The Lord of the Rings, The Third Age is the latest game based on Peter Jackson's cinematic interpretations of the classic J.R.R. Tolkien series. While the console versions of the game have taken a very traditional RPG approach, the upcoming Game Boy Advance game from developer Griptonite Games offers a change of pace that manages to take an equally unique tack. The GBA game offers up a tactics-style experience that's nicely suited to Nintendo's portable hardware. We had the chance to get an exclusive look at the game and see how the battle for Middle-earth plays out in miniature.
The game will feature a single- and multiplayer mode that will let you play as the forces of good or evil. The single-player mode lets you play through the game as one of three generals on either the dark or the light side. Gandalf, Aragorn, or Elrond are on hand to represent for the side of good, while Saruman, The Witch King, and The Mouth of Sauron, are poster children for evil. Each general has unique attributes that affect his performance in battle. Your main general will be supported by secondary characters, also broken up into good and bad affiliations. Your support characters will be made up of familiar faces from the films, and you will have some hidden folk to unlock as well. The multiplayer mode will support wired and wireless connections between two GBAs, so you can duel with a friend.
The basic structure of the game is a straight dose of turn-based strategy action mixed with some interesting variations that freshen things up. Battles are played out over three separate flanks that you'll alternate between using the GBA's shoulder buttons. Each turn will randomly assign you command points to use on each flank at the start, based on your general, which will let you move your troops and attack. As you'd expect, you'll have an array of troops at your disposal, ranging from standard melee fighters to range and horseback units. Each unit will have different attributes and attack ranges that you'll have to use effectively in order to win the day. In between battles you'll be able to buy upgrades and buff out your general, which is pretty much a must for later in the game. Once you get past the basics of the game's mechanics you'll find that there's a good amount of depth to be discovered and mastered in the battles. Fortunately, you won't be thrown to the wolves as you play the game, thanks to optional tutorials that fill you in on the finer points of combat.
The graphics in the game are a detailed mix of static backgrounds and character sprites that animate smoothly. The presentation makes use of a top-down view that is intercut with animated sequences when your forces engage the enemy, which is similar to old-school Shining Force--hardly a bad thing.
The audio in the game is low key and incorporates some decent re-creations of the film score. The sound effects get the job done, but they are a little too understated for our tastes. You'll hear some small sound bites, such as grunts and battle cries, from the assembled forces of good and evil during the heat of combat that are nicely implemented.
From what we've seen, The Lord of the Rings, The Third Age is shaping up to be a unique tactics-style game on the GBA. The gameplay is fairly accessible, although some of the higher-level strategy elements will force you to use your brain. The graphics are well done on the Game Boy Advance and are complemented by good audio. Ring-heads and strategy fans will both want to keep an eye out for the game when it ships this fall alongside the console versions of The Third Age.