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Submitted by Jon Wilcox on November 5 2004 - 12:45

TVG bands together to battle through EA’s long-awaited Lord of the Rings RPG…

When it was announced about three years ago that EA would be releasing games based on Peter Jacksonâ??s films, a lot of people expected the titles to be RPGs that would allow them to explore the various lands and environments of Middle-Earth whilst playing as Gandalf, Aragorn, or any of the members of the Fellowship - and it did upset certain fans when it was confirmed that the videogame releases would in actual fact be action/adventure titles.

To coincide with the cinematic releases of the second and third instalments of the trilogy, EA released The Two Towers in 2002, and The Return of the King in 2003, with both titles proving to be favourites amongst LOTR fans and gamers alike; but with no more Rings films left to be released (unless of course Jackson manages to make The Hobbit), EA were left with the problem of trying to create more games based on the already released trilogy. After much brainstorming, the software giant is finally releasing two titles based on the films â?“ Battle for Middle-Earth, and The Third Age.

LOTR: The Third Age is a departure for Electronic Arts, since the title is a Role-Playing Game; something for which EA arenâ??t exactly best known for producing, and it will come as no surprise to discover that The Third Age takes place at the end of the Third Age of Middle-Earth; a time depicted in the films and of course, the novel.

The story of Lord of the Rings is very much loved by millions around the globe, and has been since The Fellowship of the Ring first went to print in the early to mid-1950s, and there are some who have explored every last detail of Middle-Earth lore so fastidiously, that they would defend it to the death if changes were even rumoured to have been made â?“ something that Peter Jackson encountered at certain times during the epic production process for the film adaptations, but thatâ??s a another storyâ?¦

What we are trying to get across is that for some, altering the story is the equivalent of someone amending a great religious text (granted that this has happened historically, but that again is another story).

So it must have been something of a shock, to say the least, for certain ardent fans of the story when the news was released confirming that The Third Age would in fact follow the exploits of characters not even created by Tolkien himself. Whilst the game follows a band of individuals from across the Free Peoples of Middle-Earth as they make their way through the various environments featured in the book and films, including the Mines of Moria, these individuals have all been developed by Electronic Arts for the game. This may be, for the most part, attributed to the fact that VU have the rights to develop games based on the novel, whilst EA have the rights to produce games based on the films, and now that there are no more films to be released, EA have taken it upon themselves to look at the material at their disposal and â??look outside the box.â?

The fact that EA have taken the time and effort to develop a band of characters in an attempt to tell the events of the Third Age (as depicted in the films) from a different angle is bi-polar, being both admirable and sacrilegious, and ultimately the move may end up alienating the very fans that EA are trying to woo.

One of the main characters in what we like to call the â??EA Fellowshipâ? is a Gondorian called Berethor, who has been sent to the Elven stronghold of Rivendell to discover the whereabouts of Boromir, the Steward of Gondorâ??s eldest son who left Minas Tirith for Rivendell to attend the Council of Elrond many months ago. Along the way though, he encounters other travellers and together they fight their way through the waves of Orcs and Nazgul sent by Sauron â?“ and so begins the formation of the EA Fellowshipâ?¦

As the game progresses, players will find that their journey is intersects with various events from the film, and will have the opportunity to fight alongside LOTR characters including Aragorn and Legolas. At times, players are even able to fight as the main Rings characters, at least temporarily, so for gamers disappointed with the EA Fellowship, at least there is some consolation in that.

One of the innovations that EA have added to the game is the Evil Mode, which allows players to re-visit previous chapters as Orcs and Uruk-Kai with the aim of slaying the characters of the EA Fellowship, and some of the actual main characters form the Rings trilogy. The fun that players can have with this mode is obvious, and the mode has the added bonus that some of the weapons used by Sauronâ??s forces can be then given to the good characters to fight with. Itâ??s a neat touch that EA has included in the game that does guarantee that the longevity of the title is increased by a certain degree.

Graphically, The Third Age is very similar in style and quality to the two previous LOTR games that EA have released, more so the Return of the King. They certainly do the job, and some of the locations that have been replicated from the film, such as the Mines, look epic in scale. Some of the more â??originalâ?? environments though, do suffer in comparison and really only slight above average looking.

The characters featured in the game all look good, so much so, that physical similarities can be drawn between them and actual member of the Fellowship. For instance, Berethor bares a distinct resemblance to Boromir â?“ and that is not the only occurrence.

The game utilises turn-based battles, which in light of recently released â??action RPGsâ? such as Sudeki or Fable, may seem slow and clunky, but it does some how work here not least because if the game followed the action RPG style of battle, EA may have been criticised for making another action/adventure LOTR game with an RPG element tacked onto it.

Although the characters only have a limited number of moves at the beginning, they have the ability to â??learnâ?? more as the game progresses, with some of the attacks being very visually impressive indeed, with the most impressive if these being the Perfect Mode attacks. Players unlock these attacks after filling up their Perfect Mode Gauge, and they are quite literally devastating, with players able to unleash a hail of arrows from an entire army of archers, to call upon one of the Ents (the walking trees from Two Towers for non-Tolkienites) for assistance. When these attacks are launched, enemies essentially have little or no chance of surviving, and are very soon obliterated.

One of the most, if not THE most impressive, elements in The Third Age is the RPG attribute system, which is very detailed and allows players to take control of a large variety of character traits and skills from the clothing that they wear, the weapons and defensive implements that they use, to the choice of skills and techniques that they can learn over time; in fact it may be just a little too detailed for some people, especially if players are new to the RPG genre. The system can be quite over-whelming, but RPG fans are sure to grasp it with both hands and explore the best way in which to create the more effective skill sets for each of the characters. Items such as Lambas Bread help to re-fill the charactersâ?? life bars, and these can be found, as well as other treasures such as improved armour, in chests that are scattered throughout the game.

One of the ideas that Electronic Arts has used in the game is to use short video clips from the films, which provide the player with the background to the events that have occurred during the Third Age of Middle-Earth. For instance, after players first encounter Idrial, a She-Elf from Lothlorien and follower of Galadriel, a new â??Story Orbâ?? is opened up, which explores the late history of the elves, and how their fight against evil is destined to end in defeat, and how they have started their departure from Middle-Earth. Whilst it can be claimed that the addition of the story orbs is nothing but a ploy by EA to tenuously link the game to the film, it is more of a device to place the events that occur in The Third Age in context with the â??main eventsâ?? of the Lord of the Rings, and we think that itâ??s a good idea that is put to very good use.

As youâ??d expect from The Third Age, segments of Howard Shoreâ??s score from Peter Jacksonâ??s films are included throughout, and once again, they serve to create the relevant mood and atmosphere that worked so well in EAâ??s previous LOTR games. They also help the player become immersed in the world of Middle-Earth, and also help secure the link between the events of the game with the events of the films.

The cast from the films were back in the sound booths once again to portray the characters that dominated their lives for the past few years, and they have been joined by a host of others, who do an admirable job of providing the voices for the EA Fellowship, as well as some of the other characters. But the most notable alumni from the LOTR trilogy is Sir Ian McKellen, who also provides the narration for the story orbs that we have previously mentioned.

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  • Graphics: 83%
     
  • Sound: 89%
     
  • Gameplay: 85%
     
  • Originality: 81%
     
  • Longevity: 73%
     
Overall Score: 7/10
When we first started playing The Third Age, we were slightly disappointed by it, and we did find it slow and clunky, however, as we progressed through the game we did warm to it, especially when some of the depth that the game has, such as the highly detailed attribute system, developed. Whether the fact that the game follows a group individual, and not the actual Fellowship of the Ring, will put off fans of Rings is something that we will have to wait and see. There is no doubt that there will be fans who love the book and the films, and will be curious to explore this tangent that EA has created; whilst there will definitely be some in uproar that the almost Holy texts of Tolkien have been indirectly ‘tampered’ with. This is not the best RPG title to be released this year by a long shot, but for those who wish to get into the world of Middle-Earth, The Third Age will satisfy some of the desire to become immersed in the story to a deeper level than the previous LOTR titles allowed – and to those gamers who are completely disheartened by this release, then don’t worry, because EA will be releasing The Battle for Middle-Earth very soon on the PC.

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