Developer: Headstrong Games / Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment / ESRB: Everyone 10+ (Fantasy Violence) / Played on: Wii / Price: $49.99
Seven years have passed since director Peter Jackson graced filmgoers with The Return of the King. While one might expect the merchandizing frenzy to have subsided, the videogame adaptations of the Lord of the Rings trilogy have continued unabated. The most recent addition to this glut of electronic entertainment is The Lord of the Rings: Aragorn’s Quest for the Nintendo Wii. Its release begs the question: does this series still have the magic or has it aged worse than a 10-day old dead orc?
Aragorn’s Quest is a retelling of the Lord of the Rings trilogy from the perspective of perennial groupie Samwise Gamgee (now mayor of Hobbiton). The story unfolds as Sam regales his bushel of children with the trilogy’s events. Among his brood is Frodo Gamgee, named after the films’ hero. At the conclusion of each chapter (i.e., storytelling segment) you have the option of directing the young Frodo on a series of quests around The Shire. None are particularly memorable or challenging, but serve to extend the gameplay and provide training to help you prepare for the events in the main campaign. In one quest, for example, a farmer asks Frodo to rid his field of crows. You scare them off with your bow-and-arrow, a skill that becomes increasingly important during the Aragorn segments.
It is Aragorn, the would-be king of Gondor, who you control for the bulk of the game. The notion is that as Sam tells a chapter of the Lord of the Rings story, you then play through that segment as Aragorn. This framing device is interesting, but ultimately feels like a wasted opportunity. I would have preferred that the designers either excise Sam and his children from the game entirely or really delve into Sam’s interpretation of the trilogy’s events. Telling the story from Sam’s perspective opens up the events to a number of intriguing possibilities, none of which are adequately explored in this game. For example, it would be funny if Sam played up his importance in the quest and made it seem like he was the real hero, and not Frodo or Aragorn.
The gameplay itself is primarily focused on combat. As Aragorn you have to complete quests and side quests, which typically involve hobbit bodyguard duty, vanquishing a horde of foes, or hunting for items. Combat is frequent and typically involves taking on several enemies at once with the help of your computer-controlled allies. It’s a quite pedestrian affair that is hampered by lackluster enemy AI and a poor combat system. The former makes combat painfully easy. I felled most enemies by simply circle strafing around them and delivering the occasional jab with my sword. Meanwhile they stood idly, swinging impotently at Aragorn as he slayed them.
Familiar faces such as the hobbits, Gimli the Dwarf, and Legolas the Elf accompany Aragorn on his quest. These allies are largely unhelpful in combat and you’re forced to get the job done. A rather annoying function is the need to heal party members when they are wounded. On more than one occasion I was bashed over the head by a troll’s club as I attempted to heal my comrade in arms, Gimli.
Simply put, Aragorn’s Quest is one ugly game. If you thought you were back in the PlayStation 2 days few would argue with that assessment…and that’s very, very poor. The cut scenes fare little better, as their quality is jarringly inconsistent. The cinematics featuring Sam and his children are decently rendered, but those with Aragorn often involve expressionless characters that speak without moving their mouths. The final nail in the presentation coffin is the awkward camera. There is no adequate way to control your perspective. This often results in the camera getting hung up on trees during combat, meaning I could not see whatever Middle Earth monstrosity was pummeling me in the face.
The game’s liberal use of the trilogy’s soundtrack makes Aragorn’s Quest more aurally than visually pleasing. Unfortunately the bland voice acting mars the experience. That’s despite the presence of actors like Sean Astin (Samwise Gamgee) and John Rhys-Davis (Gimli the Dwarf) lending their voices to the characters they portrayed in the films. It’s painfully obvious that the remainder of the cast is comprised of actors trying to emulate the voices of Viggo Mortensen, Liv Tyler, et al.
It’s clear that the game’s designers tried to emulate The Legend of Zelda when it came to the controls. The famous lock-on feature, for example, is intact. This allows you to lock on one foe at a time and move around them strategically. Theoretically this means the controls are great, right? Well actually no. You can perform strategic jabs on enemies, such as head blows and body blows. Often, however, the controls fail to respond to your movements with the Wii remote. Ultimately it’s easier to swing the remote wildly (and, by extension, Aragorn’s sword) at an enemy until it dies. Deep tactics these are not. In addition, Aragorn moves a lot slower and clumsier than one would expect, thus making it hard to dodge enemy blows.
Only die-hard Tolkien junkies are likely to get a buzz out of Aragorn’s Quest.Its ugly graphics and derivative gameplay coalesce to create a thoroughly lackluster overall experience. It also squanders the potential of Sam Gamgee’s storytelling as a narrative device. The game seems to exist only to milk the Lord of the Rings franchise, possibly in preparation for The Hobbit film. I suggest that 10 hours watching the three Lord of the Rings films is time better spent.