With Pandemic now officially a studio in crisis following an aborted attempt on one movie license, another of its tie-ins has actually made it to retail. A Lord of the Rings action/combat title was perhaps unexpected, considering that angle has already been covered (and covered well) by Stormfront and Hypnos in the Two Towers game, and EA Redwood in Return of the King. Both turned out to be well-presented, cinematic hack n’ slash affairs with solid combat driving the action. If you were expecting Conquest, another EA LOTR game after all, to be anything like its predecessors, I’ve got some bad news.
Conquest is the last Lord of the Rings game to be published by EA before its ownership of the license expired (at the end of last year) and, in these times of financial strife, it’s hardly surprising to see a publisher squeeze another title out of a popular franchise. EA drafted in Pandemic to apply its successful Star Wars: Battlefront formula to LOTR and, as expected, there are a lot of similarities between the titles. Unfortunately, not enough.
Not simply a hack n’ slasher, Conquest is more of a skirmish game with class options and territory-based objectives. Players must choose from the Warrior, Mage, Archer and Scout and then take to the battlefield and capture strategic points as instructed. Like in Battlefront, in certain scenarios, Heroes become available and you’ll find yourself in control of the major players in the movies such as Aragorn, Gandalf and Legolas. The levels also draw heavily from the films, taking in some of the more spectacular set-pieces including the Battle of Helm’s Deep and Gandalf’s showdown with the Balrog in the Mines of Moria.
The single player game is basically a chronological series of these skirmishes interspersed with video clips from the movies and a voice-over from Hugo Weaving which push the story along. Pandemic, in the spirit of Battlefront, however, doesn’t leave it there – once the single player campaign has been completed you can switch sides and play an entire new campaign as an agent of Sauron and the game becomes a big ‘what if?’ What if Frodo hadn’t destroyed the ring and it somehow found its way back to the dark lord Sauron? The answer, it would seem, is about another four hours of tedious, painful gameplay.
While playing through the game as the bad guys is something that hasn’t been done before in a LOTR action title, there are so many gameplay flaws that you’re unlikely to want to persevere long enough to unlock the second campaign. The main problem with Conquest is the one dimensional melee combat – the combo system is woefully basic, as you have to string moves together in order of power, i.e. from soft attacks, through medium to strong. This means you’ll essentially just be pulling off the same combo over and over again. There is some variety on offer in the form of special moves, but these can’t be accessed until you fill up the bar by…you guessed it…killing a bunch of enemies with the standard combo.
The limited array of moves at your disposal isn’t helped by some lazy design – the combo animations run on to completion whether you’re hitting anything or not (inexcusable in a large scale hack n’ slasher), the block system is inconsistent to the point of being completely worthless and there’s no weight to anything. The lack of physics means there’s no sense of impact when you hit an enemy and it all feels decidedly last gen. The AI is no exception, and the vast majority of enemies are slow, witless and nothing more than sword-fodder as you make your way to an objective. In fact it’s possible to complete entire levels without killing anyone simply by hoofing it past the dozy horde. Larger enemies ought to be a little more challenging but instead complete a simple quick time event and you’ll dispose of them in no time. Combine the sub-par fighting system and the dodgy AI with repetitive capture and defend gameplay and you’ve got a recipe for a tedious single player game.
However, remember that Battlefront thing? Well that was an online game at heart, and Pandemic has applied the same principle to Conquest. Once you take the game online things do improve. I’m not gonna tell you it’s a full 180 and it suddenly becomes like a fantasy Operation Flashpoint because it doesn’t. But, the game does offer 16 player competitive multiplayer in the three bog-standard game modes: Team Deathmatch, Conquest and Capture the Ring. If you’re lucky enough to play with a good mix of classes there is strategic gameplay to be found and you’ll need to work together to capture points and access the Heroes that can take you to victory. Strategy comes in to play even more in the best of the game modes, the four player co-op. Here you can combine your class skills to devastating effect – for example, your Mage can protect your Archer from projectiles and he, in turn, can fire poisoned arrows which slow down the enemy, making them an easy target for your Warriors.
However, while the co-op is more enjoyable than playing the game on your own, the core gameplay is just too clunky. If Pandemic had more time to tighten up the basics, Conquest could have been a solid, albeit basic, action game. Unfortunately it’s a game which feels rushed – the visuals are muddy and unremarkable, the battlefields are underpopulated and the combat, the heart of the experience, offers no room for experimentation or, indeed, fun. There is a place for a multiplayer action experience in the canon of Lord of the Rings games, but Conquest does not fill it.