade-like. There's
really no progression like in RPG titles so the spells end up being
colorful versions of projectile weapons. The melee combat is limited
and again, the lack of skill upgrades and sophisticated combos turn the
combat into a busy hack and slash affair.
Even the ring itself is more hackneyed than anything; putting it on for
Frodo simply gets you access to hidden areas. How very original indeed.
It easily could have been integrated into the story in a stronger
manner. Then there's the stealth component, which is a little useless,
considering most of your opponents can be baited and beaten with ease.
The theatrical success, ipso facto, raised the bar for games based on
Lord of the Rings immeasurably. Fellowship, for the Xbox, is a title
that misses that mark. Its brevity and limited depth really hurts,
rather than helps it. Understandably, the game was probably made easier
to cater to a larger audience but the frequent resort to frivolous
combat is not what the novel was about. Ironically, this entire license
was built on the novel and not the movie. But upon playing through the
action sequences, you would think otherwise.
When you have such a powerful console system, it's all the more ironic
that the story-laden Game Boy Advance captures the zeitgeist of the
novel better than the Xbox. While we've yet to see the Two Towers games
(which have the benefit of being an instant hit and EA gaining the movie
license) that are to come shortly, Fellowship will most certainly not be
the magnum opus in the gaming trilogy.
There is an initial rush and glimpse of Tolkien's novel in the early
going. The ensuing action lacks punch and never arcs to a point to make
any of the combat substantial. That's why I believe Fellowship is a
hand of cards played wrong. Adventure should have taken precedence over
action and not the other way around.