Sojourning through Middle-Earth’s Mediocre Videogame Landscape

It’s inevitable. Soon, people will be catching the Tolkien bug once again, thanks in no small part to this months’ release of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. I, of course, have never successfully cured myself of the Tolkien bug, so thankfully I have the advantage of being able to help you slice through the orcish hoard of dreadfully mediocre The Lord of the Rings licensed stuff that’s out there. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be taking a renewed look at some of the Tolkien-based stuff I’ve read, watched, and played over the years. This post will focus on one of my favorite topics: videogames.

While few Tolkien licensed games are particularly good, playing them might help those finished with The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings Appendices realize why sometimes enough really is enough. I’ll start with the better games, and from there move into more lackluster titles.

Lego The Lord of the Rings

Lego LotR isn’t just one of the best Tolkien games out there; it’s also one of the best Lego games out there. Lego LotR features a charming and playful take on Tolkien’s Middle-Earth that is one part platformer and one part sandbox RPG. While the game is best enjoyed with friends, it is also a quality product, and its faithfulness to the movies and appropriate incorporation of humor should please fans of Tolkien and plain-old fans of Lego games alike. Though on the lighthearted side, the game also makes an attempt to flesh out some areas of Middle-Earth not included in the movies.

Lego The Lord of the Rings is really best played with friends. Most of the quests require a team effort, and some of them even launch the players into split-screen mode where (for example) Gandalf and Saruman must duel while Frodo and the Hobbits make their simultaneous escape from the Shire.

Unlike other most Lego games, LotR doesn’t feature a single hub of free-play activity. Instead, areas can simply be revisited on a world map after their completion, giving the game all the towns and sidequests associate with classic RPG’s.

All in all, Lego LotR is a fun game, with tons of replay value, and deserves a spot on everyone LotR fan’s gaming shelf.

The Hobbit

As far as I’m aware, you’ll need to dust off your Gamecube if you want to play the best and only recent videogame adaptation of The Hobbit out there. Videogame Hobbit is fun and faithful to the original, if not a bit glitchy (unfortunately, it also came out before consoles got patching). While faithful to the book, players will encounter the occasional bizarre fetch-quest or plot arc that simply contradicts Tolkien’s timeline (like when you have to rescue enslaved dwarves from under a mountain. However, if you’d dismissed as being like some of the other trilogy-centered games that came out for the last generation of consoles, you did not do it proper justice. Thankfully, more than a few sellers are letting it go on Amazon for pretty reasonable prices.

The Lord of the Rings Online

While Turbine’s Lord of the Rings Online is without a doubt the most immersive of all Tolkien games, it is also dangerously perilous and can be mentally and financially draining, much like Frodo’s ring-bearer quest.

For the unfamiliar, The Lord of the Rings Online is a Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG) designed around Tolkien’s Middle-Earth. LotRo stays faithful to Tolkien lore, but also takes its players to those Middle-Earth locations far beyond the scope of Tolkien’s popular works, like those rarely discussed northern regions once populated by great kings. For those better initiated with MMORPG standard operating procedure, LotRo is basically The Lord of the Rings themed World of Warcraft.

MMORPG fans will be please to know that LotRo isn’t an all-out WoW ripoff. The game does introduce several new elements to the online role playing game realm, like the ability to wear outfits over armor, and a fairly in-depth music system. On high graphics levels, LotR looks great, making it something that can easily compete with most of the MMORPG competition currently on the market. Furthermore, hardcore fans are bound to be pleased by the lore and role playing emphasis found on many of the game servers. On paper, LotRo is a “dream come true” for fans of both LotR and MMORPG’s. In reality, it suffers from two major shortcomings: wavering activity levels, and a frustrating “pay to progress” style formula.

rock out with other minstrels during festive concert events

The Lord of the Rings Online hooks players with a generous free-to-play system that, for the first 20-30 levels (around 20-30 hrs of gameplay), seems to be all inclusive. There’s a nice mix of “Epic” storyline quests and side quests, which give the player the illusion of a massive, free-to-play world. The problem is, while the storyline quests never end, the side-quests do, which leaves unsubscribed players with a massive—and empty—world to explore, just as they’ve likely grown addicted to the game and attached to their characters.

In theory, players can continue to grind and complete Epic Quests to advance through LotRo’s storyline. In reality, that is too mundane for even the most ardent MMORPG players, and an alternative path must be taken. Turbine offers players several options: Players can subscribe for $9.99 per month, and open up all content included in the original game before the release of expansions, which will take players to level 55 or so. Players can also pay one-time fees to open new locations permanently. Finally, players can grind out in-game “Turbine Points” to open these locations up without paying cash; the only truly free way of playing the game, and by far the most grueling.

That sounds nice, but there’s a really big problem. Turbine’s The Lord of the Rings Online is an ever-dwindling community that relies on increasingly expensive expansion packages to make profits. So, think of it this way: while $10-20 bucks and lots of free time can get you through 50 percent of the game within a few months, getting to the endgame requires you purchase quest packs and expansions beyond the original game content which can cost much, much more. The latest expansion pack, Riders of Rohan, cost around $50 for its cheapest version, and so far Turbine has only taken us halfway to Mordor. In the long run, who knows what it’s going to cost to get your character to Sauron’s Black Gates?.

Riders of Rohan is a nice addition to LotRo… for those willing to pay the price of a new game

Think of it this way: I’d estimate that you can play the first 33 percent of The Lord of the Rings Online for free. You can play the second 33 percent for $10-30 bucks, depending how often you play and how much time you’re willing to put into it. But, the last 33  percent is going to cost you upwards of $100 to finish, and the expansions are only getting more expensive and less expansive as they’re released. You might want to ask yourself from the outset: is it really worth it?

At its early stages, The Lord of the Rings Online is fun and full of life, populated by level 20 freebies who do little outside role playing in Bree’s Prancing Pony. But, from there, LotRo changes into something else; something that reminds me of kids with expensive toys and no-one else to play with. If you’re that kid and love The Lord of the Rings, feel free to buy your own road to Mordor. If you’re not, be prepared to be disappointed when Turbine’s Middle-Earth turns out to be little more than a glorified Facebook game.

The Lord of the Rings: War in the North

Remembergames like Champions of Norath and Baulder’s Gate: Dark Alliance? There were fun games marred by repetitive gameplay and bland story-telling. Well, Snowblind, the creator of those games, is back, and they’ve brought War in the North with them. And surprise! it is a fun game marred by repetitive gameplay and bland story-telling.

Most reviewers scored this game around a 5-6, but I think for Tolkien fans it warrants at least a 7-8. WitN puts you in control of a supplementary fellowship of Man, Elf, and Dwarf as they go on a distraction mission taking out Sauron’s forces in–you guessed it!-the Northern echelon’s of Middle-Earth.

While revering of Tolkien’s work, this game fails to exhibit the necessary imagination and take the necessary creative chances required to truly bring Middle-Earth’s uncharted territories to life. Despite the cool premise, Snowblind’s North is a generic and uninspired land, void of any real LotR magic. Cleaving off goblin heads is fun for awhile, but it does start to get tiresome. So does the story of the game, which uses the same basic formula as the premise for every level. As the player, you’re always looking for someone or something that’s just behind a swarm of enemy cantonments. And, when you beat the level boss and he comes back to life bigger and stronger than ever, the eagles are always there to safe you.

Rinse, wash, repeat. That is War in the North, really.

The Lord of the Rings: Conquest

On the previous generation of gaming consoles, there were a handful of surprisingly good Star Wars games called Battlefront. These games were kinda like third-person shooters, but also a little bit like the Dynasty Warriors series in the sense that they allowed players to take part in epic battles of huge numbers. They were cool because, while they had some issues, they were among the first games bring battles on the massive war scale to consoles.

The Lord of the Rings: Conquest is like Battlefront, only themed around Middle-Earth. Unfortunately, it’s not as good as the Battlefront games.

I’m not sure what the problem is with Conquest, but it’s just not as fun. Part of it, I think, is the emphasis on melee combat: melee was never a strong point of the Battlefront games, but that was OK, since you spent most of your time playing as a rifle-bearing storm trooper or rebel gunner. It was easier to mask lackluster melee combat, because it didn’t happen as much. With Conquest, this isn’t true, and the flaws of melee are put on display.

Another problem is that Battlefront’s mass-scale format just isn’t that impressive on the current generation. Huge, map spanning battles were really cool on the PS2, but they hold no inherent virtue that makes them so on the current generation of consoles. That’s probably why there haven’t really been any battlefront games on the 360 or PS3, and also why Conquest just doesn’t deliver.


Well, that’s it for now. The list is by no means complete, but these selections do represent some of the more recent LotR themed games to have come out. Some of these games are good, while others are bad, but most are mediocre in their own ways. If you really want a good fantasy experience on consoles, you’re best bet is just to play Skyrim. It’s the only great game that brings together Men, Elves, and Orcs out there, really. And the new expansion DLC, Dragonborn, is out today.

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