It's been almost a year since Peter Jackson's movie based on The Fellowship of the Ring, the first part of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, was released to critical acclaim and box-office success. As the release of the next film in the saga, The Two Towers, approaches, interest in J. R. R. Tolkien's influential fantasy epic continues unabated. Riding that interest is a new game based on The Fellowship of the Ring for the PlayStation 2. Contrary to what you'd think, though, the game is based directly on the book and doesn't establish any overt ties to the movie. The Tolkien estate has even given the Fellowship game its blessing, which might lead one to expect a high standard of quality throughout. The late author's family may know his literature, but they don't necessarily know game design--The Fellowship of the Ring is merely an average adventure game with a high-profile license attached.
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 a little familiar with the storyline of The Fellowship of the Ring. The game stars the 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 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 control options, like a melee attack with a sword or walking stick, and the use of 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 and arrow for ranged fighting in addition to sword combat; and Gandalf has command of several magic spells. There are also 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 you'll actually care when you start playing someone new.
Though it has all the familiar adventure-game trappings, The Fellowship of the Ring isn't really 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. For another, the fighting system is somewhat clumsy, and you may find yourself cursing when enemies get in cheap hits. Perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of the game's combat involves Gandalf and his magic, but he's the character seen least--you'll play most of the game as Frodo or Aragorn, who are limited mainly to frustrating melee combat. The game does have a rudimentary lock-on system that lets you circle around a targeted enemy, but it doesn't always work as precisely as it should. At least the camera system in the PlayStation 2 game is more easily controlled than the camera in the recently released Xbox version. Overall, playing The Fellowship of the Ring on the PS2 can sometimes be difficult, tedious, frustrating, or any combination thereof, and it isn't fun nearly as much as it should be.
Fans of the original literary trilogy may be especially interested in The Fellowship of the Ring on the PlayStation 2, as it purports to bypass the recent movie entirely, instead drawing its inspiration directly from the novel. However, upon playing the game, you 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 PlayStation 2 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.
Graphically, The Fellowship of the Ring is a middle-of-the-road PlayStation 2 game. The polygon counts for the game's environments and characters are high, but the texture work and general color scheme are muddy and bland, giving the game a drab look overall. The character animations are expressive and well made, for the most part. You won't find some of the graphical effects, like bump mapping, that are used in the Xbox version, but visually, the game is serviceable. Aurally, the game fares somewhat better. The voice acting is good in some cases and merely passable in others, but the characters do sound more or less like you might expect. You won't find talent of the caliber found in the movie, but such is to be expected. Fellowship's music is surprisingly appropriate. It manages to create a real sense of gloom and foreboding, while the rest of the game's pacing and presentation usually fails to do so.
Ultimately, The Fellowship of the Ring doesn't live up to its license, and perhaps it can't. The Lord of the Rings is beloved by millions and widely hailed as the one of the forefathers of the fantasy genres in literature, film, and role-playing. Pairing a license of such magnitude with an average adventure game won't please the purists, and those who couldn't care less about the setting and storyline are left with a short and mostly uninteresting game. The Fellowship of the Ring is better left as a rental, even for die-hard fans of the original work.