I finished Lord of the Rings: The Third Age, the XBox (and PS2, and Game Cube) role-playing game from EA, this evening.
I’m depressed, and not because the game is over.
I’m depressed, because the game didn’t redeem itself in the end.
Role-playing games need a story. Role-playing games need characters. The Third Age had neither.
What passed for a story was a series of unconnected set-piece battles. What passed for characters were fighting machines with RPG-like stats. Dialogue? None. Character development? None. I found myself asking, over and over, “Who the hell are these people? What the fuck do they want?”
I still don’t know.
Why did Hadhod the dwarf travel all the way to the heart of Mordor, when all he wanted to do, way back in chapter one, was to find the freaking map the Moria goblins stole from him? Why did Elegost the Dunedain ranger party up with Berethor, when all he wanted was to find Hadhod, whom those same goblins had kidnapped? And why did Eaoden, the Rohirrim outrider, join the party? Why didn’t he stay behind for the defense of Helm’s Deep?
Don’t get me started on the “main” character, the Gondorian Berethor.
The game’s flaw is its lack of story, and while playing the game I considered several possible solutions to the problem of how to fit The Third Age with the books or films. What if Berethor were Gandalf’s “Plan B,” part of a decoy Fellowship to confuse the Nazgul and throw them off the scent of Frodo and the Ring? No, some nonsense about brainwashing by Saruman and a Morgul blade wound that would turn Berethor into a Nazgul servant provided the sole character development for the character, as though this would personalize the conflict between Saruman and Sauron in the person of a character caught in their struggle.
Tolkien purists would be scandalized by this. Film purists would say, “But Gandalf fought alone at the bridge of Khazad-Dum. But Barad-Dur didn’t fall because Berethor killed Sauron.” Yet The Third Age would offend both Tolkien fans and fans of Peter Jackson’s films. It plays fast-and-loose with the source material. At the same time fans of console role-playing games would find little original or unique in The Third Age to warrant a look. Play is taken straight from the Final Fantasy playbook, but without exploration or character interaction.
I had high hopes for this game. It looks fantastic. But the play is dated, and the level of involvement the player feels for the characters is non-existent. The Third Age is for Lord of the Rings completists only, and even they will be disappointed.