Movie licensed games are like hot dogs; absolutely fucking disgusting and probably lethal if you have more than two or three per year, but somehow they still sell enough that the industry thrives like cockroaches. And yes, in spite of my declared hatred toward them, a quick glance through the menu to the right reveals that I do, occasionally, indulge in these games myself (notably unlike hot dogs). So clearly, you can swallow gold dust and shit out something sparkly enough to catch my attention, but I’ve stepped in enough piles by now that it takes an exceptionally shiny dump to get me past the smell. Clearly I’m writing about a Lord of the Rings licensed game today, so something must have gotten me to stifle my gag reflex. Whatever could have inspired that, you ask? Turning the game into an RPG. But much like a Tide Pod, it turns out that swallowing a tasty-looking package might leave you with horrible, life-threatening internal chemical burns.
So if the thought of liquefying your organs hasn’t dissuaded you from playing Lord of the Rings: The Third Age, let me explain the story, which as best I can describe, is the J.R.R. Tolkien equivalent to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Except with out the witty dialogue. Or compelling storyline. Or philosophical overtones. In fact, it’s less like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and more like you’re playing as Gandalf’s cleanup crew. The action opens just after the Council of Elrond names the members of the Fellowship of the Ring—not in the same place, of course. God forbid you have any outcome on the plot. After Gandalf gets a commitment out of the Fellowship and puts a ring on them, he immediately starts two-timing the party for Berethor, errant knight of Gondor, contacting him psychically, telling him to follow the Fellowship so the wizard might meet him on the side. And while he entrusts Frodo with no more than a single quest—save Middle Earth and the world of men from magical enslavement by destroying the final vestige of the Lieutenant of the evil god Morgoth—Berethor gets countless tasks such as “kill three wargs,” “find a dwarf,” “rescue five elves from Uruks.” Clearly, we know who the important party is here. Especially when Gandalf faces the balrog, the foe beyond the abilities of any of the indispensable fellowship, he beckons Berethor and company to stand beside him in slaying—and getting slain by—the ancient evil.
At the very least, Berethor and his lower-case-f fellowship are like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in that they’re completely expendable and inconsequential to the main story. But Berethor doesn’t even seem to have a story of his own. The game forgoes traditional character conflict and development in exchange for Gandalf filling Berethor’s head with bad student films cut from the original film and dubbed with his own Tolkien-esque voice overs. Dude, even Michael Bay shows more generic diversity than you. If you’re going to do 108 short films, why not throw in a cut from Star Wars or Pulp Fiction or something? Or better yet, explain why the hell we care about the characters we’re playing as. If Frodo manages to get to Mt. Doom without his help, is there some reason to focus on Berethor? Was he pulling strings behind the scene? Did he struggle to find his purpose in a world torn by inter-species war? Did he adventure with the Eagles to the edge of Middle Earth to keep Voldemort from teaming up with Palpatine and George W Bush in order to invade the Shire while the hobbits were away? Nope. In fact, he seems to change tasks, warping from place to place like Doctor Who in Middle Earth.
It turns out there’s a reason the story sucks more than a battle between a hoover and truck stop whore, as EA Games did not hold the legal rights to use anything from Tolkien’s books that were not explicitly part of the films. And since fans’ idea of “enforcing the canon” means they feel that any deviation from the story means they get to shoot you with a canon, this story was received about as well as a gay nephew coming out at an Alabama Thanksgiving dinner. But hey, lousy stories can easily be overcome by good gameplay, right? Spoiler alert: not in this case.
For a company so worried about copyright infringement that they’d crap out a story like this, it’s surprising that they lifted the battle system so blatantly from Final Fantasy X that it’s a wonder they didn’t name the characters Yunalas, Kimharimir, Gimlulu and Wakkagorn. On the surface, I’m fine with that. Final Fantasy X was an awesome game and the combat was part of the reason for that. But while battles in FFX were fast-paced and zippy, Third Age animations are reminiscent of yoga instructors on Ambien. Characters are sluggish, skill points are awarded like birthday money from your grandma who hasn’t adjusted for inflation since 1953, and attacks connect with the striking accuracy of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra keeping time using an incoming Morse code signal.
And…that’s it. That’s all there is to the game. There are no towns. No NPCs to talk to. No shops to buy items or equipment. I’d say there are no safe zones at all, but the game has a method for random encounters that feels like you can’t bribe enemies to attack you if you waved a raw, juicy shank of man flesh under their noses. So the game gives you a series of disjointed locales with the occasional story battle that takes place in a pool of clam chowder. The lack of shops means treasure chests inundate you with basic healing items, but since leveling up and saving both restore full HP and AP, you end up with a backpack full of lembas bread in full fungal bloom. There’s also a crafting system wherein you can make items—but only in battle. Personally, I’d like to tell my dwarf that facing down a hoard of murderous Uruk-hai may not be the best time to knead your dough and wait for the loaf to rise, but the game tells me I have to bake 125 loaves of lembas bread in order to gain the eloquently named “elf medicine,” then I’m just going to have to take out Saruman’s hoards with delicious bread smells. I haven’t been this bored since role-playing as the merchant in Dragon Quest IV. But maybe that’s it…maybe The Third Age wants you to role-play as a baker. God knows that’s exactly why I’ve always wanted to live in Middle Earth.