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Which Console Did You Buy/Receive Over The Holidays?

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Game Profile
EA Games
Stormfront Studios
GENRE: Action
December 30, 2002
Lord of the Rings: War in the North

Lord of the Rings: War in the North

Lord of the Rings: War in the North

Lord of the Rings: Aragorn's Quest

Lord of the Rings: Aragorn's Quest

More in this Series
 Written by Ilan Mejer  on January 29, 2003

Full Review: After many years of absence, the Lord of the Rings returns in a new videogame incarnation.

After two undeniably successful Lord of the Rings theatrical releases, and with the third and final movie under one year away, it was inevitable that this hot property would be adapted into the video game format. Lord of the Rings ? The Two Towers (TTT) for the Nintendo GameCube is Electronic Art's take on Peter Jackson's movie of the same name with elements of Fellowship of the Ring forming a playable backdrop. As such, being based off the movie and not the literary works, EA's angle is undeniably effective. The Two Towers for the GameCube never even attempts to recreate the massive and complex story woven by J.R.R. Tolkien in his famous Lord of the Rings novels and as such, it succeeds reasonably in being an action game that caters to the huge casual fan base of the recent movies. Finally, almost two months after its initial Playstation 2 release, Lord of the Rings ? The Two Towers is available to GameCube (and Xbox) owners across the nation.

The Two Towers is by no means an ambitious title and it is immediately obvious that the brunt of the developer's efforts went into recreating the look and feel of the movies. As such, TTT employs the magnificent visual direction and general choreography developed by Peter Jackson for his LotR movies. In fact, EA went so far as to involve Peter Jackson to help craft the in-game cinematics in order for them to mesh with the many included movie footage snippets that are used to help develop the game's story. Though the in-game 3D engine cannot hope to keep up with Peter Jackson's WETA special effects crew, the developers did a marvelous job of integrating movie footage as well as new voiceovers (done by the original actors, no less) in order to truly immerse gamers into the LotR experience that the movies offer.

To that end, most of the stages were recreated straight from the movie sets with a striking attention to graphical mastery and detail. Truly, the ?star? of the game is the way with which Middle Earth was beautifully brought to life, seemingly ripped straight out of the hearts and imaginations of Tolkien fans everywhere. Unfortunately, the character models, particularly for the three heroes, do not fare nearly as well. Though all of the enemies are accurately and satisfactorily portrayed and are wonderfully animated to the point where they resemble their movie counterparts with uncanny accuracy, the three main heroes were modeled sloppily. They look decent enough from a distance, but up close, and in particular during the real-time cinematic cutscenes, they look quite horrible, especially their faces. At least they are animated exceedingly well. To reiterate, the backgrounds are simply breathtaking to behold, but the models employed to populate them tragically show their Playstation 2 roots.

What helps bring the entire experience to life are the cleverly implemented cutscenes throughout the adventure, which come as real-time sequences, CG cinematics, and even movie footage ripped straight out of both films. One format meshes into another seamlessly, in a stunningly dramatic and exceedingly stylish manner. You probably will not even have the heart to flinch at seeing the discrepancy between the quality of the real-time segments versus that of the computer graphics or movie footage, in all honestly. Though the cinematics are slightly compressed, EA managed to do so without the severe artifacting seen in all too many GameCube titles that were quickly and shoddily ported from other systems. Finally, it bears mentioning that EA utilized their franchise license rights to the utmost extent when they implemented a magnificent version of Howard Shore's original movie soundtracks. The music, which suited the movies perfectly, was faithfully incorporated in the game as well, and succeeds in setting the mood and pacing beautifully. The only thing that could have been improved would be the addition of a dynamic element to the music in order to add that dramatic edge to the more intense combat sequences, as modern games are wont to feature these days.

The Two Towers has surprising and not unwelcome similarities to the Golden Axe franchise, though reinvented with a more modern flair. As Aragorn, Legolas, or Gimli, you participate in over a dozen missions inspired by scenes from the movies. In fact, most of the missions are scenarios taken straight from the movie, though the first four were adapted from Fellowship of the Ring. Being heavily inspired by Sega's venerable arcade hack and slash classic, TTT essentially has you progressing in a completely linear fashion from point a to point b of each mission's environment, all the while taking out hordes of classic LotR foes, such as Goblins, Orcs, Trolls, and even the fighting Uruk-Hai. With a combination of melee-based hack and slash and hectic, yet satisfying ranged attacks (bow and arrows for Aragorn and Legolas, throwing hatchets for Gimli) TTT does a satisfying job of throwing out countless challenges from a variety of different angles and directions in a mostly nonstop fashion.

The action is kept fresh by the inclusion of all sorts of missions goals, such as helping villagers survive the evacuation of Edoras, or protecting the gates of Helm's Deep. Though each of these mission goals are scripted and unavoidable, they do an excellent job of distinguishing one mission from another, and represent a perfect evolution of the side-scrolling gameplay pioneered by games such as Golden Axe. TTT also incorporates a much-welcome RPG-like element, which further refines the experience beyond a simple hack and slash action title, though one that cleverly plays into the game's action-based nature.

The Two Towers rates your performance blow by blow throughout each mission, where the higher your score for your kills, the more upgrade points and experience you gain for it. The game even tallies up your total score at the end of each mission in order to rate your overall performance for that character, and saves it to your file. For example, while you can slash at enemies climbing up ladders and ledges to reach you and kill them with a fair or good rating, if you attempt the relatively harmless knock back attack (usually used to distract overly aggressive enemies momentarily) and succeed in flinging them back down, you will nail an excellent or even perfect rating for the foe's demise. If you succeed in scoring enough excellent and perfect kills consecutively, you will enable a special rage mode where your weapon emits a righteous glow. Then you may merely swipe at your enemies haphazardly for severe, usually fatal damage and score a perfect for each kill. This is obvious the key to scoring an easy perfect rating for the entire mission.

However, enabling this rage mode is not at all simple, particularly in later missions. To that end, when you accept your overall rating for a completed mission (instead of opting to replay it), you may spend your upgrade points in learning new attacks and skills. The skills are broken up into tiers that require your character to have reached a certain level before you can access them. Each character's set of moves, though similar, help to further distinguish one from another. In order to makes things more interesting, the developers crafted the game in such a manner that regardless of how well you play (and how many upgrade points your acquire) it is impossible to learn every single skill before completing the game. The only unfortunate aspect to this system is that the three heroes simply are not different enough. Though one is balanced, the other focuses on melee attacks, and the third obviously excels in archery, the attacks they execute, and even their skills and combos are mostly identical in execution.

This method of character development allows each player to develop their own fighting style and compliment it with their preferred characters' many moves. Once you beat the game, you may then replay any mission as you wish (with that character only) in order to finish leveling up, acquire the rest of your skills and combos, and use the most advanced techniques at your disposal to complete a perfectly rated game, should you choose to do so. Since most of the missions can be played with all three characters, this method of staggered progression lends itself to a much higher amount of replay than most action games garner, implemented with an unsual amount of cleverness, style, and satisfaction.

Yet, despite its cleverness, the gameplay does have its flaws. The most crucial of which is length. This game can easily be cleared in one day by hardcore gamers, and two or three days by the more casual fan. With only about a dozen missions, one hidden stage (which is quite fun), three playable characters, and one exceedingly lame hidden character, there simply is not enough here to sustain anyone in the long term. However, as it is modeled after classic hack and slash arcade games, this might not exactly be a con in the right audience's eyes. The game simply lacks content.

For instance, the first real stage, Weathertop, will take all of two minutes to complete, most likely with an excellent or even a perfect rating. This stage will never be revisited again, particularly since Aragorn can only play it to begin with. The two Moria stages should have been merged into one, perhaps with a checkpoint/respawn point connecting them in the event of a death. On that note, the three Helm's Deep missions could have been one massive end-stage, instead of the three broken and too-short (though deliciously difficult) missions the game ends off with. By merging the related existing missions in such a fashion, they could have opened up the opportunity to incorporate many more scenes from the movies, expanding and enhancing the gameplay many times over. One stage in particular, the evacuation of Edoras, provides a prime example of how the developers expanded, in-game, on an event we know took place in the movie, but we never actually saw. This idea could have been carried over to many more scenes, as there is plenty of source material there, and not nearly enough is utilized.

What adds to the frustration is that Frodo and Gandalf seem like they were originally intended to be fully playable characters, as they both feature very complete character models and seemingly complete move sets, from what one can fathom watching their NPC personas battle alongside you. By excluding these two highly important characters, the developers essentially removed at least one third, if not an entire half of the movie experience from consideration as opportunities for gameplay. To add insult to injury, this game would own had the developers included the simultaneous two (or even three) player multiplayer mode that the gameplay positively screams for. Unfortunately, it remains strictly a short, single player affair.

Bottom Line
Though this game is most definitely not for everyone, Lord of the Rings ? The Two Towers for the GameCube surprisingly and successfully raises the bar for hack and slash action games as well as movie-licensed titles, anywhere. Hardcore fans eager to re-explore the Middle Earth epics that Tolkien laid out for us in his novels will be disappointed with this game. However, more casual fans looking to immerse themselves in the version that Peter Jackson brought to life before our eyes in his movies will find a highly rewarding video game extension with The Two Towers for the GameCube.

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