Along with Spider-Man, EA's Lord of the Rings titles were one of the few examples of well done movie-licensed videogames, unlike Vivendi's poor attempt, which came out around the same time. So when we found out that EA's planning another hack-'n'-slash, which will once again center around the three films, we were fairly excited at the prospect of this new and hi-def entry into the franchise. I, personally, have had a chance to play it numerous times over the past year, and while there were some flaws, I didn't expect them to carry over to the final game, especially after hearing about its delay.
Before I harp on the bad, here's what you need to know…LOTR: Conquest is unlike any other Lord of the Rings game; this particular game let's you fight the battles that went on all throughout the movie, but as alternate characters that aren't restricted to following the path of the movies. For example, during the Battle at Minas Morgul (a mission from neither book or movie), while Aragorn is elsewhere in the city, you're controlling a fighter at the line of conflict, right by the entrance gates. As this fighter, you are able to move about to another area when you've secured your previous location.
Eventually, as a power-up, of sorts, you'll come to a point in a mission where you can take control of a hero, which include Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli. You'll have the choice of choosing between three fighter types, who are basically weaker versions of the aforementioned three heroes. So think of the ability to play as the stars of the movie, as a sort-of power-up, because the heroes are much more powerful than the generic warriors. Furthermore, other heroes/fighters include Gandalf, Faramir, Frodo, the Ents, and more.
Combat is, of course, much like previous LOTR games, which means hack-'n'-slash action with combo centric attacks if you choose a fighter, or long-distance archery if you choose an archer. You'll also be given a few melee options when things get hectic nearby and you need to fend off opponents, on top of a modifier button that adds magic powers to your strikes. LOTR Conquest is all about taking you through the battles of the three movies in chronological order, and allowing you to see them in an all new light. On top of that, not only do you get to participate in battle from the movies, but also additional ones that go beyond the films.
The big twist to Conquest, and what really separates it from the rest, is having the ability to be the bad guy. Once you complete the game once, you'll have the chance to play through the Evil Campaign. You don't just act as a random apprentice, either. You get to take full control of beasts such as the Balrog during his confrontation with Gandalf, or Sauron, Trolls, Oliphaunts, and so on. Using the enemy goes beyond being just a novelty, as LOTR: Conquest allows you to alter the events of the trilogy, where, for example, Frodo never destroys the ring, and instead gets killed. And so when you're in control of the dark side, you're in an alternate LOTR universe.
As you can see, there is a great and novel concept here. It's a shame that the concept is interrupted by outdated game mechanics that make Conquest feel more like the PlayStation 2 and Xbox games it's essentially following up. The controls feel clunky, as the combo system is perhaps the biggest offender of making this game feel older than it really is. As opposed to slick, quick, and intuitive combos, you're faced with a more mundane experience of heavy, slow, and seemingly unresponsive controls that don't help you fight off large crowds of enemies with swoops of grace. Instead, you'll often find your fighter getting repeatedly beaten down, and while I'm all for great A.I., I'd also prefer to have the proper mechanics to help me fight the enemy off.
Beyond that, Conquest isn't structured very well, either. It's too repetitive, becoming rather quick to feel dry after about an hour of play time. The further you play, the more you realize that you're stuck in a state of redundancy, and it's a shame, because a world as epic and expansive as that of LOTR's deserves an adventure that can at least offer that sense of freedom and scale.
LOTR: Conquest does feature multiplayer offerings in the form of 16-player online, two-player co-op via split-screen, or four-player co-op online. The competitive online multiplayer, such as Capture the Ring, Hero Deathmatch, and Conquest are without a doubt better than the single-player experience, but not by a whole lot. Since you're still utilizing the same game mechanics, the gameplay isn't nearly as great as it could be. But because you're dealing with actual players and not hordes of A.I. relentlessly swinging at you, the interaction is certainly more tolerable and balanced.
Another flaw that still stands with the final game is the visuals. Last year I remarked that the game doesn't look as good as it should. To me it looked more like a hi-res PlayStation 2 game rather than a full-blown next-gen PS3 game. Lord of the Rings Conquest boasts a very bland picture with ho-hum textures, and below average character detail. Nothing about the visuals comes off as quality, and again, I have to express my disappointment, because this could've been shaped into a powerhouse and visual tour de force. To add to that, the animation is also lacking, bringing down the visuals even lower.
The audio is without a doubt the game's best trait, seeing as how it features a soundtrack from the movies, terrific Dolby support, and passable voice acting. But I'm not saying that the audio is great. The voice actors aren't the original movie cast, and so if you've watched the films multiple times, it'll feel somewhat jarring listening to these foreign voices. On the other hand, the soundtrack is well done, and because the action can get pretty loud, turning up the home theater is a good immersion factor.
The bottom-line with Lord of the Rings Conquest is that it's a game that had a ton of potential. Had Pandemic and EA given this game fluid action elements in tune with more modern games such as Devil May Cry and Ninja Gaiden -albeit not to those extremes- we'd have a winner on our hands. But as it stands now, Conquest fails because it feels outdated, despite featuring a novel concept. It feels outdated not just in its core mechanics, but also visually, and that's a shame when you're dealing with a franchise that epic.