Software houses have often drawn on Tolkien's world of hobbits, elves, dwarves, monsters and magic for computer games, but nobody has ever come close to capturing the essence of the book - until now. Lord of the Rings Volume One is more of a straight-forward adventure than most other Tolkien-inspired games with a strong role-playing bias thrown in for good measure.
US outfit, Interplay, haven't stuck rigidly to the original story as it would probably make the game too easy or boring for avid fans of the weighty tome. Instead, they've introduced a number of new characters and plot twists to satisfy everyone, while staying faithful enough to the novel to please the diehard Tolkien purists.
As with most games from Electronic Arts, the manual gives glorious detail not only of the game mechanics, but of the background as well. This helps to provide an introduction to Middle Earth novices, and enlightens those with no desire to read the books. Maps, glossaries and a paragraph-text system (like the journal entries used in the SSI games) give yet more details - copious note-taking is a necessity!
Once loaded, Tolkien's masterpiece of fantasy works its magic and the world of today slips away and we find ourselves in Middle Earth. In storybook fashion we are introduced to the characters and plot of the first game. Briefly, Frodo the hobbit has been entrusted by his uncle Bilbo with a magical ring once belonging to the evil dark lord Sauron. With this ring the Dark Lord's power would be immense and unstoppable. To cut short his evil plans the ring must be destroyed in the molten lava of the Mountains of Doom.
The ring's power is summed up by the wizard Gandalf: 'One ring to rule them all. One ring to find them. One ring to find them and in the darkness bind them.' Ultimately, the ring's power will corrupt anyone who uses it, no matter how good. And so Frodo, with his trusty party of adventurers must set out to destroy the ring. A task, which given the sheer scale of this game (and the fact that there are two others to come) is, frankly, rather daunting.
The game opens in The Shire, the most civilised place in Middle-Earth, with its well-known landmarks of Bag End, Hobbiton Inn, Green Dragon Tavern, Buckland Ferry, and Brandy Hall. Beyond lie less friendly places - Forsaken Inn, The Trollshaws, and the Black Land of Mordor. But the immediate aim of this part of the trilogy is for Frodo to reach the safety of Rivendell, home of Elrond and the Elves.
Anyone with a passing knowledge of the current crop of computer role-playing games will immediately find the game accessible. The overhead view used in LOTR has its advantages and the point-and-click icon system never intrudes between the player and game and means that relatively little typing is required - a godsend to many hamfisted individuals (myself included). What makes this special, though, is the magic system. Magic is portrayed in the books as something wondrous and rare with its use of once-only Words of Power. Gandalf is supposed to be one of the greatest magicians in Middle Earth but in the books he uses relatively few spells and this is reflected in the game.
Frodo, and the team of characters he recruits, has a basic set of six attributes or characteristics: dexterity, endurance, life points, strength, luck and willpower. Each character also has various personal and attributes, divided into three categories. Active skills can range from bravado and charisma to perception and the ability to pick locks. Combat skills include axes, bows, brawling and swords. The final category. Lore, is not actively used but comes into play when a character enters an area where it might be useful. A character possessing Orc Lore, for instance, will be able to understand Orc culture and read their writings. Some characters also have magical abilities for both good and bad.
Accessing and using these skills is easy. When you want to switch from moving or exploring the play area, hitting the right-hand mouse button brings up a set of icons giving control over attacking, viewing the status of characters, taking, using items or learning skills, trading or discarding items, skills, magic, and, finally, communication.
So much for the mechanics of the game. Add to this a vast, seemingly never-ending play area, a plethora of hobbits, humans, orcs, trolls, elves, sorcerers, dragons, wargs, dark riders and vampires and you have what amounts to an incredibly large and addictive RPG adventure.
Lords of the Rings is breath-taking in its scope and enchanting in execution. You don't play this game, you live it.
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