The Lord of The Rings Game I Have Been Waiting For
Let me start this review by stating that I am in no way a Lord of the Rings fanboy. Though I do love the world of Middle-Earth and I am one of those people who is a sucker for swords n' sorcery RPG games. I will do my best to look at the game's strengths and flaws in an objective manner regardless. The review will be structured as follows: Story, Gameplay, Visuals and Audio.
The story is meant to run parallel to the story of the original Lord of the Rings books/movies but it is wholly unrelated to them. As one is led to believe, there is a war in the northern territories of Middle-Earth and you are placed in the role of one of three heroes. The first hero is a Dwarf called Farin (warrior class), a Human called Eradan (ranger class) and an Elf called Andriel (mage class). There really is not much to say about their respective backgrounds because not much is revealed about them. Regardless of your character choice your chosen character will start his/her story in the town of Bree. There you will talk to the rugged and shifty eyed Aragorn who gives you your first quest, which is to provide a distraction for him. Essentially, you will come in contact with many of the heroes/characters from the original Lord of the Rings stories as you progress throughout the 9-12 hour campaign. In addition to familiar faces such as Arwen, Aragorn, Gimli and Frodo you will also come in contact with new characters such as a Dragon, talking eagles, a talking spider (yeah, a talking spider!), two dwarf brothers and two elf brothers (this game seems to have a fixation with brothers). I will admit, the character you choose to play as does not have much of a personality, although you may customize him/her at any point throughout the game by going to designated points within the "base" towns (such as the customization area in the Bree tavern). Your main goal throughout the story is to defeat Agandaur, who is Sauron's "right hand man" in the North. All three characters are present regardless of your choice at all times (in combat, in cutscenes etc) although the character you choose is the one who initiates the dialogue (there are dialogue trees but your choice of dialogue does not have much of an impact on anything).
Overall the combat feels visceral and gratifying. If you're looking for a game where you can lop the limbs off of goblins and orcs then this is the game for you. There isn't much strategy involved in the combat but I'm not sure who would purchase an Action RPG game looking for intellectual stimulation. You will run through level after level encountering groups of different enemies (such as giant orcs with shields, orc mages (when did they get smart enough to use magic?) and spiders (these come in both the little bastard and big bastard variety)) and dispatching them by hacking off their heads, arms and legs (although you cannot remove the limbs from the spiders, sorry arachnophobes) and watching the resulting fountain of black ichor spew forth (everything bleeds black except for your character). Though some game review sites have found the combat redundant, I cannot say that I have and I have played through the game three separate times. How can one not enjoy brutally hacking an orc's head off in slow-motion? This gory aspect is what separates this game from the pantheon of other Lord of the Rings games. There are critical hits involved in the combat, combos and finishing moves that can be triggered by simply tapping the "Y" button when there is a yellow icon over an enemy's head. There truly is nothing more satisfying then taking down a troll by ramming your weapon into its head and watching it "fart" out loot. (yeah that is an immature comparison but that is what it looks like, loot "pops" out of the troll's body). This leads me to another aspect, the loot. There is a good amount of loot to be found throughout the game, be it in chests, spouting from the bodies of defeated enemies, in piles of rubbish down a side path, in barrels, rewards for side quests and in shops. You can also find herbs to combine to create potions if you're a mage.
In addition to the main story line there are a few side-quests scattered throughout the game world. These additional side missions are few and far between (maybe 2-4 per town) and depending on the quest. Sometimes you get great rewards (5000% degradation reduction and added stats) or crappy rewards (50 gold). The great rewards surpass the crappy ones, which is nice and the great rewards add an incentive to actually do the quests to see whether you get an eye poppingly awesome weapon/armor modification or a negligible amount of gold from an ungrateful NPC.
Your weapons/armor/amulets/rings have stats and you can find better weapons etc through shops that can be found throughout the missions or you have the option (through the "in mission" shops) to travel back to the "base" town in order to check out the shops, sell your goods and repair your weapons (your weapons and armor degrade over time and must be repaired by a blacksmith, who can be found in "base" towns). The weapons can also cause additional fire damage, ice damage, shock damage, stun, deep wound damage and more. You can modify your weapons and armor (if they have slots) with Elf Stones.
The one significant difference between the basic play style (excluding skills) of the three characters is the type of weapons they can use. The Dwarf is the little tank/damage dealer that can use two handed weapons or a sword and shield for melee combat and a crossbow for ranged combat. The Human can dual wield and use two-handed weapons (as far as I know, I haven't played through the game as this class yet) and a bow and the Elf uses magic for ranged attacks and can dual wield (with a stave and 1 handed weapon). Regardless of your character type you can rush into combat head-on and generally come out only moderately bruised (yay health potions!).
There is a level cap (40) and this is reached through, you guessed it, dispatching hoards of foes. When your character levels up, you can level up their abilities (Strength, Will, Stamina (or HP) and Dexterity) and you get a skill point (generous system) to put into one of three skill trees that are character specific. Leveling up to max level requires one to play through the game on all three of the difficulty settings, the higher the difficulty the harder the enemies will be to dispatch. Regardless of this, at no point throughout your second or third playthrough will you find yourself overwhelmed by the difficulty.
Skills are activated through a combination of either the Right or Left Trigger and one of the letter buttons (such as LT+B, RT+Y and so on). There are also "ranged" skills which can be activated through either the Right Bumper or Left Bumper and a letter button (LB +Y and so on). The skills look great, especially the mage skills and certain skills, when initiated at the right time, can be battle changing. Imagine being gang raped by a group of orcs then suddenly blowing them away or into chunks. That is the kind of joy you will get from some of the mage skills (as you can tell I played primarily as a mage). When you use a skill you use up some of your "power"(mana), which can be replenished through either regeneration (slow) or through power potions.
Visually, sometimes this game doesn't shine very well. If you come to this game expecting gorgeous facial animations like the kind found in LA Noire or other Triple A titles you may be disappointed. That being said, the world looks nice, though not dazzlingly beautiful. Rivendell stands out in my mind as having a great view in particular though. Throughout the game you will come across a plethora of different environments, from dense woods to misty barrows, all of which look fairly good. I did not notice any sub-par texturing or lackluster character modeling. Keep in mind that even though I am praising the visuals, this is no Gears of War 3 or Battlefield 3, so do not expect to be jaw droppingly awed by anything visual in this game. It looks good, but it is by no means on the same level as some other titles out there. Regardless of this, you can expect to see some really great looking environments and some good character models (especially the dragon and the eagles).
The voice acting in spots is somewhat mediocre but overall I have no complaints about it. I will say that I particularly enjoyed the deep booming voice that was used for the Dragon. The clash of weapons sounds nice, the sound track is great and epic sounding (although sometimes epic music is playing when you're doing nothing but running through an area, which is not so epic) and the squelch as you lop off a head/limb is gruesomely pleasing.
There is also online play but I cannot say anything about it because I have not been able to find a game. Curse you Triple A titles..curse you..
Although, if you have a friend at your disposal you can play co-op offline. I can say with confidence and from first hand experience that this is/was a blast!
Overall, if you're looking for a fun Hack N Slash Action RPG to fill up some time while you eagerly bite your nails counting down the days until Skyrim is released then you will find that this game is a fun, enjoyable and pleasingly gruesome romp through the world of Lord of the Rings.
In conclusion, I give this game 4 orc heads out of 5.