Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

Not much room for a sub-heading with a title like that.

There are a million and one clichés about licensed games, and their apparent lack of quality. Like most clichés this has a certain basis in fact, but there have over the years been a fair few that buck the trend and show that a good license can add atmosphere and immersion to a title, as well as supplying the developers with a ready made stock of material to work with. Several such games spring to mind – the early LucasArts Star Wars titles being the most obvious candidates. Stormfront Studios have managed to add another game to this unique band, as The Two Towers is a highly enjoyable action romp that, while short-lived, never fails to entertain.

The title is essentially a melee-combat action game, and follows the familiar Lord of the Rings story and events from the time of Isildur and the first battle with Sauron, to the battle of Helms Deep at the end of the Two Towers movie. Three protagonists are available initially – Gimli, Legolas and Aragorn – although the eventual completion of the game unlocks a bonus character (although it should be pointed out that in fact this is a bit of a cheat – the unlocked character is identical to Aragorn in terms of abilities, extra health and strength aside. Think of it more as a new skin). The levels are arranged in a chronological fashion, with the first level comprising a tutorial, albeit a very confusing one as you endeavour to make sense of the chaotic battle you’re thrust into. The remaining levels cover significant events either allured to or actually shown in the movies thus far – levels include the Balin’s Tomb scene where the fellowship encounter the imposing cave troll. By and large the levels are excellent, although it should be said that the game is strongest when it sticks with events directly related to the films – these are by far the most atmospheric and enjoyable to play. Particular highlights included the battles at Balin’s Tomb and the Helm’s Deep levels, although you’ll likely come to appreciate the others as well once you’ve grown tired of replaying these.

The game is arranged in almost a DVD format. The main game menu consists of an arcane map with each of the levels placed in order. Arranged around these are numerous unlock-able extras, including interviews with the cast of the film. Viggo Mortensen, Orlando Bloom et al. provided the voices for their respective characters, and this adds greatly to the proceedings - cast-iron publicity clauses are clearly a good thing for us consumers. Other extras include interviews with Peter Jackson and members of the development team. It’s a trend which I hope gains more ground, as it almost makes the game feel like part of the wider LOTR collection – it’ll have certainly earned a place beside the complete DVD collectors edition, come next year.

The game positively shines with such excellent production values. The graphics and animation are first-rate, although some of the character models understandably look slightly shabby when cut in with movie footage. The sound, though, has no such problems. Howard Shore’s score is used to full effect, and indeed the game as a whole strives to immerse the player in the battles of the film. The game camera was clearly designed to convey a cinematic feel – in the final Helm’s Deep level, for instance, the camera switches between different angles at regular intervals, providing simulated changes of camera angle. As you race along the battlements the camera pans low, giving a good view of the fighting on the ramparts opposite. Such cinematic touches give an excellent sense of scale to battles that are actually fairly limited in terms of area – although they are certainly not limited in terms of numbers. Indeed, TTT positively chucks enemies at you, and the later battles will allow players to dispatch a hundred enemies or more. Despite such numbers, there is never any perceived slowdown – things always clip along nicely.

The combat system strikes a nice balance between being easy to use but more complex to master. The basic buttons control the elementary moves – a fast but weak hit for unshielded opponents, a stronger but slower for shielded enemies, a kick and a parry. One trigger activates the ranged weapon, whilst the other dispatches prone enemies. With these basics in place, its possible to breeze through most of the game without too much difficulty. This would miss out, however, on some of the more rewarding moves and combos that become available through an RPG-lite upgrade system that rewards players for killing enemies efficiently and with minimal injury to themselves. Points earned can be spent between levels to buy more health and new moves, and whilst it doesn’t add a massive amount, it is still welcome.

The characters are all fairly similar in terms of move repertoire, but there are some differences. My experience was that Aragorn was far easier to play than the other two, striking a balance as he does between speed and power. Gimli is stronger, but suffers from a lack of reach and a painfully slow ranged weapon. Legolas is great fun to play, and no doubt everyone will enjoy firing off multiple arrows, machine-gun style. He is weaker than the other characters, however, and suffers from similar reach problems to Gimli. All the characters, though, are more than viable.

The game does suffer from a few problems, although they might be more correctly termed omissions. Frankly, the game is criminally short – a determined player will complete in on the day it was bought, and whilst the extras will keep you occupied for a couple more days, you’ll be twiddling your thumbs by the end of the week. If you have a problem with short games, then you might want to steer clear but do bear in mind that despite its length it oozes quality and polish throughout. We see too few such games – it’s highly refreshing to see real elbow grease go into the latter stages of production.

Perhaps the biggest oversight, in my view, is the lack of a two-player cooperative mode. The only obvious difficulty (from a non-technical perspective, of course) in implementing this would have been camera problems, but these issues have been dealt with in other games. This game style positively cries out for multiplayer and I do wonder if it was left out to meet the film’s release date. A real shame, since it would have really ramped up the longevity and compensated for the short length of the single player.

These issues aside, Stormfront have delivered a truly polished and fun game that picks an appropriate format for the license and implements it professionally. Too often we have seen licensed properties straddling genres in an attempt to cover all the bases and be all things to all people, and almost invariably the result is poor. Stormfront wisely chose to concentrate on one play style and to do it well, and the results are their reward. If you can stomach the short length, then buying the Two Towers will provide you with an ideal addition to that growing DVD collection.

Short, but definitely sweet.

E3 Trailer