One of the more surprising announcements from Electronic Arts was that it was working on a console-style role-playing game based on Peter Jackson's already classic Lord of the Rings movies. The Third Age, which is playable on the show floor at the 2004 Electronic Entertainment Expo, will tell a story that runs parallel to the events portrayed in the films. At times, players will help make a dramatic impact on the storyline, resulting in the successes of the characters at the focal point of the movie trilogy. It's a unique concept, and judging by what we played, it seems like it could end up being a great game, too.
The recent Final Fantasy games were the apparent source of inspiration for The Third Age, which features exploration sequences in which you guide a character around a 3D world, and turn-based, strategic combat sequences in which you'll need to manage your party's strengths and weaknesses and figure out how best to defeat your opponents while keeping your own characters alive and well. Notably, the turn-based combat seems about as slow-paced and overdramatic as that of Final Fantasy X, with characters routinely performing fantastical-looking moves that are only executed after some fairly lengthy combat cutscenes. Hopefully, like the recent Final Fantasy games, The Third Age will give players the option to cut these sequences a little short so that they can concentrate on the gameplay. For the purposes of showing off the game at E3, though, we certainly understand why these effects were being shown off.
The sequence we played on the PlayStation 2 version of the game (the only version on display at EA's booth, though the GameCube and Xbox versions are being featured at Nintendo and Microsoft's booths, respectively) took place in Moria, right around the area in which Gandalf confronts the terrifying, demonic Balrog. In fact, at the conclusion of the demo, we had a chance to back up Gandalf in his battle against this creature. Our elven magic-user cast a powerful spell causing a watery horse stampede, much like the one that Arwen used to stave off the ringwraiths in Fellowship, which plowed headlong into the Balrog and doused it with some of that fiery energy of his. The demo then basically switched over to an edited full-motion video sequence of the results of Gandalf's battle from Fellowship and then at the beginning of The Two Towers.
The other, earlier fight we got into was against two powerful trolls. This fight actually lasted longer, and we tried out the abilities of our dwarven axe-fighter, our Gondor swordsman, and our bow-wielding ranger, as well as our elf. These characters are original characters designed for The Third Age, but obviously they mimic some of the more popular characters from the films. Characters could execute basic attacks or special moves, but the use of the attacks was limited since there was a limited supply of ability points (consider them magic points form a typical console RPG).
The Third Age has a good look to it that's reminiscent of the films, and it seems to have the basic role-playing game mechanics down. We were told that the game will be about five times as long as last year's Return of the King game, which, granted, was an action game rather than an RPG. Also, we were told that there would be four times as many character-customization options as in that game, which means players should be able to have a great deal of freedom in specializing their characters.
The Lord of the Rings, The Third Age is slated to ship in November for the PlayStation 2, Xbox, GameCube, and Game Boy Advance. We'll be looking forward to bringing you more details on the game soon.