The movies may have stopped, but EA is keeping the games rolling with Lord of the Rings: Conquest. It attempts to recreate some of the greatest moments from Peter Jackson's flicks, while repurposing many of the gameplay elements found in Star Wars: Battlefront. Conquest focuses on the major military conflicts. The story is condensed and assumes the player is already familiar with the series. Brief montages before and after each chapter make up the bulk of the narrative, with sparse in-game cutscenes providing additional information. An entire chapter depicting an assault on Minas Morgul was never mentioned in the books. It strays from the canon at times, but the new material does preserve the essence of the IP.
The story is split into two parts. The War of the Ring follows the arc of the films where the good guys win, while The Rise of Sauron is a what-if scenario where poor Frodo perishes and Middle Earth falls into the clutches of evil. This alternate take is more intriguing, and it provides some memorable moments, but there are too many blanks to fill in. Whether it's retreading old material or a half-baked effort at a new tale, Conquest's narrative feels like an afterthought.
Conquest is a simple hack-and-slash reminiscent of EA's earlier Lord of the Rings games. Each of the single-player paths is made up of several chapters where you slay waves of foes and accomplish objectives like occupying or defending an encampment or defeating certain enemies. The objectives get repetitive quickly and the levels are completely linear. You hack through as many enemies as possible, die, and then respawn to do it again.
Slaying the heroes of Middle Earth while controlling the minions of Sauron, or even Sauron himself, is a welcome change of pace. You also get the option to take control of famous heroes and villains at certain points in the game, which is great.
Four basic classes are at your disposal for each level. Warriors, archers, mages, and scouts all possess unique abilities, but there's no real incentive to use one class over the other, as it offers little resistance.
Co-op mode is available for the campaigns, and there are local and online versus modes as well. Capture the ring and team deathmatch take place in truncated versions of the single-player levels, and it's actually more enjoyable than the solo campaign, even if it's not perfectly balanced. A new versus mode and new maps have been promised as future downloadable content, but as it stands, the multiplayer mode doesn't make up for the shortcomings of the forgettable campaign.
There's no conquest without killing, so players will spend most of their time fighting off throngs of enemies. Warriors rely on powerful sword attacks, mages can use long range spells, scouts toss satchel bombs and sneak around for stealth kills, and archers can snipe opponents from a distance. Playing as an archer or mage feels like a third-person shooter, while warriors and scouts carry the mantle as a traditional beat-'em-up. Some classes are more effective than others, with warriors and mages getting the best mileage.
Because the soldiers of good and evil use the exact same move sets and handle the same way, combat feels the same no matter what side you're on. Controlling heroes and special characters offers a bit more diversity, but not much. Aragorn can unleash a wave of undead, Gimli does a decent Juggernaut impersonation, and Legolas can execute a weak shoryuken.
No matter what character you're using, the controls are clunky. There's a simple combo system in place, but most of the time, combat devolves into simple button-mashing. Conquest is also plagued by poor hit detection and bugs that can result in whiffed attacks and cheap deaths. These problems are further compounded by the game's ridiculous AI, which drastically ups the difficulty during certain sequences and then there are challenging boss encounters. You're going to die a lot.
You can occasionally hop on a troll, but otherwise, the gameplay hits one tone and stays there. There's a decent variety to the combat, but it's sluggish and rote.
Despite a few glorious moments, Conquest's visuals aren't groundbreaking. It's hard to live up to the source material, and to its credit, the engine can handle quite a few characters on-screen at once with no slowdown. But character models repeat far too often, and using live action clips at this point in time is a cop out.
While it lacks visual impact, the game does make good use of Howard Shore's original compositions for the films. It's just as engrossing as ever. The voice work is subpar in comparison. With the exception of Hugo Weaving as Elrond, none of the original cast members reprise their roles for the game. The visuals and audio are passable, but not up to the expectations of a third generation game.
Conquest relies too much on retreading old ground in almost every way. Numerous bugs, unpolished mechanics, and average presentation are the telltale signs of a rushed game, and this one has all three. It's not quite bad enough to cast into Mount Doom, but only those who can't get enough of Tolkien's tales need apply.
Reviewed on Xbox 360.
Image Source: Electronic Arts