Review by Alecto

"Tolkien's universe gets butchered yet again"

Around the same time that EA snagged the license to make videogames based on Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films, developer Black Label Games did a crafty thing by obtaining the rights to the Lord of the Rings books. In other words, they were free to make games based on Tolkien’s universe, as long as they didn’t copy the movie in any way.

Fellowship of the Ring is the first game to come out of this ill-fated acquisition. It’s worth mentioning that the PC and PS2 versions of the game were developed by a different company (WXP) from the XBox version (Surreal Software), and from the looks of things, XBox gamers were the most “fortunate.” The game is fundamentally flawed no matter which version is examined, but the conversion to PC brings its own host of problems on top of the issues that already exist.

Before even delving into the game itself, there’s the issue of technical glitches and bugs. More than once I was treated to dead bodies floating in mid-air, or sinking quicksand-like into the ground. During the cutscenes, certain body-parts like Gimli’s beard regularly disappear into his body. The stones that Frodo uses as his ranged weapon can bounce off both land and water indiscriminately. Boss battles are ill-conceived, and one is so bad that I can’t help give it its own special shout-out. When Frodo battles Old Man Willow, he is supposed to be limited to a certain circular area by tendrils that jut out of the ground to contain him. It’s possible, however, for Frodo to get pushed outside the barrier so that the tendrils now prevent him from re-entering the fighting area and subject him to repeated cheap-shots until he dies.

The sound effects and music have a tendency to cut out abruptly whenever a dialogue initiates, and the cutscenes rarely contain any music or sound effects, making them a wooden, lifeless experience.

Graphically, Middle Earth is rendered as a drab and boring place that’s rife with clipping (being able to see through things you shouldn’t, such as walls or hills). Even out of doors, the environments give the impression of a perpetually overcast sky, and it’s useless to try to navigate the pitch black night-time levels or interiors like the Mines of Moria without the brightness on the monitor turned all the way up. Towns such as Hobbiton and Bree are confusing because all the buildings look pretty much the same, and there is no navigational aid beyond a superfluous world map that serves no purpose except to mark game progress.

Combat and the simple task of navigation are both chores, and probably moreso on the PC because it involves a combination of mouse clicks to attack with using the ASDW keys to move. When trying to move, it’s an easy mistake to hit Q instead of W, which pulls up a menu. The supposedly over-the-shoulder camera goes wonky sometimes and will sink into the floor, move to close to the character, or show the polygoned wall instead of the character. The characters use impractical “milking the giant cow” sword moves, which leaves them open to enemy cheap-shots that can happen over and over again. Hit detection is poor, and the finishing moves described in the instruction manual actually execute maybe 25% of the time. Companion aid is iffy at best, and most of the time they’ll just stand around facing in the other direction or will get left behind.

Whenever Frodo or Aragorn use ranged combat, the game switches to first-person perspective and the controls inexplicably invert so that up really means down and down means up.

Given the piss-poor control and camera, I couldn’t believe the game’s audacity in including random pits to fall into and making it possible to fall off ledges and take damage.

I was frustrated by the linearity of Fellowship. I don’t mind a game being linear if the focus is meant to be elsewhere, but Fellowship obviously couldn’t make up its mind about whether to have an all-out explorative environment like in The Elder Scrolls, or to restrict players to an obvious path. As a result, it teases by allowing characters to walk part-way up a hill, then throwing in a lame invisible barrier right when we think we’re actually going to make it over the top.

Such a desolate game would never have made it to store shelves had it not been flaunting the Tolkien name. It was a clever move on the part of the company to snap up the rights to the books while EA took the rights to Peter Jackson’s films, yet at the same time it was a wholly selfish move. If they didn’t have the tools to do Tolkien justice, they should never have touched it in the first place.


Reviewer's Score: 2/10 | Originally Posted: 09/28/03


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