He’s YELLING at me. Why is he YELLING at me? For the love of God, can someone please make him stop YELLING at me?
The sound design of a video game isn’t something that’s addressed all that often, or in too much depth, when evaluating the relative merits of that game. Games like Flower, Art Style: Orbient, and Everyday Shooter are noticeably enhanced by their use of musical elements as part of the gameplay, but there’s little doubt that those would be solid games even without the hints of emergent music. The music of Halo is all but iconic at this point (if not as immediately recognizable as the 8-bit anthems of yesteryear), and the voice acting of the two most recent Call of Duty games stands out as some of the best dramatic reading that gaming has to offer. For the most part, though, developers would prefer that the sound of a game fades into the background for evaluative purposes; if it’s not being noticed, generally it’s because the sound fits the aesthetic and the mood of the rest of the game, and can be considered a success.
This is the single most immediate problem of Lord of the Rings: Conquest: the sound design; more specifically, the voiceovers that utterly dominate the single-player campaign.
The voiceover in the Good campaign is the worst of it, an issue made even more problematic by the fact that you can’t actually play the Evil campaign until you’ve made it through the Good missions. The voiceover is done by…well, I think it’s a random voice actor playing Aragorn, but that much isn’t entirely clear. It’s someone with a loud voice who spends the entire time YELLING at you, telling you exactly what objective you’re not doing. “PROCEED TO THE RALLY POINT!” “PROTECT THE HOBBIT!” “DESTROY THE TOWERS!” Over, and over, and over, and not just when you’re first hearing about a new goal, but twice, three times, as many times as it takes to “motivate” you to complete every single goal in the entire game. The voiceovers aren’t even that creative — there are maybe four different messages for each goal that get looped until you finally succeed.
You are literally motivated by the thought that maybe the next set of messages will be a little quieter, maybe the next command a bit more creative than the one before. The state of mild dementia that you’re reduced to because of the constant yelling is enough to convince anyone that maybe such wishes will come true.
If this was the only problem with Lord of the Rings: Conquest, it would probably be far more tolerable. Unfortunately, despite the fact that Pandemic Studios has experience with this particular brand of hack ‘n slash in the form of the well-received Star Wars: Battlefront series, it feels in so many ways like a poorly-thought out genre exercise in service of a fantastic license. There’s lots of well-designed scenery (even if the color palette seems a bit limited), and the scenes from the movies are expertly manipulated to serve the needs of the narrative, particularly when the narrative takes a turn for the worse and we’re asked to inhabit the shoes of Sauron’s minions. Hugo Weaving even narrates these bits, and Hugo Weaving is three shades of awesome, so the game’s got that going for it.
The actual gameplay, on the other hand, is a problem. The four character classes in the game are so terribly unbalanced as to be rendered nearly irrelevant; the Warrior is almost useless, only being capable of short attacks (and if you think that the axe counts as a ranged attack, you’re nuts), when compared with, say, the Mage, who has a long-range attack that also happens to be a one-hit kill in all but the most extreme cases. Oh, and the Mage can also heal himself and all of the good guys close to him. Why be anyone else?
Sure, if you’re great with the dual thumbstick, maybe you like the megadamage that can be brought on by a headshot with an archer’s fire arrow, or if you’re a sneak, you’ll enjoy the cloaking capability of the scout, but really, the mage is where it’s at and the warrior is, decidedly, not. The only reason to be a warrior is achievements; I challenge anyone who’s played the game to offer another.
Of course, much of my criticism is aimed at the single-player campaign, and this is a game that clearly places the primary emphasis on the multiplayer game modes — as a matter of fact, it may be the first game that I can remember seeing that actually places the multiplayer mode above the single-player one in the main menu. On the bright side, Mr. Yelly Voice is very noticeably absent in the multiplayer modes. On the not-so-bright side, the unbalanced character classes mean you’re going to see a hell of a lot of mages as you progress through the various Middle Earth scenarios, and the games you get to play are almost uniformly bereft of originality. Deathmatch? We know how that works. Capture the ring? Substitute the One Ring for a flag and you know how that works, too.
Of the multiplayer modes, the only one that offers any longevity — which, in turn, makes it the saving grace of the game as a whole — is Conquest, which offers a mode that tends to be more at home in real-time strategy than this sort of hacking and slashing. Your team has to capture as many strategic locations on a given map, and the game ends either when one team has captured all of the points or a certain threshold of victory score is reached. It’s a mode that favors those who are actually willing to strategize, those who have a close-knit team who can devise a plan to conquer each individual map.
Unfortunately, the quality of the rest of the game pretty much ensures that not enough people are going to buy it to create the sort of teams that would make Conquest Mode the fulfilling experience it could be. If another Lord of the Rings tie-in is in development, it might be a good idea to wait.