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The Lord of the Rings: Conquest Review

2
  • X360

Frustrating combat and a half-hearted approach to the source material drag down EA's latest Rings game.

Orcs and humans apparently have the exact same character classes.
Orcs and humans apparently have the exact same character classes.
It must be a testament to the pull of the Big Movie License that even when The Lord of the Rings: Conquest was frustrating the hell out of me, I still wanted to like it. But that would have required looking past the awkward, occasionally buggy combat, repetitive mission goals, and bland presentation. And since the game reduces its rich source material to such a bluntly generic fantasy setting, even Lord of the Rings devotees would be challenged to ignore the lackluster mechanics and appreciate the scant fan service on offer. Sadly, the game just isn't that impressive on any level.

Conquest takes most of its cues from the Star Wars: Battlefront series, which developer Pandemic was also responsible for. It offers four basic classes--warrior, archer, mage, and scout--that fill in the melee, ranged, stealth, and magic needs of any medieval fantasy army. Every capable action hero from the movies (and some less-than-capable ones) also appears as a playable character at some point, each resembling one of the four basic classes with a few specialty moves tacked on. Gandalf and Saruman hurl lightning bolts like the mage. Aragorn and the Witch King have all the warrior's moves. Frodo and Wormtongue can go invisible and stab enemies in the back, scout-style. You might recall Legolas is handy with a bow. It's familiar stuff.

All of the battles have a linear A-to-B-to-C progression of objectives taken from a few stock categories, like capture and hold, perimeter defense, destruction of stationary objects, or kill this story dude. But the missions usually degenerate into simple attrition, with both factions throwing their reinforcements against the tide of battle until one side is beaten into submission. That works fine in the sort of team-based online games Conquest is derived from, but here you have a very limited number of lives and thus a limited ability to keep hurling yourself at the enemy in a brute-force attempt to break through. Run out of lives and you play the entire mission again.

At least the bigger battles are kind of exciting, sometimes.
At least the bigger battles are kind of exciting, sometimes.
Finessing your way to victory would seem like the obvious solution. But that's a tough prospect because the combat is too clumsy and unpredictable. It seemed like no matter what class I was using, I went from full health to dead in an instant several times a mission. In some levels a fell beast or catapult load will come out of nowhere and annihilate you. Another time, deep into a mission, one of Aragorn's lengthy combo animations took him straight into a bottomless pit. Enemies can run whole combos on you when you're on the ground, sacrificing most of your health in one instant. Once, I was even killed by arrows while stuck in a canned Quick Time Event, climbing up the side of an oliphaunt. When it's working as intended, the fighting is just average, but it can get downright infuriating when it all goes wrong.

The single-player campaign is split into two halves. The "good" side, the War of the Ring, loosely follows the major conflict arc of the films, taking you to Helm's Deep, Moria, the Pelennor Fields, and the Black Gate, among others. When you finish that campaign, Pandemic takes some creative license and has Frodo succumb to the power of the One Ring. Then the forces of evil regain it and begin backtracking across all those places you visited in the first campaign, with big 12-foot-tall Sauron the Bad-Ass stomping all over the free peoples of Middle-Earth and resurrecting his lieutenants one by one--so you can play as them, of course. Nevermind that he was just a disembodied presence, barely more than an idea in the original story; evil apparently needs not only a face but a big spiked mace to get the point across here.

(I know it's a little late to mourn the watering-down of The Lord of the Rings since the movies first started that process seven years ago, but with all the generic fantasy video game trappings going on--wizards running around hurling fireballs and heal spells, Aragorn's kinship with the dead reduced to a brief special attack, even Frodo Baggins backstabbing enemies like a diminutive ninja--it's hard not to notice what a typical Dungeons & Dragons-style fantasy knock-off this game suddenly looks like.)

Sauron smash!
Sauron smash!
The one thing this game does get right is the epic scope of some of the battles. When you're out on the Pelennor Fields with siege towers and oliphaunts and hundreds of warriors shaking the ground around you, you can actually get caught up in the sort of frenzied battlefield intensity that marked the best combat sequences in the films. But then the oversize bounding box on one of those oliphaunts' tusks catches and kills you in one hit and you quickly remember: Damn, this game is annoying sometimes.

You'd expect Conquest to get better online, but adding human players doesn't alleviate the core problems with the combat; it just forces you to wield them against opponents smarter than the campaign's AI. And strangely, you lose most of that feeling of epic battle, since most of the maps remove the AI fighters and only feature the eight-versus-eight player roster--and the ones that do have any ambient action place the fighting outside of the area you can actually play in. The game offers the most basic multiplayer modes, anyway: control-point-based conquest, capture the ring, team deathmatch, and a TDM variant that only features hero characters.

Before Conquest, it had been long enough since Battle for Middle-Earth II that if you'd asked me, I might have thought EA's license for The Lord of the Rings had finally lapsed. It's still in effect, obviously, and of course I'm not privy to the exact terms of the contract--but if Conquest is indicative of the level of quality and care the company is willing to invest in LOTR-themed games, maybe it's time for them to let someone else give it a try.
Brad Shoemaker on Google+