Follow The Fellowship Road.
There are a few well-known don'ts when it comes to game design. Don't use technology that is older than your mom. Don't claim that your game is more addictive than Tetris. Don't name your mascot after a famous Nazi (though who wouldn't want to jump around as a talking pie named Himmler?).
And of course, don't make a game based on a movie.
Despite our efforts to make it clear to game designers, this last rule is broken more often than jaywalking. Almost every movie-to-game translation has sucked, such as this, this, this, this, and this. Call it the Curse Of The 2-Hour Screenplay.
So we're rarely excited when we hear that a game based on a movie is under construction... except when we saw The Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers at the E3 video game convention last May. The terrific presentation had us pulling 180 degrees on our instincts. It looked like the Curse was destined to be broken.
After spending some time with the final version of the game, though, I think maybe we should have listened a little more closely to our gamer guts. Any self-respecting hobbit will tell you that looks aren't everything; and while the game is prettier than an Elven queen, the beat 'em up button pressing of this all too short journey through Middle Earth is only about as notable as a sunny day in The Shire.
LOTR: Two Towers is based very specifically on the Peter Jackson movies rather than the J.R.R. Tolkien books. The second movie has yet to be released, but that didn't stop EA from putting their version out nearly two months in advance. Seems strange to me that they didn't tie this in with the movie's release, as they'd probably triple their sales and not have to compete quite as directly with the Balrog-sized monster that is GTA: Vice City.
Release date issues notwithstanding, LOTR: Two Towers follows the action-packed exploits of Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli through the first two movies (happily, you don't have to play as stupid Frodo.) You can choose to play as any of the three across 12 levels representing memorable scenes, including Balin's Tomb, the plains of Rohan and Helm's Deep.
And represent they do, thanks to the outstanding graphics and sound. Each level features live-action snippets from the movies, which blend into in-engine cut scenes (or vice versa). The modeling and movement of the characters coupled with the simply beautiful scenery create a game that's exploding with atmosphere. Orcs, Cave Trolls and Uruk-Hai enemies looks spot-on, flame effects are terrific and the game's framerate is rock solid.
But perhaps the most impressive aspect of the game's delivery is the sound, which is some of the best ever. In addition to the rousing film score, you'll get plenty of dialogue from the actual actors from the movies - no fake doubles here. You'll also get sound effects that ring true, capturing every clang and clank of steel on steel. Most impressive of all is the moody music that matches the action. As things get crazy, the music swells; as things mellow out, the music does as well.
It's a little hard to believe, but LOTR: Two Towers does justice to the film's terrific look and at times makes you feel like you're playing through the picture. Kudos to EA for nailing the presentation.
However, those kudos do not extend to the dated gameplay, which is older than Sauron himself.
The game reminds me a bit of Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance, but it's not nearly as interesting. You can play as three different characters but do not get different stories - it's the same game regardless of whom you choose. And unlike BG: DA, this game will take only a single night to complete.
Each character has a bunch of unlockable moves, which are bought with experience points gained by completing levels. It's a nice try to add some depth, taking the game a step beyond its Streets of Rage/Final Fight forbears. Unfortunately, many of the moves are done the same way; the button combinations tend to be repeated from character to character. This really stifles the desire to play through as each guy.
The three do play differently. Gimli is the brute, high on damage and low on speed. Legolas plays the archer to a tee with quick movement and low strength. Aragorn is the ubiquitous all-around hero. I found Gimli to be the easiest as his bullish moves coupled nicely with the constant melee action, while Legolas is probably the toughest.
And when I say melee, I mean it. There is very little subtlety in this game. You go from battle to battle just beating the crap out of whatever bad guys they throw in your way, with the occasional boss fight to break up the flow. The boss battles, unfortunately, look much better than they play, requiring simple repetition rather than creative solutions.
Still, there's some fun to be had the first time through. The levels are well directed and the action can get very chaotic. Taking on a gang of orcs looks and plays like it should - scary and intense, thanks again to the sound and graphics. A few camera issues get in the way, but that's fairly common in this kind of action game.
Yet I find it saddening that the game is the same regardless of the characters. The levels are brutally linear - you cannot stray from the path at all - and though some missions make you deal with a couple secondary objectives like saving villagers or protecting a gate, they don't really keep you guessing. Why not have three separate adventures rather than making us play through the same levels over and over again with different guys? Enemies even appear in the same spots. It severely limits the replay value.
At least there's stuff to unlock, like photos from the film and interviews with the actors, the developers and Peter Jackson himself. Most of this, though, will only really interest the biggest LOTR geeks out there. For the record, I think that Ian McKellan is a fantastic Gandalf, but I don't really care what he thinks about video games. He knows as much about gaming as I know about feminine hygiene products.
LOTR: Two Towers just barely manages to beat the Curse of the Movie License. It's a great rental, but even hardcore fans of the movie will probably tire of the gameplay after a few sittings. The extras, while plentiful, really only exist to hold you over until the movie and/or DVD come out. It looks like the film and feels like the film, but it does not rule them all.