We recently had a chance to check out the PlayStation 2 version of EA's upcoming game based on Peter Jackson's excellent film adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings trilogy. As we reported earlier, the game is being codeveloped by Electronic Arts and Stormfront Studios, and it will incorporate story elements from last year's The Fellowship of the Ring movie with story elements from the forthcoming The Two Towers, which is due in theaters this December. The game has come quite a ways since we last saw it, and the build we received provided us with a chance to play around with all the playable characters, levels, and extras being packed into the game. Judging from what we've seen, The Two Towers' mix of 3D combat, RPG elements, excellent graphics, and movielike storytelling is looking very promising.
The game opens with an abbreviated version of the film's opening that alternates between film footage, real-time cutscenes, and short segments of gameplay, all of which do an excellent job of setting the tone for the game. In the interactive bits of this prologue, you'll take control of the elven warrior Isildur and wreak havoc on the assembled orc masses. The short sequence is a quick tutorial on the attack system you'll be using in the game and a showcase for the game's impressive graphics engine. You'll be coached on the three main attacks in the game--speed, fierce, and killing blow--via tips shouted to you on the battlefield and onscreen text that lets you know how effective your blows are. Speed is obviously the quickest attack in the game, and while it doesn't do much damage, it can be useful for setting up a larger combo. Fierce is a stronger but slower attack that does a lot more damage and is perfectly suited to destroying shields. The killing blow is a slow attack that will finish off your enemies with one hit once you've knocked them to the ground. Each of the attacks is mapped to one of the face buttons on the PlayStation 2 controller and can be chained together to perform combos and special moves once you've earned them. An onscreen momentum meter will fill as you successfully land blows and will dramatically increase the effectiveness of your attacks when full. You'll also be able to kick nearby opponents and use a unique ranged attack on distant foes. A cool addition to the game's control since we last saw it is the ability to use the right analog sticks in place of the buttons to trigger attacks by pushing the stick in a certain direction and then pressing on it like a button. The analog stick system seemed to work best with Legolas and Aragorn, whose speed and combo attacks have a very distinctive rhythm to them, while the face buttons suited Gimli.
Following the prologue, you'll go to a summary screen, where your skill in battle will be determined according to your performance. The various types of blows, ranging from excellent to poor, will be tallied, and you'll be given points and a ranking. Once you've reviewed the summary, the game will start and you'll be brought to a world map. You'll be able to select one of three playable characters alluded to above: Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli. Each character will have unique attributes that will affect how he handles, and those attributes will require you to adjust how you go through a level. For example, Legolas is an excellent ranged fighter but just a decent melee fighter, whereas Gimli is death with an axe in close quarters but decidedly less lethal at a distance. Aragorn is probably the most well rounded of the three, although his ranged arrow attacks are far less powerful than Legolas'. While each of the characters has individual strengths and weaknesses, you'll be able to do something about that thanks to the RPG elements in the game. The main game differs from the prologue in that when you come to the summary screen, you'll be able to use the points you earned in a level to buy upgrades for your character and level him up. You'll find five groups of upgrades to select from, ranging from new combos to permanent supplements to stats such as health and defense. While you'll be able to switch characters between levels, you'll find it best to settle on one to take through the game, as you'll need a pretty buffed-out character to deal with the insanity of the later stages in the game.
Protecting The One Ring
The game will feature 12 levels focusing on major events from both of the films. You'll find five from Fellowship of the Ring: the prologue, Weathertop, the gates of Moria, Balin's tomb, and Amon Hen. The final seven cover events you'll see in the The Two Towers. Four of the levels--Fangorn forest, plains of Rohan, Westfold, and gap of Rohan--are set in different areas of Middle-earth, while the last three are set during the climactic battle at Helm's Deep and cover the attack on its wall, the wall's breach, and the nasty battle in the courtyard.
Making your way through the game is fairly straightforward, although you'll find some variety in the actual gameplay between levels. Some levels will find you killing everything that moves like in the prologue, while others will feature set objectives. For example, Weathertop requires you to keep the ring-wraiths away from Frodo who, as anyone who's seen Fellowship can attest, is a veritable magnet for sharp or blunt objects of evil intent. An onscreen meter in the upper right of the screen keeps you abreast of the hobbit's condition. The gates of Moria will throw an octopus boss at you. The first Helm's Deep stage will send you scurrying along the wall, kicking away ladders and dispatching the orcs who make it to the top. An onscreen display in the upper right clues you in to the ladder positions, while a meter below it fills with red as the orc population on the wall grows. The gameplay mix between the various levels feels pretty solid and seems to work very well.
When you're on the world map, you'll see the main path of the levels outlined in red and several branches out from the path in outlined in white. These are the unlockable extras. Stormfront's approach to the extras included in the game has more in common with a DVD movie than most games. In addition to an unlockable character and a secret level, you'll find interviews with Elijah Wood, Viggo Mortensen, Orlando Bloom, John Rhys Davies, and Ian McKellen, who recorded their characters' dialogue for the game. You'll also find production sketches, behind-the-scenes material, and other odds and ends. While some of it will open as you play through the game, you'll find that unlocking some of the content is tied to the character you take through the game. For example, you'll only be able to unlock the Orlando Bloom and John Rhys Davies interviews by going through the game with Legolas and Gimli, respectively.
The game's visual and audio presentation is a slick package that's very easy on the eyes and ears. Graphically, the game is very impressive. You'll see large, detailed characters who bear more than a passing resemblance to their big-screen counterparts. The animation during the battles is solid but a bit stiff in places. The environments you'll find yourself in capture the look and feel of the films well, thanks to a generous poly count and good texture work. The successful re-creation of the films is highlighted by the ease with which the game moves between in-game cutscenes and actual movie footage. The detail in the levels is actually as high as that of the characters and includes some nice little touches that should please fans of the books (keep your eyes peeled in Fangorn forest for a familiar face among the trees). The game's audio is equally strong, thanks to the aforementioned voice acting from the actors and the liberal use of sounds and tunes from the films.
Judging from what we've played so far, The Lord of the Rings, The Two Towers is shaping up really well. The polished graphics and action-oriented gameplay do a good job of capturing the appeal of the films. The selection of extras in the game is solid and should be of special interest to fans eager for a peek at the upcoming The Two Towers, as the game will ship before the film opens. The Lord of the Rings, The Two Towers is set to ship for the PlayStation 2 this October. A Game Boy Advance game based on the film is set to follow in November.