The Lord of the Rings: The Third Age is a turn-based level-grinder, developed by EA Redwood Shores and published by Electronic Arts in 2004, loosely-based on the Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings trilogy of films. It is NOT based on J.R.R. Tolkien‘s famous novel, because the rights for the book were held by Vivendi Universal Games at the time, although Electronic Arts did hold the rights to make video game adaptations of the New Line Cinema films. Which is a little confusing, but the plot in this game is a non-canonical story that runs parallel to the narrative of the films. Anything from the novels not specifically mentioned or depicted in the films could not be represented in this game.
You begin The Lord of the Rings: The Third Age as a human character called Berethor (Captain of the Citadel Guard of Gondor, no less), and who is attacked by ringwraiths, then saved by a female elf called Idrial (who joins your party).
The Third Age is very much in the vein of the later Final Fantasy games, with third-person exploration in a 3D overworld, and a turn-based combat mode. Progression through the game is linked via quests that must be completed in order to access subsequent areas.
During battle you can choose a variety of different options from a menu, depending on the character. There are regular attacks, “Craft” attacks (more powerful moves dependant on a character’s craft), Spirit Powers (magical attacks, based on your Spirit level), taunts, leadership moves (for leaders), use items, and skip a move.
The turn “queue” is shown on-screen as a vertical pile of portraits (whoever’s at the bottom goes first). Attack Points (AP) are consumed to use Craft and Spirit moves; consumables are used to top-up health and AP, and there’s also a “momentum meter” that fills up as you successfully execute attacks on enemies (when it’s full members of your party will be able to perform “Perfect Mode” attacks from the menu).
Experience Points (EXP) are earned by beating enemies in combat, and by completing quests, and when each character has enough EXP they level-up. Levelling-up allows you to distribute Attribute Points to your characters, among Strength, Spirit, Constitution, Speed and Dexterity, which gradually makes your characters more powerful. You can also equip new weapons and armour to give them an edge in battle and the game has a helpful mechanic that automatically shows you new acquisitions, and a star rating on items to show you whether they’re more or less effective than what is currently equipped.
The Third Age does have some some unique touches that make it interesting to play, like: if the Eye of Sauron icon appears in an area the chances of random combat increases; if the blue Palantir icon appears it means that a story battle is approaching (giving you notice to prepare for it), and there’s also an unlockable minigame called “Evil Mode“, which allows you to control Sauron’s forces to fight against the game’s main characters in order to unlock new weapons and items.
Visually, the game is a little drab initially, although it does improve over time. Howard Shore‘s amazing music is suitably atmospheric. Gameplay-wise: The Third Age is playable and absorbing, but it doesn’t begin to get challenging until you reach the mines of Moria. Fighting the Balrog at the bridge of Khazad-dum (alongside Gandalf) is the first real test in the game and it does take thought and strategy to beat. If you’re struggling with it, read a walkthough.
There are a number of things that do sit uncomfortably with me regarding the use of Tolkien‘s IP for this game… For example: characters doing celebratory dances after winning in combat, and the somewhat banal approach to the storytelling, BUT… I was prepared to overlook this because the format of the game was to my liking (I’m a sucker for turn-based RPGs) and I hadn’t seen a game like this using the Lord of the Rings IP before. I’m pretty sure that Tolkien would’ve spun in his grave had he seen this game, so it’s probably for the best that he’s being spared that indignity. And it is an indignity… After all: his classic trilogy created the very basis on which all fighting fantasy games exist (and have existed), although the books (and the Jackson‘s films) are far more serious and better-crafted than any story written by a video game script-writer. This is dumbed-down Tolkien (and Jackson), make no mistake, but at least it’s fun to play in the context of mainstream RPGs.
The Lord of the Rings: The Third Age was also released for PlayStation 2 and XBox. It’s a game that’s well worth playing – particularly if you like turn-based RPGs and the films.