Not so precious.
As Iluvatar sang his song to form Arda at the beginning of all things, one of the Ainur choir rose out of tune, and that was Melkor, the first and greatest of the Dark Lords. Somewhere in his dire verses must have been the lyric “Unto them I place movie-licensed games,” alluring and terrible, their false promises of glory merely a chord to the suffering of Man. Eras passed with fell melodies preserved in the winds of the ageless; after the passing of the Elves, Man inherited creation, harnessed its flame, and wrought from searing industry The Lord of the Rings: Tactics.
Don’t worry – like this tepid strategy game, I can’t keep up this faí§ade for long. As expected, much of the game’s power is drawn solely from its lineage and title. The core of it could have easily fueled the hearts of men, but is subsequently lost in a fruitless journey.
From the outset, you are given a choice between the game’s two campaigns: The Fellowship or The Host of Mordor. Depending on which path you choose, you are given heroes drawn from the movies – Frodo, Sam, Gandalf, Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli are on The Fellowship side, while Sauron, The Witch King, Saruman, Grima, Lurtz, and Gothmog represent the dark force.
You are guided through each campaign by FMV clips ripped liberally from the trilogy and strung together until a combat point is reached, such as Weathertop, Moria, Amon Hen, or Rohan. Each area has a mission with objectives that range from a simplified Capture the Flag to “Get to the end of the bridge of Khazad-Dun” to the cathartic “Vanquish all foes.” The gameplay objectives are generally varied enough to keep the game engaging for a while, but playing through them proves to be awkward, frustrating, repetitive and shallow.
One of the main gameplay differences between The Lord of the Rings: Tactics and other turn-based tactical strategy games is that movement and attacking are broken up into two separate phases. Once you plot out movement paths across the grid, you hit the ‘execute’ button and watch all forces, including the enemy’s, move into position, ready to strike. Whenever any unit moves within one space of an opposing unit, the pair of them stop and lock each other into position to square off in melee combat, their ranged attacks disabled for that turn. This “Zone of Control” mechanic is how you define your units as being tanks or ranged. Being that the vast majority of units have a ranged attack, you can line up the bulk of your forces behind the tanks’ line to gun down the locked-on enemies during the attack phase, like rooks with sniper rifles.
While a nice idea, Zone of Control results in easily exploited gameplay. It requires upkeep each turn since the enemy will try to run past your tanks in the following movement phase, but you can solve this handily by moving your ranged units back a bit, setting your tank to follow that enemy or guess where he is moving and run alongside him to let the sniping continue. You effectively use your tank units to disable other units while wiping out everything with arrows.
The attack phase is usually reduced to ignoring the other two possible unit commands, Special Skills or Items, and firing on one enemy until it’s dead and then moving on to the next; getting to the end of the bridge of Khazad-Dun, say, is a lot easier when you’ve killed everything first. Your hero’s uninspired special attacks are only good for a little extra damage or a nominal heal until you run out of mana, but the menu time spent choosing the skill is hardly worth the effort. Also, being that a unit can only use an item on himself, even healing or buffing the tanks becomes an absolute no-brainer, just like spending your post-victory reward cash.
You never control more than a handful of units at once, though the differences between them are rather minimal. You can buy either new special skills for your heroes or items for them to use after each mission. The special skills come in one of three flavors: buffing or debuffing a target, adding a little extra damage to an attack, or healing a comrade a bit. The same holds true for items. The gold cost of either of these are high relative to your mission reward, meaning you’ll have to repeat past missions to be able to afford anything.
Luckily your heroes retain their level and experience, so earlier missions are easier the second time around. Even luckier is the fact that the first mission – dealing 30 damage to either Aragorn or The Witch King, depending on which side you play as – takes about two minutes to finish with buffed out characters. Thus, you can quickly repeat the noob mission until you’re rolling in cash. The lack of purchasable weapons and armor eliminates any additional strategy.
So does the bad A.I. The enemy will behave similarly from one mission to the next depending on the objectives. A fair number of missions require you to keep a particular hero alive, and so your opposition will always zerg onto that targeted character. In missions of other types, they will simply attack the hero closest to them. How strategic.
In either case, blocks, missed hits, and critical strikes occur randomly and way too frequently in a game where strategic decision making is supposed to be king. As a result, you can go from doing just fine for ten turns to a morale killing loss in two. Because the strategy remains the same, it all too often boils down to whether or not you bought enough decent healing items for the few units you control.
This doesn’t do much for the Ad Hoc multiplayer, where you’d like nothing more than to trounce three of your buds with a swarm of orcs. Instead, you choose your heroes before each battle for some really crazy matches, though it’s a pain to have to wait for people less nerdy than you to make decisions.
You’ll be glad the fights are small-time, though, since the vast majority of the learning curve is spent dueling with the confusing, clunky interface. Unit and command selection is wonky throughout the
thirty hours of gameplay spanning the two campaigns. Unfortunately they are mirror images, so the only real motivation is be in control of Sauron or Gandalf.
At least it looks and sounds decently throughout. The models are true to the license, well detailed and textured despite some seams between joints and an occasionally chuggy framerate. The music quality is nothing less than the movie’s which bore it, though the shrill sound effects become grating and intrusive. Good thing you can lower that channel’s volume.
The Lord of the Rings: Tactics can’t figure out if it wants to appeal to casual fans of the film or nerdy purists, although ultimately it casts both groups into the fiery pit from whence they came. Despite its solid delivery and the admittedly groovy prospect of controlling Sauron and Saruman in Moria, the notable gameplay and pacing problems bring the whole adventure down in a hail of arrows.