Saturday, March 16, 2019

The Two Towers: Won!

Want to bet?
It's probably good for my version of the Fellowship that the story ended here, more warped and twisted from Tolkien's tale than you might imagine a computer game based on this material would allow. At the end, we'll have to have a little thought experiment about what happens to the story from here. There's a lot to complain about with this game, but I certainly can't complain that the developers didn't give the player the freedom to diverge from the original.

This last session began with Frodo's party in Ithilien. The map continued to be bounded by the river to the west and the mountains to the east, so I explored in east-west strips as I slowly made my way south. At one point, for no real reason, the game suggested that we were hungry and that we send Gollum to hunt for food. (Food and drink exist in the game, but to provide light amounts of healing. There's no hunger/thirst system.) Gollum took off to hunt, which is ironic because after he left, we found rations repeatedly as we walked.
Faramir looks like a jerk in this game.
Investigating an elephant, we were ambushed by Faramir and his men and taken to a hidden grotto, where Faramir gave us some lore, a healer tended our wounds and taught the "Herblore" skill, and one of Faramir's men made fun of us for picking up a shovel.
What a dick.
Wandering around, we found ourselves on a cliff with a pool below. Faramir pointed out Gollum fishing in the pool and asked if his boy Anborn should shoot him. "Sure," I had Frodo say, calling his bluff. Anborn nailed him between the eyes, and Gollum's corpse sank beneath the water.
From Gollum's perspective, it's probably better than being burned to death in lava.
Well, that's going to make things a bit easier, I thought, and decided to keep going instead of reloading. We left the grotto with Faramir and two other rangers in tow. At the south end of the map were the ruins of Osgiliath, and the game warned me that I shouldn't go in there, but I did and suffered an instant death scene.
But where will I get an inspirational speech from Sam?
Moving on, we found a statue whose head was missing. We replaced it but then the game wanted me to find a gem to put in its eye. I was losing patience about this point, so I just had the party press east to the gap in the mountains leading to the Morgul Vale. When we reached the entrance, Faramir, the rangers, and Gilglin took off. Gilglin didn't even have any farewell dialogue, and he took a bunch of Athelas with him.

This doesn't sound like a good use of my time.
In the Morgul Vale, I decided to adopt an exploration pattern that took us counter-clockwise around the mountain borders. We soon came to a river where the game decided it was important that we pick up some "Morgul Water." Then we came to a bridge that was "draped in evil," and Frodo froze, unable to move. 
Abrupt changes in the active party continued through the end.
The action switched back to Aragorn, Gimli, Legolas, and Gandalf, who (the game reminded me) were on the road to Helm's Deep. We passed by a couple of houses where there was this suspicious Rohirrim clearly up to something, but I couldn't figure out anything to do with him. Moving on, we fought some battles with orcs, Dunlendings, and Dunlending leaders called "Dunarches." (There were also "orcarches" a couple of times.) We tried to walk to Isengard, but the game wouldn't let me go past a particular point.

As we headed west, Gandalf suddenly decided that he had to head off on his own to find "the lost armies of Rohan." He split off into his own party with three Rohirrim named Wulfgrim, Hunthor, and Beodred--no idea where they came from--and went north in search of "Erkenbrand." I was a bit confused because in the films, Gandalf goes in search of Eomer, but I figured it was roughly the same quest. We wandered around until we found Erkenbrand next to some mountains, and everyone agreed to return to Helm's Deep.
Just a reminder of the manual paragraphs. For the most part, they're shorter than the in-game text.
Back to Frodo and Sam. Frodo somehow came to his senses and we walked off the bridge. Two steps later, we were at the gates of Minas Morgul, and the game relayed how we saw the gates open and the armies pour out with the Witch King at their head. We had to use the "Hide" skill to avoid being seen. Then it was back to Aragorn.
The game does an awful lot of telling rather than showing.
Rather than head directly for Helm's Deep, I had them thoroughly explore the area, fighting a number of orc parties along the way. We found a mountain pass north of the fortress that led into some caves occupied by Rohan citizens. We were unable to fully explore the caves because guards kept blocking certain passages. This becomes important later.
What is this place?
Eventually, we left and went to Helm's Deep itself. When we arrived, the first thing the gate guard suggested is that we go check out the secret exit at the "Glittering Caves" and make sure that Saruman's forces hadn't already found it. We went back to the caves but found nothing new.

Helm's Deep in the game consists of a central keep with about four rooms surrounded by an inner wall with one opening. Outside the inner wall is an outer wall with two openings. A moat surrounds the whole thing but is crossed by two bridges.
A satellite view.
None of the famous faces of Rohan--Theoden, Eomer, Eowen, etc.--were anywhere to be seen since I left Edoras in the last session. No sooner had I poked my head into the inner keep than I received a message that "an immense force of orcs has come," and I had to rush back outside.
I was hoping to have an unproductive shouting match with Theoden first.
Let's take a moment to go back in time to 2002, when the second Peter Jackson film hit theaters. I'm sure I have some readers who can't even remember 2002, but to a near 50-year-old man, this is "recent." I still think of Sleepless in Seattle as "recent." To me, Renée Zellweger is a fresh young face who's clearly going places. The other day, when Irene remarked that "Murphy Brown" had been canceled, I said, "Well, they had a good run. It must have been on for--what--15 years?" She had to explain to me that it had actually been off the air for 20 years and what was canceled was a brief revival series. I'm just adding some perspective.
I know that the way the film depicts the Battle of Helm's Deep violates some aspects of canon, which for some people is like violating a religion, but sitting there in the theater, looking across the field of 10,000 orcs, I realized we had reached a point in cinematic history where a movie could show us anything the director wanted to show us--that there was no more limit to what could be accomplished with special effects. It was one of the most thrilling sequences I'd ever seen. They technically topped it in the last film, but by then I was expecting it. Helm's Deep came out of nowhere.
I also couldn't help thinking how the battle illustrates the difference between the mentality of an RPG player and . . . well, real life, I guess. I'm sitting there thinking, "They're just orcs!" They don't have any mages or clerics, no trolls or ogres. My Might and Magic VI party would descend from the heavens and slaughter them all with a single "Armageddon" spell. If it was a Gold Box game, the battle would be over after six "Fireballs." These days, my character from Shadow of Mordor would scoff at 10,000 orcs. He'd dance through their ranks, exploding heads, and have half the army converted to his side within 10 minutes.
What do you mean "too many?" That's just more experience points for me. Plus, do you know how many wands, potions, and scrolls I have to get rid of?
In other words, some part of me had been waiting to fight Helm's Deep in an RPG for a long time, and the experience was . . . underwhelming. Aragon and friends rushed out of the Hornburg and encountered six orcs and two Dunlendings immediately outside the entrance. We killed them. Then a message told us more orcs were crossing the bridge, and we killed half a dozen more there. Then the message said that some Dunlendings had come through the south wall, and the game took us directly there so we could kill them.

Now, I guess we were supposed to have the sense that we were only seeing our part of the battle, and that the Rohirrim were fighting other battles all around us. In any event, we got a message that things were hopeless and we should retreat to the Hornburg. We did, then got another message that the absolute final battle--we mean it this time--was beginning. Outside we rushed again and fought three consecutive battles against orcs and Dunlendings right outside the gate. It occurred to me that it might be useful to blow Helm's Horn at several points during this sequence, and every time I tried, nothing happened. I mention this because after I won, I looked at a hint guide that said I could use Helm's Horn to make the battle easier. I have no idea where or when.
The Battle of Helm's Deep was basically six screens of this.
Gandalf showed up, as did an army of Ents, and the whole thing was over. Gandalf suggested that we "find any of our comrades who were scattered in the battle" and then go confront Saruman. I looked around and saw that we had Gimli, Aragorn, and Legolas, so I didn't really need to gather anyone. We thus headed up the road towards Isengard.

On the way, we ran into a party of Dunlendings, led by Prince Burlag, who said that it was their custom that, when they were defeated in honorable battle, the victor should give them a "gift that honors our skill." My version of Aragorn explained that it was his custom that when he defeated enemies in battle, he tracked down any who were left over and killed them, too.
I mean, talk about gumption. They'd just allied with an evil force to utterly destroy the people of Rohan, and they want a gift?! (The hint guide later told me I should have given them any sword.) Unfortunately, we lost Gimli in the ensuing battle. Figuring the game was almost over anyway, I didn't reload.

We arrived at Isenguard to find Merry smoking pipeweed at the front gate. The game didn't give me any option to talk to him or invite him into the party, so we pressed on to the main keep. We saw Saruman up at the top of Orthanc and entered the keep. The tower consisted of four levels, with one or two battles with human allies of Saruman. In a library, way too late to be useful, we found books that would teach us various skills.
Why would they introduce this now?
At one point, we discovered two "corrupted eagles" and one regular eagle behind a locked door. When we killed the corrupted eagles and freed the regular one, he gave us a word of power called MANWE, which we never used. The only word of power we ever used in this game is a single use of some elf word to open a locked door.
Can we just speak it, or do we have to whisper it into the ears of a little moth?
We continued up to the top of the tower, where the game gave us a paragraph indicating that we were now stuck on the top of Orthanc. Hint guides later told me that I should have used MANWE here to get the Eagles to give us a ride, or use the "Climb" skill to get down, but the stairs still worked just fine for me, so I'm not sure what happened there. Anyway, exploring more carefully, we found Saruman in a corner of the third level. We fought him, and he fled just before he would have died. He left the palantir behind. Picking it up ended the game for this party.
Our last shot of Aragorn and his part of the Fellowship.
Action returned to Frodo and Sam. After an instant-death scene when I blundered into Minas Morgul . . .
. . . we continued around the mountain range--I think we fought one battle against spiders--until we found the mountain pass to Cirith Ungol to the north. It was a long pass, but nothing assailed us, and we just had to use "Climb" at one point to keep going. 
Note that, with Gollum out of the picture, Sam is still with Frodo and we both have plenty of lembas bread.
The pass took us into the caverns of Shelob. I guess Gollum would have attacked us there if we hadn't killed him earlier, but I spared us that. We used the Star Ruby to burn our way through Shelob's webs, and Galandriel's phial to drive off Shelob herself when she attacked.
Alas, we get no image of Shelob during this sequence. That reminds me: Lord of the Rings fans, how do you feel about Shadow of War's revelation that Shelob is really a hot woman in disguise? Cool? Or . . .
And then, with no final battle or puzzle or anything, the game limped to its inevitable end:
You have been wounded with spider venom. You hear the approach of iron-shod boots. Orcs! But you collapse, and feel your consciousness fade. The last thing you remember is the Ring falling from its chain.

With the presence of his enemies revealed to him by the Palantir of Orthanc, Sauron decides to move his forces against the city of Minas Tirith, capital of Gondor. Saruman is beaten, but a far greater threat remains. 
I love how, in the film, it was treated as a big revelation that "Sauron moves to strike the city of Minas Tirith." Was there really anywhere else for him to strike?
And so ends the second part of "The Lord of the Rings," not in triumph and glory, but in uncertainty and deadly peril. Can Gandalf, Aragorn, and the other members of the Fellowship save Gondor from the armies of Sauron? The Ringbearer is trapped in the dreaded tower of Cirith Ungol. Can he be saved?
Someone's wedding is ruined.
You have done well indeed to bring the Ring this far, but the quest is not over yet. The Ring must be taken to Mount Doom and destroyed for all to be set right. To be continued in . . . "The Return of the King" coming soon from Interplay.
Not so hasty.
We've still got a bit to talk about, including the GIMLET, false journal entries, missed material, and why Volume III was never made, so I'll wrap things up in another entry. For now, let's analyze what happens in the darker world I've created. Gimli is dead--does it matter? (I mean, what did he really contribute?) Is Aragorn's decision to execute the Dunlending prince going to have any consequences? Most important, what changes with Gollum out of the picture?

Final time: 18 hours


  1. >>Lord of the Rings fans, how do you feel about Shadow of War's revelation that Shelob is really a hot woman in disguise? Cool? Or . . .

    Utter drivel like the best of it; bearing little or no relation at all to anything in Tolkien's universe.

    Next question? ;)

    1. Entirely in keeping with the ridiculous gonzo tone of the "Shadow" franchise, and therefore great.

      I'm not worried about Shadow stuff being treated as canon. It's clearly "Michael Bay does Middle Earth" (or really Kevin J Anderson does Middle Earth but that's a less immediately clear reference). As long as they keep throwing out stuff that turns Middle Earth into a ridiculous place where superheroes with fists full of rings of power are running around, it works for me.

  2. Then Sam embraced Frodo tightly and hurled themselves into the volcano. And then with a shriek they fell. Out of the depths came Frodo's last wail Precious, and they were gone.

  3. Some Tolkien nerds can probably outdo me, but Wikipedia says Gimli's only possibly irreplaceable contribution after this point is saving Pippin's life at the battle of the Black Gate. Pippin was then instrumental in reclaiming The Shire from Saruman, so maybe our hobbit heroes fail in that attempt without him and end up dead, and Saruman sets up a North Korea sitution in hobbit-land.

    Also, Legolas is really sad, for an eternity.

    1. That's pretty much the entirety of his contributions to the War of The Ring. He has some significance after the War, according to the appendices, but that's after the story itself.

      Killing the Dunlander king would be a big deal, because the books spend a few paragraphs describing how the Dunlanders believed the Rohirrim to be cruel and genocidal - and that extending them mercy after the battle would go a long way toward healing the hatreds between the two societies.

      Of course, none of that would matter, because Sauron wins the war outright in the Addict's timeline. It is quite explicit in the books (heavily implied in the film as well) that anybody would have been overcome by the Ring at Mount Doom, and refused to destroy it. Gollum's desperate lunge for the thing is the only way it could have been destroyed.

    2. I always liked that scenario. Frodo, Ring-lord. I wondered what would happen; would he get to command the Ring-wraiths? It just so happens that Papa Tolkien himself answered the question! I found in the FAQ of the Rings, a document that also answers questions like "when Frodo went invisible, why did his clothes disappear too?"

      Actually now that I look Tolkien's quote is not there. It was in one of his Letters that he described precisely what would have happened if Frodo had claimed the Ring. The Eight (missing their chief) would have arrived, called Frodo "Lord", and coaxed him away from the entrance of the Cracks of Doom, inviting him to gaze on his new kingdom. Then once safely outside, they would have destroyed the entrance and awaited Sauron's arrival. Sauron's wrath would have been great and his retribution on Frodo terrible.

    3. This comment has been removed by the author.

    4. The quote is just a summary, I was looking for the entire Tolkien letter in which the scenario was laid out. ;)

    5. I imagine Anonymous' scenario above is probably close to what would happen without Gollum. A tearful Sam grabs Frodo and both tumble to a fiery death. Or maybe Sam takes the ring and jumps, sparing Frodo the choice; that would probably square with Tolkien's view of the role of the working classes.

    6. Wow, what a cheap shot at Tolkien. Everything I read in LOTR treats the working classes respectfully. He has so many opportunities to look down on them as deplorable, and he takes not a one of them. Even when the Proudfoots pronounce their own name wrong it's treated gently.

      Tolkien said that if Frodo found himself unable to destroy the Ring, he would have thrown himself into the Cracks of Doom. No sneering classism.

    7. The Ring grants power according to its wielder's strength, meaning that Frodo would not be able to master the Ring and use it against Sauron. So, part 3 definitely ends in Sauron's victory.

      If Aragorn, Gandalf, Saruman, or maybe Denethor had taken the Ring, it would be different - Sauron could be defeated, but then you've got Sauron II to deal with.

    8. Sam is indeed a positive character and it is always described as good-hearted, selfless, brave and resourceful (if a bit prejudiced), but his subservient relationship with Frodo always kind of bugged me, he is more like a loyal servant than a "friend", kind of a stark difference with how Merry and Pippin are portrayed, in relation to Frodo.

    9. Vince, that is indeed the whole point of Sam as a character - Tolkien acknowledges that Sam is a tribute to the officers' personal servants (known as batmen, not to be confused with, you know, Batman) during WWI, who faithfully served their masters under the most dire circumstances.

      You have to understand the society before you criticise the man. At the time, it was very much the view that there is nothing wrong whatsoever with being someone's servant, not only in the sense of being in someone's employ, but also in the sense of being satisfied with being subservient. People of the time would have found it downright bizarre that today we have thousands upon thousands of de-facto servants - call them secretaries, personal assistants, whatever you will - but our society actually expects these people to secretly or overtly resent their position of subservience. In other words, we find it acceptable for someone to be summoned at midnight by their boss - but only if that someone resents the command (...even as they obey it, because, you know, they don't want to get fired).

      Tolkien describes an attitude of an earlier, and arguably far better time, when it was the ideal that the servant could in fact be devoted to their employee, could in fact see the state of subservience as reasonable and natural - and the mirror of that ideal is the ideal of the good master, who treats his servants so well, that their service to him is not at a cost of personal honour - that they are not ever required to lower or demean themselves in any way.

      If this bugs you, it's because, quite naturally, we find it so hard to read Tolkien as he wrote it - we can't help reading it with 21st century eyes.

      One further note on the subject: in the Lord of the Rings, these very same debates about the master-servant relationship actually play out repeatedly. We have Sam, who serves his master freely and contendly, because his master treats him properly - more often as a friend than as a servant. And then we have Grima and Saruman, which is a starkly different relationship, built on force and resentment.

    10. I was not being critical towards Tolkien, I understand he is a product of his time, and so are his characters.

      As you say, it is difficult for someone that grew up in the last decades to relate with this kind of "good servant" relationship even if, as said, Sam is in general portrayed in a very positive light.

    11. I would even say that Sam, by his exemplary service, combined with the dire circumstances, emancipates himself from the role of "mere" servant, growing into a true friend of Frodo's. I would put the point where that happens at Cirith Ungol: the two of them not only enter the enemy's land together, Frodo also gets captured, and Sam must shoulder the burden of responsibility for a quest that the whole world hangs on. He does so admirably, and even though he gives back ring and burden to Frodo after freeing him from the Orc tower, the two are of equal stature after this. Certainly, they are honored equally by the armies of the West on the Field of Cormallen, and both are perceived by the wise as sharing in the same great burden of being ringbearers. Sam does follow Frodo to pass into the West in his old age, after being nine times mayor of the Shire - surely a mark of distinction in as objective a sense as Middle-Earth can confer.

  4. The graphics, interface and even the font look very reminiscent of another RPG called Daemonsgate.

  5. I think people care too much about canon nowadays. You can't make an RPG now without hundreds of codex entries and companion books and developer interviews explaining every little detail, and Heaven help you if you mess up Thingok Wind-Seeker's motivations for having you collect five rat tails in an optional area near the beginning of the very first game.

    Tolkien has a large and detailed world with many great stories set in it, as do many amazing video games; but more words don't automatically equal better writing or more interesting game worlds.

  6. I've always wanted to know more about part III, specially if at least it was designed. Because, well, I never had a look to the binaries in part II, but probably could be modded and a fan-made part III could finnish this saga. Needed? of course not, but why not?

  7. Manwe is the chief of the Valar... nice reference for a word of power I would suppose.

    Sounds like a pretty lame effort over all, but definitely with some issues that make it a tough book to adapt.

  8. The best choice would probably have been to follow Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli the whole game. You add some good side quests here and there and make the whole Rohan open from the beginning and you have everything required for a good RPG, in my opinion...

  9. When you're so done with a game you start skipping quests and leaving the corpses of party members in the dirt.

    1. Or telling your own story instead of slavishly following a book.

  10. I guess given how this game started, Vol III would have just smashed the reset button anyway and your choice of letting Gollum and Gimli die would mean nothing.

    On the other hand, if it would keep the results of this game, then that would be very interesting... and possibly sadistic, since if it follows canon ideas, then there could be no happy ending and you'd play the entire volume III just to lose at the very end.

    Allowing that would be very ballsy move by the developer. :P

    1. Not becessarily. They could have just switched Frodos fight with Gollum to Frodos fight with Sam, Sam did carry the ring for a while and might get corrupted in the timeline. The question would be: Would Frodo or Sam fall down into the lava?

  11. I feel the same as the siege scene in the second movie, which made it my favorite of the trilogy (Legolas surfing and the endless ending in the third didn't help it).

    A point the Addict has been stressing over and over is how both games fail to capture, visually, the scale and visual flair of Tolkien's world, which is something where movie trilogy truly excels (I don't think it is a point of contention, regardless of how someone might feel about other aspects of Jackson's movies).

    It's a fair point,but it was probably a tall order, given the technology available at the time. They definitely could have put more effort in the backgroundd and used some static image for flair, at least.

    1. Well, considering Ultima VII was released that same year, Ultima Underworld a year before, Might and Magic 3, etc, there were plenty of games with beautiful visuals at the time. This game pales in comparison because most of what happens in the game isn't shown, just told. Encounters that pop out of nowhere rather than being visible while you explore the map. Lots of empty landscape instead of details placed throughout the levels. This has already been done much better by earlier games. And yes, a couple of static images with evocative text descriptions taken from the books would have helped greatly, but I guess that also wasn't an option due to it being made on a very contrained budget afaik.

    2. Question is, though, how many people had PCs in 1992 able of running UUW and U7 at full fidelity? Something tells me, not many.

    3. Ultima 7 was damn near impossible to run at "full" settings, but then I suspect a lot of people were still hanging on to 286's in 1992.

      Computers were still extremely expensive and not really required for daily living yet.

    4. @VK True, not many, but in 1992 "full fidelty" was something to aspire to. It was normal to buy software before you had the full kit for it. Mostly for three reasons: A)Titles had a very short shelf-life and trying to find a game even a few months later could be hard B)Playing on medium or even low graphic settings
      was just as fun or, in the case of simulators, just as accurate and C)You were already saving for the next upgrade anyway, probably XD
      While still expensive things where already moving fast at the time.

      Videogames kinda leaded the charge, rolling demos of F1Gp and Indycar racing sold more 486 than any other marketing camping XD

    5. On the note of what the technology of the time could and could not do: note that in the same year as The Two Towers, Mindcraft released a strategy-RPG game called... ahem, Siege. For all of its warts (and it had many: a real-time strategy game that would pause at times for minutes, to give the computer AI time to think), Siege was a game built precisely to evoke the sort of grandiose sieges we saw in The Two Towers and The Return of the King. There were hundreds of troops involved in each battle, there were siege engines, and... man, if you can find a copy of the game and try playing it, you will surely agree that yes: 1992 did have the technology to evoke the battle of Helm's Deep with "full fidelity".

      Note, by the way, that at some point before or after the release of Interplay's The Two Towers, one of the founders of Mindcraft Software, Ali Atabek, was employed by Interplay. I strongly believe that had Interplay followed through with Part Three, Atabek's presence would have been very strongly felt in that game.

    6. You miss my point though. Of course, playing U7 on medium graphical quality was just as fun - but did it look much better than LoTR? Something makes me doubt that. As for siege representations, it's one thing having a whole game revolving around a siege engine, and completely another thing - having it shoved into an RPG engine, given the memory and disk space considerations. Tellingly, Atabek's own Magic Candle 3 was also visually much closer to LoTR (or more exactly Ultima 6 because the visuals did represent more details than LoTR) and only had enemies visible on the map in the special combat rooms.

    7. @Jakub Majewski

      I loved Siege as a kid. It's difficult to get running in DOSBox though, or at least it was when I last tried.

      The game engine would be used in Walls of Rome as well and received improvements to the speed issue you mentioned. Properly designed, the engine would have definitely represented LoTR's massive battles quite well.

    8. It's definitely possible to get Siege working in DOSbox using recent versions. However, I do not recall the settings tweaks that were necessary. Great game, but not an RPG.

    9. Hey, come to think of it, what kind of graphical quality settings did U7 have? It's been many years, so maybe I just don't remember, but I'm pretty darned sure that U7, like U6 before it, had no graphical settings at all.

      Regarding the differences between Magic Candle 3 and Siege, I don't think this is an indication that it wouldn't have been possible to make an RPG on Siege's engine. Certainly, neither memory nor disk space considerations were a barrier - an RPG wouldn't require more memory or disk space than Siege needed, given that the latter supported the display of hundreds of soldiers, and tracked a lot of additional data, too.

    10. U7 had no ways to influence the toll it took on your system, no graphics settings, no nothing; it either ran, or it didn't. The most you could do to take some strain out of your base memory was remove mouse support... but even Iolo would comment that this was a bad idea in the extreme.

    11. @Vk and also @Jakub Ultima 7 as many 2D titles of the era didn't have any graphic settings and that's why in my example i used Ultima Underworld (i could be wrong but maybe in U7 you could turn on/off some shadows that where a real hog as a the time it was all software without any accelerator cards). U7 is also a strange beast as the code was more sculpted and chiselled than written. On lower configurations the scrolling was jerky as hell and the mouse unruly (and let's not talk about loading times) and yet what you could play was enough to convince you that you really needed that upgrade. On the other hand the real difference between the two towers and Ultima 7 is that
      the latter has competent and strong artistic direction.
      Which is why, going back to VK's point, even if it would have been possible to choose lower graphic settings on U7 (and you can't) it wouldn't have looked as bad as the two towers does.

      P.s Totally off topic: I was thinking, maybe the way in which the game switches among parties reflects the harsh judgment the designer had about the book. Something like:"...and let's the game constantly and randomly switch party as in those damn book that I'm supposed to like because everyone else does."

    12. Yeah, I mixed up U7 and UUW. Anyway, all I'm saying is that it was perfectly reasonable for Interplay, not in the least economically, to tailor the game for the hardware available to an average consumer at the time rather than trying to push its limits.

    13. Well, you can tailor your game to the low end hardware without harming the gameplay and atmosphere to the extent Two Towers did.

    14. VK. 1992 installed base was already on the high 286 for a minimum.
      This game runs on an xt and anyway uses a 1990 game engine. It's way lower quality on a graphical point of view than it's contemporaries.
      1992 reviews of the game (mobygames) have the same opinion

  12. Chet, on the note of: "The game does an awful lot of telling rather than showing."

    Your playthrough of The Two Towers has very much strengthened my opinion of what lies at heart of these two Interplay games, their central concept: they are pen & paper RPGs turned digital. I think I've already mentioned this under the first entry on this game, but I'll say a bit more.

    These games seem to imitate the pen & paper RPG experience so extensively, it's hard to see this as accidental, or even simply as a case of the lead designer unconsciously invoking the same methods he used as a pen & paper designer.

    1. The games introduce new locations and events by telling, not showing. Text, text, text - try to imagine this text being spoken in the voice of a D&D dungeon master: that’s what’s happening here.
    2. Beyond the textual introduction, the visuals are only backgrounds. They are simple, detail-less (the details provided by textual descriptions), like a game board. Imagine the D&D experience: the dungeon master introduces us to the forest we're entering, telling us about the dark trees, yadayadayada, but after that, it’s oftens just: "you're walking through the forest" (until something important happens). This is very much the feeling the game's visual design gives us here - "you can see you're walking through the forest, man, why would you need any more detail?"
    3. Items and enemies are introduced in the same, sudden way they are so often in pen & paper RPGs (at least when dealing with random encounters). The party has no awareness opponents are coming, until they suddenly show up. This is the exact opposite of what Ultima VI was doing at this same stage, generating enemy encounters offscreen, to a distance, so that often you would get warnings ahead of time ("you hear something to the west") even for the most basic random encounters. Here, we only get warnings for special encounters - just like in a pen & paper RPG session. And same with items. We walk into a place, and we don't see any items until the dungeon master indicates to us that they're there - and he only does so when he's satisfied that someone in our party would notice them (perhaps by invoking the perception skill, for instance).
    4. The skill system is, of course, practically directly taken from the pen & paper Middle-Earth Role-Playing (MERP), which also seems to have inspired some of the non-book elements added to the game world.
    5. Finally, the weird stat improvement system, where stat changes are triggered by successfully performing a particular action (...or something along those lines, as I'm still not sure I properly understand the system), is very much what happens in those pen & paper RPG systems where XP points are given out by the dungeon master - a system that feels highly arbitrary to players (indeed, is literally arbitrary in the sense of being determined by an arbiter). Interplay's LotR games simply removed levels and XP points from the equation, and instead reward the player characters with direct stat boost handouts. But the same kind of arbitrariness determines what the rewards are given out for.

    Overall, unlike other cRPGs, the game is not really a dynamic world simulation system, but rather literally takes the role of the dungeon master. And it doesn’t work very well. It was an interesting experiment in 1990, when computer RPGs were still very close to their pen & paper roots, but already by 1992, these mechanics feel weird and inappropriate when compared with other cRPGs. At this time, other cRPGs were quickly progressing to be their own thing distinct from pen & paper, to make the best use of the computer’s capacities and address its limitations. Interplay instead took a u-turn, abandoning the benefits of making an RPG on the computer, but without addressing any of the limitations a computer imposes on the RPG experience.

    1. You seem to have a rather skewed view of how TTRPGS work. The experience you describe is certainly possible, but is the mark of a bland or underprepared GM. It is much more common (not just in my experience, but in all the stories I've had related to me) for TTRPGs to have a far more dynamic world than a CRPG allows - the GM cannot simulate the world at all times, but he can (if properly prepared) extrapolate how it would be - which is not only comprable to what you'll find in Ultima VI and others, but much more responsive.

      Likewise, you're not going to get one initial description of an area and then just "you're walking through the forest", a good GM will regularly describe terrain features (often calling for unnecessary Spot-check equivalents), add flavor text about animals running around, and similar.

      Even when a GM is using random encounter tables (not a given, most seem to prefer hand-crafting encounters), the monster(s) don't just spring out of the ground in front of them - the table causes them to exist, but then the encounter is no different from a hand-placed fight.

    2. Not at all, Gnoman, I'm simply being essentionalist - i.e. I'm neglecting some of the nuances in order to get to the heart of the differences between pen & paper RPGs and cRPGs. And to be fair, I was going to address that point as well, but I ran into the 4000 character limit, so I gave it a rest :).

      I know that some game masters will go into much more detail - but I've also read more than enough articles from veteran RPG game masters and indeed game designers that specifically warn game masters to curtail such instincts. Description should be provided as much as is needed, but not beyond that, because it will disrupt the flow. In the forest example I used, I don't think a good GM would continue to provide the players with a flow of details once they were in the forest. A good GM would provide an initial impression of the forest, and then let the party more or less flow through the forest until they came across a more specific place inside that forest, or came across an event, or until the players themselves stopped to ask for more detail. He certainly wouldn't tell them that hey, there's a bird's nest on that spruce two metres to the north, and there's wild fruit on the tree to the south. CRPGs do that, because CRPGs provide a visual reconstruction of the environment - and that's why I think Interplay's LotR games have more in common in that aspect with pen & paper than with cRPGs of their time period. And yes, a good GM will occasionally provide flavour text about wild animals and the like, but this is precisely what Interplay's games do - as you walk through an environment, you get the occasional flavour text (...especially in forests, since the two games both have unique, special forests that bear a bit of extra description).

      With enemies and items, again, a good GM will be very careful when it comes to excessive detail: a part of the experience is that players are rewarded for asking the right questions about their surroundings, and that means withholding things until players ask. The GM only lets us know that there are orcs hiding behind the bushes, if the GM wants us to know... or feels that one of the party members is perceptive enough that it would be unfair to withhold such information. This, again, is exactly how Interplay's games handle these aspects - you're sometimes warned about those orcs around the corner, when the game wants you to have warning, but often you get much less warning.

      With regards to dynamism, you are correct - the pen & paper RPG is extremely dynamic, actually far more dynamic than the cRPG. I don't dispute that, and that's what I mean about Interplay failing to address the limitations the computer imposes on the RPG experience. See, normally, where cRPGs lose the dynamism of having a GM free to make things up on the fly in reaction to characters, they make up for this loss with simulationism, which provides a replacement dynamic. Even in 1992, with the likes of Ultima VII, simulationism was quite well advanced - you had enemies roving the countryside dynamically, NPCs with behaviour schedules, and so forth. This is something Interplay more or less abandons, limiting itself to the level of simulation you would see in a pen & paper RPG - except that it doesn't have the freedom of a GM who can, if prompted by the players, tell them that the baker does indeed leave the bakery and go home in the evening. There's a tiny bit of simulationism in the first game (the hobbits have different responses at night, and, IIRC, you get more wolf encounters in the Shire at night), but the game did not try to develop simulation. Instead, it winds up being a kind of static pen & paper RPG - by which, again, I don't mean that pen & paper RPGs are static, but rather that this is what a pen & paper RPG would be like if the GM only prepared static, pre-prepared materials from his notes.

    3. I don't think the game world looks sparse because interplay was trying to evoke the P&P experience, I think they had time/budget constraints.

    4. Maybe, Tristain. But having time/budget constraints, they may have thought "whatever, it works for pen&paper, so let's not think too much about what else we can do with our small budget".

  13. Good Old Games says that there will be a sequel to Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines, a great game. I hope the cancelled sequel to my favorite vampire R.P.G. if one does count Chrono Trigger, Bloonet 2000 will become a reality.

  14. Just a note that this game is still listed as unplayed on your spreadsheet. :)


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