Turn-based strategy games, also known as tactical role-playing games, aren't very common, but the genre certainly has its loyal followers. Just ask them what they think of games like Final Fantasy Tactics or Fire Emblem and they'll end up talking your ear off with tales of long hours spent managing units, perfecting strategies, and replaying the same missions over and over again. Tactical RPG's can be addictive (in a good way), especially the ones that also happen to contain rich stories and likeable characters. Without a doubt, there are few stories richer than the
trilogy. EA Games has made strategy games based on Peter Jackson's big screen interpretations of Tolkien's books before, for the Game Boy Advance, but those efforts didn't really succeed at conveying the complexities of the genre or the depth of the subject matter. Perhaps only a powerful handheld like the PSP is capable of handling such an ambitious undertaking, because it looks like they finally got it right with Lord of the Rings: Tactics. Not only is it a suitably intricate strategy game; it's also a slickly produced affair that oozes everything that fans of the films want in a video game.
Just as Peter Jackson's film adaptations had an ambitious scope, so does this game. The single player quest incorporates major scenes from all three films, and each and every mission is preceded by lengthy video footage taken directly from those cinematic masterpieces. Players can tackle the quest from the Fellowship's point of view and control six "good" characters, including Frodo, Aragorn, and Gandalf, or dive into the story from the "evil" perspective and take control of Sauron and his various henchmen. Other important characters, such as the kingly Theoden and the gangly Gollum, also come under the player's control from time to time.
Gameplay closely follows the strategy-RPG blueprint that's found in genre-staples such as Nintendo's Fire Emblem series or Square-Enix's Final Fantasy Tactics. Characters gain levels after every mission, which strengthens their various armor and weapon attributes, and you can purchase items and skills for them to use with the gold you obtain by completing missions. Most missions give the player one or two major characters to control, along with a handful of no-name Rohan or Orc soldiers. Fan-favorite characters, such as the brutal Warg Riders and tree-like Ents, also come under the player's control. In general, the enemy will have a similar number of forces on the map, which means that "teams" are often evenly matched. Each mission has a different goal, but typically you need to wipe out all enemies, survive a set number of turns, or reach some key spot on the map (like a cave or flag). Actions are turn-based, in that you can move your forces a certain number of spaces and then make an attack or use an item to end the turn. Between turns, you can view the map, check your forces' status, and plan your follow-up strategy.
Like most turn-based strategy games, each character has a certain amount of health, as well as attributes that pertain to armor, strength, speed, magic power, magic resistance, and other characteristics. The player's job is to take note of these traits and figure out the best moves that will drain opponents' health without incurring too much health loss in return. Most characters are capable of initiating both close-range and long-range attacks, although some characters are better at one than the other. Gimli and Gothmog, for example, dole out major damage up close, but merely tick away at enemies with their ranged attacks. On the flipside, characters like Legolas, Gandalf, and Sauron are superb with their long-distance bow and magic attacks. No-name characters are limited to basic melee and ranged attacks, while "star" characters each carry an additional variety of special attacks that can be used by burning up a few so-called action points. Factors such as distance to target, terrain type, and terrain elevation, also play into the strength of an attack and its odds of contact. During the movement phase of the turn, you can specify where each of your units should move to. During the attack phase, you can pick which enemy to attack and which attack to use, or you can consume a healing plant or stat-booster item instead. The game also borrows a page from Fire Emblem's playbook, in that you can score a slight defense or attack boost by positioning friendly characters adjacent to one another or by positioning multiple characters around a single enemy.
Not content to simply follow the formula one-hundred percent, Lord of the Rings: Tactics introduces its own unique quirks to the genre. The biggest of these is that the movement and attack phases for both "teams" are resolved simultaneously. During the movement phase, both sides input their marching orders and then all of the characters move along their set paths until they reach their destination or bump into another character. By the same token, during the attack phase, both sides input their commands and watch them play out in an order that's mostly based on the speed rating of each unit. This setup adds some guesswork to the mix, because you can never be completely sure whether your melee fighters will end up next to their target or whether the enemy will sneak behind a pillar or tree out of harm's way from your ranged fighters. Another quirk is that attacks have a tendency to "miss" or to be automatically countered more frequently here than in similar games. This may annoy some players, but it isn't exactly out of the realm of believability considering that everyone involved in the story is supposedly highly trained and armored.
Difficulty may be a concern for some players. Both campaigns start out with a few tough-as-nails missions, particularly the Fellowship path. Strat veterans won't have any problems, however, and the difficulty curve lessens as characters gain levels. Once you complete a mission, you can always go back and replay it again to gain additional experience and gold. In that regard, the game's difficulty is flexible. Inexperienced players can constantly replay old missions to bulk up, whereas experienced players can trudge on ahead. CPU behavior is remarkably smart too. If the mission calls for keeping one of your specific characters alive, the CPU will concentrate its attacks on that character. If you're supposed to take out specified opponents, the CPU will try to protect them.
All told, the gameplay is solid and fits thematically with the Lord of the Rings story. Every mission is based on a specific scene from the film, and although the scale is limited to perhaps a dozen units per side, you'll still be able to get your hands dirty controlling all of the characters you'd like to. Furthermore, each character's skill set closely matches what they actually were capable of in the films. Legolas has a number of arrow-related attacks, Gandalf can attack or heal with magic, and Frodo and Sam can sneak right past enemies. Meanwhile, their enemies have darker powers. Sauron and the Witch-King, for example, can paralyze enemies with fear, and sickly characters like Gothmog and Grima can poison enemies or degrade their armor. Admittedly, each character has one or two attacks that work best, which you'll use more often than the rest. That does make some missions feel overly structured, but Rings fans will probably be too thrilled playing out Middle-Earth's adventures to mind too much.
Most importantly, the overall presentation is top-notch and nicely captures the atmosphere of the films. The video clips that play before each mission contribute significantly to the product's credibility. They're all roughly 30-seconds in length and were made from actual DVD-quality footage taken from the three movies. Less effort was put into the menus and shop screens, which only feature character portraits and are otherwise bare and utilitarian. That's no biggie though, since the in-game graphics capture the look of the characters and the old world atmosphere of the film's settings. Character models are rich with polygons and are the spitting image of Frodo, Aragorn, and all the rest. Attack and spell animations are a nice mix of brutal and melodramatic. Familiar locations, such as Amon Hen, the Mines of Moria, and Pelennor Fields, have been scaled down to small battle arenas, but still retain the obvious architecture of each environment. It certainly doesn't hurt that players actually encounter the giant fiery Balrog on the bridge down in the Mines of Moria, or have to deal with multiple elephant-like Mumakil riders on the plains of Pelennor. Best of all, if you play the "evil" campaign, you get to control giant creatures like the Balrog, the Mumakils, and the Wargs. The only major weak point dogging the game's visuals is that it tends to slow down in spots, especially when spell casters use their magic skills. Characters like Gandalf and the Witch-King can become "stuck" in their casting animations, causing the game to pause for a few seconds until it catches up. Although it is annoying to watch the game chug, the slow down doesn't interfere with gameplay other than forcing players to invest an extra 30 seconds or so of cumulative downtime per mission.
They took a more low-key approach with the audio. You'll recognize some of the music, and the quality is good, but the volume level is extremely subdued. If you play with headphones on, you'll actually hear the ambient sounds of soldiers yelling and swords clashing on the battlefield. For whatever reason however, the PSP's speakers aren't capable of reproducing that background audio loud enough to be heard (even at full volume). In-game sound effects, for things like swords, magical explosions, and character voices, are much louder, but they're also recycled frequently and it's not clear whether they were recorded from actual movie audio or made specifically for the game. A few recognizable voice clips; heck, just having Aragorn yell "Frodo!"; would have helped lend a bit of personality to the game's audio.
If you're a Rings fan, you'll definitely get your money's worth. The two single-player campaigns each last 24 missions, and will take you roughly ten hours each to complete. By the time you run through both, you'll honestly feel like you just lived through the movies. Beyond that, there's also an ad hoc WiFi multiplayer mode for up to four players. It's too bad that there isn't a "war room" or "survival" style mode, which games like Fire Emblem and Advance Wars have, but the ability to replay missions over and over is actually somewhat compelling; first, because it's freakin' Lord of the Rings, and second, because ranks such as "good" and "excellent" are more pleasing to the eye than "average" or "poor."
As a total package, Lord of the Rings: Tactics is impressive. It's a reasonably intricate strategy game in its own right, and, thanks to its slickly produced presentation, it's also one of the better video game adaptations of the films made to date.