Many moons ago when I was an adolescent, The Hobbit was required reading for anyone remotely interested in fantasy, science fiction, and tales of lore. The natural progression was to endeavor towards the Lord of the Rings trilogy (of which Fellowship of the Rings was the first), which proved to be a much more enriching experience than even the formidable Hobbit. Needless to say, those books were read multiple times over the next dozen years and shaped many opinions - including those about a certain Dungeons and Dragons game that emerged in the late 1970's. In any case, the previous attempt at a film wasn't enough for most Tolkien fans' huge appetites. (Ralph Bakshi's Lord of the Rings animated feature, released in 1978, while impressive, tried to cram far too much material into 2 hours and 10 minutes of film).
Jump forward 23 years and the release of The Fellowship of the Ring was coming soon. When I purchased my ticket in December of 2001, I was expecting another disappointing adaptation of an epic, along the lines of Dune. The film was stunning. Despite being over three hours long, it still didn't present the novel in its entirety - but that was okay. The film was a monumental achievement and the novel truly had an epic film to present it to those that are literally challenged. Where is all this leading, you ask?
Fast forward again - about 10 months later to the release of the Xbox game bearing the name of what is now a classic novel and a classic film. Again, I expected nothing - translations of novels or movies to video games have an even more marred history than do films from novels. Still, a little part of me was saying that if the movie pulled it off, perhaps the game could, too.
Enter Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, for the Xbox. Starting your quest in the Shire, you're introduced to Frodo as the character that you will begin the game with. The attention to detail is attractive in the game - though the FMV interludes would have been better left on the cutting room floor for the most part, starting with the introduction. The interface for controlling your characters (later in the game you can play as Aragorn and Gandalf) is a bit clunky and you'll find yourself doing things that weren't intentional and only serve to push the needle on the frustration-factor gauge. There are two separate means to scroll through various elements that you use in the game, one for items that you eat to regain health or remove poison and the other for the weapon that you're currently using, such as rocks to be thrown or the fabled dagger, Sting.
The game is relatively simple and straightforward in the beginning and consists of Frodo completing a set of mini quests that are detailed by interacting with other characters. These can consist of gathering herbs for an individual or finding a hinge to fix a certain gate that you need to pass through. A plethora of people on certain BB's on the Net have complained about these as being useless or not terribly challenging. While I agree that they aren't for everyone, I found that traveling around the Shire and completing these tasks was a thoroughly enjoyable, if uneventful, thing to do. But, when one looks past the initial glee of actually being in that environment, it's apparent that there are many limitations in this title and the reality of being free to roam around anywhere is sorely lacking. Whether you're entering Bree or Moria, you'll end up feeling horribly constrained and further frustrated because there's a log or rock that you know that any moron could jump on - except YOU.
There's an interesting side to carrying around the one ring - it allows you to enter certain secret areas (usually you're just killing a bunch of rats and getting a few "mushrooms" that'll help heal the damage that you just took in killing the rats) that can be entertaining to try and find. However, using the one ring comes with a cost known as the the "Purity Meter", which will kill you once it reaches zero. Problem here is that this meter is very quickly consumed, and further, is horribly difficult to "recharge" - thereby making the secret areas nearly useless very early in the game. The secret areas aren't all that interesting anyway, so why the developer chose to make this so difficult is beyond mere mortals such as myself. Still, it could've been very interesting.
The change from Frodo to Aragorn proves to be a bit more combat-intensive but no less linear. Your character and his weapons are larger, as are your opponents and the number of them which you fight. You are still subjected to minor quests - one of which is mildly annoying - looking for watermelons, hay, and other curious objects from which to create "fake" hobbits that will deceive the Ring Wraiths into thinking that they've killed the four hobbits that Aragorn is supposed to be protecting but isn't, because he's too busy collecting melons and logs . . . Um, yeah.
Gandalf and his array of spells prove to be even more of a challenge to master against yet more opponents - particularly in the puzzling stages of the mines of Moria. This area is among the most challenging in the game, but parts of it are very obscure and can serve to frustrate. Despite being very dark, the mines are highly detailed and a worthy portion of the game.
Before this starts sounding like a long, scathing diatribe, I have to confess that this game conveys something that is particularly important to fans of Lord of the Rings and is no small feat to accomplish - the atmosphere is dead on. As such, I'd have to highly recommend this to any fan of the trilogy or the movie. Bump the rating to a "B" if you're into Tolkien in any fashion as the character animation, environments, and attention to detail is outstanding. Further, it includes many items that the first movie omitted - such as the Barrow Wights and Tom Bombadill, for example. For casual fans or others looking for a new adventure game, there are much better titles out there for your system (Morrowind) and this one is particularly short (10-15 hours) with very little value to replaying it. As such, this Lord is but a knave.
· · · Haohmaru