"One ring to rule them all "
One ring to rule them all
One ring to -
Blah blah, you know the drill. It's that freaking ring! It corrupts the hearts of men (we who desire power above all else), and people in thrall of the darn thing are always doing stupid, evil stuff. The grovelling over-reverence for said ring and the whole Lord Of The Rings saga in general oozes from every pore of The Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers, the 128-bit hack and slash videogame tie-in for the first two of Peter Jackson's Ring films.
This game sets a new record for the inclusion of 'bonus' behind-the-scenes multimedia content as it works up its lather of reverence. Everyone from the actors to the filmmakers to the special effects guys to the milkman's girlfriend goes on the record to tell you how cool it was to be involved with the project, how faithful it is to the film, how they were obsessed with doing justice to this and that, and how pleased they are that they've all been made into action figures. While they were all mutually back-slapping and waxing lyrical, I was just thinking, 'Yeah, but you all forgot that this is a game for PLAYING.'
The scope for play here is marginal. This is a deeply monotonous and unpleasantly difficult beat-em-up delivered in ultra discrete, unchanging chunks which live in perpetual fear of straying from the invisible path of the precioussss. Enemy formations are set in bedrock. Every cue happens at exactly the same moment every time you play. The camera has no interest in helping you, it's too busy making sure the game resembles the film at all times. Moments that took an hour in the film to set up emotionally are lobbed about left, right and centre in the FMVs, as if I can still be expected to care, and the gimmick of fading between the live action footage and the game engine only serves to remind of the gulf between the two.
I hate action games with unskippable cut-scenes, especially little ones that break up the action just enough to frustrate you. LOTR is rife with them. And whenever you die, there's a slow, atmospheric fade out to the flaming, roaring Eye of Sauron, which might have been great if it weren't also unskippable.
You can brave the onslaught as ranger Aragorn, elven arrowmeister Legolas, or the dwarven axeman and comic relief, Gimli. Aragorn is the best all-rounder, Legolas has the swiftness and his insane arrow-spitting rate (which makes him my favourite), while Gimli is just not fun to play at all. Technically, they all handle well in their own right - that is to say that if you stand in a clearing and deliver combos to thin air, you will have a good, graceful time - and yet... as Aragorn would say, while they may look fair, they feel foul.
In real combat situations against agile hordes of goblins, orcs and Uruk-Hai, the mechanics of this game are profoundly annoying. Basically, the characters are best suited to fighting one bad guy at a time, and in considerable detail, a situation which rolls around about as often as a solar eclipse. The monsters are absolute swarmers. They're also dark and samey, as is the beautifully depicted but grimy terrain against which it's so hard to see them, and they dodge about you like mad and en masse while the camera very rarely offers any kind of helpful view. My prevailing feeling was that I just couldn't see what I was doing, and I got pissed off at my attacks being endlessly cancelled. Whenever there's more than one enemy working on you, they tagteam to interrupt almost every single attack or drawn-out combo you care to initiate. Parrying with the B button protects you from damage, but is still pretty useless because it generally doesn't set you up for a better counterattack. Bigger enemies have so many hit points that it's truly tedious to keep working at them in a regular melee, but you've got little time to deliver the 'killing blow' move (whack R2 while standing over a knocked-down foe) because it too takes long enough to perform that it will inevitably be interrupted by a stab from some other jerk.
Trying to forget about the whole melee and combo system, I sought to have a good time using some strategy, fleet feet and Legolas' bow to fell monsters from a distance. This looks and feels just as dexterous and cool as it does in the films, but of course the game has decreed that shooting is Bad, and will mostly score you the lousier quality of kill - Fair, or sometimes Good - when what you want and need to level up faster is Excellent or Perfect. Your average kill quality determines your experience points and end rank for each mission, with the points available to be spent on buying new combos. These have evocative names like Elrond's Swift Fury, but most of them are vaguely similar in physical delivery, and it's genuinely difficult to recall the one you need in a tight spot (do I need the shield-breaking one? The hoppity-stab one? The 'explosion' one?) when all the breeds of bad guys look so darkly similar until they're only inches from your nose.
The accumulated arduousness of play sinks almost everything that could have been powerful about the game, and that's quite a feat because technically it's all so excellent. The oppressive mood of the dismal forest landscapes and godforsaken mountain paths is significantly different to that of any other beat-em-up out there. The monsters never cease to be scary, and you'll recognise and marvel at their creepy physical tics lifted verbatim from the films. The music system often pulls a cinema-worthy moment out of the bag, as you wade through a swamp for instance, and a pair of orcs burst from the murk with axes whirling like mini-tsunamis, and the string section screams alarm and your heart shudders and the hairs rise on your neck. The battle at Helm's Deep also possesses all the chaos and majesty it did in the films.
This is the great surprise of the LOTR experience. To an onlooker getting the macro view of proceedings, or indeed to a player watching the demo, LOTR's hectic combat cannot fail to look detailed and supernaturally exciting. You want to be in there living it. But once you are in there, it's shocking that it turns out to be a major struggle to have much fun at all. It's hard, monotonous work against overwhelming odds. It's a morass of samey, fiddly combos, endless attack cancelling, indistinguishable swarming enemies and a camera view obsessed with aesthetics over usefulness. With the amount of dying I did, being forced to repeatedly ride out the Eye of Sauron screens and unskippable plot-advancing dialogues became really hateful to me. When I first survived each level, it was typically with a poor rank which didn't help me earn better combos any faster, but I was so relieved just to have made it that I never took up the option to replay for an attempt at a better rank. And the only time you are allowed to replay any level with the same character is immediately after you first complete it! After that, it's locked away from your character until you've beaten the whole game.
You could switch characters at this point, but let's face it, only a bunch of stupid hobbitses would expect joy to be gained by throwing a level one Aragon into the frey that the way buff level eight Legolas has just tried and failed to complete three times in a row. Really, each character needs to play from the start, though admittedly by the time you feel up to reembarking on the quest from the drawing board, you're probably competent enough at the game for it to strike you as a whole lot less painful.
There are many great individual moments and set-pieces throughout LOTR, but they just don't add up enough to improve my overall experience of playing the game, which is one of grizzled depression. Of teeth-gnashing repetition in a grim world bolted so tightly to its own script, and the script of the films, that there is barely any room, physically or psychically, in which to catch a breath or enjoy oneself. This might be a beat-em-up, but it's almost in 'shooter on rails' territory in the linearity stakes, and the oh-so-sharp technical delivery doesn't make up for the hand-wringingly frustrating fighting mechanics. Finally, I am sick and tired of games forcing me to wait out cut-scenes unnecessarily, especially in the moments hot on the heels of my death. That is precisely when I'm likely to be most angry about it!
If you thought Sauron was one oppressive dude, try this game, then know real oppression.
Community review by bloomer (April 12, 2004)
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