Another day, another licensed game that takes a great property and completely destroys it with shoddy gameplay, poor graphics, and an ill conceived combat system. One would think that after making licensed games for well over a decade, developers might actually try to put some time and effort into these games. However, if Universal Interactive’s Lord Of The Rings: Fellowship Of The Ring is any indication, then it’s still business as usual as far as adaptations go.

The shame of Fellowship Of The Ring is that Tolkien’s novel would seem to provide the perfect blueprint for a compelling role-playing game (RPG). The Middle Earth of the books is a rich and diverse land with a number of different cultures co-existing at least somewhat peacefully. The world has its own mythology, complete with a main storyline that could serve as a prime example of Joseph Campbell’s heroic journey paradigm. With such an ingrained and compelling narrative structure how can a game based on the books be so bad? Let me count the ways…

The first issue to clear up is that this Lord Of The Rings game is based on the literary works of J.R.R. Tolkien and not the Peter Jackson films. So, fans of the films expecting to see recreations of Elijah Wood’s Frodo would be better served by picking up EA’s The Two Towers, which is the game based on the film adaptations. The benefit of using the books for the source material is that developers WXP Inc. could include elements of the story that got omitted from the film—like including the much loved Tom Bombadil. To ensure authenticity, the developers even utilized a Tolkien scholar to make sure the spirit of the books came through in the game. Unfortunately, he was only partially successful.

Fellowship Of The Ring remains fairly faithful to the Tolkien novel—the locations and situations of the book are recreated in a way that should please fans of the literary works. However, I couldn’t shake the feeling that playing Fellowship Of The Ring was like reading a Reader’s Digest Condensed Version of Tolkien. Simply put, Fellowship never manages to feel epic—Frodo and the Fellowship’s journey is a grand one, but the game presents it all with a decided lack of passion. Sure, all of the famous scenes are present and accounted for (Rivendell, the mines of Moria, etc.), but the whole thing feels flat and superficial.

Much of this can be attributed to the gameplay, which is best described as lackluster. The Shire and other locations of Middle Earth may be huge in the books, but Fellowship Of The Ring robs them of any scale by making the game so linear that it might as well be on rails. Generally speaking, there is but one path through any given area, and no side paths for exploration or alternative ways of completing objectives. Couple this with a set of environments filled to the brim with artificially created boundaries (in one segment, Frodo is incapable of crossing a stream that appears to be ankle-deep), and the linearity of the title is only highlighted.

To be fair, at least part of the problem seems to stem from the source material. Fellowship is the first book in a trilogy and is designed primarily to set events in motion, meaning it’s unlikely to be as action-packed as the two later books. However, the literary version of Fellowship retained enough excitement to keep things interesting, which is something the game often fails at miserably.

The most glaring shortcoming in the game is easily the battle system. Players will control Frodo, Gandalf, and Aragorn at different parts of the story. However, each of them fights exactly the same way and highlights all of the problems with the combat interface. Fighting in the game is woefully imbalanced and consists of little more than hack-and-slash. Each character has a secondary ranged attack (throwing stones for Frodo, shooting arrows for Aragorn, and magic for Gandalf), but with the exception of Gandalf, most of those attacks are useless. Players will have to engage in hand-to-hand combat, which highlights a shoddy collision detection system, a poor interface for fighting (it’s very hard not to get hit repeatedly by enemies in the game), and the inherent tedium of the ‘run in, attack, pull back’ school of hacking and slashing.

The one other major flaw that’s really worth mentioning is the load times. For an Xbox game, Fellowship Of The Ring sure does take a long time to load. If that weren’t bad enough, in latter stages of the game, characters will open doors to new areas, only to be greeted by an impenetrable black abyss for 15 or more seconds as the game loads the area beyond the door. Honestly, it looks like a giant black hole resides behind every door; it’s horrible, and I’m amazed that the game was cleared for release with such a major graphical imperfection.

Making a game based on Tolkien’s universe appears to be something of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, developers have a fantastic world to work with. On the other, they have certain expectations that have to be fulfilled based on the books. Unfortunately, no one’s yet managed to make the definitive game based on Tolkien’s seminal tale. Fellowship Of The Ring sounded like a promising title, but the execution leaves a great deal to be desired. Rating: 3.5 out of 10

Mike Bracken
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