Platform:              PlayStation 2, GameCube, XBox
American Release Date: November 2, 2004
European Release Date: November 5, 2004
Japanese Release Date: December 22, 2004
Developer/Publisher:   EA Games
ESRB Rating:           T for Teen {Violence}

Quick disclaimer: I am writing this based on the PS2 version of the game. Slight variations may exist between the platforms.

History

Since J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit, the universe of The Lord of the Rings has been immensely popular. Peter Jackson capitalized on the successes of The Lord of the Rings by translating it into three Oscar-winning movies. Along with the three epic movies, there are board games, action figures, clothing, newfound popularity of the books, and not least of all, video games. New Line gave EA Games the rights to develop video games for the movies. First came The Two Towers in November 2002, released a month or so before the movie upon which it is based. It was a huge success, because it incorporated some actual movie footage weeks before the movie launched! The game itself consisted of venturing through beautiful landscapes to hack and slash the minions of Middle-Earth. Unfortunately the game was far too short. A year later, The Return of the King hit shelves. Like its predecessor, it was quite successful. It improved on The Two Towers by having more characters, more levels, more moves, and of course the two-player mode. One year later, The Lord of the Rings: The Third Age was released. It did not have as much hype surrounding it as the first two games had. This may simply be because there are no more movies so interest is at a low for the first time since pre-Fellowship days.

Story

Spoiler free. Everything below can be obtained within the first five minutes of playing and/or reading the game's manual.

In this game, unlike the first two, you do not control the Fellowship. Instead you control characters that EA has created. This is done for a number of reasons. A lot of the actors are probably unavailable due to shooting new movies, so there is little original voice acting. Secondly, and what I feel is more important, is that you progress through an original story. You are Berethor, Citadel Guard of Gondor. You have been sent from Gondor to find Boromir. While on your way to find Boromir you encounter Nazgûl in Eregion. They quickly dispatch of you but an Elf of Lórien, Idrial, rescues you. You continue along the way to find four more characters and form a Fellowship of your own. In the game you control a Gondorian, an Elf, a Dúnadan, a Dwarf, and two Rohirrim; your fellowship essentially a remake of the Fellowship sans the Hobbits. The story is broken up into a number of different chapters. The different chapters are broken up by where they are located. For example the first chapter takes place in Eregion. In each chapter there are a number of quests which are unnecessary to the progression of the game.

Ian McKellen, who played Gandalf the Grey and Gandalf the White, lends his voice as the narrator. Throughout the game, Ian narrates a massive amounts of text, including a paraphrased version of the prologue and more than a hundred other clips from the movies. These clips are called Epic Scenes and average thirty to sixty seconds long. As the player progresses through the story, he unlocks these Epic Scenes. It is a bit strange because the clips are all from the movies, which feature a completely different cast of characters. All the same, it is enjoyable to relive bits and pieces of the movies again.

Gameplay

The game, unlike its predecessors, is actually a role-playing game. The back cover features a quote from Electronic Gaming Monthly, "The most exciting RPG since Final Fantasy." Quite a loaded statement! It is a largely menu-driven RPG with heavy influences from Final Fantasy X, Grandia, Dungeons and Dragons, and other innumerable games.

Battle and Stats

The battle system, I've been told, is almost identical to that of Final Fantasy X. You control three PCs in battle and you can switch places with any extracombat PCs you may have. EA does not really lay claim to any innovations in combat with this game. Combat is turn-based. While in recent Final Fantasy games, each character has a "limit break" of sorts, in this game the entire party has one limit break. Whenever a character damages an enemy the "Momentum Meter" increases slightly. When the meter fills, your party enters Perfect Mode. When in Perfect Mode, one character may perform a devastating attack that deals enormous damage based on which attack is used. Once an attack is used Perfect Mode is over. All characters can use all of the perfect mode attacks but they gain access to them at different times. Every character, even ones that are knocked out or never entered combat, receives experience points from each battle. Like in recent Final Fantasy games, characters who score a killing blow get slightly more experience points. When a character levels up, their health and action points (mana) are completely refilled, and that character is granted some number (2-4) of stat points, like in Dungeons and Dragons. The stat points can be spent in strength, spirit, constitution, speed, and dexterity. It is up to the player to maintain some sort of balance so that characters do not become too specialized.

Skills

Each character has an "in-depth skill tree" that is only marginally more complicated than the skill system found in the game's predecessors. The skills that each character possesses are unique, to a point. They each have unique names and animations but like in the previous games, each character has access to a move that has a certain effect, like "attack and weaken the enemy's offenses." However each character has their own specialization. For example, the Elf possesses a few healing spells. Skills are learned not through leveling, but by usage. Each character has two "action" skill types, a "passive" skill type, and a "reaction" skill type. When a character uses an action skill, they gain a skill point (possibly more) in whichever tree to which that skill belongs. A new skill is learned when a certain number of points, dictated by the skill to be learned, is accumulated. A player does have some control over which skills his characters learn.

Adventuring

When not in battle, the player is in "adventure mode". The player controls Berethor who can run around the aforementioned beautiful landscapes. Unfortunately the landscapes are painfully linear. The game has a large number of quests but they are easily completed by just doing everything a chapter has to offer. When adventuring the player has a chance to enter one of two types of battles: random and story-based. When a random battle is imminent, the Lidless Eye of Sauron appears in the top-left corner of the screen. When a story battle is imminent, the blue palantír of Saruman appears. Random battles are not necessarily triggered by being active; one can be attacked just standing motionless, so it is important that you pause the game when you take a break! Finally, the player cannot save just anywhere; there are certain save points littered throughout the world, perhaps a bit too commonly. When a player saves, all of the characters are completely healed, so it may be wise to hang out at a save point to powerlevel.

"Evil Mode"

The game includes an Evil Mode, which is unlocked once the player completes the first chapter. This minigame allows the player to control the baddies instead of the heroes in important fights that occurred throughout the chapter. The set of battles for each chapter is unique. While clever, it's not as well-executed as it should have been. The game does not let you prepare at all for each battle, so pre-battle strategery is nonexistent. Throughout the fight if any of your characters are killed there is no consequence in later battles because you start fresh in each battle. Finally the battles are just too easy. There is no break in between each battle, so to win the minigame all the player has to do is win the few back-to-back fights. If the player wins all of the fights for a particular chapter the reward is a few items that are usable in the main game. This minigame is EA's answer to, "Wouldn't it be fun to be the cave troll, Nazgûl, or Balrog once in a while?"


Sources:
GameFAQs
Some writeups on The Lord of the Rings here on E2

ClockworkGrue says Thanks for the writeup on Third Age. I was a designer on the game. There were quite a few things that went wrong with that game, but hopefully it will sell well enough that the guys upstairs will let us make another one and give us more time.

I've certainly got my fingers crossed!

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