What The Lord of the Rings: Conquest aims to accomplish is no mean feat. Pandemic, creator of the Star Wars: Battlefront series, reconstructs the iconic set pieces, body-strewn arenas, and battlefield personalities of the trilogy in order to establish that the Lord of the Rings is first and foremost a War (underscore that last word) of the Ring. Pandemic capitalizes on the principle that the trilogy was ultimately won and lost among the throngs of orcs and horsemen, that men’s hopes and fears were brought low through the efforts of battering rams and catapults, that swords and shields ultimately decided to whom went the spoils of war…
…And while Pandemic’s efforts are noble, that’s a false premise to build upon. The constraints of working within the boundaries of a strict and preexisting fiction only manages to enunciate the fact that the Lord of the Rings, first and foremost, isn’t about war. War is a symptom of the greedy motivations that drive certain individuals, to be sure, but war is not the thrust. And focusing on this singular aspect creates an equally singular video gaming experience.
And so bringing to life the battles waging across Middle-Earth for the sake of the One Ring creates a paradoxical nature for a player’s in-game ambitions: The generally cheap thrill of striking down endless hordes of foes in as fast and brutal a manner as possible is gratifying in small bursts. But realizing that such efforts are, at best, diversionary tactics as the Ring Bearer effortlessly slips through and about the perimeters of such conflicts somehow it renders that lovely 20-hit combo completely moot.
Indeed, the Lord of the Rings: Conquest emboldens players to zigzag across all manner of fields and battlements and caverns, committing varied button-pressing combos to memory, and slipping into the occasional quick-time event to drag down a cave troll, ent, oliphaunt, or as is more common, dozens upon dozens of one-hit grunts. The view is unshakably from a ground-pounder’s perspective, so the 10,000-foot view is often lavished on the cutscenes. In play, the West finally has its Dynasty Warriors.
To elaborate on that token, the tides of battle are completely fixed, with predictable fail-states rigged to timers, flags, and body-count quotas. Defend a marked area for a certain amount of time; kill X number of foes to open the next gate; destroy target Y before it reaches this blatantly-drawn red line over here. These are all conventions derided in plenty of other video games, but this Battlefront-style of structured mayhem is generally given a pass (to an extent) since it makes said objectives completely apparent.
Conquest’s big draw is its ability to plant you firmly in the bad guys’ shoes. After completing the good guys’ War of the Ring campaign, you unlock the fictional (?) Rise of Sauron campaign. And despite this intriguing premise, the campaign runs thinly as a ‘what if’ alt-history rewind across Middle-Earth from Mordor back to the Shire. The Ring Bearer is cut down, Sauron is restored the One Ring, and the Dark Lord carries his armies into the West. Not until you reach the Shire does the downward spiral of Middle-Earth feel like it’s in its death throes, and sunhat-capped and Sunday-dressed hobbits run about with their butterknife blades, roused out of their hovels by a shameless enemy.
The expected movie cutscenes--in the Rise of Sauron campaign--are familiar clips lifted from the films, but they’re given an Al Jazeera-like spin on their bad-guy reversal of events. Truth be told, it’s an excellent idea, but the abrupt storylines wedged into the cutscenes are run by at a breakneck pace. They prove largely worthless to anyone not already indoctrinated by way of the films.
Conquest’s legs are, of course, banked into its multiplayer, in a manner lifted wholesale from the Battlefront games. Jumping into ranked and unranked matches is painless, though players currently seem to be shying away from affixing ranks to themselves. Maps range from Helm’s Deep to the Mines of Moria to the Black Gate, and from Mount Doom to Rivendell to the Shire. And with character extending no further than one’s sword arm, the shallow nature of battle reveals itself that much more.