The epic battle over the fate of Middle-earth has been waged across many a venue in the video game realm, and now the fight comes to the PSP in the form of Lord of the Rings: Tactics. Covering the events of the entire trilogy, this turn-based strategy game brings back all the familiar faces and places for some tactical action. We ran through both the single-player and multiplayer games to see how the old enemies duke it out in the small-screen realm.
The single-player game in Tactics lets you choose to play on the side of Middle-earth's conflict--as the Fellowship with Aragorn, Frodo and crew--or as the Host of Mordor, with Sauron, Saruman, and other villains like Grima and the Witch-King. Cutscenes and narrative from the three movies cover the story leading up to your battles, and the particular scenes you see depend on whether you happen to be playing as good or evil. Whichever alignment you choose, you'll still end up fighting through the same battles with both factions--you'll just be playing on the opposite side, and you'll obviously have different objectives set to achieve victory. While the battles on the Fellowship side follow movie canon, fights on the Mordor side tend to be a little bit more free with character inclusions, doing things like including the Witch-King in the fight deep in the mines of Moria. The majority of the battles already have their participants set, so you'll be able to pretty much just dive into the fray.
Action plays out as a kind of team-oriented turn-based system, which entails you queuing up orders for all your characters, and then setting your grand plan into motion. There are two phases during battle: the movement phase, where you position your characters on the grid-based map, and the battle phase, where you'll launch your attacks. Properly setting yourself up during the movement phase can be a little tricky, as characters move as a set and it can be difficult to anticipate your enemies' actions. The game includes two ways to help cope with that issue. Firstly, if there's an enemy character in your unit's movement range, you can move an icon over him or her and choose to "pursue" that enemy, and then close the space between the two of you. The other feature is that each character, of a melee-focused class or not, is largely equipped with ranged weapons of some kind, whether they're bows or stones. So even if you didn't manage to brush up right against your foe, you're still able to pull off some sort of attack.
The combat phase lets you actually attack your enemies, and as mentioned, in addition to a number of melee attacks, just about every character has some sort of ranged ability. These abilities have a fairly large range, so you can often strike over large distances. The wrinkles to this are that the terrains on the battle map will vary, which means that characters standing on a higher elevation will have stronger ranged attacks than those that are lower. If you're standing behind some sort of obstacle that prevents line of sight, you won't be able to perform a ranged attack at all. There are a lot of subtle combat situations and bonuses that you'll have to be aware of as you proceed. For example, a character standing face-to-face with an enemy is said to be in that enemy's "zone of control." The zone of control will stop your character from moving around, and it will prevent ranged attacks. For example, if you're faced with a foe, you won't be able to shoot off your bow to help a friend a few squares over. Units that are adjacent will provide an armor bonus to each other that's helpful when up against tough opponents. There aren't really any visual cues as to when you benefit from these bonuses aside from small icons, and you'll only be aware you're in an enemy's zone of control when you first move into it. Therefore, you'll need to pay attention to where your characters are standing and plan accordingly.
In addition to basic melee and ranged attacks, your hero characters can learn a number of different skills to bring into battle. Some of these skills are defensive in nature, like increased resistances to poison or fear status, while others are combat abilities that increase attack power or otherwise let you put the hurt on your enemies. You'll need to buy these abilities with gold, and you'll receive gold at the end of every battle. Depending on how many turns it took you to complete a given map and how many survivors you emerged with, you can increase the spoils you will have to further augment your group of characters. Also, all members of your team, whether or not they participated in a given fight, will earn some experience, so even with staggered participation you can still rank up your party as a whole.
The wireless multiplayer game lets you bring any of the characters from the game into team battles, including mixed teams if you so desire. For instance, you can put Legolas and Gimli in control of a group of Uruk'hai soldiers, or have Sauron and Frodo fight with a team of elves. The five-person teams you field are made up of two "hero" characters (the main story characters from the trilogy) and three "grunt" characters that are selected from a wide variety of minions, such as elves, orcs, riders of Rohan, and so forth. Setting up a game is fast and requires setting a number of players, a venue, a possible time limit, and perhaps a handicap, and then away you go. Once you and your friend have selected your teams, you can jump right into battle and set about smiting each other valiantly. Combat works just as it does in the single-player game, with a movement phase and a combat phase. Although you've already queued up all your moves, you'll have to wait for your opponent to finish before the turn actually plays out in front of you. The one thing that can be a bit confusing in the multiplayer game is that your teams aren't all that strongly differentiated from each other on the battlefield. And considering your teams could possibly contain very similar units, it can be tough to distinguish who's beating up whom in the heat of battle.
The battles are all in full 3D, with the small character models closely detailed to resemble their movie counterparts, and the small contained battlefields tailored to resemble areas from the trilogy, from Fangorn Forest to Weathertop to the Plains of Rohan. The animations are pretty good, considering the small scale, and the battles are all set to the familiar sweeping musical score of the films, which can only be considered a good thing. Characters don't speak in battle, but there are a number of clips from the movies shown between fights that look quite nice on the PSP's wide screen. Also, the battlefields you'll see are fairly simple in design. Your view might occasionally get hung up on the odd tree or rock, but you can use the PSP's analog stick to swing your camera view around and get a better look.
The Lord of the Rings trilogy endures as a powerful saga of fantasy storytelling, and Lord of the Rings: Tactics is a nice chance to dive into the world of Middle-earth once more. Strategy buffs and fervent Tolkien fans can expect to pull up epic battles on their PSPs in the very near future, as the game is currently scheduled for release this November. Keep your eyes on this gamespace for the latest news on the fate of the denizens of Middle-earth as it unfolds.