Developed by Pandemic, Lord of the Rings: Conquest takes all the right ingredients and boils them down into something makes you die a little inside. After all, the makers of the Star Wars Battlefront series seem like the ideal sort to deliver a game based on epic battles that feature an assortment of uniquely talented warriors. Sadly, both the single player and multi-player components are burdened by redundant gameplay that weakens the film-driven charm of the title.
In single-player you get to relive and play through all those “big moments” from the movies. The campaign can be completed in a few hours at which point you could go back and do it all over again at a higher difficulty – if you’re a masochist. After completing the first half of the game a time-space rewind occurs and evil reigns supremely hilarious. You play an alternate – and darker – version of the tale where Sauron gets his cake and eats it too. Cast as the Witch-King you give that wide-eyed Frodo a good beating and it’s true, the destruction of man and hobbit kind is the latest and greatest in evil that Middle Earth can dish up – and the bright spot in this game. So go ahead, torch the Shire, crushing the weak friendlies that let you get your ass kicked for the past couple hours is as good as it gets.
The single player campaign will give you ample time to familiarize yourself with each of the classes and determine that only two of them are useful and that those two only require you to hold R2 and point yourself in the enemy’s direction. The Scout class sounds neat on the surface – become invisible, backstab the enemy and move on – but in practice is mostly troublesome as it is a bit tricky to dodge enemy fire while trying to get a reasonably isolated enemy to keep their back to you. The Warrior is more standard, sword-fighting fare while the Archer proves quite handy with ranged attacks. The Mage class casts lightning spells and heals (you and allies), and is most popular for the latter attribute. But oh which class is best for a given battle? No mystery there, it will be at the front of the queue when you spawn in.
At fixed points you are given the option to switch out of your rather anonymous persona and play as a hero, but there is not much different about the experience. Even as a veritable pawn in a sea of comrades the enemy will seek you out like a shark to blood and in most battles a class like Archer or Mage is preferable to pick off enemies while avoiding too much peril – because once you get hit, you get hit for a lot and your character is not very nimble about picking himself up again. It isn’t the sort of frustrating that has you yelling at your screen so much as the kind that has you shaking your head in disgust as you fight off droves of orcs only to be scooped by one of those giant dragon-bird things and whisked away to death. The sad thing? When I got dragon-bird scooped from behind I actually thought something cool was happening, but I was just getting dragon-bird ganked and thus the cardinal gaming sin of random, unpreventable death was committed.
Each class utilizes the same controls with face buttons prompting special attacks, and combos are a non-event marked only by a staggering pause while the last move finishes. Playing as an Ent, quite simply, should not have this level of suck. You are unbelievably sluggish and enemies are hard to see because you are fairly constantly on fire. Pretty mundane for playing as an anthropomorphic tree, right? Playing as a Balrog is about as screen-consumingly awesome – who knew you would never be able to see around your own fiery self? Or that Sauron could drown in ankle-deep water? It is these sorts of let-downs that lodge Conquest firmly between Potentially Great and Mediocre.
As you progress through the epic battles of Lord of the Rings film lore like the defense of Minas Tirith and Helm’s Deep, Hugo Weaving’s narrative and feature clips dot the game’s landscape. A given stage is broken into a handful of objectives tied together with the narration and movie tidbits. The segmented play keeps the game moving, but your powers do not increase or change which leaves you passing three or so hours alternately defending a gate to surviving an onslaught to picking off a slightly more powerful enemy.
With so much drawn from Peter Jackson’s successful adaptations, the game occasionally looks and sounds like a worthy homage. While the environments are a treat ripped right off the big screen the textures and lighting are bland and the camera will give you plenty of time to memorize the back of your own head. The sound is just as film-reminiscent, but paired with flat visuals and repetitive gameplay even Howard Shore’s epic score is stripped of its sense of import. In short – the cinematics are a yawn. The whole campaign is a clumsy and bleak addition to a game centered on multi-player, and buying the game for a single player experience is nothing short of a waste.
More fun is the ability to share the campaign with a friend locally or online. Glitching Saurumon into a corner and destroying him in under ten seconds from an adjacent room is really wasted if nobody gets to see it happen. The multi-player features three modes: Deathmatch, Conquest and Capture the Ring – plus a Hero Deathmatch, which is great for some laughs as you could all be running around as Gandalf. The online sixteen player battles can be engaging – provided the players involved are willing to venture outside of the same old class. Most players will, understandably, want to exploit the healing powers of the Mage which makes creating effective bands of allies with varying talents a rarity – too bad for a game based on characters with unique abilities. The Mage can heal himself and comrades, he can blast enemies from a distance or in close combat – he is versatile and powerful so why play as a lame Scout?
Even when cast as the lead, the multi-player isn’t likely to steal much of your attention. Once the giggles of a Hero Deathmatch subside – typically about half-way through the 50 kills required to end the match – you will remember a game you would rather be playing. Reasonably varied, the multi-player still suffers from the same wasting disease of repetition as the single player.
Clunky controls and redundant gameplay all point to the guilty party: mediocre game design. Fans of the films will find the title worth a weekend of gaming, but otherwise Conquest is skippable. A game with playable trees, trolls, archers and wizards just shouldn’t be this underachieving.