To most of us, apart from those diehard fans who have actually gone and read the books, there is only one thing the Lord of the Rings films really have going for them. Massive, epic battles. When you’ve seen ‘The Two Towers’ and ‘Return of the King’ once, subsequent viewings usually consist of tapping ‘next’ on your DVD remote – past Golem and all that homoerotic Sam and Frodo nonsense and onto the really good stuff, the battle of Helms Deep, siege of Gondor etc – after that it’s curtains, because the overblown, drawn out ending was bad enough the first time around.
So really, that’s the one thing you expect a LOTR game to deliver. You want to be thrown headlong into the heart of the most colossal, epic, ferocious scrap between good and evil. You want your hands cramping up as you tear through massed ranks of orcs, adrenaline contorting your face. A pawn in Tolkien's imagination, if you will. Sadly however, the main problem with Lord of the Rings Conquest is that the battles feel hopelessly understated and the disparate groups of enemies are no where near sufficient to quench your thirst for oily – orc blood.
This constantly undermines everything the game does so well. Visually it’s superb, and although some reviewers gripe about the graphics and frame rate on the Xbox 360 version, on PC, the gameplay is smooth and the visuals surprisingly well rendered. When you first begin Conquest, initially assuming the role of an ordinary foot soldier, the lighting, textures and overall detail of the environments make a great first impression. The same can be said for when you unleash a devastating tirade of attacks from your massive sword. It really feels like you’re capable of doing some serious damage and you can’t wait to get stuck into a few legions of Saruman scum.
However, when they do come, there just never seems to be enough. During the initial training session in which you assume the role Isildur and defeat Sauron at the battle of Dagorlad, it’s more like a small skirmish than a decisive engagement. Although you initially put this down to the fact that the game has not properly started yet. But you soon realise this trend is going to be consistent throughout. Like Star Wars: Battlefields, the battles are too sparse, lack any real sense of scale and have too few concentrations of enemies. Even during Helms Deep, one of the most epic of all the LOTR’s engagements, orcs come at you ten at a time at the most, and the battlefield feels annoyingly empty.
To compound this problem the levels are small and linear. Conquest never challenges players to outwit or outflank the enemy, and the levels all consist of basically button bashing your way through pockets of resistance until you progress to new areas. This is not only pretty underwhelming but also repetitious, and although the game attempts to get you performing long winded combos, the cumbersome combat system means you just end up smashing buttons like you're playing Street Fighter II.
The game does manage to claw back some integrity when it comes to a few areas. The fact that you are given the choice to embark on the orc campaign and take a different narrative path from the horrible, cheesy, lets – all – hug – and – start – bouncing - on – the – bed ending is great. Without spoiling things, let’s just say the evil campaign provides such a shocking antithesis to that dire finale it will literally have you cackling sadistically behind your computer screen. On top of this, the fact that you can switch between various warrior archetypes – which consist of warriors, mages, archers, scouts – all of whom have various strengths and weaknesses does give the gameplay a small element of strategy. It’s also fun to jump onto those gigantic elephants, get behind catapults and ride a horse – although the former only lasts for two minutes.
Unfortunately however, Lord of the Rings: Conquest is unable to provide the Battlefront format with anything unique or innovative. The graphics are good if you have a decent PC system that can step up to the game's system requirements, but the clunky combat system, linear levels and underwhelming sense of scale, all make for an anticlimactic and repetitive gaming experience. Hardcore fans of the Lord of the Rings franchise will find Conquest offers just enough to string them along for the duration of the campaign, but for most players, there’s little to get enthused about after the initial novelty has worn off. It simply fails to capture the epic atmosphere of the films, and its poor replay value means that like Golem, it won't be long before LOTR: C is outcast from your game collection.