Having read The Hobbit when I was younger, the Lord of the Rings films captivated me. I even avoided reading the Return of the King to prevent finding out how the trilogy finished before watching it at the cinema. So a game that works its way through the entire trilogy from a slightly different angle – that of Aragorn’s role – sounded like a great idea.
And indeed, the idea itself turns out to be quite inspired. It’s easy to see why this game proved so popular on the Wii, but with the PS3 version a slightly upscaled port it was always running the risk of not matching up to standards. As it is, your enjoyment will entirely depend on what you want, and expect, to get out of the game.
The story is handled in a quite intelligent way. You start off several years after the final moments of the Return of the King, with the initial moments focussing on the hobbit Samwise and his family. You learn the controls by running round the Shire as one of Sam’s kids, trying out stalls at the fair and meeting new people. It’s while doing this you get given your first set of quests to carry out, and it soon becomes clear the Aragorn’s Quest is very much quest-based. Many will lead you through the story, but in true adventuring style there will be plenty of side missions to do alongside which while not being essential, will give you extra rewards and give you a few minigames to try out along the way. The stalls teach you the basics of fighting by showing you how to dodge, use your sword and a few other skills. Controls are simple and sensibly laid out, but the over-shoulder camera which can’t be moved with the right stick (as most other 3rd person games allow) makes things far trickier than they should be. Get attacked from behind and you’ll need to start running towards the enemy before being able to see what you’re fighting. Not at all ideal, especially when faced by a large group of particularly nasty enemies. Not only that but carrying out specific actions such as a side swipe or slashing in a particular direction doesn’t always come out how you intended it to, whether you’re using the Sixaxis or Move controllers. This turns fighting into a bit of a button mashing or arm swinging affair which looks good on-screen but feels a little detached and out of control. That in itself could be enough to put you off during the early stages of the game, but couple that with the fairly tedious nature of the early quests (go and see person X, fetch and return object Y) and you need to keep reminding yourself that the tastier stuff is yet to come. I suppose you could say it’s a slimline RPG; a way to get younger or more casual gamers into objective based gaming without drowning in stats or abilities, but it’s certainly a bit of a drag for the first hour or two.
From the off the styling of the game is clearly not leaning towards photo-realism. Most of the visuals, both in-game and during cutscenes, are quite cartoony in appearance, although characters such as Aragorn himself and Legolas do have quite a canny resemblance to their real life counterparts. It’s a bit of an odd mix between two differing styles but nothing that’ll put you off once you get into the game. What is immediately apparent though is the fact that Aragorn’s Quest started life as a Wii game. This most certainly isn’t pushing the boundaries of what the PS3 can visually achieve, and although everything uses a decent range of colours from the lush surroundings of the shire and the mountains to the dark dingy caves, the amount of screen tearing is noticeable to the point of being a little off putting. It’s a shame – the PS3 must be running this game without even breaking into a sweat, so I fail to see why the graphics engine occasionally struggles to keep up with what’s going on.
After a few quests in the Shire, the real deal kicks off as Sam goes home with his kids to tell them the story of how the fellowship destroyed the ring. This narration leads the rest of the game from the start of the Fellowship of the Ring through all three films and does a surprisingly good job of summarising the events of the trilogy. With the focus on Aragorn’s part in the adventure you’re given an interesting (if not intentionally exaggerated) twist on the tale, and as you press on through the game your quests become much more action based and less “find and retrieve” which gives you fine reward for a bit of stickability during the early stages. And while the action never quite reaches a point where you’ll be desperate to jump back on as soon as you get home it’s a quite enjoyable affair that more casual gamers will find pretty good fun. I’m yet to work out exactly who the game is aimed at however; at times it feels just like a game for younger gamers with it’s quite cute stylings, but it occurred to me that a lot of kids won’t have sat through 8 hours of the films and might not really understand a lot of what the game has to offer. But the game is by no means difficult, and you’ll have no problems in bashing through in a bit under 10 hours if you just plough through the main quests. As mentioned earlier however, like other RPG titles before it playing the game through like this will omit a huge number of the side quests which will add a lot of gametime if you’re willing to put the time in. The addition of a jump-in co-op system works nicely too, with a second player joining as Gandalf whenever they want to. This almost makes the game easier to control as it brings the camera away from your character and gives you a slightly better view of what’s around you. There are also certain areas or collectables that only Gandalf can access, so it’s worth having someone on standby if you’re interested in collecting every pickup as you go along.
One element of the game that genuinely stands out is the sound. Warner Brothers have included the official soundtrack to accompany events in the game, and this makes a world of difference as you make your way through the game. Battles are accompanied by frantic tracks, and gentle melodies sweep through the hills as you make your way through to your next location. Add to that the extensive voiceover work by Sean Astin who actually played Samwise in the films, and some fairly convincing soundalikes for the other main characters and you realise that as far as the audio goes, there’s a decent amount of polish and atmosphere to be found.
What we’ve really got here is a game that doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be. It’s simple enough for younger gamers, but is based on some very long and epic films that they may not have watched. It’s got cartoony stylings, but then replicates some character models in a relatively realistic way. It’s being pushed as a high definition adventure, but the visuals aren’t anywhere near modern expectations for the PS3. But despite all of these gripes it’s a fairly fun trip through the trilogy from an unusual angle, and the latter parts of the game do go some way towards rewarding you for keeping going through the more arduous moments. The gorgeous musical score gives everything a huge range of emotion from relaxing to outright panic, and the opportunity to play alongside a friend and fight together is a nice addition that could easily have been ignored. It’s just a shame that the visuals are something of a let down, and the fixed position camera sometimes makes fighting so much more frustrating than the game deserves. Aragorn’s Quest is by no means a bad game, especially for those with a little less gaming experience, but at the same time it’s no masterpiece and unfortunately just isn’t a game to keep experienced gamers entertained for all that long.