Lord of the slogfest

Like most gamers, I loved last gen’s Star Wars: Battlefront games, which pit you against hordes of evil imperials or pesky rebels in an all-out death match.

Like most gamers, I loved last gen’s Star Wars: Battlefront games, which pit you against hordes of evil imperials or pesky rebels in an all-out death match.

So, when the game’s developer, Pandemic, decided to apply the same logic to Peter Jackson’s Middle-earth in Lord of the Rings: Conquest, it sounded like a good idea. Killing trolls and bringing down marauding oliphaunts sounded like it’d be at least as much fun as laser-blasting Stormtroopers and AT-ATs. Needless to say, I was excited.

Then I started actually playing.

Within the first few minutes, I had executed all of the soldier’s moves and combos, of which there are few. The battlefield was sparse with orcs to slay, and the only voice on it belonged to a disembodied commander issuing orders.

Out of the other three classes to play as—archer, scout and mage—only the mage seemed interesting. Things weren’t looking too promising. But it wasn’t until I started playing the second level that I started to get pissed off because of Conquest‘s cheap enemies, shoddy combat and overall structural flaws.

Look, I know in hack and slash games you’re supposed to be fighting against the odds with enemies all around you. That’s a given. But since Conquest‘s structure is objective-based, actually accomplishing said objectives, rather than just murdering everything in sight until the level is over, is often next to impossible.

In an early example from the game’s second level, in which you must take Isengard back from the orcs (Conquest takes some liberties with the films’ already liberty-laden storyline), one of those objectives involves killing an orc captain. This orc chief provides morale (and therefore ridiculous power) to the party of troops that protect him.

As could be expected, healing mages and several meaty sword orcs surround your target. A direct assault generally results with a little plink detracted from your health bar. After getting in a few hits you’re generally assaulted from 50 directions by bloodthirsty orc blades.

After re-spawning, losing a precious life and trudging back to where the captain is, he’s been healed by one of the mages. All your work has been for nothing, and it’s likely the captain and his men have gained a little ground.

Enemies also ruthlessly juggle you in the air with their blades, resulting in a lot of quick and unfair deaths. To top it all off, if you do manage to get through x number of objectives but then run out of lives, you have to start the entire level over. And you can’t even skip the in-game cut-scenes.

Thus, more often than not, combat becomes an endless war of attrition, somewhat akin to trench warfare, only without the trenches. Needless to say, spending 30 minutes to gain a few inches of ground in the direction of an objective, only to be eventually slaughtered by endlessly re-spawning enemies (another big problem) is not my idea of fun.

This kind of thing happens all the time in Conquest.

Even when battles aren’t impossible (the game’s difficulty level jumps around wildly) the combat is relatively weak. Part of the reason Battlefront worked is because, in essence, it had the mechanics of a first-person shooter—any variance in strategy came from how you chose to evade, position shots or when to use what guns. Conquest‘s melee-based fighting doesn’t really work on the same principle.

Any game with swordplay needs to have a variety of attacks to keep things from getting stale. EA’s last-gen Lord of the Rings games did this by allowing you to upgrade your moves, but Conquest skips this feature. The irony is that both older games have significantly better design because of this inclusion.

So, no matter what class you choose, you’ve got about four moves at your disposal. For all the perpetual waves of enemies you’re faced with the game might as well have been called Lord of the Rings: Slogfest.

What’s even more offensive is that the game just doesn’t have the epic feel it should, whether you’re playing single player or in one of the game’s online modes. The levels are pretty big, detailed and look as though they were ripped straight from the movies, but the battlefields seem desolate and disingenuous. I never really felt like I was fighting the vast armies of Mordor—more like the small crowds.

The game sometimes even goes so far as to mock this by showing hundreds of enemies standing silently in level background—I think I slew more uruk-hai at Helm’s Deep in the Two Towers than I did in all of Conquest. And as far as the online modes are concerned, if you’re expecting the insanity of say, a 60-player Resistance 2 match, forget it.

I’m not sure if Pandemic was rushed, lazy or just honestly didn’t think people would notice, but frankly, for a next-gen game, this is unacceptable. Unfortunately, this is a problem that plagues the game in its entirety.

Outside of all the combat and gameplay issues, Conquest also feels terribly slapdash, despite its pretty surface. Levels are bookended with “cut-scenes” (map footage of Middle-earth overlaid with spliced scenes from the films) narrated by a somewhat bored-sounding Hugo Weaving, reprising his role as Elrond.

As far as cast involvement goes, that’s it. Everyone else is voiced by sound-a-likes, which gives the whole game a less authentic air. Some of the voice work also sounds muffled, and even with Howard Shore’s epic soundtrack blasting in the background, it takes you out of the game.

Really, it’s a damned shame that Conquest seems so hastily put together. Playing as heroes like Gandalf, Aragorn and others is actually fun and the game is visually pleasing. Beating the game lets you play out scenarios like killing Gimli with the Balrog in the mines of Moria and burning down the Shire as the forces of Mordor, which is an interesting take on the story.

Still, Conquest feels like a lot of wasted potential. The game obviously needed more variety and a tweaked combat system, and even Sauron’s campaign is basically the same game with orc skins slapped on the players. It’s cool to see the environs and characters from the films recreated with such detail, but it’s just not enough.

I really wanted to like this game, but when I look back on my experiences with it, the only feeling that’s conjured up is murderous rage. And that statement alone should be enough to deter anyone from shelling out $60 for this disappointing enterprise.