As a hack-'n-slash game based on the famous movie franchise, Lord of the Rings: Aragorn's Quest enters a field that is already well-plowed by earlier releases. But with it's unusual twist on storytelling, is there something here worthwhile to nudge burned-out fans to march on Mount Doom one more time?
Aragorn's Quest naturally follows the story of the Lord of the Rings from Aragorn's perspective; what is different is that the story is told in the past tense by Samwise Gamgee to his children. Given that Sam is handed the task of completing the writing of The Lord of the Rings (the book within the book) by Frodo, this makes the story basically the same as the one audiences are already familiar with. However, since Sam is telling the story to a live audience, he has the opportunity to skip around to the good parts. As such, the story will jump around from one action sequence to the next. But with the exception of the first scene, the chapters all follow the story in chronological order.
These storytelling sequences are conducted in pleasing yet brief CGI sequences. But once the story begins, players are thrown into the actual game engine, which looks identical to the PS2 version of this game and is decidedly “last-gen” in it's appearance. Admittedly, it is in line with a lot of PS2 migrants, but we know the Wii is capable of a lot more than this. The characters are modeled to look like the actors in the movies and the scenery looks authentic to the Lord of the Rings universe, but in general the textures look inferior to The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess and look average, not impressive.
Where the comparison to Zelda is favorable is that the gameplay is very reminiscent of the Nintendo staple. Swordplay is very similar, with hacking and swinging with the Wii Remote producing a similar result onscreen much like in Twilight Princess. A shield can be used to block attacks, and there are arrows, too. All of the combat and controls will be instantly familiar to players of Twilight Princess, making the learning curve relatively short. For those who don't have such experience, there are plenty of in-game tutorials that can be redone or skipped as needed.
Overall, the combat controls feel very comfortably familiar, even if that means that, like Twilight Princess, swinging your sword feels more like chopping at a hedge than any kind of sophisticated swordplay. Although the controls are familiar, Aragorn's Quest should not be thought of as a Zelda clone. The actual gameplay style has more in common with the earlier, 2.5D Lord of the Rings games released on the Gamecube.
A level consists of being given a quest, walking to the target of that quest and fighting everything that moves along the way, collecting your item or whatever it is you've been sent after, and then heading back. This process repeats, following a set script, until the “chapter” ends and Sam needs to take a break in his storytelling. There is very little variety or challenge, and at times the quests can feel tedious and repetitive. The limited range of available items is disappointingly shallow (essentially just sword or bow), making combat even more repetitive. There are moments such as in Rivendell or Hobbiton (where you start the game and return in between chapters of the story, actually playing as Sams's son, Frodo Gamgee) where there are people to talk to and side quests to run on. But these conversations are shallow and usually result in you running someone's errands.
Where the game shines, however, is in co-op multiplayer. While player 1 is always Aragorn, a second player can join in at any time as Gandalf, who complements Aragorn by using magic instead of Aragorn's more combat-focused approach. Pairs play together on a single, non-split screen and can work together as they hack their way through each level. The game is still simplistic and this only makes things easier, but two players exploring the world of Middle Earth together makes the game pass more quickly.
Although the game engine has the look and feel of an open-world game, each individual quest you are sent on is carefully marked on your map. And, should pulling out the map prove too tedious, at any time players can ask the game to point them in the right direction for their destination. Although the world is large, there is nothing to do but fight in between your starting point and destination, so exploration is unrewarding.
One of the things that makes a Lord of the Rings game feel epic is the use of the music from the films. The original music composed for this game is similar to that found in their cinematic counterparts, but very little from the films is actually used. Given their use of the actors' likenesses and audio clips from the movies, it is surprising that the music was not borrowed from more heavily as well.
While the music from the films was underutilized, character voices from the films are perhaps overused. In fact, with the exception of Sam, voiced by Sean Astin, the dialogue appears to be yanked straight from the films into the game. Even Viggo Mortensen didn't show up to do new voice work for Aragorn. As a result, dialogue with main characters feels stilted and artificial.
Although the Quest is lengthy, the burden of taking this journey may outweigh the reward. While most players will likely experience a thrill of nostalgia and fanboy glee in the early hours of the game, as time wears on, like Gollum, that joy will transform into a pitiful, purposeless desire only to continue playing this average hack-'n-slash game in the futile hope that something new will happen soon. While there are some Lord of the Rings games that should not have been forgotten, this one is barely worth playing the first time.