A beloved fantasy franchise loses its most distinctive quality — the epic scope of its battles, backdrops, characters and themes — in Electronic Arts misguided and poorly executed “Lord of the Rings: Conquest.” The game boils down each of the trilogy’s great battles to a series of compact, generic missions that rarely resemble anything seen in Middle Earth. A few unique elements — like the ability to rewrite the ending with evil triumphing — mix things up, but the small number of fans likely to pick up this game based on the license will end up wishing they could drop it into the fires of Mount Doom.
It’s no coincidence EA assigned Pandemic Studios to produce “Conquest,” since the formula is directly inspired, if not ripped off, from the development studio’s hugely successful “Star Wars: Battlefront.” It’s disappointing enough that the gameplay has evolved so little in the four years since that title came out. But the bigger problem is how poorly it captures “Rings” landmark moments.
As portrayed in Peter Jackson’s films, the siege of Helm’s Deep and the battle of Pellenor Fields are massive affairs involving thousands of humans, elves, orcs and oliphaunts. In “Conquest,” each battle is divided into four or six small goals, such as defending a spot or taking down an enemy general, with no indication of how it relates to the larger battle. The player simply completes a series of tasks and then the game informs him that the battle is done by jumping into the next series of videoclips taken from the film.
Instead of thousands of warriors, the number onscreen can usually be counted in the dozens. There are four character types — warriors, mages, archers, and scouts — whose usefulness varies depending on the mission. All the types are identical, resulting in dozens of human warriors running around who apparently all visit the same barber. Occasionally players get the ability to control a “hero” from the series like Gandalf or Aragorn, but they’re actually just different versions of the four standard characters with more power and sound-alike actors struggling to mimic the actors from the movies. Occassionally, giant creatures like ents and balrogs become playable, adding brief and much-needed moments of scale to the otherwise mundane proceedings.
Once the eight battles in the heroic campaign are completed, players can fight through eight more on the side of Sauron. The evil campaign starts off with a revisionist twist in which Frodo must be stopped from dropping the ring into Mount Doom, but then devolves into more of the same, except this time around the enemies are humans, elves and, in a final battle in the Shire, hobbits.
Multiplayer suffers from many of the same faults as the campaigns. Game types are the typical kill-or-be-killed, territory control and capture the flag (in this case, capture the ring) with the same character types used in single-player. Sixteen people playing together online makes the “Lord of the Rings” world feel even more empty and bland, as Minas Tirith and the Mines of Moria become boring backdrops for generic combat.
Even though it was delayed from its intended fall launch, the game feels rushed and occasionally sloppy, with mediocre graphics, spotty artificial intelligence and characters who literally appear out of thin air. The lack of polish in nearly every element, from the menus to onscreen directions to the difficulty settings, only contribute to the feeling that “Conquest” is a hobbit in a world of giants.