The Lord of the Rings: Conquest (Xbox 360)
There's a moment in the movie "Clerks II" when some characters argue over which is the "true" trilogy: the original Star Wars movies or the Lord of the Rings films. With Pandemic Studios, the maker of the Star Wars: Battlefront games, bringing that series' all-out war gameplay to Tolkien's fantasy masterpiece in The Lord of the Rings: Conquest, it looks like those fanboys have something else to fight about. But with a deeper story mode and better graphics, we think we know who wins this round.
As with the Battlefront games, Conquest casts you as an unnamed grunt in the massive battles from the films, as well as a couple others only alluded to. Tasked with certain objectives -- capture a point, defend a point, kill this guy, defend that guy -- you take on hordes upon hordes of enemies on gigantic battlefields, mostly while on foot but also occasionally on a "vehicle." Instead of lightsabers, blasters, speeders and the Force, there are swords, arrows, horses and magic. (Both have fairy princesses; go figure.)
There are four different character classes, each with its own special abilities and attacks, and you can easily switch between them mid-battle. The most basic (and, for me, viscerally satisfying) is the Warrior, who hacks and slashes his way through his enemies with a flaming sword. For those who prefer to fight from afar, the Archer goes all Green Arrow on people with his poison and fire arrows, while the Mage (aka magician) can cast both offensive and defensive spells, as well as ones that will heal his allies. Finally (and least interestingly), the Scout can use a Cloak of Invisibility-like ability to sneak up behind people.
You can't go all willy-nilly with the aforementioned special attacks. All of them draw from your special attack meter, though considering that this gets replenished whenever you kill an enemy (which you will, often), you don't exactly have to skimp on them. Similarly, enemies often drop health boosts that will fill up your health meter. This isn't to say Conquest is easy -- especially on the harder skill levels. The real challenge comes from fighting bosses and huge swarms of enemies.
Conquest is less of a button-masher than you might expect (though it's enough of one to make me think I might've busted my X button). Those special attacks come in very handy, as do the attack combos, especially when you're in a boss battle or being surrounded. It also helps that the controls are as tight and responsive as, well, you'd expect from every videogame these days.
Some might think this is just Battlefront with a fantasy motif replacing the sci-fi one. This is true -- if you only play the competitive multiplayer modes (which include Team Deathmatch, Capture the Ring and Conquest, a capture point-like mode), and ignore the better graphics and slightly tighter camera controls. What really separates Conquest from Battlefront is the vastly improved story-driven single-player mode. Unlike in Battlefront, whose single-player mode felt like multiplayer mode with bots, the one in Conquest is far more developed, with more plot point-inspired objectives and even narration by head Elf Elrond (actor Hugo Weaving).
Still others might think that Conquest is just a rehash of previous Lord of the Rings games: 2002's The Two Towers and 2003's The Return of the King. If you do well in battle, you're given the option of playing as one of the major characters from the films -- you know, the ones you got to be in those other games (and some you didn't). But with different kinds of characters that each have different attacks, and different objectives -- not to mention the sheer scale of its battles -- Conquest is notably deeper than Towers and King combined.
It's also more evil since, after the epic climax, you unlock the "Rise of Sauron" campaign, in which the dark lord gets his Ring back and, after resurrecting his forces and friends, leads a campaign of destruction all the way back to the Shire. For you, this means playing as Orc versions of the Warrior, Mage, etc. on the same battlefields you previously visited as a hero, with all-new objectives.
If you?re really good, maybe you too can be an Ent. And if you're really bad, maybe you can kill one.
There's even a two-player co-op version of the story mode, though for some reason it's only available if you're playing split-screen, not over Xbox Live -- unlike the co-op modes in Gears of War 2, Call of Duty: World at War or every other recent game that has two-player co-op.
Not being able to play co-op online isn't the only minor inconvenience, though. Bosses will practically ignore all the other good guys and go straight for you. Fans of the films and book might also nitpick about minor inconsistencies, such as how certain characters are much better fighters here than they were in the movies or novels. Pandemic also didn't get any of the original actors to voice their characters (save for Weaving), which is never a deal-breaker, but never good, either.
Even with these problems, though, Conquest is a walloping good time (or a magically good time, or a sneakily good time, or a bull's-eye of a good time -- your pick), and not just for fans of the films, the original books and the other games inspired by both. With some real improvements to the formula, Conquest will delight fans of the Battlefront series and of the films as well.
This review was based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.