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Lord of the Rings: Conquest (PC)

Ok, here’s a little craft project for everybody to get involved with. Draw some Orcs and Trolls on a few bits of paper – it doesn’t matter if you’re not a proper artist, the people who made Lord of the Rings: Conquest aren’t proper game designers either – and colour them in. Next, fold small strips along the bottom of the paper so your creations can sort of stand up on their own, and place them around a handy room. Now, using your hand, slap all of the paper Orcs and Trolls down. Set them up again. Then slap them down again. Congratulations! You’re having more fun than if you were playing Lord of the Rings: Conquest.

Andy covered the background to this release in our PS3 review, which allows me lots of space to expand on just how rubbish it is. You see, Lord of the Rings: Conquest has some of the worst ‘middle finger up to the player’ I’ve experienced in a long time. It’s a game which literally hates the player and demonstrates this loathing as often as possible.

Here’s how most of the levels work. Your warrior/scout/archer/mage is told to go somewhere, either to grab an object, kill a guy or stand around near a flag until a meter ticks down and the area counts as ‘captured.’ Gameplay is a sort of close-focus Dynasty Warriors, with emphasis on taking on handfuls of enemies with special moves and combos, rather than massive waves. Nothing groundbreaking about any of that, but the potential for fun is there, especially with the promise of being able to play as Ents, Trolls and a Balrog. However, there are many, many problems.

Chief amongst these is that the fighting just doesn’t work. For this kind of approach to be successful, the action needs to feel fluid. Instead, an inconsistent camera and moves which insist on playing out in full whenever you unleash them mean that half the time you’ll be trying to point at an oncoming enemy, only for you both to pull off some kind of move and fly past one another at bizarre angles. High intensity skirmishes end up looking more like incoherent figure skaters or wayward bumper cars. The best melee tactic is mashing buttons, pulling off a succession of special moves and hoping you hit something before something hits you (which they often will from behind, with no warning.) Little skill, no finesse, just tedious mashing. Archers and mages fare better, as they can attack from a distance. But this merely reduces the game to a procession of circle strafing. As mages can also heal themselves and their colleagues, they are far and away the most useful class to play.

There is also very little ‘weight’ to anything which occurs. This is a tricky thing to define, but vital in games of this sort. When the mighty arrows or flaming blades crash into Orc skulls, it needs to feel brutal and visceral. The enemies should crumple to the floor, heads should be spinning off left and right as a mountain of dismembered limbs and gore heaps up on the floor. What we have instead is the aforementioned confused figure skaters and playable characters which feel like sponge, such is their lightness. Every foe dies in a spectacularly boring way, removing even the joy of a successful kill.

Tedious enough, you may think. But it gets worse. The laziest possible methods are used to ramp up the difficulty level. Respawning enemies, enemies which can heal themselves, enemies which can kill you with one unavoidable spell or move (if they can be bothered to use it); they’re all here. It’s a purely a matter of luck whether you are able to beat certain sections. As you waggle your sword or staff near another mission-critical piece of scenery with a bewilderingly large health bar, it’s really down to chance whether the enemy AI will bother trying to stop you with the full force of a warrior-mage-scout combo, or just leave you alone to complete the objective.

As well as an obvious dislike for the player, Lord of the Rings: Conquest can barely disguise its contempt for its own source material. I don’t want to get all ‘why isn’t Tom Bombadil a playable character?’ about this, but something is wrong when it’s easier to kill Sauron in the training mission by zapping away at distance as an archer or a mage, rather than choosing to use Isildur (who himself doesn’t actually kill Sauron in the books, and does it by chopping off his finger with a broken blade in the film.) Similar power miss-matches crop up throughout – Eowyn is slapped down pretty swiftly by the AI Witch-King, but again a poxy mage can prance around and kill him with spells extremely easily. Later on, Frodo handles himself pretty well against the very same Witch-King. When Sauron proved a bit too crap to kill Legolas, I had to instead rely on .. uh, a humble Orc mage (are you sensing a pattern here?)

If the game is truly following the film adaptations (as it claims to be), then how is it possible to play as The Mouth of Sauron during the ‘evil’ campaign, when his two minute film-version cameo ends in his beheading? And why, when the ‘good’ campaign pretty much follows the plot of the films, does the Moria level appear AFTER Helm’s Deep and Isengard, with an attempted cover story about the dwarves attempting to reclaim it (though it features precisely one dwarf)? This level even blatantly includes the famous Moria scenes, like the first appearance of cave trolls and the Balrog.

Architecture doesn’t escape either. You thought the Tower of Orthanc was tall and imposing, right? It sure looks that way. In fact it’s a couple of flights of stairs high. You may also be surprised to learn that the dark magic of Minas Morgul is fuelled by ‘power crystals.’

There are a few brief moments of respite from the unrelenting horror. The music, taken from the film scores, is strong. Playing as an Ent is rather entertaining too, but far too short-lived. Likewise, the idea of an alternative ‘evil’ campaign based on the possibility of Frodo being overcome with greed for the ring is rich narrative ground to explore. It’s just a shame there isn’t a decent game to back it up. Killing Hobbits brings a twisted kind of pleasure, but playing as Sauron or a Nazgul should be a great deal more fun than it is here.

The evil campaign also benefits from a different voiceover. Hugo Weaving provides some excellent narration (and should have been further employed), but the in-game voice work for the good team is done by a guy who likes yelling things like ‘BEHOLD, HE DESTROYS THE ENEMY WITH MIGHTY LIGHTNING’ as if he’s an omnipotent Brian Blessed. Except far more annoying. The bad guys either get a Nazgul-esque voice with a terrible smoking habit, or a cockney Orc, either of which are superior.

Despite the liberal use of cinematic footage, the core of Lord of the Rings: Conquest feels cheap and flimsy. The bulk of the gameplay is flawed, frustrating and utterly tedious. Even the appeal of the Lord of the Rings license is undercut by a lack of understanding and poor application of the source material. Do not pay money for this game, it is wretched.

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