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As the battle for Middle-Earth continues to rage, we go once more unto the breach, dear friends...
Other than the original Mercenaries, perhaps the most notable game that Pandemic has developed is Battlefront 2. Produced before Pandemic became part of the EA family, Battlefront 2's Star Wars licensing under the LucasArts umbrella became unworkable once the EA acquisition had gone through, effectively stopping Pandemic from developing a third Battlefront game. So, with EA retaining the rights for Lord of the Rings licensed games (both of the films and literary universe), what better solution than a Battlefront style Lord of the Rings game from Pandemic?
Based entirely on the storylines of Peter Jackson's three motion pictures (we certainly didn't notice Tom Bombadil running about the place) and utilising all the character likenesses contained therein, it could be argued that LOTR: Conquest has turned up with a pitcher full of Margaritas when the party is nothing more than a heap of dying embers. After all, Return of the King came out five years ago and the two scheduled The Hobbit movies are at least three years away. One big question mark over this game will certainly be whether it can appeal to a wider audience than hardened LOTR nuts.
Poor Timing, Good Execution
Thankfully, the gameplay of LOTR: Conquest is right on the money (if the film licensed timing is a little off), bringing everything that made Battlefront 2 great and transporting it into a Lord of the Rings universe amicably. Hero units are just as hard to come by (apart from during a Heroes Deathmatch) and just as exciting to play as when you do so, a well balanced range of classes makes for varied play, while a fiery pace to the action makes the respawning screen seem more like purgatory than ever before.
For those who haven't come across Battlefront games before, they are much like DICE's Battlefield series and for those of you who haven't played a Battlefield game, they are essentially an offshoot from the first or third person shooter genres. Instead of gameplay taking place through a dictated level, action is encapsulated across maps where multiple players and AI controlled bots vie for control of a series of control points. A particularly stress is put on soldier classes, which offer balanced pros and cons against each relative class.
Four classes are on offer in LOTR: Conquest: the Warrior, Mage, Scout, and Archer. It's possible to change classes instantly when you're in the radius of any control point held by your side, while Good and Evil teams are balanced identically for each class. After only a few minutes of play, one of the most obvious differences between Conquest and the Battlefront games is that Pandemic has put less emphasis on ranged attacks. This is kind of inevitable in a universe with swords and staffs rather than blaster rifles and force powers (the obvious exception being lightsabers), although there's still a fair dose of ranged combat in Conquest nonetheless.
Archers deal solely in ranged attacks, while Warriors can throw an axe and Mages have the ability to dish out lightning from a distance. Other than that though, it's mostly close quarters melee combat. Minus the axe throwing, Warriors are pretty useless at anything but close range attacks. Light, Medium, and Heavy attacks on the face buttons can then be charged up for extra damage using the left bumper button, while a variety of combos using the traditional 'X, X, X, Y, Y, B' style can also be mastered. Blocking is also on offer with the right trigger, while combining this with the right bumper can push a wall of soldiers backwards (although it will quickly drain your energy supplies). Although not as quick as the other classes, Warriors have formidable amounts of health and can deal out a lot of damage with their attacks.
Scouts, on the other hand, are the stealthy option in the game. Rather than using energy in their attacks, Scouts use it to cloak themselves and become invisible for a short period of time. If you can get directly behind an enemy (we mean so close that they can feel your breath on the back of their neck), then you can perform an instant stealth kill with the right bumper button. The trade-off for this is that Scouts are pretty lacking in the health department and their general melee skills leave a lot to be desired, although they are fairly quick.
Our personal favourite of the bunch, the Mage, offers up an impressive box of tricks. This includes the ability to heal, shockwave and fireball attacks, charged lightning, and a bubble that guards the Mage and those immediately around him from incoming arrows. The one trade-off here is that no one attack will be particularly deadly to your enemies. You'll have to master the Mage's combat techniques and move evasively to kill opponents, particularly the Warrior.
As we've already mentioned, Archers house the majority of the game's ranged combat. Special arrows such as poisoned, explosive, and triple-shot attacks offer a fair degree of variation and, as with all the special attacks in the game, their use drains energy and you'll have to wait for a recharge before using them again. Most of the maps we played on also offered plenty of high ground to shoot from and a handy zoom on the left trigger makes this a key strategy with the Archer as it doesn't fair too well in close quarters combat.
The game's various Hero characters obviously feature exclusively in the Heroes Deathmatch mode, but will also pop-up in the normal modes from time to time as well. Key achievements, such as topping your team's score sheet or capturing and successfully returning the One Ring (more on that later), will unlock a Hero character for use by one player in a similar way to how Pandemic dished out this privilege in Battlefront 2. These Heroes all fall into the same four classes mentioned above, although they are much more powerful in their specialties. Legolas, for example, can fire off more than three arrows using the triple-shot attack option with the Archer.
Gandalf and Saruman make up the obvious Mage Heroes, while The Witch King and Aragorn are Warriors; Grima Wormtongue is used wisely for the Evil Scout, while Eowyn of Rohan plays his opposite number. In addition to these Hero characters, we also spotted a few special characters that seemed to be map specific. Ents, Cave Trolls, and even a Balrog turned up on the scene during our hands on and their appearance was as destructive as you might imagine. We also noticed a neat mini-game for the Cave Troll where you have to climb up on its back after a button prompt and spear the beast in the head.
It's Not Like On TV
Our hands on was with the multiplayer, which caters for 8 vs. 8 player match-ups on the next-gen consoles. The maps on offer were far from the epic battles in the films because Pandemic has only recreated small pockets of the vast environments we can recall from the likes of Mount Doom and Helm's Deep. They certainly aren't huge battlefields where savage Orcs pile over the defences of a stronghold and immediately slay any enemies in their vicinity. These are skirmishes at most, offering up the same localised conflicts that you'd expect from an average multiplayer shooter on the consoles.
This may not be the case for the single-player, however, or perhaps even the PC game's multiplayer offerings. We are currently awaiting a reply from EA regarding the number of multiplayer slots on the PC game, because it's worth noting that the PC version of Battlefront 2 catered for up to 64 players (some of which were AI controlled) rather than 32 on the consoles (Xbox). During some of our battles across maps such as Hoth and Endor, it really did feel like a 'Battlefront' at times in Pandemic's earlier Star Wars games, providing the same feel as DICE's Battlefield 2 by placing you in the heart of a warzone or at least creating that illusion.
Although we haven't seen LOTR: Conquest's single-player levels in action, they do have a lot of potential. Pandemic's Battlefront games suffered from lacklustre single-player constituents, but the Lord of the Rings' battles provide ample source material for a riotous ramble through Middle-Earth. The key will be whether the developers have captured the sheer scope and enormity of battles such as Minis Tirith and Helm's Deep in the films (both of which are also levels in the main campaign), with Oliphants and siege towers galore. Unfortunately, we won't know this until we review the game in the New Year but we're certainly keeping our fingers crossed, particularly as an alternative 'The Rise of Sauron' campaign opens up once you've completed the 'War of the Ring' section, letting you fight from the evil perspective.
Speaking of Oliphants, we noticed plenty of mounts across the levels we played on, from humble horses to Wargs (which are like large hyenas) for the evil side. These provide quick transports into the action across the multiplayer maps in a similar vein to the speeder bikes of Battlefront 2. The modes on offer won't be too different from the genre standard, from the traditional control point structure of Conquest, to Team and Hero Deathmatches, as well as Capture the Ring thrown in for good measure (unlike most captured flags that inexplicably weigh a ton, it actually makes sense that the One Ring slows a player's movement considerably).
Graphically, LOTR: Conquest certainly appears to be a step-up from what Pandemic offered with Mercenaries 2. A distinct lack of glitches as well as a more well-rounded graphical display makes its visuals something to be acknowledged, particularly where the impressive animation of special characters such as Balrogs and Ents are concerned. That said, the environments and many of the standard characters seem fairly run-of-the-mill by next-gen standards - nothing to be scoffed at, but nothing to write home about by any means. These graphics are accompanied by a musical score from the Lord of the Rings soundtrack, as you might expect.
LOTR: Conquest looks well set to continue the impressive legacy laid down by Pandemic's Battlefront games and while we're certainly disappointed by the lack of multiplayer slots on the console versions, an increased focus on melee combat does make Conquest sit rather more comfortably on a joypad than Battlefront ever managed to.
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