The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy has proved to be fertile source material for video game adaptations, spawning hack-and-slash action adventures as well as a soon-to-be-released real-time strategy title. The Third Age, however, is a turn-based, console-style role-playing game that takes a slightly different path from its film-faithful cousins. Instead of featuring the original cast of characters and following their journey as it was laid out in the films and novels, The Third Age introduces a new cross-cultural group of travelers as they put their own stamp on the history of Middle-earth. While there are some rough edges, the result is a mostly nice little role-playing jaunt into the world of Tolkien.
As the game opens, you're introduced to Berethor, warrior of the land of Gondor. He's riding in search of the Gondorian heir, Boromir, who has recently joined with the rest of the Fellowship of the Ring. The story of The Third Age revolves around Berethor, his past, and his fate in the world as he trails the Fellowship and gathers his own companions. These compatriots fall well within the archetypical spread of a Middle-earth adventure party: there's a wise and mysterious elf, a dwarf of proud character who is suspicious of the aforementioned elf, and a scruffy Dunedain ranger with his trusty bow, among others. Events unfold through scripted in-game story sequences as well as through a number of special events called scenes that you'll discover as you progress through the game. Scenes consist of cuts of live-action footage from The Lord of the Rings films, narrated by Ian McKellan, who reprises his role as the wizard Gandalf. Gandalf will explain to you what's going on in the world, what the various factions are planning at the time, where your party is going, and what your goals are. He will even tell you facts about your companions and their states of mind, and about Berethor and his past.
In fact, there's so much exposition being done by Gandalf that it seems to come at the expense of your characters, as they rarely interact with each other. For example, you are told that the dwarf Hadhod is bitter and coldhearted because he lost his son to the caverns of Moria when the evil came. But Hadhod himself never mentions this, never alludes to any kind of loss, doesn't seem particularly bitter (for an already gruff-sounding fellow), and has very little to say during the game other than the odd phrase when danger approaches. This is true of much of the game--you are explicitly told what has happened and what will happen instead of actually seeing it happen, and it serves to somewhat distance the player from the whole experience. More interaction between the characters would have been welcome, as there are virtually no town visits to speak of, and much of the time you're simply moving from battle to battle.
Adventure mode is the roaming portion of the game, during which time you'll be exploring the various landscapes, caverns, fortresses, and villages in search of enemies or your next objective. Upon entering a new area, you'll usually be assigned one or more quests for that particular region. Frequently quests are mandatory, but not always; completing 100 percent of the quests in a given zone is usually simply a matter of opening every chest you see, as well as making sure you explore whatever paths are open to you. You won't be gathering currency in The Third Age, and there are no shops; every piece of armor and every weapon you acquire will either be won through battle or discovered along your way. Since each piece of armor and each weapon is distinct with its own unique appearance and stats, and since your equipped items change the appearance of your various characters, finding new equipment is always exciting. It's great to watch someone like Berethor go from a long-haired ragamuffin in ratty old armor to a shining suit of steel with the White Tree of Gondor embossed on the front, along with a matching helm. Between monsters that drop loot and the many treasure chests hidden about, there's always a steady influx of new gear. And that's a good thing, because battles in The Third Age will generally level you up quite quickly.
Getting into battle involves an interesting mix of set encounters, random encounters, and visible enemies you can run up to and engage. There are two different onscreen indications that will let you know if a battle is imminent. The first is a glowing red eye (yes, this would be the baleful eye of Sauron). When crossing certain areas, or revisiting places you've been before, the eye will start to form in a corner of your screen. If you don't leave that particular village, cave, or field, the eye will gradually get brighter until finally it triggers a battle. The other indicator is a glowing blue orb, or a palantir. The palantir will appear in areas where enemies are lurking in a set location. As you approach that location, the palantir will get brighter and more distinct; you can use it as a warning that you need to rest if your characters aren't ready for a fight. Visible monsters are scattered around, like the ambushing goblins in the bowels of Moria or the battle trolls fighting the guard in the streets of Minas Tirith, so you can just run into them and start a fight. Monsters also like to lurk near chests, though quietly, so oftentimes when you move to grab a new bit of treasure, you can count on some opposition. This sounds varied, though what it basically boils down to is that you're going to be fighting something just about all the time. And anyone who has played a turn-based RPG in recent or distant history should pick up the fighting very easily
You can field three characters at a time against foes that The Lord of the Rings fans will readily recognize: orcs and goblins, uruk'hai and the wolfish wargs, giant trolls and wild men. If you have more than three characters in your group, you can easily swap characters in and out of battle by pressing the left trigger on your controller when someone's turn comes up. This is a traditional turn-based system through and through, with your characters on one side of the room, your foes on the other, and each waiting patiently to act depending on their initiative and speed. On one side of the screen, you'll see a series of portraits that displays the current turn order of both enemies and allies, which is helpful for planning your attack.
In addition to their normal attacks, your party members will all have access to two different sets of skills. One set is usually based on the weapon that character uses (sword skills, spear skills, axe skills, and the like), and the other set is generally magical in nature. You level up your abilities by using them. Each time you use an ability from a particular "tree," you'll get a point in that tree. Earning the best abilities takes quite a bit of time, as you only get one skill point per use of a skill, and you'll need to focus hundreds of points in some trees. The patient will end up with an arsenal of abilities that include multiple attacks in a single turn, stunning monsters and putting them to sleep, as well as healing your whole party, raising your group's defense and evade rate, and so on. And when you level your characters up, you'll be able to allot points to different base stats, like strength, speed, dexterity, spirit, and so on, so you can customize on a few different levels.
The system works well on the whole, though investing in abilities gets to be time consuming at higher levels. The special powers at least generally look great, with lots of shining swords held aloft and dramatic creaking of bowstrings, but there's only so much variation in them, and you're going to be seeing some of them hundreds and hundreds of times as you patiently raise your points in increments of one. The bulk of the powers are fairly short, but there's no way to skip the special-effects show manually. In addition, some of the effects seem to act oddly. It's possible for an enemy to register as immune to a stun, but then the enemy will appear stunned, drop off the list of action portraits--and then still be able to move normally. Also, some of the enemies have special abilities that will slow your turn or decrease your attack strength, but there are no icons onscreen to show you this. Sometimes you'll just be left guessing what exactly an enemy curse just did to you.
When you complete a chapter of the game, you unlock "evil mode" for the chapter cleared. While this sounds very interesting, evil mode is actually just a selection of battles from that chapter, generally around five or less, that you'll fight from the side of the Mordor forces. They're usually very quick to go through. You'll be plunged right into the next battle upon a victory, and you're not done until you've cleared all the fights, and when this happens, you get a handful of items. Usually there's a nice weapon or two thrown in that will likely be better than what you have equipped, so breezing through the mode is usually worth the trouble. It's just not terribly interesting--unless you're playing the fight as the balrog, because as we all know, huge fire-demons are awesome.
Visually, the level of detail and care that went into the various characters--and even the enemies--is great. Each of the many, many pieces of armor and weapons that you'll find along your journey is distinct and uniquely designed. Polished steel shines on Berethor, leather clothing rumples naturally on Elegost the ranger, and Hadhod the dwarf looks best in mithril and velvets pulled from the crypts of Moria. The characters themselves also look very good, and the motion-capture technology employed for their animations is mostly to good effect. There are still certain animations that look a bit wooden, but those aren't too bothersome in the face of other eye candy, like the now-ubiquitous "bloom" effect that accentuates the special effects in the game. The GameCube version plays just as well as the Xbox and PlayStation 2 versions. While it offers the same great visuals, the GameCube version is still plagued by some of the slowdown that is also found in its cousins. However, the brief spates of slow frame rates mostly aren't egregiously disruptive as much as they are an annoyance.
Insofar as music goes, if you appreciated the grand scores of The Lord of the Rings films, then you'll continue to appreciate them here; the music for the game is straight from the movies. The stirring orchestral and choral themes for the various characters and locales really serve to root you firmly in the Middle-earth experience. The voice acting is also excellent; Ian McKellan brings the same richness and nobility to the voice of Gandalf that he brought to the feature films, and the rest of the cast is also of very good quality. Again, it's a shame there isn't more original interaction between the characters in the game, as their dialogue fits the milieu perfectly as it's written, and it's acted just as well. All the sound effects in the game are excellent, from the gurgling of the uruk'hai to the clear ringing of steel blades held aloft to the subtle clinking of your armor and scuffing of pebbles and dirt as you run. The only slightly jarring note in the sound package is that some of the other characters you meet will speak in what is obviously recycled movie dialogue that has been repurposed for a slightly different scene, and it sounds out of place.
Even with all the skill-raising and orc-hewing, the game takes about 25 hours to finish if you rush, and 30 or longer if you want to take your sweet time and gather up skills. Otherwise, it's pretty easy to get 100-percent quest completion on all the chapters, and there aren't any extra features unlocked when you beat the game. There is a co-op mode, but it's poorly implemented; it consists of someone plugging in a second controller and then selecting an option from the in-game menu. Player one controls the movement in adventure mode, and the two players trade off controlling characters in battles. As multiplayer in a turn-based game, it's just not a whole lot of fun. You're better off just leaning over your friend's shoulder and telling him or her which ability to use.
The Lord of the Rings, The Third Age molds Middle-earth into a traditional turn-based frame, and while the results aren't all that great, the game carries some pretty good features and should appeal to fans of the source material.