Lord of the Rings: Conquest PS3, Xbox 360
EA have been on their best behaviour recently. No longer the evil, faceless corporation, hated by the “hardcore” gamer for their rushed annual updates, they’ve been responsible for some cracking new titles over the last twelve months. Mirror’s Edge, Dead Space and the awesome Skate 2 are just a few that spring to mind. Even the usual yearly sports releases have vastly improved, with FIFA 09 being a particular standout. There hasn’t even been their usual glut of licensed tat anywhere to be seen. However, with creators of the excellent Star Wars: Battlefront games – Pandemic – trying their hand at one of EA’s biggest license acquisitions, will the recent golden touch continue?
On paper, it is a grand idea. Taking Pandemic’s tried and tested Star Wars: Battlefront gameplay and transplanting it wholesale from a galaxy far, far away to Tolkien’s Middle Earth, full of legendary heroes, gigantic beasts and even bigger battles, seemed like a perfect match. For those unfamiliar with the Battlefront games, they were large scale team-based multiplayer affairs, set within famous skirmishes from the Star Wars universe. A loyal online community flourished around the balanced gameplay and faithfully recreated Star Wars setting, meaning its popularity outlived the consoles it first appeared on (and with Battlefront 2 being a fixture on the top games played online on the 360 for a while). With the original developers at the helm, backed by EA’s total access to the assets of Peter Jackson’s films, from likenesses to the epic soundtrack, the only way Lord of the Rings: Conquest could fail is if it turned out to be a dull, buggy mess…
From the beginning, the signs are promising. The presentation is top notch, utilizing Howard Shore’s award winning score and scenes from the movie trilogy to set the scene. All of this is destroyed when you actually cast your eyes on the in-game graphics, which look decidedly last-gen – blurry textures and poor models combine to make a dull looking game. For some reason, Pandemic seemed to think taking some of the most visually arresting movies from the last ten years and making the game equivalent look like it has been passed through a trough of brown Vaseline was a good idea. It is a real disappointment, but as we all know, graphics aren’t everything.
Gameplay wise, everything is business as usual. You’ve got your two sides each with four classes to choose from – warrior, mage, scout and archer, all of which fulfill the usual video game stereotype (warriors being strong but slow, scouts being fast but weak etc) and teamwork is key to becoming a victorious team. Online multiplayer is the focus here, as it is prioritized in the start menu, allowing two teams of sixteen to do battle. As usual, capturing points is the name of the game, scoring points for your team as you do. The matches are played to a score or time limit, so death is only a minor penalty, before you get back into the fray. You’ve also got the obligatory Capture the Flag mode (cleverly re-titled “Capture the Ring”), as well as variations on basic Team Deathmatch, but the underlying problem with all of them is that it is just a bit boring. Attacks feel unresponsive and lacking in any sense of impact. Kills feel unrewarding and death, in some modes, doesn’t hinder you like it does in other online games. Vehicular combat is limited to Wargs and Horses, and other than getting you from A to B a little bit quicker, is so clunky you’ll end up getting very dead, very quickly. Playing as the forces of good, defending Helm’s Deep from Sauron’s orc army should not, at any point, feel anything less than epic, or any other superlative I’ve used to describe the battles so far in this review.
The single player doesn’t really fare much better. More objective based missions offer a bit more variety than the multiplayer modes, but they are hampered due to two big, fat hairy flaws – poor A.I and, a personal pet hate in video games, “lone soldier syndrome”. When playing online, all the different classes working in harmony with one another, each working to each others strengths and weaknesses will guarantee victory. From what I gathered, your computer controlled teammates in the solo campaign do NOTHING to help you. You can’t ask them to heal you, send them to attack an objective or even just give you some support. They just dart around the maps getting into fights with the other team and very little else. In one particularly frustrating moment, I was told to attack an enemy structure to progress the mission. In order to get to this, my army had to pass over a bridge, causing a huge bottleneck of WAR. So, as a mage I began to lay down some hefty support fire with my magic attacks, all the while using my shield bubble to protect my men from arrows and projectiles. Did they advance towards the target on their own accord? Did they balls. In the end, I just picked a warrior class and tore my way towards the target, Dynasty Warriors style, while the two armies aimlessly slashed at one another. Awful.
The ability to play up to four player Co op through the solo campaign does fix this, somewhat, giving you the opportunity to at least have a few members of your team being actually useful. The poor enemy A.I does mean that a well organized attack with a human teammate will make short work of almost everything the game will throw at you. Hell, me and my incompetent housemate finished almost the entire game in one sitting, maybe having to retry two or three levels at the very most on our way through. Get used to having to do the odd retry, though. Not because the game is difficult – far from it – but because of the various ridiculous game-breaking situations that Conquest throws up from time to time. Killing a boss enemy to retrieve a key from him, only to knock him into the ravine from the rocky walkway you fight him on. The key spawns IN THE RAVINE, which is an instant death drop. Restart. Then there are goals where you have to kill certain enemies to proceed, only for one or two of them to get stuck or lost in areas of the map’s geometry where you have no way of getting to them, never mind killing them. Restart again.
Some positives? Like pretty much every game on the planet, cooperative play is always entertaining and that is no different here. Hacking your way through Jackson’s take on Middle Earth can be, at times, some simple fun. Much like Battlefront, you will get the chance to play as a “hero” class once in a while. Essentially just powered up versions of the four normal classes, but carving through legions of orcs as Legolas or Aragorn is a thrill even if you have just a passing interest in the books or films, especially when combined with the authentic movie presentation. Also, the much talked about evil campaign is, from a story perspective, quite wonderful. It is a “What If…” tale, where instead of chucking the one ring into the fires of Mount Doom, Frodo instead decides to keep it for himself, eventually leading to Sauron’s return and the destruction of Middle Earth. Using clips from the movies, cleverly edited together with a new voice-over by Hugo Weaving to tell a completely different tale, it is a refreshingly brutal and original use of a licensed IP, rather than the usual toss that is recreating a few crucial scenes from a movie and throwing in some unrelated fight scenes that plague most others.
Right now, things must be pretty bleak over at Pandemic. Mercenaries 2 was fun for a while, but the quality of the original game couldn’t quite outshine the ugly, buggy mess that made up the majority of the sequel. Their other work-in-progress, the almost guaranteed to be lucrative Dark Knight movie tie-in, was canned by EA for being, supposedly, poor quality. Now this, what should’ve been a sure-fire success in Lord of the Rings: Conquest, turns out to be something hard to recommend to even the biggest Tolkien geeks on the planet. How the developer of Star Wars: Battlefront and the publishers of the Battlefield series let this one out the door in this state I will never understand.