A dead ringer.
Disappointment: that feeling you get when, having asked your parents for a car, you find a Micro-Machine in your Christmas stocking instead. It's also a word that accurately describes EA's new The Lord of the Rings: The Third Age for the PS2, Xbox, and Gamecube. As promising as a role-playing game based on The Lord of the Rings mythos sounds, The Third Age's reality is one of strict linearity, wacky plot foibles, and generic turn-based action.
You begin the game as the colorless Berethor, Guard of Gondor. You're making your way to Rivendell to meet with your Captain, famed Fellowship member Boromir, when you are waylaid by a band of Nazgul who promptly kick your ass. Before they can finish you off, a she-elf with huge nostrils summons a torrential downpour of horses to drive the fiends away and save your life. Then you team up, and your journey begins as you form a second Fellowship.
That's right, a SECOND Fellowship. Let's all give a warm welcome to the LOTR bench warmers!
The bulk of the plot unfolds through "Epic Scenes," essentially montages of clips taken straight from the movies with voiceover from Ian McKellen's Gandalf, who loosely explains what's going on in the world. I say loosely, because the entire plot functions as a pretext for your ridiculous "other" Fellowship to wind up in every single location from the three movies as well as take part in all the most significant battles.
For example, in the movies and books, Gandalf faces the Balrog alone. But in the game, your group runs up from behind and you fight it together. For a game that completely depends on the movie for its plot, it sure does take a lot of temporal, spatial, and factual liberties.
Whereas a good RPG should enmesh you in a sticky plot and bring its characters to life, The Third Age uses its plot like a leash and drags you through one familiar scene after another. The game is so linear that you'll feel like you're on a guided tour of the LOTR movie-set. From start to finish, you'll progress down one long path with stops at every memorable event from the films. Remember the three-way fork in Moria where Gandalf followed his nose and led his party down the right path? Well, your party has to go down all three, and at the end of one is a treasure chest, and the other two are different parts of a lever-pulling puzzle. While there's no getting lost in The Third Age, you might lose your mind wishing you could explore more freely.
Not that it would matter much thanks to The Third Age's random encounters and derivative turn-based battles. In an attempt to make the random encounters a bit more predictable, EA created two different indicators to let you know when you're approaching a skirmish. If you see a glowing Eye of Sauron, you're in a dangerous area and you'll definitely be attacked if you stick around. A glowing palantir, on the other hand, means you're approaching an area with enemies in it, and you will definitely be attacked if you continue on the same path.
Even though these two measures make the random encounters more bearable, knowing that if you step on a panel something scary will jump out is what you look forward to in Halloween fun houses, not role-playing games. Boo.
The combat system is basically what you'd expect to find in any Final Fantasy game. Each character has hit points and action points (see "mana" or "magic"), and as you fight, a meter builds that will eventually allow you to engage "Perfect Mode," in which you'll summon some beast from the LOTR universe to attack one of your opponents for massive damage. You may quickly switch between combatants with the tap of a button.
Each character relies on some form of special attack to either benefit the party or deal greater damage to foes. Berethor, for example, has sword-based special attacks, as well as Leadership-based buffs. Every time Berethor uses a Leadership skill, he'll gain a Leadership point that will go towards learning a different Leadership skill of your choosing. This system seems pretty sensible in the early parts of the game, as skills don't cost many points, and being rewarded through use feels realistic. However, in the late game when a new skill costs one hundred points, you'll have to do some real grinding.
Then again, The Third Age is almost all grinding, anyway. With no towns to putz around in, NPCs to talk to, or stores to check out, you'll be wearing whatever you find as you repetitively battle through area after area. Oddly, everything you find is in a treasure chest. You won't be looting corpses or searching through bookshelves, you'll be opening the same treasure chests everywhere you go, from Isengaard to Elsinore.
In the game's coolest touch, equipment that you gain in battle or take from chests actually shows up on your characters when it's applied. While this isn't a revolutionary concept, all of the pieces are straight from the films' armories, and they're all highly detailed and look authentic.
According to EA, The Third Age has its own brand of side-quests. According to me, they lied. For example, if you kill all the Wargs at the choke-points you are required to pass through, you will have completed a side-quest! Way to kill two birds - and your game - with one stoned concept.
To be fair, The Third Age's gameplay is not broken or anything and does deliver a decent helping of traditional turn-based action. It can be pretty fun whupping on trolls, leveling up and whupping on more trolls. Just don't expect the whupping to feel very new or particularly interesting.
Any time you clear a region, you can go back and play its Evil Mode version. This is basically a representative battle from each of the region's areas with you playing as the bad guys against a severely crippled version of your party. It's a very cool idea and adds some nice replay value.
Unfortunately, the Evil Mode A.I. is terrible. Once when I was playing as a group of Orcs, the dwarf kept trying to use Goblin Bane, an attack that only hurts Goblins, against my Orcish Archers. Short AND stupid.
There's also an option to play the main Story mode cooperatively with a friend. As fun as such a feature might be in a real-time game such as X-Men: Legends, cooperative turn-based battles are pretty boring. Things are slow enough throughout the single-player game without having to wait for you friend to accidentally attack the wrong Orc.
The Third Age's strongest suit is its look. The environments are particularly lovely thanks to gorgeous lighting effects, great texture-mapping and the sheer thrill of traipsing through realistically rendered LOTR locales. The spell effects are also extremely impressive. When Idrial the elf casts haste, lightning from her sword will slowly spiral upward before culminating into a ball, which she'll then smack over to her target who will roar and brandish his weapon with energized approval. The game captures the cinematic quality of the films wonderfully.
The large environments come at a price, however, as none of the versions run very smoothly. The Xbox version slows down the least, naturally, but running while panning the camera will even bring that beast to its knees on most occasions.
The music is probably The Third Age's finest feature, mostly because it's yanked straight out of the films. The sound effects are a mixture of hyper-realistic metallic clinks and ultra-surreal "SHHHROOOWG's and "BLLLLLIZZZZZTS's when any of The Third Age's over-the-top spells are cast. The result is a very loud game with terrible voice-acting.
The best The Third Age has to offer has already been seen in The Two Towers and The Return of the King action games, both of which benefited from hectic real-time combat and the ability to use actual characters from the movies instead of poorly conceived stand-ins. If you're dying to play a Middle-Earth RPG, we recommend waiting to check out Middle-Earth Online, if it ever comes out. And if you just can't wait to relive all the coolest moments from the films, spare yourself a few bucks and go rent the movies.