"LotR games have been hitting the various consoles lately, and every time a GBA companion game was released as well. While The Two Towers and Return of the King got Diablo-ish hack & slash companion games on the GBA, The Third Age opts to be a tactics RPG instead; a solid choice as this kind of game works really well for the "pick up and play for a bit" attitude that often accompanies handheld gaming. While it's not the best of its kind to be released on the GBA, and it has trouble with some of t..."
LotR games have been hitting the various consoles lately, and every time a GBA companion game was released as well. While The Two Towers and Return of the King got Diablo-ish hack & slash companion games on the GBA, The Third Age opts to be a tactics RPG instead; a solid choice as this kind of game works really well for the "pick up and play for a bit" attitude that often accompanies handheld gaming. While it's not the best of its kind to be released on the GBA, and it has trouble with some of the basics, it also brings some interesting ideas to the table and has enough content to be a good addition to the game library of LotR fans.
The Third Age is set up as a loose series of battles, some directly from the movies, some loosely based on scenes that didn't come to an actual fight. You play a campaign as either the forces of good or evil, but either way you'll be fighting the same battles, just from the other perspective. Completing missions will unlock new ones, and you will gradually go through the timeline of the three movies. Each mission provides you with a set number of troops and the ability to add one or more heroes to augment them. One hero is your main character, chosen at the start of the game, and he'll be with you in all your battles; for instance, this could be Aragorn or Gandalf for the forces of good, while evil might play as Saruman or the Witch King of Angmar. Many battles allow you to use minor heroes as well, letting you call such people as Legolas or Gimli to your side. Each hero has his own set of strengths and weaknesses, and they're much what you'd expect; Legolas is deadly with his bow at ranges other units can't fire from at all, and Gimli is slow but powerful with his axe and nearly unkillable. The Witch King of Angmar stuns one enemy after another with his huge flail, or freezes entire armies in their tracks by terrorizing them, whereas Grima Wormtongue is a cowardly and pathetic creature totally unsuited to combat, but very good at pressing your armies into battle.
Each unit in the game, hero or otherwise, has a few key stats determining movement range, attack power, bow range if they have any, and hit points. For heroes, these stats can be upgraded to an extent between missions by spending experience points on equipment upgrades. There aren't very many, but it's still nice to see Aragorn's attack rating go up by buying Anduril for him, or raising max hit points with an armor upgrade. More experience points will be spent purchasing and upgrading various skills for your heroes which can be used to turn battles in your favour.
By far the most important statistic any of your heroes have is how many command points they generate, as this is the central twist of the battle engine. Each mission takes place on a battlefield divided into three flanks, and at the start of each of your turns, you get a number of command points assigned to each flank. How many you get is partially random and partially determined by which hero/heroes you have on which flank; some heroes make better leaders than others. The command points you get then determine how many units you are allowed to move on that flank. What this comes down to is that even the biggest army won't do you any good if you don't have a hero to command it; without command points, they'll just be standing there, unable to move or attack. Since there aren't any counterattacks in The Third Age, your units will be literally helpless in this case. As such, choosing your heroes wisely, and keeping them alive in battle, is central to winning most of the battles.
Your objectives are different for most missions, and the tactical challenges presented by the troops you and the enemy get, as well as these objectives, bring a lot of variety to the game. Often you will have to get units to a specific point, capture key locations, take out specific targets (such as enemy heroes), or just hold your position for a number of turns; missions in which the objective is to wipe out all enemy units are relatively rare (although you'll still win any mission by doing so). Similarly, some battles are out in the open, while others are in the cramped mazelike streets of Bree or Osgiliath. Some involve big armies and some give you only a few heroes from the Fellowship to work with. All in all, each mission feels unique, which is good; on the other hand, each mission will be the same every time you play it, since you have limited options for upgrading your heroes and the bulk of your troops will always be exactly the same.
The selection of different units is, thankfully, very high. If it was in the movies, you can expect to see it here. Before reaching the end of the game, you'll have seen several kinds of Orcs, Trolls, Saruman's Uruk Hai, Wild Men, Haradrim and the big impressive Mumakil; or, if you choose to play Mordor, you'll be facing the soldiers of Rohan and Gondor and a variety of other units ranging from helpless peasants to elite Elven swordsmen and Aragorn's Army of the Dead. And, of course, just about every major character from the movies (including all those Orc officers you never hear the names of) will make appearances throughout the game.
There are about two dozen main storyline missions in the game, plus two tutorial missions and a handful of bonus missions unlocked by finishing the game at various difficulty levels. Storywise, the mission progression forms the movies (and thus the victory of the forces of good), so if you're playing as evil the progression seems a little strange. Even after defeating the forces of good repeatedly in and around Minas Tirith, they'll still march on the Black Gate, and Aragorn will seem to have more lives than a cat after you've struck him down repeatedly in earlier engagements.
Presentation is gorgeous, as seems to be a theme with recent LotR games. The battlefields are all drawn in great detail, and movie fans will instantly recognize many of the more famous battles. Units look great on the battlefield, and especially once they attack one another; this causes an animated battle to take place between the two characters in Fire Emblem style, and the animations are breathtaking, easily some of the best I've seen on a GBA. The only issues I had with the graphics are that it's all a little dark, and that there's some noticeable and annoying slowdown in the bigger battles, mostly when scrolling. The game is accompanied by the usual LotR soundtrack, done before in console and GBA games alike, and sounds much like it always does; fitting, well executed, and varied enough to not get boring anytime soon. Sound effects complete the presentation trinity admirably; the clashing of steel and the grunts of units being struck and killed are done very well for the most part. There's just one or two cases of character voice samples that don't seem to fit them, but that kind of thing is easily forgiven again when you select Saruman and he lets out a very cool and evil chuckle.
The Third Age has plenty of replay value in the number of missions available, the selection of heroes to use and various unlockable goodies, but the actual gameplay gets a little repetitive. The battle system has little depth beyond moving up to a unit and attacking it, and using your highest damage attackers where they are needed most. No units are especially effective against other unit types, archers always have the same attack ratings for both melee and ranged attacks, and there doesn't appear to be a defense stat at all. The command point system and the concept of "blocking" (basically a zone of control construct that lets you keep important units safe by moving cannon fodder into your enemy's path) provide some depth, but other aspects could have been fleshed out a lot more. A notable problem which would have been very easy to fix is the lack of good feedback to the player; for instance, all skills cost spirit points to use, yet nowhere in the game does it say how much each skill costs, or even how many spirit points you currently have available. All you can do is make educated guesses based on how full your spirit point bar is, and only experience will give you some feeling of what some skills cost compared to others. I've lost count of how often I intended to use a skill at a certain point in the battle, then unexpectedly found I couldn't.
A definite plus is the availability of a multiplayer mode, which lets you play any of the game's missions against a friend, plus a bonus one that can only be unlocked by linking up GBAs. But linking up is not required; you *can* also play hotseat mode, taking turns at a single GBA. I personally used this only to play against myself, but it's nice to have the option. One thing that is regretfully missing is the ability to save during battle, which would be convenient for short play or battery emergencies; thankfully most missions don't last very long, so this missing feature ends up being only a little annoying.
All in all, The Third Age holds its own as a tactics RPG and brings enough interesting new things to the table to make up for a somewhat lacking story progression and limited development of your characters. It's not quite what it could have been, but well worth playing for LotR fans. If you don't count yourself among them, though, you'll likely not care much about the characters involved and much of the game's appeal may be lost on you; in that case, I recommend giving this one a miss, and looking into the new Fire Emblem instead.
Community review by sashanan (May 30, 2005)
Sashanan doesn't drink coffee; he takes tea, my dear. And sometimes writes reviews. His roots lie with the Commodore 64 he grew up with, and his gaming remains fragmented among the very old, the somewhat old, and rarely the new.
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