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

We get an updated look at the upcoming Lord of the Rings-themed role-playing game from Electronic Arts.

We've been keeping tabs on The Lord of the Rings, The Third Age since the game was officially announced in April. Unlike the previous games in the series, which have been heavy on action with some role-playing-game-style character upgrades, The Third Age takes a traditional RPG approach toward its gameplay. EA will be showing off a new playable version of the game at its summer press event today, but we managed to get an early look at the PlayStation 2 version of the game to see how the ambitious game is coming together.

Steve Gray, the executive producer, tells you more about The Third Age. Click "stream" for a larger view.

The demo showcased three areas from the game: an intro level, the mines of Moria, and Helm's Deep. The intro level focused on a two-party team--made up of Idrial, the party's resident hot elf, and Berethor, the burly Gondorian with the Aragorn hair--roaming through a forest and engaging in combat with some of Sauron's minions. Combat began with a lovely flourish of the evil one's eye, which highlights the fact that battles are generally random in the game, although there are a few instances when you'll be tipped off to impending trouble by a cutscene or by something in the environment that lets you know potential death is coming. The combat visuals have been refined quite a bit since our last look at the game, and the menus and interfaces have been tightened up.

The mines of Moria showcased a larger party, with Idrial and Berethor being joined by Elegost, a human fighter, and Hadhod, a surly dwarf who likes axes. The sequence gives you a glimpse of the fiery Balrog before sending you against a mass of trolls. When you're dueling your foes, the game uses a standard turn-based, menu-driven structure that's right out of a Final Fantasy game. Your characters will have standard attacks as well as magic or special abilities unique to them. In addition, with several characters you'll be able to perform combos that are devastating to your foes and are nice to look at. The fights in the mines also showed off the variety in the battles. One of the fights we engaged in had us facing trolls laid out around us in a circle rather than in a traditional line.

In Helm's Deep we saw two key elements that highlight the game's role-playing approach. The level finds you and your group making your way through the castle, interacting with characters and completing quests. Your tasks are fairly basic, such as talking to specific characters, but they require some exploration and character interaction. Some of the folks you interact with are members of the fellowship. Later in the level you actually fight alongside Legolas, who joins your party temporarily. The battle with Legolas takes place on the walls of Helm's Deep as Sauron's forces come for their social call. In one battle you will face off against Urukhai who are standing in front of some ladders. Once you down the Urukhai, you can attack the ladders and prevent more troops from climbing up. If you fail to take out the ladders, your fallen foes will be replaced by even tougher folk, which can spell doom for your party if you're not careful.

We also had a chance to poke around some of the game menus, including those that let you track your quests, equip armor, enhance your character's skills, and check out the "story cards" you've collected. Story cards are reedited movie segments that feature new voice-over from Ian McKellan to help shed light on the game's story, which ties in to the plot in the movies. All told there's a lot to play around with if you enjoy RPGs and tinkering with parties. We're especially pleased to see subtle elements, such as bonuses you can earn by collecting sets of armor, which is a nice bit of strategy.

The graphics show off a nice level of polish, courtesy of the modified Return of the King engine that's being used to power the adventure. The character models are high-poly and detailed, although they don't look quite as photo-realistic as the cast of the previous games, since they're not based on live actors. However, that said, the cameos from the Fellowship of the Ring characters benefit from detailed facial modeling to match their movie counterparts. The effects used for the various spells and physical attacks are nicely done and give the combat a good amount of visual shine. One element that has been added since the last time we saw the game is a cinematic camera effect that keeps the in-game camera in motion during battles. This keeps battles visually interesting, even when you're being pummeled by the forces of evil.

The audio is still a work in progress, but it's shaping up to be a strong complement to the visuals. You can expect to hear familiar tunes from the movie soundtrack and original music made specifically for the game. The sound effects we've heard so far are solid and refreshingly clangy for melee attacks and awe-inspiring for spells and the like. The voice acting from the cast of characters is well done and retains the old Middle-earth drama we've all become accustomed to. One thing to note is the ingenious mileage the team is getting out of audio from the motion pictures to ensure that the experience is as authentic as possible. The cameos of the various familiar faces from the films will be supplemented by some original dialogue and movie dialogue spliced together to create an impressively seamless mix for the scenes where your party interacts with them.

Based on what we've played, The Lord of the Rings, The Third Age is coming along well. The original characters and story, coupled with traditional role-playing gameplay, make for a good fit with the movie license and should satisfy RPG fans and movie devotees alike. The Lord of the Rings, The Third Age is currently slated to ship this fall for the GameCube, PlayStation 2, and Xbox. An original Game Boy Advance game is also set to ship at the same time. Look for more on all the games in the coming months.

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