VIDEO: The trailer for Lord of the Rings: Conquest
When New Line Cinema released the first film in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings adaptation, the sentiment among fantasy fans worldwide was: "Please, please don't mess this up." But from the opening scene, an epic battle at the base of Mount Doom, you could almost feel the weight of millions of geeks' collective worry vanishing into the æther. I had the opposite sensation upon booting up Lord of the Rings: Conquest, the new video game that aims to let players participate in all the major battles in the Lord of the Rings canon. First, panic — "This can't possibly be this awful, can it?" — and then the sinking realization that, yes, Conquest really is that bad.
|Lord of the Rings: Conquest | for Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 | Rated T for Teen | Developed by Pandemic Studios | Published by Electronic Arts|
It's not that the game was ill-conceived from the start. The developer, Pandemic Studios, had been responsible for the well-received Star Wars: Battlefront duo, which mined similar territory within that fictional universe. I didn't play either of them, but given their healthy Metacritic scores and robust sales, Pandemic must have done something right. That makes it even harder to figure out what went wrong here. Lord of the Rings: Conquest botches so many rudimentary elements that I found it a trial to stay interested long enough to complete a single level.
The combination of sluggish controls and a terrible game camera is deadly. The battles are huge in scope, attempting to re-create the scale of some of the movies' most memorable moments. But the camera is locked in closely on your character and doesn't focus on immediate threats. For the most part, you have to control it manually, and your character is apt to be hit by some unseen foe behind him as you spin the camera around trying to figure out what's happening. The sweep of Jackson's carefully orchestrated battle scenes is replaced, in the video-game version, by an incomprehensible mess. In on-line multiplayer modes, especially, epic battles devolve into people chasing one another in circles, Benny Hill–style.
Basic combat is a button-mashing affair with a few combos, but since you can't lock onto a specific opponent, you'll find yourself flailing into empty space while Orcs hurl things at you from off screen. You can choose to play as one of four classes of character: the Warrior is your basic brawler; the Mage can heal allies and generate a magical shield; the Scout can turn invisible and assassinate foes; the Archer is a long-range threat. It's interesting enough to experiment with the different tactics each class offers, but it would have been better to have just one class that was truly fun to play instead of four that are pretty weak. On-line play is the only place it really matters which class you pick, but good luck trying to coordinate with a team of random strangers.
Conquest also showcases one of the more annoying design decisions in recent memory, a disembodied voice that shouts at you in an obnoxious, nonstop monotone about what's happening. The voice changes depending upon the species of your character: as a human, you hear a terrible American attempt at an English accent, but if you commandeer an Ent, you hear the sweet sounds of a marble-mouthed old tree with logorrhea. So is your character doing the talking? Unlikely, since he's constantly saying things he would have no way of knowing. It's bewildering, and maddening. The only respite is to turn off the game.