The first thing that Tolkien fans should know about Conquest is to forget everything that they think they know about the Lord of the Rings.
In the same way that EA has used the Godfather franchise to forge a fun game that uses the film as a springboard for shop smashing extortion, shootouts, and gangland vendettas, Conquest does the same with Peter Jackson’s celluloid treatment by turning it into an action packed killing field of oliphants and elves. Pandemic has leveraged their experience from developing the Star Wars: Battlefront series into a fantasy filled with swords and sorcery and the final result isn’t so much LOTR as it is an arcade beat ’em up with cameos from the film with a multiplatform release.
Tolkien die-hards may weep silently as they watch Nazgul run about like cloaked swordsmen training for the decathlon and actually die from the rusted blades of orcish peons intent on grabbing the One Ring for themselves. They’ll also learn that Minas Morgul is powered by a magic reactor and that Gandalf can hurl lightning like the Emperor from Star Wars. The evil campaign has the benefit of being a creatively insidious batch of “what-ifs” where such insanity is expected, but even if the design called for a little interpretation in order to build on the fun factor, fans of the films and the books will have to swallow their expectations.
The solo adventure starts off with the War of the Ring campaign that sees Frodo off to destroy the One Ring in the heart of Mount Doom. Spread across several stages such as the gleaming white city of Minas Tirith, the battered ruins of Osgiliath, the Mines or Mordor, and the Black Gate, players will take part in the quest as nameless warriors fighting through the narrated story. Completing that, the evil campaign unlocks to allow Sauron’s unfettered ambition stretch his shadow across all of Middle Earth as each stage is revisited from his wicked perspective thanks to a surprising twist.
The serviceable visuals hold up well enough to make rampaging through Hobbiton as it burned to the ground a memorable experience, although most every area within the game looks far better from afar. The rough graphics are one upped by the details lavished on the characters almost matching the epic quality of Howard Shore’s cinematic soundtrack as borrowed from the films, although everything else continues to fall short such as the less-than-impressive special effects. Hugo Weaving, who had played elven king Elrond in the films, tells the story, but other actors fill in for the rest of the star power that opted not to reprise their roles here. Most of the dialogue is pretty forgettable in any case, especially the incredibly annoying voice of whoever is nearby reminding you what the next objective is because telling you ten times in a row is apparently not enough.
Most of the battles begin with a choice from one of four classes which have their own unique sets of basic attack and melee combos. Warriors are the melee masters, archers excel in ranged attacks with an endless supply of arrows, thieves have the ability to become temporarily invisible in broad daylight for backstab kills, and mages can fling fire, lightning, and shield themselves and allies from danger as well as heal. And if you don’t like the class that you’ve chosen, you can always switch roles at special points on the battlefield.
Attacking enemies and getting attacked also helps to fill a charge bar enabling special moves that range from using a warrior’s blazing sword that can clear groups of enemies to a mage’s magical shockwave that can send them flying away. Respawns are limited in number but can be built up by taking objectives so as long as you have one to draw from, you can return to the fray as someone else to keep up the fight. The enemy is also divided into the same four classes as well with all of the same moves. If you have never seen a Tolkien orc perform ninjitsu with a sword, now is your chance.
Most of the gameplay consists of racing to a particular flag on the battlefield and holding it until it is yours, usually by killing several waves of enemies that are trying to enter the circle in which you are supposed to stand and defend it. Other objectives take the role of items that you must recover, or certain tasks that have to be fulfilled within a certain time limit. But one thing is consistent across both campaigns and within each and every stage: busting your thumbs on button mashing repetition as you slay a nearly inexhaustible amount of cannon fodder.
Despite its legendary trappings, the gameplay that is churned out by the design fails to make it as memorable. Finishing both campaigns can take only six or so hours tops. There are no extra weapons to earn on battlefield, no upgrade options to help cultivate your chosen classes or heroes with upgrades or abilities. Even the paint-by-the-numbers objectives aren’t interesting enough to break free from how linear the action can feel as you head from one point to the next. The claustrophobic camera will leave you open to peripheral attacks from the sides and behind, sometimes launching your character into position for more juggling attacks by the enemy…unless you happen to be Sauron or the Balrog who laugh at all such attempts. Lightning arcs allow enemies to pass through them if they’re not the intended target, the shallow number of combo attacks become boring, and the feeling of participating in a grand battle to save or destroy Middle Earth is frequently undermined by these and other issues sapping the enjoyment I may have been having up to those points.
As for the heroes you occasionally get to play as, the lion’s share of the most interesting ones belong to the ‘evil’ side with the Balrog and Sauron himself waiting in the wings to come out and play. Most everyone else, such as Gandalf and Aragorn, are simply reskinned versions of their respective classes with a few unique skills to set them apart, something made obvious towards the end of the ‘good’ campaign when Legolas filled in as the archer and Gimli, warrior dwarf with mighty axe and storm bred disposition, was…the thief. I didn’t know he had sticky fingers, but I guess someone needed to fill the position.
One class that seems to literally toss out the trilogy are the mages. They are supposed to be something of a rarity in LOTR as Gandalf can attest to, yet Conquest carpets itself with legions of these would-be wizards. I didn’t know shields and lightning were staples of Middle Earth sorcery, but the enemy will spam both of these to death. The shield is particularly annoying, appearing as glowing, transparent lozenges on the battlefield with the wizard at the center, rendering any missile attacks useless against them. Instead of feeling like a rampaging archer or mage tearing through foes and enjoying the chaos, you’ll often find yourself dealing with shield spam that makes an already repetitive experience even more annoying to put up with as it forces you to run up and smack around the mage messing with your fun every time. You can’t “shatter” the shield with lightning or special arrows which would have been interesting if I wanted to keep my range, nor will the dimwitted AI helping you see them as the most immediate threat forcing you to close distance anyway to deal with the problem.
But aside from pillaging the material from the film and the book, numerous other issues scratch at the licensed veneer. It’s incredibly easy to get juggled by enemies as noted earlier, sometimes frustratingly so to the point where I just put the controller down because there was nothing I could do aside from watch the cheapness. Then there’s the overall unfinished feel taking the form of enemies jiggling against a wall because they’re stuck against it, clipping issues, and often bizarre AI behavior that leaves your so-called allies standing around while you get killed. At one point, a boss monster fell off the edge of a cliff leaving an important quest item at the bottom of an unreachable gorge. On a guess, falling off the same cliff to dive for it returned the item to a spot where I could easily get it after I respawned. Why it didn’t do it before I sacrificed myself is a good question.
As much as the mechanics may not pay homage to the films in a campaign setting, they actually work better within its bare bones, but addicting, multiplayer. Sixteen would-be heroes are pitted against each other across the stock gametypes of deathmatch, team deathmatch, a conquest mode where two teams fight over control points to dominate the map, and a capture the flag variant using the One Ring. Even if you’re playing this on an Xbox 360 as I did, an EA account is needed to play on the ‘net making it an annoyance to have to remember just what your username and password are for a service that may not see as much use as Live. But once in, an easy-to-use lobby system lists the games that are available.
Just as in the single player, you need to pick which of four classes you want to go in as and players can occasionally opt to respawn as a hero for their side if they manage to rack up a high score. Other times, some games will have both sides spawn as heroes sending Gandalfs and Sarumans against groups of Witch Kings and Elronds. Not all of the maps, all of which are based off of the actual levels in the game, feel balanced making it easy for one side to get the drop on another by attacking their spawn or through the use of special characters such as Ents and Trolls, but it manages to work well enough for a rental.
Pandemic’s ability to transition their Star Wars Battlefront design principles over to a fantasy setting could have generated an exciting new chapter in EA’s LOTR franchise, but it is clear that it hasn’t been an easy move to make. When the experience manages to slip past the flaws, moments of hack ‘n slash merriment emerge but only by the thinnest of margins thanks to being able to play as the bad guys despite the stronger multiplayer component. But Conquest’s shallow, often repetitive, back-to-basics approach ignores the advances made by several of its own peers giving it the feel of a game that had been rushed through development in order to capitalize on a license. It’s hard to recommend this to anyone but the most die-hard of fans and even then, only if they won’t get nightmares from seeing Sauron bunny hop his way across Rivendell.