On Revisiting The Third Age

My recent musings on EA’s video game Lord of the Rings: The White Council and its possible cancellation put me in a Tolkien gaming mood. I wanted to play a Lord of the Rings video game, I wanted to mercilessly kill Orc after Orc, but which game to play?

I settled on The Third Age, the role-playing game that I described recently as a “misstep” in EA’s handling of the Lord of the Rings license. I hadn’t played the game since completing the game slightly more than two years ago, and was it really as disappointing as when I wrote at the time, “I found myself asking, over and over, ‘Who the hell are these people? What the fuck do they want?'”

The story? Still bad. Berethor of the Citadel Guard is on the road to Rivendell, searching for Boromir. He’s attacked by a Nazgul, and an Elf, Idrial, comes to his aid. They team up for some reason, meet a Dunedain ranger named Elegost, and Elegost wants their help in finding his lost friend, the dwarf Hadhod. (Okay, there’s our first problem. Hadhod is the Quenya word for “dwarf.” No dwarf would have an Elvish name.) Hadhod is found, and then we’re off to the West Gate of Moria.

I’m seeing a lot of events here, but no justification for them. Why does anyone do any of this? Hello?

So, now we’re in Moria. The West Gate’s been wrecked by the Watcher in the Water, so we plunge right in. Wander around, delve deep into the pits of Moria. (When Pippen knocks the suit of armor down the well, our party is there to see it land.) Watch the Balrog scale a wall. Oooh. Then we get trapped in Balin’s tomb.

From there, we follow the Balrog to the Bridge of Khazad-Dum, where we fight alongside Gandalf and defeat the Balrog.

Do I really need to continue to recount the story? There’s no story there. Rather, it’s clear that the plot development in the game was based entirely upon having the player’s characters visit the places the film visited, to give the player an immersive experience in Middle-Earth.

If the story isn’t involving, The Third Age‘s recreation of Middle-Earth is. There’s a cave where you can look out over the River Anduin at the Argonath, and it’s just stunning. It’s interesting to just stand inside Moria and look at the architecture. Or to stand on the walls at Helm’s Deep and just look out at the approaching Orc army. Or to stand atop one of the hills in a Rohirrim town and pan the in-game camera around at the countryside. Or to wander around inside Minas Tirith and Denethor’s throne room. The developers put their efforts into making this game look like the films and it shows. If only they’d put that effort into telling a story

Because I knew where the game went, because I’d experienced the story’s pain before, some of the things that bothered me two years ago–like battling the Eye of Sauron atop Barad-Dur–didn’t bother me this time around. I didn’t mind so much coming to Eowyn’s aid against the Witch King. I didn’t mind so much fighting alongside Gandalf in Minas Tirith when the Witch King broke his staff. But nothing will ever explain to me why Aragorn says to Berethor, “You bow to no one” (except, perhaps, that it was a nice line EA could nick from the film soundtracks, which is what all of Aragorn’s dialogue amounted to).

One interesting point about the game–as the game progresses the player unlocks “Epic Scenes,” little snippets of the film with narration by (usually) Gandalf or (very occasionally) Saruman, putting the events of the game into the context of the films and their milieu. Most of these epic scenes are skippable; they’re not helpful in completing the game as they don’t offer any hints as to what lies ahead. Despite being skippable, they are watchable–it’s almost like getting another Lord of the Rings movie once you’ve finished the game. And as I noted at the time while playing through the game originally, one of these Epic Scenes is quite prescient in speaking to modern times:

Thus is the havoc when a steward breaks his solemn bond with his people.

Gondor shunned counsel, chose to dominate its subjects. While its sons were sent to die in hopeless causes, alliances faltered. Hope withered. Armies were squandered, leaders lost.

Gondor became his, but such is not the role of the land’s steward. One does not rule. One leads, through love for the people, through foresight of the future.

In all of this Denethor failed.

I quite liked that quote, especially coming a month after the Presidential election. Sadly, the last two years haven’t done anything to blunt my perception of President Bush as a modern-day Denethor.

The Third Age wasn’t as bad as I remembered, but that still doesn’t earn the game a recommendation. All it made me feel was a twinge of disappointment that The White Council probably isn’t happening and probably was cancelled (even though there’s been no official confirmation from EA on that point), because The Lord of the Rings could support a very good role-playing game.

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