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Lord of the Rings: Tactics
Score: 78%
ESRB: Teen
Publisher: EA Games
Developer: Amaze Entertainment
Media: UMD/1
Players: 1 - 4
Genre: Turn-Based Strategy/ Strategy/ RPG

Graphics & Sound:
EA isn't known for branching out or taking many risks when it comes to games; instead they tend to play it rather close to the norm with a few minimal changes. This fact alone makes Lord of the Rings: Tactics a refreshing experience in and of itself, as it does take risks and tries to do different things -- not all of the risks pay off, but its a good start.

EA has always done a great job with the Lord of the Rings games and it doesn’t stop with LotR: Tactics. Similarly to the console Lord of the Rings games, missions are introduced with high-quality clips taken directly from the three Peter Jackson movies. Where LotR: Tactics differs is that the clips don’t transition into the action as do in the action-oriented offerings – although this is a very minor gripe.

LotR: Tactics uses the same in-game graphics as the console versions, though the quality has been scaled back just a bit. Textures are a little blurrier and some characters aren’t as spot-on in appearance, but overall it’s a good showing for the PSP. One of the few graphical complaints (other than minor glitches) that can be leveled are the menus, which look rather drab and more like placeholders than anything else.

Sound does its job with the appropriate grunts, snorts and weapons sounds all chiming in at the right time. The movie’s epic score also plays throughout each mission.

Lord of the Rings: Tactics brings the “Lord of the Rings Trilogy” into a turn-based strategy game in the vein of Final Fantasy Tactics or Disgaea. The similarities between those two and LotR: Tactics end there.

In LotR: Tactics, you play through the Trilogy from the perspective of either the Fellowship or Mordor. A quick montage of clips from the movie introduces each mission, setting up the action. By now, it is assumed that most people know the trilogy backwards and forwards already, so the clips are really just there to give you a quick basis to build the mission from (many of which take a few liberties for the sake of gameplay). Mission goals are pretty standard, though they do stray from the "kill everything" formula. For example, in the Mines of Moria, you simply have to get your party out of the mines. More times than not you're protecting a certain character, usually Frodo or one of the main heroes.

The unique difference between LotR: Tactics and other SRPGs is that both sides move and attack at the same time. Turns are broken down into rounds, which are further broken down into Movement and Attack Phases. Each round begins with both sides mapping out their movement on the field, after which both move. If two opposing characters meet each other (by crossing nearby movement squares), they stop. Once everyone has moved, the Attack phase comes up and once again both sides assign actions at the same time.

Characters have both ranged and melee attacks, so it is rare that a character won't be able to make some sort of attack per round (unless you’re using Eomer), though some are obviously better suited for one attack type or another. Combat on both sides takes place between a handful of heroes, which does take away from the epic feel of the movie's battles. Heroes on both sides are evenly matched, with their only real differences being different abilities. For example, Legolas's special attacks are geared more towards long-range combat while Gimli's are made for close-quarters fighting. The lack of balance, or rather the fact that all characters are so evenly balanced, is one of the bigger liberties taken with the game since it gives characters such as Sam the ability to go toe-to-toe with the Witch-King and win. In a similar fashion to the movement restrictions, if two characters are standing adjacent to each other, then they can't attack beyond that person.

As a SRPG, LotR: Tactics is decent, though it does have a few problems that keep it from being among the best. For one, as unique as the actual "tactics" engine is, it really doesn't work as well as you would want. The system sets up an interesting chess-like dynamic where you're constantly having to guess what the A.I. is going to do next, but at the same time, the Zone of Control elements (where you can't move or attack past adjacent enemies) add an artificial limitation that hurts the game. It is a simple example of something working great in theory and then stumbling in practice. If Legolas is protecting Frodo, doesn't it make sense that he'd shoot an arrow towards the orc attacking Frodo even though he has an orc in front of him? Or why can't Aragorn be quick enough to slip behind an enemy to get in a surprise slash to the back?

Three difficulty settings are available, all of which feature steep learning curves. Since the game’s plot shuttles you around to all of the “big” battles in the Trilogy, there’s very little time to get acclimated to the difficult-to-use interface. On top of that, you’re forced to go up against significantly stronger foes almost from the start (a battle with the Balrog is your “warm-up” battle). This leads to a lot of mission replays, as you’ll want to build up your forces in past missions. Even then victories aren’t guaranteed, given the frequency at which counter-attacks and blocks happen, adding a feel that is a little too chaotic at times.

Enemy A.I. isn’t a slouch either. Having to just face the A.I. alone would have made for enough of a challenge. Lord of the Rings: Tactics' A.I. isn’t exactly Deep Blue, but it often puts up a good fight. In particular, the A.I. seems to really understand victory conditions and will follow them to the letter. If it is charged with protecting something, it will do so relentlessly.

Although it is probably not the “hardcore” thing to do, I actually found the game much more enjoyable when playing in Easy mode. There’s still plenty of challenge to be found, but it is not as tedious an experience as in the Normal and Hard modes.

Game Mechanics:
Interface proves to be one of LotR: Tactics' major stumbling blocks. All the information you’ll ever need is available, though getting to it will take a little longer than it should. On top of that, it is almost impossible to gauge how well characters stack up against each other. Granted, there really isn’t that much difference between units (again, they are all pretty much balanced), but some abilities do make all of the difference, so it would be nice to have an idea as to what enemies are capable of. It can also get pretty tough trying to remember whom you’ve given orders to (the little boxes with checks do not work well), what they’re doing, and what still needs to be done. Overall, the entire interface is a clunky mess that feels incomplete and rushed.

Between battles, units gain experience and gold, which can be used to purchase new abilities and items. At first, the system seems more than a little daunting, as the descriptions of each ability are pretty extensive and make them seem more complicated than they really are. Once you realize this, buying new abilities is easy and they provide a noticeable boost - one you’ll need considering how tough battles become early on. One big plus to items is that once purchased, anyone can use them – so you don’t have to make sure everyone has something.

Compared to other SRPGs, Lord of the Rings: Tactics is far from perfect. That having been said, even with the game’s many problems, it is still a fun game for “Lord of the Rings” fans who happen to like deep, slow-paced strategy games. Fans with more of an eye for action, however, won’t be able to overlook the aforementioned problems and should probably avoid the purchase.

-Starscream, GameVortex Communications
AKA Ricky Tucker

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