"Unlike the version hoarded across the XBox, PS2 and Gamecube (which got the odd third party title by what I assume was someone’s mistake), the GBA Third Age is content to take its material straight from the source. It doesn't steal mechanics from well-known Square games, it doesn't cock-slap the canon. It simply exists in the shadow of a lesser game, probably feeling very bitter and upset about the entire thing."
I feel for my hairy sidekick and HG nerd-girl, Viridian Moon at times; the poor lass can hardly venture outside her front door without children accosting her, poking her with sticks and asking if she's a hobbit. Personally, I blame the yeti-like coat of fur adorning her freakishly large feet and her inability to out-grow a gnome, but her excuse lies in the raging popularity of J.R.R Tolkien's fantasy epic. It's an excuse with merit.
Blame Tolkien for writing such a landmark title; blame Jackson for turning the trilogy into a fantastic trio of films; blame EA for pimping the franchise out long after its died.
It's in EA, perhaps, she might find the perfect villain. Here is an evil presence feared by all of internetdom; a darkened essence famed for its unrivalled ability to milk franchises into the ground. Once it weaved its Cthulhu-like tendrils around the Lord of the Rings, the marketplace put on its water-wings and prepared for a flooding.
With the dam broken, each film was greeted with a multi-platform licensed game, each full of the hacking and slashing of all things orkish. Any other developer would have the problem of what to do when, post-movies, they still had a red-hot franchise on their hands, but not our friends at EA. This simply gave them the excuse to make shit up and try to shoehorn it into the pre-existing plot. They wrote The Third Age.
They did this very carefully. In fear of the countless fans who would wage bloody war should Tolkien's canon be trampled, The Third Age plays it so safe it never crosses the road without parental supervision. Each and every character the game showcases is nothing but a shallow swap-out of the original cast mixed in with a smattering of cliché overkill. Legolas is swapped out with a ranger; Gandalf with a spell-slinging elf and Gimli with a, well, they didn't even bother to disguise Gimli's stand-in. He's still a rowdy dwarf with a mace instead of an axe. You had to overlook a lot to enjoy the game -- least of all the fact EA had shamelessly pinched FFX's entire battle system and the entire plot was having their new cast of strangely familiar misfits follow in the exact footprints of the original party.
This is the 'hi-gen' version most of you all have at least a passing knowledge about. Despite talking about it for several paragraphs, it's not the game I'm going to review. I've just been wasting my time and yours. We're here to talk its oft-ignored brethren: the handheld title.
Unlike the version hoarded across the XBox, PS2 and Gamecube (which got the odd third party title by what I assume was someone’s mistake), the GBA Third Age is content to take its material straight from the source. It doesn't steal mechanics from well-known Square games, it doesn't cock-slap the canon. It simply exists in the shadow of a lesser game, probably feeling very bitter and upset about the entire thing.
It even spans its plot across the entire trilogy and offers you the chance to play on either side of the fence, though this reuses the same battlefields and reverses your control on the forces. Instead of being action-oriented or an RPG full of borrowed concepts, what we’re left with is an original little turn-based strategy with some clever new ideas.
Such as the leader system. Right at the beginning of each campaign, you have to tie yourself down to one of the stronger characters in the story to serve as your leader throughout. The cast to choose from is deeper than you would imagine, throwing in the obvious choices like Gandalf, Aragorn, Sarumon, but also mixing in some of the lesser known commanders, such as Elrond and the Witch King. Choices here are important, as it sets the base of your tactics; relying on the brute strength of Aragorn or the Witch King will have you needing to place them in the front lines to make them most effective, putting them at the greatest risk, while Sarumon can hang back and let fly with magical blasts. Keeping your commanders alive is vital for success, and mowing down your opposition's captains is as high a priority as protecting your own. Command Points are the biggest reason behind this.
Depending on your captain’s leadership skills, each commander takes responsibility for the actions of the troops underneath them, and these are illustrated in Command Points. Battlefields are broken into three differing flanks, each of then inhabited by differing flavours of support troops and, the points siphoned from commanders are what allows you to move them. This means that if you slap Elrond on the left flank which is flooded with seven archers and he can only offer between 1 and 3 turns per go, then you’re going to have to think very carefully over who takes their turns and who stays put.
It would be unfair to ask one commander to overlook all three flanks though, so, more often than not, you’ll be asked to pick a number of sub-commanders to take control of those troops beyond your reach. Here, you’ll have to make use of people such as doomed Gondor warrior, Boromir, shield-maiden Eormir, tainted minister, Wormtongue and some of the bigger goblins and orks who have names you didn’t know about. Each of these secondary heroes carry unique traits to make them stand out; Legolas has an amazing range on his bow, letting him snipe at enemies who can only shake an arrow-ridden fist back in defiance, while goblin Warg-rider, Sharku, can charge forward on his slavering steed, score a solid hit, then scurry back to his lines, out of range again.
The more you use a leader, the stronger they will grow. Slaughtering those that oppose you gives you experience points that you can spend on buffing your characters up or purchasing consumable items that have a wide range of effects from healing your general to giving them a multi-strike attack. My champion of light, Elrond, can learn a Hold Fast skill, which can heal all the units on his flank, as well as traits that improve his archery skill, boost his defensive abilities and improve his leadership and bestow more command points to certain turns. Sub commanders only have the one individualistic purchasable skill rather than their captain's choice of three, giving units such as Legolas a sweep attack which can be levelled to strike as many as four targets in a single go. Skills are shared in some aspects, but are cleverly suited to the character. The Witch King has a skill that makes him unslayable for a single turn unless the killing blow is delivered by an opposition hero; Aragorn has a skill that allows him to summon his army of the dead to sweep across a single flank; Wormtongue can demoralise units with his wormy tongue-like skills. No champion is the same.
If you don’t want to spend your experience on skills, you can spend them on armour and weapon upgrades. Buy Wormtongue a vial of poison, giving his first attack a +5 buff, or purchase Boromir his Horn of Gondor, allowing him to demoralise enemy units and improve ally defence. You can buy whetstones to grant permanent improvements on attack stats, new armour to make your units more hardy and character-specific artefacts that can do anything from making special attacks more potent to increasing leadership skills.
EA have no choice but to plead “guilty” to any charges of necrophilia on numerous licenses, but, in crow-barring the lid off this particular coffin, they can’t be accused of undue care. It’s not just another Lord of the Rings game; it would have been easy to just downplay the other Third Age title and shoehorn it on to the handheld, but they didn’t. It’s not just another strategy; a genuinely clever way to place a dire priority on eliminating the opposition's captains while jealously defending your own has been implemented right at the base of the game. One only highlighted by a surprisingly deep RPG levelling system. There are enough missions to keep you playing for months and, rather than act like the bastard lovechild of Tolkien’s much-loved efforts, it works more like a faithful companion, taking vital chunks of the story and recreating them into tense battles with oft-changing priorities and sub-missions. It’s the best Middle Earth game you’ll never play.
In a way, it makes you feel sorry for EA. They tried here, they really did, and while the majority of the attention was always going to be shone on the console version, this was one release that deserved more of a look-in. There’s not much wrong with this title, and it shows that our chums at Electronic Arts can show a little respect with any of their zillion franchises, but it’s hidden in the cellar like an unwanted stepchild. Where the world's most hated developer perhaps deserves a little bit of credit, all they’re going to get is an angry girl blaming them for her hairy feet.
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