The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring Review

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Publisher: Black Label Games
Developer: WXP

Platforms: Xbox and PlayStation 2
Reviewed on Xbox

Ah, come on, why are you reading this introductory section? Don't even pretend that you don't know the story, you big Tolkien-quoting geek. It's OK. We're all nerds here.

Rob de los Reyes

Every computer role-playing game is in thrall, in one way or another, to the legacy of J.R.R. Tolkien's classic fantasy series, The Lord of the Rings. Elf-centric roleplaying games are direct descendants, and all others are reactions of it. Either way, The Lord of the Rings is a reference point. A reference point, but, until the debut of last year's blockbuster The Fellowship of the Ring movie, not usually a direct subject of remakes in film or games. For games, that oddity changes this year with the imminent release of EA's The Two Towers, based on the movie, and the recently released The Fellowship of the Ring from Black Label Games, based on the literary rights. The difference between the two extends beyond their respective licenses. (Truth be told, the difference in the licenses is not much difference at all. Fellowship adds the Tom Bombadil scenes but certainly evokes more than a little movie deja-vu.) EA's game bills itself as an action/adventure, though seems to emphasize the former. Fellowship bills itself the same way, but decidedly emphasizes the latter. Once past the early levels featuring Frodo, however, Fellowship delivers some fairly intensive combat, even if it's mostly a two-button affair consisting of blocking, attacking and a good share of running around. In brief, Fellowship is not Tekken in tights. Those looking for something more button-intensive and action-oriented will need to wait (briefly) for EA.

In the meantime, passing up Fellowship will cost you a unique and adequate gaming experience. It is somehow appropriate that the game with the literary license should be less tilted to action than the Hollywood movie. In the book, Frodo does not, for the most part, hack and slash his way to Mount Doom. Yet Fellowship does not literally follow the moment to moment events of the book. It prefers instead to pick the critical events and weave a variation of the story around those events. Truthfully, no other choice could be made. A mere retelling of the book would have eliminated the joy of surprise and exploration. Fortunately, the alternate story-telling is thoughtfully done and true to the underlying spirit of Tolkien's characters. Frodo performs good deeds, Aragorn clears a path with his sword, and Gandalf solves the trickiest puzzles and faces down the most powerful foe. In general, the story is well-told, breaking down only when it becomes necessary to render 150 pages of plot movement in a three-minute cut-scene, as in the opening sequence and one or two other places. While "showing" is generally more powerful than "telling", these Reader's Digest condensed cut-scenes are too forced and a jarring contrast to the otherwise elegant narrative.

Bursts of pure combat punctuate the generally relaxed pacing of gameplay. Largely uncomplicated, the main trick to combat is learning to time your sword strokes. The "camera" can also be a bit cumbersome, at least until pushing on the thumbstick to center your view becomes a matter of sense memory. At that point, combat and the stunning 3D world become yours to enjoy. Those who left their twitch reflexes in their younger years (like myself) should in any event find the combat pleasantly challenging but manageable. One quibble and one out-and-out design flaw emerge, however. The quibble is that Aragorn doesn't have enough arrows. He's your sole warrior character. You'd like to cut loose with him, but ammunition woes constrain you. You're further constrained by the need to preserve some arrows in order to solve certain puzzles. The effect is not substantial but still a noticeable reduction in the free-wheeling action of the Aragorn levels. It's a pity but not a showstopper.

More serious is the problem of Frodo and his rock-throwing. Frodo's ranged attack consists of an endless supply of rocks to hurl. These are quite useful against stationary enemies – or would be but for the nearly imperceptible amount of damage they cause. Fighting a stationary enemy with rocks (the safe and sensible thing to do) results in three minutes of tedium, the early symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome, and the chance to do it all over again 20 paces down the path. Likely, you are meant to run or sneak past these enemies – Frodo is not a fighter, after all. But if that's the design plan, then we players need better clues to it. The stealth function has little observable effect, and the inexhaustible supply of rocks suggests that the designers expect you to throw an awful lot of rocks. In other words, either we're given the wrong incentives, or we're doing what we're supposed to do... and it's boring.

But anyone stopping play on account of this flaw will miss a treat. The other portions of the early levels, as well as the later Frodo levels, are simply and wonderfully endearing. Charmingly voiced and sweetly drawn, Frodo is as inviting a character as you're like to find in a video game. Less time is spent with the personal development of Aragorn and Gandalf (and Gandalf's "defeat" at the hands of the Balrog is too rushed), but your knowledge of the story fills in the gaps. Even non-gamers (like Wrathful's Wife) will be tempted to watch over your shoulder just to see what happens to the Fellowship next.

And why not watch? The production values are extraordinarily high. Whether in terms of full cinematic cut-scene mode, in-game graphical power or sheer artistry of design, Fellowship meets or exceeds visual standards for console games and more than a few PC games. Hobbiton is on display in its quiet glory, and Durin's bridge is a hellish vision with action on every possible axis. The lip-synching is impressive, and characters and settings are drawn with sharp specificity. The only missed graphical opportunity is Lorien, the second Elf forest and home to Galadriel. You'll get a good look at Galadriel, whose beauty becomes a recurring topic of the trilogy, but views of the forest city, interior or exterior, are entirely absent. Still, in the context of the sweeping environments of countryside, hills and the mines of Moria, as well as the intensely detailed interior scenes, pouting about Lorien seems almost churlish. A sweep of the camera, and all is forgiven.

Worthy of special mention is the sound design. Every texture seems to have been bumped against every other texture in the game in order to produce a sound cue. Flesh against stone against wood against steel. Multiple grunts of exertion. Running noises on dirt and stone; creeping noises and shimmying noises. The interplay between graphical and aural accuracy is breathtaking when you stop to notice. In a Barrows tomb, Frodo fights some undead hand-from-the-grave creatures. Since they're stationary, you may choose to throw rocks at them, which seems like a simple operation until you try to code it. Frodo winds up and pitches the rock with a grunt of exertion and the whiff of a flying stone. It hits the hand of the undead flesh and sounds like a baseball in a glove. The next throw misses, whooshes past the monster, hits a treasure chest in the background, bounces realistically off the chest, and settles in the ground with a puff of dust. Along the way, you get one sound for the plinking off the chest and another sound for the dull thud to earth. It's an extraordinary attention to detail, easily missed precisely because it's so much like real-life experience.

Whatever its aesthetic splendor, one fact is unalterable. Fellowship is not, at its core, an action game. The pleasures of this game are contemplative and story-based, with a few bursts of adrenaline just to make sure you're paying attention. Even the adventure elements are relatively simple, such that an experienced adventure gamer might be left with something more like an interactive story than a true puzzler. But this fact is a judgment neither of virtue nor vice. With few exceptions, Fellowship achieves what it seems designed to achieve. At a minimum, this gameplay is something you simply won't find elsewhere for the Xbox. Possibly, it is much more.

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on October 15, 2002 9:32 PM.

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