The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy has proved to be fertile source material for video game adaptations, spawning hack-and-slash action adventures as well as a soon-to-be-released real-time strategy title. The Third Age, however, is a turn-based, console-style role-playing game that takes a slightly different path from its film-faithful cousins. Instead of featuring the original cast of characters and following their journey as it was laid out in the films and novels, The Third Age introduces a new cross-cultural group of travelers as they put their own stamp on the history of Middle-earth. While there are some rough edges, the result is mostly a nice little role-playing jaunt into the world of Tolkien.
Where are the hobbits, you ask? Forget hobbits! This story is about Berethor, got it?
As the game opens, you're introduced to Berethor, warrior of the land of Gondor. He's riding in search of the Gondorian heir, Boromir, who has recently joined with the rest of the Fellowship of the Ring. The story of The Third Age revolves around Berethor, his past, and his fate in the world as he trails the Fellowship and gathers his own companions. These compatriots fall well within the archetypical spread of a Middle-earth adventure party: there's a wise and mysterious elf, a dwarf of proud character who is suspicious of the aforementioned elf, and a scruffy Dunedain ranger with his trusty bow, among others. Events unfold through scripted in-game story sequences as well as through a number of special events called scenes that you'll discover as you progress through the game. Scenes consist of cuts of live-action footage from The Lord of the Rings films, narrated by Ian McKellan, who reprises his role as the wizard Gandalf. Gandalf will explain to you what's going on in the world, what the various factions are planning at the time, where your party is going, and what your goals are. He will even tell you facts about your companions and their states of mind, and about Berethor and his past.
In fact, there's so much exposition being done by Gandalf that it seems to come at the expense of your characters, as they rarely interact with each other. For example, you are told that the dwarf Hadhod is bitter and coldhearted because he lost his son to the caverns of Moria when the evil came. But Hadhod himself never mentions this, never alludes to any kind of loss, doesn't seem particularly bitter (for an already gruff-sounding fellow), and has very little to say during the game other than the odd phrase when danger approaches. This is true of much of the game--you are explicitly told what has happened and what will happen instead of actually seeing it happen, and it serves to somewhat distance the player from the whole experience. More interaction between the characters would have been welcome, as there are virtually no town visits to speak of, and much of the time you're simply moving from battle to battle.
Great-looking armor sets are a beautiful thing.
Adventure mode is the roaming portion of the game, during which time you'll be exploring the various landscapes, caverns, fortresses, and villages in search of enemies or your next objective. Upon entering a new area, you'll usually be assigned one or more quests for that particular region. Frequently quests are mandatory, but not always; completing 100 percent of the quests in a given zone is usually simply a matter of opening every chest you see, as well as making sure you explore whatever paths are open to you. You won't be gathering currency in The Third Age, and there are no shops; every piece of armor and every weapon you acquire will either be won through battle or discovered along your way. Since each piece of armor and each weapon is distinct with its own unique appearances and stats, and since your equipped items change the appearance of your various characters, finding new equipment is always exciting. It's great to watch someone like Berethor go from a long-haired ragamuffin in ratty old armor to a shining suit of steel with the White Tree of Gondor embossed on the front, along with a matching helm. Between monsters that drop loot and the many treasure chests hidden about, there's always a steady influx of new gear. And that's a good thing, because battles in The Third Age will generally level you up quite quickly.
Getting into battle involves an interesting mix of set encounters, random encounters, and visible enemies you can run up to and engage. There are two different onscreen indications that will let you know if a battle is imminent. The first is a glowing red eye (yes, this would be the baleful eye of Sauron). When crossing certain areas, or revisiting places you've been before, the eye will start to form in a corner of your screen. If you don't leave that particular village, cave, or field, the eye will gradually get brighter until finally it triggers a battle. The other indicator is a glowing blue orb, or a palantir. The palantir will appear in areas where enemies are lurking in a set location. As you approach that location, the palantir will get brighter and more distinct; you can use it as a warning that you need to rest if your characters aren't ready for a fight. Visible monsters are scattered around, like the ambushing goblins in the bowels of Moria or the battle trolls fighting the guard in the streets of Minas Tirith, so you can just run into them and start a fight. Monsters also like to lurk near chests, though quietly, so a lot of the time if you move to grab a new bit of treasure, you can count on some opposition. This sounds varied, though what it basically boils down to is that you're going to be fighting something just about all the time. And anyone who has played a turn-based RPG in recent or distant history should pick up the fighting very easily.
You can field three characters at a time against foes that The Lord of the Rings fans will readily recognize: orcs and goblins, uruk'hai and the wolfish wargs, giant trolls and wild men. If you have more than three characters in your group, you can easily swap characters in and out of battle by pressing the left trigger on your controller when someone's turn comes up. This is a traditional turn-based system through and through, with your characters on one side of the room, your foes on the other, and each waiting patiently to act depending on their initiative and speed. On one side of the screen, you'll see a series of portraits that displays the current turn order of both enemies and allies, which is helpful for planning your attack.