The Lord of the Rings is a widely beloved franchise. Originally only a series of novels, the universe has expanded in many ways. For many fans, the books are the perfect medium for telling the story, which I can definitely see the argument for. For others (most certainly including me), the movies were timeless, cinematic masterpieces that, while not completely capturing the full world Tolkien envisioned, were glorious in their own right. Sometime this year, the Amazon-produced TV series should be coming, and I imagine that too will garner divided opinions.
But for specific fans, there is another form. If exploring the world through words, if experiencing the epic story through film and music were both not enough, reliving the events through gaming is certainly thrilling in its own right.
The Lord of the Rings has been my favourite franchise ever since I could remember, I’d seen each movie a dozen times before I could even spell my full name unassisted. I live and breathe LOTR. I may be considered a terrible fan in the fact that I’ve only ever read ‘The Two Towers’ when I was a child; I believe the vast volume of the books was too daunting for me to wholeheartedly attempt back then. As a result, sitting down and just taking in the movies and playing the games has always fulfilled my love for the series. I’d like to highlight some of the games that made my childhood.
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (PS2, 2002)
Humble beginnings. This game tied in with the release of the movie and saw you relive many of the key battles and events of both ‘Fellowship’ and ‘Two Towers’ through Aragorn’s eyes. Sporting simple hack-and-slash style gameplay, players had the choice of playing as Aragorn, Gimli or Legolas, with the only differences being in weapons and combo-strings. The game itself was far from easy, as you will find with many games from the era. Some enemies were frustrating, some levels had insane completion conditions, and sometimes movement was far too clunky. But damn was it fun. As a kid it was all I could want, experiencing the great battles first-hand and being a part of it. I thought it couldn’t get better than this. Boy was I wrong.
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (PS2, 2003)
I’ll start by saying this game blows the prequel out of the water in terms of improvement. Graphics, gameplay, basically anything you can think of, this one does better. Not only does the tutorial take place at the height of the battle at Helm’s Deep, but you’re immediately in the role of the powerful Gandalf, slaying dozens of Uruk-hai with ease. No other game has immediately felt so satisfying from the start. After the completion of the first level, three whole paths are opened to you, one following Gandalf, one following Frodo and Sam, one following Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli.
Not only is there a much wider range of characters to play as, with all of them feeling distinct from one another, you can play the entire game (minus the tutorial) in co-op with a friend. They also added much more interactive environments, such as catapults, cauldrons of fire you can tip on enemies, spears you can pick up and throw, and so on. The depth of this game, despite being almost 20 years old, is still surprising to this day. I genuinely feel that this is a perfect translation of movie-to-game, not just in the Lord of the Rings franchise but in general.
The Lord of the Rings: The Third Age (PS2, 2004)
The Third Age took a unique approach compared to the past games and still is one of the most unique LOTR games in my memory. It’s a turn-based RPG much akin to Final Fantasy games, where your party progresses through a semi-open world and has combat encounters with orcs, Uruk-hai, trolls, goblins, and many more foes from the movies. The story follows a slightly amnesiac soldier from Gondor who only remembers that he needs to find Boromir, but runs into a group of Nazgul that almost kill him. He is rescued by an Elven lady who protects him and guides him, before meeting and recruiting 5 more members of the party. The story itself is somewhat lacking, there’s little substance until the latter portion of the game, and most of the game just has you following the actual cast of the movie and sometimes fighting alongside them.
The combat, however, is nothing short of incredible. Your attacks and powers look and feel satisfying. The impact of powerful sword blows, axe cleaves, arrow shots, they’re all amazing. You gain more advanced abilities by using the ones you already have a certain number of times, encouraging you to develop each character and customise your party to your liking. You come across different armour and weapons that look visually different and have different effects, meaning your party doesn’t look the same at the end as they did in the beginning. As you complete each of the 9 large areas, you unlock a corresponding ‘evil mode’, where you play a series of battles against the heroes as the villains, whether that be mighty trolls, the fearsome Nazgul, or the dreaded Balrog itself. Even if it isn’t the greatest by turn-based RPG standards, I still come back to this game every few years, and it never gets old for me. If only EA would one day remaster or re-release these on a newer platform.
The Lord of the Rings: Conquest (Xbox 360, 2009)
Oh, Pandemic Studios, what a treasure you were. From the team behind the beloved Star Wars Battlefront 2 (2005), comes the LOTR clone version. Somebody, bless them, had the idea, “what if we just made a Lord of the Rings Battlefront?” And man, did it work. Well, kinda. Don’t get me wrong, I love this game to pieces, but it wasn’t very good. Adapting much of the gameplay from Battlefront 2, it was certainly ambitious, and fans with low standards (me) really enjoyed their time with the game. Roughly following the events of The Two Towers and Return of the King, you control one of four classes in large-scale battles across several maps. Each class felt unique enough from one another, and I personally found the hack-and-slash combat to be very fun. There was something very satisfying playing as an archer raining arrows down on Uruk-hai from the Breaching Wall at Helm’s Deep, or carving through dozens of orcs at a time as a warrior at Minas Tirith or using heroes like Gandalf to battle villains like Saruman in Isengard. It’s a complete nerd fantasy, and there’s even an evil story where Sauron revives and conquers Middle-Earth. The number of people that could be there together, clashing all at once, and you get to be one of them. It’s unlike anything else. Thankfully, a team is working on a fan-made remaster and reimagining, and although their expected release date is far off, I hope they can successfully capture the magic that this game once attempted to.
Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor/War (PS4 2014/2017)
These two games, what can I say? While I may be somewhat obscured by nostalgia for every previous entry on this list, these two games are genuinely good. And not just good, they’re unimaginably good. An original story that takes liberties in a gap of history, you take control of a captain called Talion overseeing the Black Gate, when one day it is overrun by a horde of orcs led by the mysterious Black Hand of Sauron, alongside his minions The Hammer and The Tower. They slaughter everyone, and the Black Hand ritualistically kills Talion, his wife and son in hopes to summon a wraith called Celebrimbor. This wraith instead possesses Talion’s dying body, banishing him from death so that he may enact his revenge. It is revealed that Celebrimbor was the elven forgemaster that crafted the rings of power, but was betrayed by Sauron, his family being killed in a similar manner to Talion’s. Celebrimbor holds the power to brand and dominate orcs, putting them under his control, and with this, Talion and the wraith work towards killing the Black Hand and raising an army to combat Sauron’s own forces within Mordor.
The combat is much akin to WB Games’ previous Batman: Arkham titles, very fluid, combo-based gameplay but with a much more brutal take. You actively dismember and execute orcs throughout both games, some abilities even exploding heads and causing others to run in fear. Such a dark take is welcomed to the fantasy world. It feels very at home, to be honest. These games also welcome stealthy approaches, killing orcs silently or even dominating them and bringing them under your control, until you order them to attack their former brethren. Everything gameplay-wise is perfect, you can truly never get tired of it. Shadow of War brings so much more to the table, there’s tons of customisation and ways to build Talion around different strategies so that it feels fresh no matter how you play.
The key part of the games is the Nemesis System, where you will encounter orc captains and warchiefs that have their own weaknesses and strengths that you can capitalise on. Encountering a captain and either dying to him or utilising his weakness can cause him to change, remembering his confrontation with you and adapting to it. Since Talion never truly dies, a captain may kill him a number of times and eventually rise to the rank of warchief. Similarly, Talion may dominate a captain and support his rise through the ranks, eventually becoming a warchief himself. Shadow of War introduces fortresses that house an overlord, and Talion uses his own captains and army to siege the fortress and confront the overlord and take the land for his own, then defending it himself. This all feels simply incredible to play out, and the thousands of different combinations in orc captains allow for truly unique experiences every time.
Ultimately, these two games are must-play for fans of LOTR. While many liberties are taken in the story, and some are quite questionable, it’s an unreal adventure.
Which brings me to the conclusion: can we see more games like these in the future? When you think about it, games based on movies seem to have faded away now, but back then they were a hot topic. Games like Spider-man 2, Goldeneye 007, a whole lot of Star Wars games too, they’re all seen as some of the best games ever. It makes you wonder if we could ever return to those days. While some are great, there have been many that were just cashing in on the movie and lacked any heart or soul behind the games themselves. I hope if we can get movie-games back, they make me feel like the games I’ve mentioned once did.