Sunday, January 18, 2009

LOTR: Conquest -- lesson in frustration

Dynamic games usually get better over time. But the more I play LOTR: Conquest, the more I want to smash something. I've never cursed at my television so much.

Conquest is mediocre, bordering on bad (I originally said "it sucks", but that was probably overly harsh). Like Too Human, the concept had great potential, but the actuality falls very short. Some of that potential is lost to ridiculously obvious flaws, some to failure to go as far as its predecessors (Star Wars: Battlefront 1 & 2, by the same studio) went years ago.


The most obvious difference between LOTR: Conquest and the Star Wars: Battlefront games is that Conquest involves melee combat. That alone has a huge impact on gameplay, because it means half the classes are not nearly as dependent on aiming. That's not necessarily bad, but it led to some feature decisions which annoy me and every other player I've spoken with to no end. For one, you will often be knocked down and then attacked while you're helpless on the ground (getting back up isn't immediate). Melee also involves combos, and players seem to be just as helpless while being attacked by a combo chain... particularly while being attacked by multiple foes.

Helplessness
is not a fun feeling in an action game, but it's rampant in LOTR: Conquest. Expect to spend a lot of time on the ground or unable to block or attack as your hacked to pieces by a warrior. This problem alone undermines the game's good elements almost entirely.

Expect to unpredictably fall off ledges and see your allies diving to their deaths. I usually play as a scout or archer. The scout is a lot of fun, but the animation for backstabbing both moves and turns the player's character. You can't backstab anyone near a ledge, because the animation's likely to take you right into the chasm. Sometimes you'll think you're far enough away, but you're not. I've also found my scout sliding into corners or enemies during the backstab animation, if my scout is on sloped ground. AI allies are constantly falling over edges as they charge into enemies or turn from a fight.

Whereas SW:B has five classes per faction and four factions, Conquest has only four per faction and two factions. Going with four classes isn't technically an omission, since Conquest is a separate IP, but you'll feel the absence of the former's variety. It's an exponential effect -- one class isn't just one experience; how it combines with each other class, playing as and against, is a separate experience.

SW: Battlefront
also gave each faction unique classes -- flying jet troopers, wookiees, engineers with bolt blasters, rolling and shielded droidekas, pilots with mortar launchers, super battle droids, etc. Pandemic apparently chose "safe" over "interesting" this time around, and the game is weaker for it. That said, the four classes provided are fairly well-designed, but there are significant problems.

One of those problems is the mage's shield spell. I can accept that it makes the mage invulnerable from ranged attacks, considering that he can't attack while shielding. What I can't accept is how often mage shields blind everyone to what's going on around them, especially on particular maps like Pelennor Fields. When mages are shielding, archers are shooting poison and fire arrows, and scouts are tossing fire bombs all in the same area, good luck trying to tell who's an enemy and who's an ally when they're not right in your face.


Horses and wargs are not much fun, in my opinion. Expect to be knocked off quickly. Oliphants can be fun as lumbering giants until you try to turn more than slightly; how to do so is not intuitive, if manageable. Trolls and Ents are fun. You can be taken down quickly if someone sneaks up behind you and climbs up your back (a very simple quick-time event), so you have to remember to swing around frequently, but that's a well-deserved balance. It can sometimes be hard to see what you're fighting.

Don't expect any neutral characters, like the Tusken Raiders in SW:B, or monsters. But one great dynamic I have noticed is a lever to temporarily drop a bridge on the Moria map. It lets you drop the bridge from beneath enemy players if you time it right, though I haven't seen it used to that effect yet.

Some heroes are more fun than others, but all are disappointing. Most are basically regular classes with more damage. Sarumon feels like a hero; less so Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas. Sauron is ridiculously similar to Aragorn and other warriors, which completely saps the thrill of playing with him. The mode in which all players are heroes is fun, though it would be more so if there were AI soldier regulars alongside. With the limited number of characters in the battle, it's common for players to be singled out by everyone and ganged up on. Trolls, ents, the Balrog, and such are more fun. I found a sitting troll once or twice that I was able to press RB to become, but most trolls and ents seem to be uncontrollable.

The maps often feel too big for the number of combatants. The battles simply are not as intense as in SW:B 1 & 2. This might be due to the layout of the maps, but I think the problem is that Pandemic made the maps bigger than in previous games without also increasing the number of combatants. Are there even as many combatants? There are usually enemies around, but I see fewer crowds than in the old games. Of course, the maps being big doesn't prevent the game from occasionally respawning you right in the thick of battle, so you die before you realize what's going on.

More than a few times, I've died by running off the battefield. Star Wars: Battlefront made it clear where the battlefield ends. But knowing where it ends on a map like Pelennor Fields is not so clear. It's easy to charge your oliphant or warg headlong into an instant and needless death. You'll see combat off the battlefield that's purely animation. And if you're fighitng in the fields in front of Isengard, isn't it natural to think you can go right up to the city's gates, even if you can't enter? You'd eventually learn, of course. Anyway, why not just warp players back to a checkpoint, or forcibly turn the player?

This reviewer sums up the AI nicely: "I get it, the game was obviously built with multiplayer in mind, but seriously half the time it may as well be you versus every orc in Mordor." The AI seems meant only to tread water until the player completes his objectives. And it is common to press forward and find that nobody came with you. Just as importantly, single-player battles don't allow you to get lost in the thick of chaos, which was much of the thrill of previous battlefield games. Being the only major force in the battle makes it a very different kind of game (which isn't necessarily bad, but seems so in this case). In fact, the AI seems programmed to focus on the player whenever he or she is near. Run into a crowd, and all eyes turn toward you, regardless of how many allies are nearby. And NPCs like to jump off cliffs, as I mentioned before.

The graphics look better in screenshots than in actual gameplay. That's not due to framerate issues or any technical issue. It's a design issue. There might be a number of differences between its art and SW:B's, but ultimately Conquest isn't much prettier (if at all) than that game released back in 2004.

There's isn't much story, since this is an action game, but I do like actor Hugo Weaving's narrated introductions and commentary (Elrond). Since this is a game based on a popular literary and film IP, the use of such scenes to inspire the player makes good sense.


Right now, I feel much like many Metallica fans felt when the St. Anger album was released -- I'm stunned to get such garbage from a consistently good team. I consider Star Wars: Battlefront to be one of the greatest action games of all time. It was so dynamic, so well paced, so well balanced. This game makes me want to throw something at my TV. The potential was there... and now it's gone.

LOTR: Conquest will never be a great game now, but perhaps it could still be made into a good game. Here are some changes that could be made via a patch:
  • Decrease the knockdown duration. Being unable to recover quickly from knockdowns, which happen all the time, is one of the main elements that's frustrating players.
  • Improve the AI. They shouldn't charge into chasms. They shouldn't be obsessed with the player alone. And give us more AI characters per battle, if possible, including in multiplayer. The original Star Wars: Battlefront seemed to have more characters per battle.
  • In single-player mode, allow the player to put hero opportunities on hold. If the player rejects the opportunity to play a hero, then allow the hero to be selected at any point in the battle thereafter, until used. I don't understand why it was made otherwise.
  • When an opportunity to play as a hero is offered, don't limit the selection to one hero. Different players will prefer different heroes. You've already deviated from the LOTR lore by making mages ubiquitous, so that aspect shouldn't be a concern.
  • Add more dynamics. If the game's sales justify an add-on, new classes would be best. Neutral NPCs are another possibility.
  • For God's sake, make Sauron more like Sauron in the single-player campaign! Give the Witchking back his huge, slow flail. All the heroes should be less like regular soldiers. And make the Balrog and oliphants easier to turn.
Can anyone else think of a change that could be patched in?


<<<>>>

If you never played either of the Star Wars: Battlefront games, you'll probably be much more satisfied with the game than I am. Pandemic mysteriously failed to repeat many great elements of their past battlefield games, and it's hard for someone who played them to see Conquest with fresh eyes.

The game does have its moments. Seeing player-controlled ents and trolls go head-to-head is awesome. Interrupting would-be attackers with my warg in Capture the Ring mode is another memorable moment. Sneaking up to backstab someone or landing a nice headshot while zooming with the bow are a lot of fun. It's just the excessive frustration in between fun moments and certain lackluster elements (like relatively few combatants per map) that make the game mediocre.

It could certainly be improved via patches or DLC.

Six months ago, the game still included two multiplayer modes which have disappeared: Stronghold and Ring Bearer. The latter was like a game of Tag that involves Nazgul chasing Frodo for the One Ring. Stronghold was fashioned after the ingenius Galactic Conquest mode of Star Wars: Battlefront, which strings battles together into a continuous war (thereby making the battles more meaningful). Whereas I can imagine balance issues with the Ring Bearer mode, I can't imagine why Stronghold would be removed unless Pandemic plans to release it later on. Afterall, if you simply remove map bonuses as Galactic Conquest had, then there's no balance necessary -- simply provide a basic screen that shows players which territories they currently control, how the war is going.

In fact, the game seems to have been somewhat misrepresented over the past year. Watch this interview from August of last year. All of the scenes shown include more combatants than are in the final version of the game. The scenes with dozens of characters are merely showing non-interactive animations included in the maps. You will not fight massive battles at Helm's Deep or Pelennor Fields. The massive groups of soldiers in the video are purely for show, though there are considerably more combatants and more spectacular events in the campaign mode.

It took me a while to figure out how to climb the oliphants to kill them. There's no RB prompt when behind them or by the trunk; you have to be on the outside of a front leg. As for "You get to push the massive siege towers" There are towers in the game, but I've only seen them moved by NPCs in the campaign mode.

One scene in that video is definitely true (about a minute in): note how long it takes for Aragorn to stand back up after he's knocked down by the orcs. Now, the interview was showing a work in progress, but I think you can see what I mean.

Anyway, I've updated my original statement to say the game is merely mediocre, not completely awful. I find myself still interested in playing it from time to time... but, in the words of Gamespot's Chris Watters, the game is "as exasperating as it is exhilarating".

14 comments:

  1. Good review.

    I was really looking forward to this game - it had so much potential but it feels like a half-finished beta in so many ways.

    The combat is not nearly as good as that of Return of the King on the original xbox, and the graphics scarcely any better too.

    There are elements of the game I like but if one removed the obvious Lord of the Rings trappings and graphics there is just nothing that screams 'Lord of the Rings' to me - none of the epic, grand sense of that wonderful story.

    Perhaps if they gave each player the ability to earn a squad of A.I companions then we might see some more epic battles. Or give players choices of armour or weapons. Let them be a hulking brute if they want but he'll be slow to turn and strike. Or let them choose various schools of magery. Let's see some fire, ice, summoning and other spells - especially other support spells - say the blinding light that Gandalf used.

    As it is, the battles are unsatisfying and repetitive.

    I'd rate the game about a 5.2 out of 10 and would not recommend it to friends in it's current state.

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  2. I fully agree with u.
    I would like to say that I am a HUGE fan of LOTR, but after this game-not really.

    I think that the graphics can stay (do people really care about details when fighting an epic war?)

    But, I hated the multiplayer mode. Why not add more grunts and AI guys in instant action and xboxlive?
    Also they should give us ALL of the battlefield to play with. I mean, don't u think that pelennor fields given to us only
    contained 1 oliphaunt! Think of all that field and all those horses and men to trample and TONS of AI guys! I like
    BIG! Think of all that field ( and for the limited bordering- it was way too small).

    As for xboxlive, even if there are only 4-16 real players, there should be Thousands of AI guys(including AI soldiers, creatures, trolls, ents, oliphaunts, fellbeasts, etc.) so in places like Minas Tirith and Pelennor fields, there
    should be Thousands of masses of AI fighting and dying.

    And also we should have the CHOICE of heroes when allowed to play as them.

    Basically: improve on AI quantity and quality, borders around the TRUE end of the battlefield (e.g. :pelennor fields shouldn't have such a small area for fighting), and the choice of heroes.

    Come on Pandemic! Why'd you make a fool of Tolkien and Peter Jackson? U should know better! Anyways, here are all of my comments and reccommendations. Hope u find it useful.

    As for all Tolkien fans and geeks like me: I reccomend u don't get this stinkin game yet...
    Buy it when pandemic modify it and when pandemic listens to my advice. Don't buy it... Yet...

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  3. I agree with anonymous 2. Big is better!

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  4. Having only played the demo, I was put off enough to completely take this game off my list.

    I didn't necessarily mind the graphics; after all in multiplayer I'd rather have the full framerate with everyone onscreen instead of taking a massive performance hit.

    But I did mind the wonky camera and the sloppy controls. Not to mention there's basically no strategy whatsoever, or at least not with the warrior, just a generic button-masher. Yawn.

    Oh and lets not forget the constant moments of helplessness. It's one thing in Left 4 Dead because it adds tension and your team comes to rescue you -- L4D is a co-op game after all. But in Conquest, you're just pounded down, stand up, pounded down again. That isn't fun, it isn't suspenseful. It's damned annoying.

    Where's the Pandemic I used to know and love?

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  5. Actually you are able to get back up swiftly if you press the X or A(Depending on console) button as soon as your character hits the ground. Also you mentioned not being able to get out of a combo once it has begun. If you are any kind of warrior or scout you can press the L2 or LT to block and press O or B. Doing thiswill use your entire energy meter but do a sweeping circular knockback that sends enemies away. This can be done anytime with energy and soeone attackign the player.

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  6. I tried again tonight breaking an enemy's combo, and I still don't think it can be done... not unless the enemy pauses, anyway. If there are two enemies on you during a combo, you have next to nil chance of survival. Blocking is for guarding before a strike. I've tried blocking with every class while being attacked, and it simply doesn't work.

    I was able to get up with X (360 version). It works about half the time. You're usually down long enough to get hit again. You might say I'm not playing well, but you'd be describing most players since I'm usually among those with the most kills and points each match.

    Going back to combos, another annoyance is that you often can't cut your own combos short. Sometimes, I'll stop pressing buttons before the next swing and yet my character still swings, which gets me killed because I needed to move from danger or something.

    Again, I think Conquest could be a decent game if some basic improvements were patched in... particularly fewer moments of helplessness, improved AI, and more AI characters.

    I checked, and Star Wars: Battlefront did have more players: 32 on the Xbox and 50 on the PC. In this interview, it's noted that Pandemic could have included more characters but didn't because they think fewer is better after testing. Well, I've played (tested) both games, and I still feel strongly that more is better. The chaotic feel of Battlefront is one of the things that makes it more fun than Conquest. Perhaps they could leave it to players to decide on a per-match basis. Make number of participants one of the available match customizations.

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  7. Sauron Sucks1/20/09, 7:41 AM

    I'm totally depressed about this bloody game. I think that the second comment here is right (the second anonymous guy).

    An example is my favourite, pelenor fields. When playing multiplayer on these marvelous fields, there is too much space between players that is unwantedly barren. Put some AI grunts and others that you can actually fight and die from not just watch. There should be no borders in the mid of the battlefield only at the very end.

    Aaron and others: we should report this to pandemic just if they would make a lotr conquest new one.

    Just say you agree with this comment and comment number two.

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  8. rather rather ungood is this lotr conquest game

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  9. I'm not sure how many characters, players and NPCs both, the different maps could handle. But I definitely agree that Pelennor Fields is barren. Last time I played, the forces of good rarely left their side of the battlefield, and me and a couple other archers remained on our side to shoot them from afar. That map is way too big for so few characters, despite the mounts. Having multiple oliphants only makes sense if there were many, many more characters.

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  10. EA just emailed to let me know they are sending me this over...am a little depressed to be getting it now.

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  11. So I am tryin to get the game. Is it really that should I not get it?

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  12. i dunno about xbox, but this game is great on pc. it has many mistakes, but its good.

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  13. Ivan Pozdnaew2/14/09, 6:06 PM

    hey last anonymoues guy. Why is It good on pc?

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  14. i think its a good game in some ways but, some people say it cannot be played on vista can some 1 tell me anything about that?

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