The Lord of the Rings, The Third Age Hands-On

We delve into the lands of Middle-earth for a new look at this Tolkien-inspired RPG.

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The Lord of the Rings, The Third Age occupies a unique spot among the groundswell of entertainment properties based on Peter Jackson's popular film adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy world. The game follows the adventures of an original ensemble of characters (not the famous Fellowship of the Ring). This game serves as a side story of sorts, letting you experience the events of the books (and films) from another perspective, aiding the Fellowship and fighting to save Middle-earth. We recently had the opportunity to play through the first chapter of the GameCube version of this role-playing game to see how the new band of warriors comes together, and to battle our way through the lands of the elves to the crumbled gates of the mines of Moria.

You'll find plenty of orcs to slay in The Third Age.

Events open with a man named Berethor, a captain of the guard from the land of Gondor, riding through a forest. He has the misfortune to encounter a pair of ringwraiths on the road, and he cannot stand against them. Fortunately, help soon arrives in the guise of an elf maiden. She summons water spirits in the form of horses to sweep away the danger, and then she introduces herself as Idrial, a servant of the elfin Lady Galadriel of Lothlorien. They proceed to a way station to heal the battered captain and to gather supplies, and there they encounter another group of elves, who intimate that Idrial was actually seeking Berethor for some mysterious purpose. As the pair continues through a mountain pass, slaying orcs and packs of wild men, they come across a man sprawled on the ground, apparently injured. An advancing group of wargs (giant, horrible-looking dog creatures) begins to attack, but the man jumps to his feet and slays them skillfully. He is Elegost, one of the Dunedain rangers (Aragorn is also one of these rangers). It seems that this particular ranger has fallen on a bit of hard luck. He has lost his dwarf companion and a handy map that was created by the elf lord Elrond in the heat of battle a little farther along the pass.

Despite the fellow's impertinent attitude, there's really nothing to do but help a ranger out, so the group wends their way across the countryside on the way to Moria. They eventually come upon tracks and, ultimately, a scrappy little dwarf named Hadhod who is unsuccessfully fighting a massive cave troll all by himself. This dwarf is Elegost's lost companion, and so the group teams up to dispatch the troll before continuing up the trail. As they approach the gate of Moria--through which the Fellowship has traveled not too long ago--there's a sudden attack from the nearby lake that is occupied by the many-tentacled beast known only as "the watcher in the water." After the resulting scuffle, the creature lashes violently with its arms and tears open the rockfall from the entrance to the dwarven mines, allowing the company to enter.

Like Aragorn, Elegost is a powerful Dunedain ranger.

The gameplay here revolves around two modes: adventure mode, where you're running around various locations in Middle-earth to seek out treasure and various objectives; and battle mode, where you get to dispatch enemies in the flashy The Lord of the Rings fashion. Triggering fights in adventure mode doesn't seem entirely haphazard--that is, you're not continually running into random invisible packs of orcs. Battles mostly seem to initiate near the treasure chests, which you'll collect along your way. At times, an onscreen indicator lets you know how close you are to a fight. The indicator either takes the form of a blue palantir (a scrying stone, like the one the wizard Saruman possesses) or the fiery eye of Sauron (and seeing the distinct orb of flame, it's a little disconcerting to know that the Big Guy has his eye on you). Locating treasure chests is an important part of progression, as they'll contain both helpful items as well as key treasures that you'll need to complete various quests as you go. Completing these quests will net you experience points as well as valuable items, so it's worth it to spend the time to seek out all the chests you can find. Completing quests will also unlock various Middle-earth scenes, which are live-action story sequences composed of scenes from the films, narrated by Ian McKellen. You can also gain these from locating key areas, like an old campsite used by the Fellowship on their journey. The scenes mostly serve to give you an overall context for what you're doing, let you know what's going on in the fast-paced world of high-fantasy warfare, and clue you in on what the Fellowship has done recently.

To The Power Of Three

We got to tinker a bit more with the turn-based battle system in the game, which serves up the kind of classic gameplay where you have the good guys lined up on one side and the bad guys lined up on the other, which will be familiar to most anyone who has played a turn-based console RPG of any stripe. During each character's turn, you can choose to perform a variety of actions, from standard melee attacks to "spirit power" magic attacks to special attacks based on your preferred weapon, and more. For example, Berethor can learn various sword skills with bonuses against orcs, or special "leadership" skills to boost party attributes; Idrial can learn healing and water magic (including the water spirit summon mentioned earlier); Eregost can learn bow skills and special attacks that give him bonuses against beasts; and Hadhod can learn fire spells and all manner of axe-cleaving specials. Special skills are earned over time as you use your abilities, so every time you use a special attack, you'll gain spirit points that'll go toward a new technique for you to learn. As you damage your foes, you'll also fill a meter in the corner of the screen called the perfect meter. When it's full, you'll have the ability to select a powerful, perfect attack that you can use to devastate your enemies (the one we used launched a massive volley of arrows and did a satisfying truckload of damage).

In battle, you can switch between three members of your party.

You can have three characters in battle at one time, and you can switch characters in and out of reserve on the fly with no turn penalties. Regardless of whether a particular character joins in battle, everyone will still gather experience points at the end of the fight--even if they perished while fighting. When your character gains a level, you actually gain points to distribute using a Dungeons & Dragons-style system, where you can place those points into a character's attributes, such as strength, dexterity, or speed. This gives you some freedom to customize the various characters according to your liking.

Visually, the game is coming along nicely. The characters are detailed well, and when you find new equipment for them, the corresponding item on the model will change when it's equipped. There seems to be a good variety of various armor, weapons, and accessories to find. The character animations still look a little funny at times, but the game is still undergoing some polish for its release. The lands you'll pass through on your journeys are looking quite nice, from the mist-shrouded, dead forests just outside Moria to the rushing waterfalls you'll see in forests and caves to the various ancient ruins and elegant elf structures you'll come across. There are amusing little details too, like when your characters are struck with arrows in battle, the arrows continue to bristle from that person's body for a period of time before they begin to fade.

Little details also reign in the game's sound, which goes beyond the grand orchestral score from the film that serves as the game's music. From the liquid gurgle of a threatening orc to the subtle creak when a bow is drawn to the faint clinking of mail as Berethor lopes along a path to the way your footfalls sound on old, rotted wood, The Third Age's sound is all about those small touches that really add to the experience. The voice work in the game sounds pretty much spot-on; it is well delivered and well written in that particular fantasy vernacular that permeates The Lord of the Rings world. Ian McKellan's rich, wizardly tones are soothing to the ear as well, and you might find yourself watching the movie scenes just to hear him speak.

It's not just the little things that are impressive in The Third Age.

The Lord of the Rings, The Third Age looks like it will offer the most to fans of the films that are itching to get back to Middle-earth and immerse themselves in the sights, sounds, and characters of the original trilogy from a fresh perspective. The RPG foundation for that experience seems solid enough, and the character customization options in levels and skills will give people a chance to have some fun shaping their heroes as they go. GameSpot will have much more on this game as its release nears. Currently, The Lord of the Rings, The Third Age is scheduled for release on the PlayStation 2, GameCube, and Xbox later this year.

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