Many developers have stumbled when it comes to adapting the books of J.R.R. Tolkien into videogame form. We need not look any further than Mike Bracken's review of The Fellowship Of The Ring for proof of this. Or, for those of us with longer memories, think back to the problematic Super Nintendo (SNES) game that was ambitiously titled "Volume 1" but never actually got its sequels. Poorly interpreted and awfully executed games based on movie and book licenses are nothing new, but Tolkien fans are an especially tenacious and passionate bunch who aren't willing to tolerate any mangling or half-hearted treatment of their beloved masterwork, especially since Tolkien's Middle Earth isn't exactly a shallow well from which to draw inspiration.
The Two Towers console game is something a little different, since it's based not directly on The Lord of the Rings books, but on the first two instalments of Peter Jackson's film adaptation (The Fellowship Of The Ring and The Two Towers). As a result, the game is able to neatly bypass all of the pitfalls associated with interpretation, since Jackson has been the one to go out on a limb in that regard. Therefore the tasks set before Electronic Arts and Stormfront Studios are simply to recreate the film environment convincingly and to build a decent game around that existing framework.
The Two Towers succeeds most impressively at its first. Each stage contains liberal doses of actual movie footage that switches seamlessly to the rendered in-game graphics without any sort of delay or load-time whatsoever (I found the simple lack of load-time to be quite refreshing in on itself.) In perhaps the smartest move of all, Electronic Arts made a deal with several of the key film actors to record the in-game dialogue. So when Legolas passionately cries "go back to the pit that spawned you!" after dispatching an orc, it is the actual voice of Orlando Bloom. Viggo Mortensen, John Rhys-Davies, Elijah Wood and Sir Ian McKellen are also on board, not to mention incorporating Howard Shore's film soundtrack into the game and bringing in Peter Jackson and producer Barrie Osborne give their input on the project as well. As opposed to a game set adrift and isolated from its source material, The Two Towers maintains close ties with the creative forces behind the movies, so that it is more an outgrowth of the movies themselves rather than a separately conceived entity.
Now on to the second task of creating decent gameplay. The Two Towers makes no pretences of being an all-encompassing role-playing game, despite the fact that that particular genre is perhaps what comes to mind first when envisioning a game about Tolkien's fantasy world. Instead, the game takes a very narrow focus and stays true to that one focus throughout. That focus, while it may seem simplistic at first glance, is actually not only highly appropriate for a videogame, but is something that both movies had rather a lot of: killing many, many bad guys.
The gamer gets to control Aragorn, Gimli or Legolas and is taken on a tour of the movies' bloodiest and most frenzied moments: namely Moria, the Plains of Rohan and Helm's Deep. Nuisances like item collection, special-ability juggling and other menu-driven characteristics of role-playing or adventure titles have been done away with, and the goal is literally to kill all the enemies that come anywhere near the player. Each character has the choice of using a melee weapon like a sword or two-handed axe, or a ranged weapon like arrows or throwing axes; the two types can be switched on the fly during combat without any interference or hiccup in the gameplay.
Players are rewarded for using more complex button combinations to execute special moves by gaining more experience points for each foe vanquished while managing to avoid being hit themselves. Thus, button-mashing is discouraged and a vestige of the role-playing power-up system does in fact make an appearance. At the end of each completed level, experience points are tallied and can be used to "purchase" new special moves and health and weapon upgrades.
By choosing to highlight the militaristic side of The Lord Of The Rings, the game addresses something deeply intrinsic to Tolkien's books that makes The Two Towers perhaps less simplistic than it first appears. One of the underlying currents running through The Lord Of The Rings is of course the struggle of good against evil, or more specifically, the idea that the forces of good are fighting valiantly against a numerically superior evil force that is on the verge of overwhelming them. In its own unique way, this is exactly what The Two Towers communicates.
I say this for a few reasons, the first being that the game is for the most part a solitary adventure. While several of the levels (most notably the Balin's Tomb scenario in Moria) contain other computer-controlled members of the Fellowship fighting alongside the human-controlled character, there is not the degree of "fellowship" that would indicate a truly co-operative game. The computer-controlled companions fill the air will battle cries and calls for help, yet can never actually get injured or perish. If I may dredge up the SNES Lord Of The Rings one more time, one of the most frustrating aspects about it was that the other members of the Fellowship could die (and did so quite frequently), meaning that the quest could either be continued without them thereby destroying all sense of plot continuity, or the game would have to be restarted.
In The Two Towers, the invulnerability of the companions means that the human player is free of worry and instead of adopting a defensive strategy of protection and caution, can instead hack away at anything that moves with reckless abandon. This leads back to my initial point about the solitary nature of fighting in The Two Towers. It is literally the idea of one man and a blade trying to turn back a giant, crashing tidal wave of enemies. We could question the astronomically slanted bad-guy to good-guy ratio; how is it that Aragorn is capable of dispatching 200 or 300 orcs without catching even a single stray arrow? Yet at the same time we expect Aragorn to triumph because he represents Good, and all the other hundreds of faceless creatures of the dark are simply The Bad.
Other defiances of logic can be overlooked as well, but perhaps not as easily. The extreme linearity of The Fellowship game that so irked Mike is present in The Two Towers as well. Yet this can be tolerated if we keep in mind the game's presentation as a straight-ahead action title where the need to explore every nook and cranny of the environment is neither necessary nor fruitful. Yes, it is silly that Aragorn can wade waist-deep into water, whereupon he runs up against a mysterious underwater barricade that prevents him from moving deeper. But when the pack of angry Wargs is bearing down in front of him on the shore, wanting to backtrack through the lake instead of meeting them head-on just doesn't make sense in the first place.
It may seem like I'm making excuses for too many of The Two Towers obvious flaws. However I want to stress that despite the logic issues, the lack of a two-player mode, and the utterly disappointing "secret" level and character, I still consider the game to be a success. While gamers who are not fans of The Lord Of The Rings will likely find The Two Towers to be nothing more than an average action title (especially given its short length of twelve missions), I feel that the true test of any licensed game is whether it is able to hold up under the scrutiny of the fans. The answer in this case is yes.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the PlayStation 2 version of the game.