Do you fancy the idea of being a troll? Not the moronic prat who hangs around a forum posting griefer topics kind, but the large savage kind - the big things in caves that eat hobbits and billy-goats gruff? If you do, sir, then step right this way - because Pandemic Studios and EA might have just the ticket.
Lord of the Rings: Conquest aims to offer thrills in a similar vein to Pandemic's Battlefront: Star Wars series, only with Orcs and Elves in place of Stormtroopers and Wookies. The idea is that you'll get to revisit the biggest battles from the Peter Jackson trilogy - and some that never even took place - by taking on the role of the rank and file troops. If you watched the carnage at The Battle For Helm's Deep and thought, "I could do better than that!" - now's your chance to prove it. The single-player campaign will roughly follow the story of the films but our recent hand-on was with the game's multiplayer hi-jinx, so let's talk about that first.
Conquest's multiplayer offers a selection of team-based modes with variations on the kind of diversions you'll know from any online shooter. There's Capture The Ring (flag), Team Deathmatch (two flavours, as we'll explain in a bit) and Conquest itself - a match based around the tagging and occupation of control points dotted about the map. In each case you'll join either the saintly ranks of The Fellowship n' Friends, or the Dastardly Nasties of Sauron (not the official titles, but you get the idea).
The precise character models you get to choose from will vary depending on the map and which races took part in that particular battle, but whatever the situation you'll be picking from one of four classes. Warriors and Scouts both deal in melee combat - the former doing so in an up-front manner, the latter specialising in sneaky, back-stabbing malarkey. You can probably guess what the Archers attack with, but Mages are a little more complicated: they get a mix of offensive powers, such as lightening bolts, and defensive abilities like protective barriers and firewalls (no, not that kind of firewall).
We found the mages to be a bit of a handful during our hands-on session, but we can imagine that once mastered they would add a fair amount of strategy to your team tactics. As it was, our skirmishes largely descended into chaotic brawls - though this was no bad thing in of itself. The upper three face buttons will give you access to a variety of attacks - light, heavy and spinny for the melee fighters, arrow and spell types for the archer and mage - while L1/LB gives you a charge that boosts the power of your blows. You've also got buttons for blocking/evading and jumping, so there's a fair old amount to pick up.
The battles themselves are limited to a maximum of eight per side; this number may be dwarfed (hobbited?) by the scale of the cinematic scraps, but it's probably a wise design choice. Even with just sixteen players you'll have more than enough on your plate, what with magic spells, arrows and axes being hurled at your face while some sneaky bugger tries to stab you in the back. On top of that, several of the maps we played featured optional mounts (horses and/or wargs), giving you a faster way of getting about and a new means of attack. Finally, and perhaps most excitingly, you'll have to keep an eye out for special characters: high-scoring players will occasionally find themselves upgraded to Hero-class - so you'll play as Gandalf instead of a standard Mage, or Legolas instead of your standard Archer. Some maps will also offer you the chance to play as the bigger beasties from the LOTR universe, like Ents or trolls. We only got the chance to try our hand at the latter, but it was a lot of fun to go stomping around the map, pummelling all and sundry with our club... or at least it was... our reign of terror was brought to a swift end by a Warrior who climbed our back and stabbed us through the head, a move that you must trigger by attacking from the rear.
The details are, without doubt, the strongest elements of Conquest. Pandemic has been lent a helping hand by Weta Digital (the boffins behind the film's CGI legions) and it clearly shows. It's fun to stomp around as a troll because it looks and feels like a troll. Likewise, playing as a hero is great because it looks and feels like them - you can actually be the orc that killed Sean Bean (and who hasn't wanted to be the orc that killed Sean Bean?). This is particularly fun in Hero Team Deathmatch, when everyone, even n00bs like us, can play as their favourite legend or villain. It may look a bit odd when three Gandalfs are running about Minas Tirith, but who cares? It's enjoyable.
So yes, Conquest's characters look pretty good. The maps themselves are a bit less inspiring: most of the locations from the films are there - Isengard, Pelennor Fields, Mines of Moria Carey - but they lack any real "wow" factor; they're just not particularly exciting. Perhaps it's just the way they look, or perhaps it's the fact that they only have a maximum of 16 people fighting there at any given time. As we said, 16 is a far more workable number for this kind of combat - but it doesn't feel massively Lord of the Rings-y.
All the same, the team-based matches we played certainly had their moments - and we reckon that Lord of the Rings fans could easily spend a few happy hours with them. However, you've probably detected a note of uncertainty in our tone. Because our concerns with LOTR: Conquest do not lie so much with what we have seen, but rather what we have not.
We could talk about the Ringbearer multiplayer mode - which was supposed to let one player be Frodo while everyone else became ring-wraiths and chased him. That sounded like a pretty cool idea, but it seems to have disappeared. Still, that's not our major worry. Our larger concern with this game is the single-player campaign - or rather, the fact that we've not seen it yet.
You see, multiplayer scrapping is all well and good, but since Conquest is understandably unable to deliver epic-scale warfare in this mode, the burden to deliver this experience rests upon the main game. This being the case, you'd expect EA to have shown it off somewhere - especially since the final product is due for release next month, But we've not been shown it. Now, there may be a good reason for this reticence... but we can't think of one. We're certainly not going to condemn something we've not seen, but it's a puzzling move at best.
What we've been told is that the single-player game will let you fight your way through all the major battles from the film, fighting to accomplish strategic goals while the conflict rages around you. You'll start by playing through the plot of the book/film, climaxing at the Battle of the Black Gate, then you'll get to play through an alternative "What If?" scenario that pretends the hobbits failed in their quest. The first mission in this campaign will let you take on the role of a Nazgul that kills Frodo and Sam, perhaps winning some overdue revenge for the thirty-minute ending that dragged down Return of the King. You'll then help Sauron's army to trash their way through Middle Earth, eventually destroying the Shire and wiping out the population of Rivendell. Then you'll start selling cigarettes to primary-school kids because it'll be the only evil thing left to do.
On paper, this sounds pretty cool - particularly since both campaigns are supposed to feature online co-op play for up to four people, and over 150 AI enemies on-screen at once. If Pandemic pulls it off, then this should make for quite an experience - and it'll have a fairly enjoyable multiplayer mode to go with it. As things stand, we can only confirm the latter half of that supposition - so for the time being, there's still a question mark over this game.
Lord of the Rings: Conquest is due out for Xbox 360, PS3, PC and Nintendo DS on January 16, 2009.