Saturday, May 31, 2014

Lord of the Rings: Final Rating


Lord of the Rings, Vol. I
Interplay (developer), Electronic Arts (publisher)
Released 1990 for DOS, 1991 for Amiga, FM Towns, PC-98. Enhanced version re-released in 1993 for DOS on CD-ROM. A 1994 SNES title of the same name is an entirely different game.
Date Started: 12 May 2014
Date Ended: 27 May 2014
Total Hours: 36
Difficulty: Moderate (3/5)
Final Rating: 49
Ranking at Time of Posting: 124/142 (87%)

Lord of the Rings, Vol. I ended up being a much better game than I expected, particularly given my ambivalence about the source material. When the game started, I was cynical about playing through a plot everyone already knows with characters everyone already knows. I felt that it would limit any sense of role-playing and make the departures from the source material feel a little jarring. That feeling never entirely went away, but I found it easier than expected to envision an alternate universe in which a slightly different Fellowship walked a slightly different path.

Two particular strengths of the game didn't become clear until after I'd won and I consulted some walkthroughs online, in particular a fantastic-but-anonymous map-by-map analysis found here. First, the game does a superb job avoiding "walking dead" scenarios by making sure you almost always have some item, skill, or spell that will allow you to solve a puzzle. The "climb" skill and a rope are redundant options in most areas, for instance, as are torches and the "Firefinger" or "Illuminate" spells. The final door in Dol Guldur can be bypassed with either of two keys or by casting the "Countermagic" spell. Any of several gems found on previous maps can be given to Arwen.

Second, the game world responds very well to the party's actions--so well, in fact, that I didn't notice it happening. Apparently, if you return to Bree after defeating the Black Riders at the river crossing, you get an entirely new set of dialogues and encounters, including a murder mystery and combats with human thugs in places where Nazgul had attacked before. There was a spirit I encountered in Moria that I only encountered because I'd freed it from a dungeon near the Old Forest. There were a ton of places in the game that responded only to the presence of a particular character, or a particular "lore" skill, or a particular item, and many encounters are dependent upon other encounters on previous maps. I was oblivious to almost all of it. When I breezed through Moria, I had no idea that having the "golden wheel" in my possession was automatically solving a lot of puzzles.

Without Aragorn in the party, this message wouldn't have come up, and it would have been harder to find an object nearby.
  
Two negatives also became clear, though. First, the game is absolutely full of bugs, including scripts that never run, dialogue spoken by the wrong person, dialogue that doesn't respond to the intended prompt, and areas that you can't access. (The author of the walkthrough above exhaustively analyzed the game's code.) It's a wonder that it's possible to finish the game.

More important is the problem that I mentioned early on: failure to walk and perform other actions on precisely the right set of pixels means missing a bunch of encounters. For instance, there was an entire dungeon beneath Bree that I missed because I didn't step on a patch of grass in a corner. I missed the tunnels leading to the spirit of Caradhras in Redhorn Pass because I didn't use "perception" in a random section of hallway (yes, an NPC mentioned there was a hidden lair somewhere, but come on). Some of these areas are cued by NPC dialogues, but many are not. Again, it's a strength of the game that I was able to win despite missing many such encounters, but overall, it's not a great approach to gameplay.

Having finished, I'm convinced that you could do a speed run through the game within a couple of hours. As far as I can tell, the only things absolutely required by the game are one ELBERETH or LUTHIEN (the latter available in Bilbo's house right at the beginning) to use on the Black Riders at the ford, either Gandalf with his wizard's staff or the golden wheel to get past the balrog in Moria, either a key or the "Countermagic" spell to get past a barrier in Dol Guldur, and either an "eagle gem" (which I never found) or the THORONDOR word of power at the endgame. Amidst all of this, you need at least some level of combat power to get past various fixed combats, including the last one, but you could probably accomplish most of that with the right party member selections. It would be interesting to attempt. One of you must do this.

Let's move on to the GIMLET:

1. Game World. While I may not like the use of a licensed title, no one can deny that Middle Earth is a good setting for a CRPG, with plenty of races, monsters, history, lore, magic, and other trappings of fantasy role-playing. The manual gives a nice overview of history, people, and places for those not familiar with the books. Much as I do when I try to read Tolkien, I got a bit lost in all of the names and historical references, even though I tried to look up as many terms as possible on the LOTR wiki. As I noted above, the game does a good job responding to the players' actions, and of course the party's place in the setting is very well-established. Score: 8.

Sauron looks pretty goofy in this game.
   
2. Character Creation and Development. One of the weaker areas given the adherence to the source material. You play with pre-rolled characters, with no choices for things like name, class, skills, and alignments. The only choice you can really make is the composition of the party, which makes a difference in how some encounters play out.

I don't love the game's approach to experience and development, which is extremely subtle and somewhat confusing. I was never sure exactly what actions contributed to character growth, or whether fighting all the extra combats was doing any good. To take an example, Pippin started the game with 50 dexterity, 8 strength, 15 endurance, 50 luck, 15 life, and 60 willpower. He finished with 52 dexterity, 9 strength, 24 endurance, 62 luck, 24 life, and 66 willpower. Clearly, some development occurred, but I didn't really notice when it did. I don't know what was from solving puzzles, what was from combat experience, and what was from special encounters that specifically raised statistics.

The skills system deserves a mention here. A few of the skills were absolutely essential--climb, jump, picklocks, read, and perception among them. Others, like charisma, detect traps, devices, boats, and sneak, were used occasionally. A few--bravado, hide, and riding--I found absolutely no use for at all. There were only a few places where characters could learn new skills.

In general, there wasn't enough opportunity to control character development in the game, and no character creation process at all. Score: 4.

3. NPC Interaction. Quite good. Middle Earth is a populous place, and the NPCs have a lot of lore, hints, and quests to impart. I always like games with a flexible keyword approach to dialogue. I was mortified to see from the walkthrough that I missed a lot of keywords that would have prompted dialogue. I mostly asked NPCs about things they cued me themselves in their greetings, or with NEWS. Apparently, I should have spent a lot more time asking about key characters and places in the environment.

Talking with NPCs imparts key bits of lore about the game world.

It's also cool that so many NPCs, including many not part of the canonical Fellowship, can join the party, including a few with ulterior agendas. There are only a few NPC encounters that offer any actual role-playing, unfortunately. Score: 6.

4. Encounters and Foes. The denizens of Middle Earth are a reasonably varied lot, but for the purposes of most combats, the variances boil down to attack prowess and hit points. No one has any special attacks, and enemy spellcasters don't even cast spells in combat. In other types of "encounters," the game does better, with a variety of places that you can push through with brawn or adopt a more subtle approach, like sneaking, casting a spell, or using a word of power. The sheer scope and variety of fixed encounters is almost exhausting, lending a lot to the game's replayability. Again, there aren't very many role-playing options in these scenarios, except to the extent of favoring one approach over another (e.g., skills vs. spells). Score: 6.

The game had only a few role-playing choices like this one.
   
5. Magic and Combat. Both were a little disappointing, as I covered a couple posts ago. Combat is a rote affair in which you depend on luck far more than tactics. "Tactics" are limited to maneuvering and maybe a couple of weapon-based options. There aren't really even any magic items to use in combat. There are only a couple of offensive spells, and they under-perform physical attacks. On the plus side, combats were relatively quick, and rare enough that I seldom groaned when the combat screen came up.

The party has surrounded the last enemy on the screen.
   
Magic is primarily useful for puzzle-solving. There are only 8 spells in the game, and I never found anyone with one of them ("Kingshand," a healing spell).

I don't know exactly where to include this, but there was a weird balance between combat and healing. There are a few items that you can buy or find that heal characters a small number of hit points, and can only be eaten once per day. For the most part, healing is a scripted event in this game, occurring when you enter certain areas or speak to certain people, usually without the game even making you aware of what's happened. This approach didn't cause me any particular problems--my characters usually had enough health when they needed it--but it's still very odd. Score: 3.

Glorfindel prepares to cast "Countermagic" to get past a barrier. Note how spells (which can be cast repeatedly) mix with words of power (which can be invoked only once each).
   
6. Equipment. The game adheres to Tokien's vision of Middle Earth, in which magic items are quite rare. Finding an enchanted weapon or suit of armor is a major event. This isn't inherently good or bad, but it's a different approach than seen in most RPGs.

I was underwhelmed by the inventory system in general. Characters are limited to wearing a suit of armor and wielding one weapon; many other items that feel like they should be equippable, like cloaks and rings, are actually just puzzle items. Throughout most of the game, my backpacks were bursting at the seams with various quest items or things that sounded like quest items, with the game offering no hints about what I needed to keep and what I could safely discard. I was constantly shuffling stuff around and trying to figure out what I could drop.

There were a number of utility items--shovels, picks, ropes, torches--for solving puzzles, and a small variety of foods and healing items. I still have no idea what all that athelas was for. Score: 3.

Pippin's late-game inventory. For some reason, I'm still carrying the gate key from the Shire to the Old Forest.
   
7.  Economy. Also fairly weak. There are no monetary rewards from quests or random combats; silver pennies only exist in a few defined cache locations. This would be annoying if there was more to spend money on, but there are only a few stores, and to the extent that they sell anything worth buying, they're usually quest items. One blacksmith shop in Bree is the exception. In general, money and shops do not play an important role in the game, or even any role at all in the second half. Score: 2.

8. Quests. The main quest to destroy the ring is pretty powerful stuff, but of course you don't get to do that in this game. To players unfamiliar with the source material, the main quest ends up becoming a little unclear--it's mostly just progress through the chapters. Fortunately, the game makes up for it with a great selection of side quests, some for personal gain, some to help others, and some both. These little diversions make up a huge part of the gameplay, and they're satisfyingly varied in their difficulty and use of skills and resources. Unfortunately, there are rarely any choices or role-playing options. Score: 5.

The main quest of this installment--to rescue the ring bearer from Dol Guldur--doesn't become clear until late in the game.

9. Graphics, Sound, and Interface. I found the graphics quite good--even beautiful in places. The sound in the 1990 version is nothing special, but the 1993 version has some wonderful recordings of monster growls and death screams, weapon actions, and environmental effects. I found the interface mostly intuitive but a little clunky, especially when it came to inventory and trading items between characters. I do like the redundant mouse and keyboard commands. In the 1993 version, I thought the animated clips from the Rashki film were out of place, and I'd rather have had the 1993 interface with the 1990 screens and animations. Score: 5.

The automap is a particularly welcome feature in the 1993 version.
   
10. Gameplay. The game is linear in that you have to progress across the 7 map areas in a specific order, but nonlinear in the sense that you can backtrack to previous areas at any time until you get to the final area. This allows for many replay possibilities, such as booking it for Rivendell immediately, collecting the more powerful party members, and then exploring the Shire, the Old Forest, and Bree. There are even plot rewards for returning to previous areas.

The difficulty was pitched almost perfectly. I did a lot of reloading to save party members, but it wasn't strictly necessary. I rarely felt things were too easy or too hard.

I think maybe it lasted just a smidge too long. Trying to track down all the different encounters on each map wore me out by the end, and I just ran through the last map. But in general the pacing isn't bad. In particular, the difficulty and complexity ramp up nicely between the Shire and Moria. Score: 7.

That gives a final score of 49, a very respectable rating that puts the game in my top 20. (This applies to the 1993 CD version, anyway; the real 1990 version would score 1 point lower for "interface" and 2 points lower for sound, putting the rating at 46.)

The engine for the game is quite good, particularly if the inventory issues were fixed and combat improved with some additional tactics, so it surprises me that it wasn't used in more games. I think it could have been like an early Infinity Engine, popular across a variety of settings. But the early 1990s were not an RPG-heavy time for Interplay; the only other RPG title the company developed for personal computers between 1990 and 1994 was Lord of the Rings, Vol. II.

This ad was in the October 1990 issue of CGW, and the first review didn't come out until April 1991. What was up with review schedules back then?

In a rare reversal, I seem to like the game more than most contemporary and modern reviewers. Charles Ardai's review in the April 1991 Computer Gaming World focuses mostly on how the game diverges from the source material, and is thus likely to be troublesome to Tolkien fans. He barely remarks on game mechanics at all, except to note the "tedious" movement on the huge landscape, and I was disappointed that he didn't comment on the variety of side-quests and special encounters. I would have thought the overall engine--continuously moving, top-down, with attractive graphics--would have been remarkable for 1990. He concludes that it is "a bright and enjoyable and perfectly harmless game" but that it is "not special enough to carry the Tolkien name."

In a brief review in a larger "survey" of CRPGs on the market in October 1991, Scorpia seemed to like it better, though like me she noted that "many things can be found only by stepping on the right spot, which makes for a lot of hoofing." She also notes (though doesn't exactly complain about) divergences from the source material.

MobyGames has summaries of other reviews of the game from the era, with none scoring higher than 75 on a 100-point scale. On modern blogs and boards, the game gets hardly any more affection, with most people confusing it with the SNES title (or other Lord of the Rings licensed titles).

Well, I'm happy to say that once I understood the game, I liked it. I look forward to checking out the sequel in 1992, though it's too bad that the third edition was never released, and I'll never get to stand on the edge of the chasm in Mount Doom and (U)se the ring to toss it into the lava.

Next up: a diversion to the 1983 conclusion to the Dunjonquest series, Gateway to Apshai!

28 comments:

  1. I do wonder whether those reviews reflect my first experience of the game, where I attempted to duplicate the plot of the books up to Rivendell and thus skipped most of the content. (As you saw, the game actually punishes you for things like following the Old Forest maze directions instead of taking the shortcut, or for going to Weathertop.)

    The cloak quest in Rivendell makes it clear that you're not playing the book plot. But most games in this era wouldn't have allowed backtracking; if you don't try, most of the new content in Moria isn't accessible to you. Those that stuck the game out then hit the endgame, which is packed with alternate approaches and bugs.

    I should also note that the initial release's bugs were really a problem. And while the rerelease fixes them, it introduces a few critical bugs in their stead.

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  2. Some of the LOTR-nerds (sorry) probably really didn't like the deviations from the canon and punished the game in their ratings. Maybe the problem was that the game was not just "a CRPG" but "a LOTR game". This blog has its focus on CRPGs so you accurately point out its advantages as a CRPG. Those reviewers simply wanted to see some kind of awesome LOTR game, you know, dragons! magic! elves! Maybe the game suffered with critics by not playing out like the movie in their minds.
    Also, if I were to rate games, I would probably never give an adapted world 10 points in the game world category. Simply because the world was already there. For a licensed title like this one, nine points would be the most. Only a completely new world (like Vvardenfell) could get 10 points.

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    1. Well, I'd say that there are pretty sparse magic and elves in the book, at lest compared to other fantasy sagas. And, of course, no dragons!

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    2. Yeah, ok, I just wanted to express that a 1990 game can hardly match the fantasy you can create in your mind, like, what does Galadriel really look like, or the magic of the ring etc.... And Smaug.

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    3. Morrowind's lore was built off of Daggerfall's, but I do feel that Bethesda really swung for the fences when they designed Vvardenfell. The 36 Lessons of Vivec are especially interesting once you start reading between the lines. Vivec is essentially telling the player how to beat the game and refers to the player as, well, the player of the game.

      Real meta stuff, but not overdone. Also not revisited ever again in any of the other Elder Scrolls games, but I digress.

      I would accept a 10 for an adaptation of a pre-existing world (Betrayal at Krondor comes to mind), but only if it's a really, really good adaptation.

      Creating something from scratch lets you coast downhill rather than trudge uphill with someone else's creative material.

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    4. Last time I checked there was no Smaug in Lord of the Rings, and I don't think this game is called The Hobbit.
      But I agree, with only one change: a game can hardly match the fantasy you can create in your mind.

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    5. I wouldn't punish a game for being an adaptation of another world. What do I care who did the work of building the world? I'm rating the game, not the people behind it. A good world is a good world.

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    6. Those who were fans of LotR bought the game and were disappointed, and those who weren't didn't even play. It's one of the potential pitfalls with licensed titles.

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    7. Yes, I'm with Raifield and Maldeus. I'm fine with rating adapted worlds high as long as 1) the worlds themselves are good RPG worlds; and 2) the game adapts them well to gameplay specifically. I probably would have given this game a lower score if the developers HAD insisted on sticking to canon. Game worlds have to be flexible in ways that book worlds aren't.

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    8. I consider myself a LOTR nerd, and I quite enjoyed the liberty this game took. If I wanted the story straight out of the book, I'd re-read the books for like the 20th time hehe.

      I had completely forgot this game tho, I did play it, but never finished as I was entering college that year and had a lot on my mind. I feel this situation rectified, thanks to Chet.

      -- Francois424

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  3. First, the game is absolutely full of bugs, including scripts that never run

    An excellent rationale for implementing a heap of alternate solutions. Of course, it's always preferable to make a game that functions as intended, but ensuring players have /some/ way out of a tough situation even if not the Plan A one is nice game design mercy.

    failure to walk and perform other actions on precisely the right set of pixels means missing a bunch of encounters.

    It's funny how this is just an accepted part of eg. Wizardry games, but since as you mentioned early on the map is less conducive to lawn-mowing, the failingness of the approach becomes more transparent.

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    1. "Lawn-mowing"--or any other method involving the complete exploration of discrete squares--can only exist in games that feature discrete squares. It's "fair" in Wizardry because it's quite possible to map every square in the dungeon. It's less fair when the map is a continuous surface and it's impossible to know exactly what you have and have not stepped on.

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    2. Actually I did a similar thing in Baldur's Gate. I'd mow over maps, since the automap showed what parts had been in your vision range, so I'd just walk in a grid until there were no black bits left. Now, this didn't get QUITE everything, as there were hidden areas you'd have to mouse over, but it would get you all quests. You might just miss an invisible ring sitting on a rock, or a set of 3 small tombs filled with ghouls.

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  4. "Version 1.0 has a Debug Teleport feature not present in later releases. To enable it, start the game by typing lord frodolives at the DOS prompt."

    Frodo Lives! Wow, that takes me back. Used to see that graffiti and know you were a part of something special.

    Now, the movies have irrevocably changed LoTR. It's mass-market entertainment. You can get into arguments with fans who poo-poo on you for reading the books as it's the "old version". Sort of like how Sherlock Holmes fans think the Arthur Conan Doyle stories are poo-poo because it's all about the new TV series. Frodo lives...wow. Talk about something that's so obsolete that nobody will understand it. Sort of like 22 skidoo or Kilroy was here.

    You can also see this in depictions of Frodo. Used to be he was shown as having a bulbous nose, or a bit stout, or what have you. Now either he looks like a thin Elijah Wood or it's wrong.

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    1. I agree. That's why I haven't watched the Hobbit or many other movies like Ender's game. I don't want another 90 minutes of CGI for the sake of itself.

      I was amazed like everyone else with Terminator 2 CGI but now I am sick of it.

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    2. Harumph! That would be 23 Skidoo, not 22. Really, you young whippersnapper! :-)

      So yes, "Frodo Lives!" started appearing as graffiti on random highway overpasses and such in the late 60's and early 70's. It was probably an expression of "hope in dark times." I like this quote from Wikipedia - "To say that Frodo Lives is to show faith that all is not lost and a slim hope may win out over the forces of Shadow that threaten to engulf the Shire."

      As seemingly random as it may have been, Frodo Lives! tied in to young people's feelings about Vietnam (particularly the draft), racial inequality, and general lack of control of their own lives.

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  5. Lord of the Rings sounds like a case of a very ambitious (and creative) game designer specifying more content than the team could build under the typical tight deadlines of the era. Even in the few screen shots in this article, I spotted two typos - Caradhras and steed being misspelled. Good design, insufficient testing and debugging.

    Sierra gave us less than a year each for Hero's Quest and Quest for Glory II, despite a new art design process for QGII that ate up a lot of time. I think that was typical for the period. These days, projects of similar scope take 3 years or more.

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  6. Someone started doing an LP of this game on Something Awful a while ago (which got bogged down partway through, but we still hope he'll continue) and earned the game a number of fans. Like most people I expected something more similar to other LOTR games I'd played in the era and found underwhelming, and was impressed with the result.

    Definitely a game that can resonate well with the right sort of retro geek nowadays, once they learn that it exists.

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  7. I would have mentioned on your "8. Quests" section that the game has quite a few choice & consequence options, like Hawkeye, something that was only surpassed what, in 1997 with Fallout?

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    1. Still from Interplay. That company was cool as shit in the early 90s until Brian Fargo left if to fester into in a load of stinking crap.

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    2. his current company, inXile studios is releasing Wasteland 2 this year, and a new Torment game next year.

      -Oth-

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    3. My only problem with that is you have to read a walkthrough to understand how the choice/consequences play out. I guess some negative stuff would have happened if I hadn't given Hawkeye a proper burial, but nothing in-game clues you in on this. It was also completely unclear to me that a spirit I had to fight in Moria was the same one I accidentally released in some previous ruin (and that wasn't even a choice). I'm not saying it's a bad dynamic, but it needed improvement in later games.

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    4. I don't personally think reading a walkthrough is required. Playing the game again and choosing a different option will show you a different result. The game just doesn't hold the player's hand when it comes to choices and consequences - and that's not a bad thing in my book.

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    5. @Oth - Backed both games and twiddling my thumbs for them. Late August will see Wasteland 2 Final Version finally dropping into my hot little hands. I think Torment would be another, what, 2-3 years from now?

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  8. "That gives a final score of 49, a very respectable rating that puts the game in my top 20. (This applies to the 1993 CD version, anyway; the real 1990 version would score 1 point lower for "interface" and 2 points lower for sound, putting the rating at 47.)"

    Unless I miss something, that makes 46, not 47 :)

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    1. Stupid math mistakes. I had originally written that the final rating added up to 50 until I plugged the values into my spreadsheet and saw that it was only 49. So I edited it in the post but forgot to edit the second number.

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  9. Definitely remember writing to Scorpia for help with this one...

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