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Lord of the Rings: Conquest
Score: 68%
ESRB: Teen
Publisher: EA Games
Developer: Pandemic
Media: Blu-ray/1
Players: 1 - 2, 16 (Online)
Genre: Action/ Online

Graphics & Sound:
When you look at the concept behind Lord of the Rings: Conquest - a merging of Battlefront-style gameplay and the Lord of the Rings license - it seems like a no-brainer, grand slam. However, when you play it, the merger doesn't seem quite as smooth.

Conquest is split between two modes, Single and Multiplayer, and judging from the visuals, Multiplayer is clearly the major focus. Although the environments look like they were plucked right out of Peter Jackson's trilogy, the characters look like they stepped right out of the Xbox/ PS2 Rings games. There are a few noticeable "next gen" touch-ups, but the overall look isn't that great. Textures are blurry and characters look incredibly flat. However, as I mentioned earlier, this is likely to keep Conquest running at a smooth pace during online games. Even if that is the case, there are still a few hiccups and hitches around - mostly when effects come into play.

Conquest makes extensive use of the film's resources. The film's score trumpets through every level and, even if the A.I. doesn't give the appearance of an epic battle, they at least sound the part. Hugo Weaving lends his talents as the narrator for the single-player campaign and does a great job. Stand-ins are used for the rest of the main characters; the voicework isn't great, but they do what they need to for the length of time you need to listen to them.

Lord of the Rings: Conquest is a very straightforward affair and if the subtle clues up top weren't enough of a hint, I'll say it again - Conquest is designed first and foremost as a multiplayer affair. Although the game features two campaigns (one good, one evil), both primarily serve as training for the various modes and classes used in multiplayer.

The good campaign is a Lord of the Rings equivalent to a Civil War battlefield tour. All of the major battles featured in the films, from Helm's Deep to the Black Gate, are tied together with clips from the movie, which serve as a loose story. The evil campaign, which is unlocked after you complete the good campaign, plays with the idea of what would happen if Frodo kept the ring for himself. This sets off a chain of events that sees evil winning, eventually leading to a bloody romp through the Shire - something that should please even the most sadistic of players. Of the two, the evil is most easily the more interesting, if only because it offers a new take on things. The Battle of Helm's Deep is cool, but it's starting to get as redundant as playing through D-Day.

Up to sixteen players can participate in online matches across three general modes. I found the two Deathmatch variants the least interesting of the group. I'm probably in the minority, but I like some sense of directing with my killing. Conquest is a simple territory grab, and if you're able to find a good enough group (in other words, a group that doesn't turn Conquest into Team Deathmatch 2: Electric Boogaloo) it is the most fun you'll have with the game. Each of the four classes - Warrior, Mage, Scout, Archer - has their own abilities that mix well with each other. With the right group, you can concoct all types of neat strategies. I had even more fun with Capture the Ring, a Rings-themed Capture the Flag. As much as I despise escort missions in single-player games, I love them in multiplayer, probably because it is one of the few modes that really encourages teamwork over random killing.

A few minutes spent in Mutiplayer will do two things; it will convince you that there's something beyond the shallow single-player campaign and that the A.I. that accompanies you through single-player is stupid. Okay, so maybe "stupid" is a harsh way of saying it since the A.I. proved to be useful in a few areas. Instead, I'll just say it's a bit mindless and has a way of getting killed way too quickly. Although you'll have a army backing you up in every single-player battle, you can expect to do most of the dirty work yourself while a group of soldiers will either die the moment a troll comes rumbling their way or gang up on the same lowly orc.

A.I. is an issue with the other side as well. Enemies will get stuck in block animations (even after using you "block break" move) or pull a super attack from under their filthy loincloths, resulting in an instant knockdown. The lack of smarts is balanced out with the number of enemies you'll need to take down. This is even more painful when taken alongside your allies' short lifespan and makes some goals, like defending rally points, a pain.

Online, intelligence is much improved. You're bound to run into a few dolts, but for the most part I came across some really good, dedicated players who helped make the experience fun.

Game Mechanics:
Both good and evil sides offer four classes, which are mirror images of each other when it comes to skills. Warriors are up-front fighters, while archers like to hang back and assail enemies with a variety of arrow types (flame, poison,...) Mages are great mid-line fighters; they are the only class that can heal and also offer protective spells. Scouts are the sneaky ones of the bunch; they can hide and pull off one-hit-kill backstabs as well as use explosives. You'll also unlock characters from the movies after completing certain objectives, though all are really just jacked-up versions of the four base classes. Additionally, once they're gone, you're back to the other classes. Not a good thing when you're up against opposing "hero" units. You'll also get a chance to take hero units into battle during online matches, either as a performance bonus or in Hero-vs-Hero Deathmatches.

All four classes use the same control setup. Each has three attacks mapped to the face buttons and that can be magically "tweaked" by pressing the shoulder button. The setup is functional, but incredibly clunky. The tutorial hints at some complexity, but I found that the "deeper" moves only made the game harder. I had an easier time blasting through the game before going through the tutorial than after. Part of the problem is that there's no way to break out of a combo; once you start it, you're forced to sit through the entire animation. The underlying structure is incredibly functional and well designed, it just seems stuck in an outdated execution.

When it comes to the "Buy or Not to Buy" question, Lord of the Rings: Conquest isn't much more than a competent title. Again, multiplayer is the main focus here, so if the idea of battling through Middle-earth online is appealing, you'll want to take the plunge. If this isn't you, then save your money.

-Starscream, GameVortex Communications
AKA Ricky Tucker

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