J.R.R. Tolkien's seminal fantasy work The Lord of the Rings has generated an astounding amount of new interest recently for a series of books released half a century ago. Most of this attention is focused on New Line Cinema's production of three films based on the trilogy, but some of the Rings buzz is now spilling into video games as well. Not surprisingly, games based on the first book (and movie) in the trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring, have begun to appear, and one of them has landed recently for the Xbox. Interestingly, the Xbox rendition of Fellowship is based directly on the first book of the series and shares no overt ties with the movie released last Christmas. Unfortunately, it seems that even the blessing of Tolkien Enterprises isn't enough to save the game from its bland design and tedious gameplay.
If you've read The Lord of the Rings, seen the first movie, or even lived for a little while in a world where Tolkien's epic is so pervasive, you should be at least somewhat familiar with the storyline of The Fellowship of the Ring. The game stars diminutive Frodo Baggins, a hobbit who has undertaken a quest to destroy the One Ring, a magic ring that contains all the power and malice of the dark lord Sauron. Frodo is joined by his friends Sam, Merry, and Pippin, the crusty but benevolent old wizard Gandalf, the ranger Aragorn, the warrior Boromir of Gondor, Gimli the dwarf, and Legolas the elf. Together, these eight must accompany Frodo as he bears the ring to Mount Doom, the only place in Middle-earth where it can be destroyed. Of course, Frodo and his friends will have to evade the forces of the enemy and seek out friends among the free peoples of Middle-earth.
The Fellowship of the Ring is set up much like a typical Zelda-style third-person adventure game. It lets you assume the roles of three of the fellowship's members at various times of the game--Frodo, Aragorn, and Gandalf are all playable at times dictated by the storyline. Each of the heroes has the same basic moves, like attacking with a sword or walking stick, jumping, and using common inventory items. All three characters have unique gameplay aspects, as well. Frodo can sneak past enemies, as hobbits are wont to do; Aragorn has a bow with multiple types of arrows; and Gandalf has command of a range of magic spells. Each hero also has access to a few character-specific items, such as Frodo's ability to use the One Ring to become invisible. Overall, the three playable characters are distinct enough that the gameplay feels fairly varied throughout.
Though it has all the familiar adventure-game trappings, The Fellowship of the Ring is hardly the best game you'll play in that category. For one, your objectives are never more complicated than "take item X to place Y" or "escape the current area," and as such, they can get pretty predictable after a while. The early parts of the game, which you play as Frodo, are especially bad about sending you on too many fetch quests. For another, the fighting system is rather clumsy, and you'll find yourself cursing as enemies get in cheap hits and unfairly block your own attacks. Perhaps the only enjoyable aspect of the game's combat involves Gandalf and his magic, but you play most of the game as Frodo or Aragorn, who are limited mainly to frustrating melee combat. The game's lock-on feature, which is somewhat reminiscent of the one used in the Zelda games on the N64, is effective only when it doesn't ruin your perspective on the action. A pile of other minor technical issues round out this list, such as a very jerky and hard-to-control camera and some very unpleasant bugs.
Fans of the original literary trilogy may be especially interested in The Fellowship of the Ring on the Xbox, as it purports to bypass the recent movie entirely, instead drawing its inspiration directly from the novel. However, upon playing the game, one may realize that the game's connection to the book is slightly dubious. It does follow the events of the book a bit more closely than the film--the old songster Tom Bombadil makes a weighty appearance, for instance. But for all the talk of adherence to its source material, The Fellowship of the Ring on the Xbox lacks the power of Tolkien's masterwork. It's rushed but not urgent, it's dark with no real sense of melancholy, and its characters seem to be going through the motions of a story whose outcome they already know. To those looking for just another adventure game, this complaint must sound like a nitpick, but for those who hold the trilogy dear, it's disappointing that the game fails to evoke the same feelings as the book.
At least The Fellowship of the Ring is aesthetically sound, for the most part. The game's environments are generally lush and appealing, making liberal use of the beautifully pixel-shaded water the Xbox has become known for. The character models are also detailed, and the designers apparently took great pains to make the characters look different from the actors portraying them in the movie. Strangely, though, for all the effort the marketing of The Fellowship of the Ring has made in trying to distance the game from the movie, the Xbox version shares a lot of little touches with Peter Jackson's film. The Eye of Sauron, for instance, is identical to the movie version, as is the Balrog seen at the end of the Moria sequence. Perhaps these things are simply taking their place in The Lord of the Rings visual canon. The voice acting in the game ranges from decent to merely competent, but the music is actually quite atmospheric and provides a nice aural backdrop without being obtrusive.
Though the setup sounds promising--a wildly popular fantasy license and the approval of the author's estate--The Fellowship of the Ring is ultimately an average game at its best and a frustrating and boring one at its worst. It's also exceedingly short, and good players will finish everything, including the optional objectives, in perhaps eight or 10 hours. That makes the game a fairly entertaining rental, but those who pay full price will likely end up feeling burned. As a whole, The Fellowship of the Ring is just passable--it can't stand on the strength of its lackluster gameplay or its sometimes ill-used license, but add both of these components together and you may have a somewhat enjoyable weekend with it.