Friday, March 29, 2019

Lord Of The Rings, Vol. II: The Two Towers: Summary And Rating

             
Lord of the Rings, Vol. II: The Two Towers
United States
Interplay (developer and publisher)
Released in 1992 for DOS, 1993 for FM Towns and PC-98
Date Started: 5 February 2019
Date Ended: 15 March 2019
Total Hours: 18
Difficulty: Easy (2/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at time of posting: (to come later)

Summary:

A shallower, smaller, shorter sequel to a superior predecessor, The Two Towers tells the second of Tolkien's three books from the perspective of three adventuring parties. While the top-down perspective and interface (recalling Ultima VI but with a bigger window) are both adequate, and the game follows its predecessor in offering a number of non-canonical NPCs and side-quests, it remains under-developed in RPG mechanics like combat, character development, and equipment. The switching between parties, over which the player has no control, is jarring, and by the end it feels like no party ever got any serious screen time.

*****

I'm not sure that it's possible to make a truly excellent RPG based on an existing plot with existing characters, particularly ones who live as largely in the imagination as the canonical members of the Fellowship of the Ring. This is different, you understand, than setting a new adventure in a familiar universe. If I had made a Lord of the Rings game, I would have told a story of a group of rangers, or Rohirrim, or even a motley group like the Fellowship, engaged in a struggle ancillary to the main plot, perhaps featuring Frodo, Aragorn, et. al. as NPCs. Games based on Dungeons & Dragons' Forgotten Realms largely seem to take this approach, although with much less well-known source material.
           
Offering an option to execute Gollum took some guts.
        
The problem with using existing plots is that either the player is on a railroad towards a predetermined destination, or he's jarred by the detours. Perhaps the only way to do it well is to allow such detours (as Interplay did here) and then give it to a player who doesn't care much about the original (e.g., me). In that sense, the game world worked out very well. Before we get into a litany of complaints, we have to at least admire the flexibility of the plot, plus the game's ability to introduce side quests that work thematically with the main plot points. It was a strength of Vol. I as well.

The game fails, on the other hand, in just about every possible way as an RPG. There is no experience or leveling. Character development occurs through the occasional increase in attributes and the occasional acquisition of skills as a reward for exploration or quest-solving. None of these improvements mean anything because, first, combat is so easy that your characters don't need to improve to beat the game, and second, every party starts with all the skills they need spread out among the characters. Inventory upgrades are scarce and essentially unnecessary for the same reasons. Combat couldn't be more boring, and there's essentially no magic system: "spells" are keywords that solve puzzles, more like inventory items.
             
Very late in the game, Aragorn can learn skills he won't need for the rest of the game.
          
Even worse is the way that it undercuts nonlinear exploration and optional encounters, essentially its only strength. While many of the side-quests and chance encounters are interesting, hardly any of them offer anything material to the characters. In fact, every time you stop to check out an unexplored area or building, you run the risk of some extra combats that leave the party weakened for the required encounters. This is related to the game's absurd healing system, by which characters are only fully healed at a few plot intervals, with meals and Athelas curing just a few hit points in between.

Now, it turns out that I missed a lot of side quests, mostly towards the end. The open world is nice, but the game only gives you any directions along the main quest path. I never returned to Dunland, and thus missed the side adventures there. Ithilien had at least three side quests that Frodo and his party didn't do, including a crypt, a Haradrim deserter who will join the party, and recovering the eye of the statue. If I'd gone another way in the Morgul Vale, I would have met Radagast. Aragorn missed the entire "Glittering Caves" sub-area, which culminated in a fight with a dragon and would have given him some powerful gloves. I still don't know what I did wrong here. I did find the way to the Glittering Caves, but I somehow missed the transition to the multiple levels that the hint guide says exist. I guess I was supposed to return after the Battle of Helm's Deep, but that would have meant embarking on a lengthy side-quest while on the threshold of victory for the game at large.
             
I'm not sure how I was supposed to get past this.
            
It's also possible that I missed some of these side quests because of another problem: the interface. There are parts that aren't so bad. The top-down perspective, the commands, and the auto-map all basically work, and I like the way you can make the interface go away and use the full screen for just exploration. What sucks is the approach to triggering encounters. You don't see an NPC or group of enemies in the corner of your exploration window. No, they just suddenly pop up because you've happened to walk on the right set of pixels or brushed up against the right object. There's very little correspondence between visual cues on screen and the appearance of encounter options. Sometimes, you see chests but walking up to them and bumping into them does nothing. Other times, you're in a blank room, and you're told about items and people that aren't on the screen at all.
            
Note that there are no orcs anywhere on this screen.
          
Finally, we have the matter of pacing. It's like the game itself has no idea what's going to come next. The battle of Helm's Deep involves six combats in a row, in two sets of three, with only a little bit of healing offered between the sets. After this epic battle, the party can rest and get fully healed, then (apparently) go off and find some magic gauntlets, when there's only one more (easy) combat remaining in the game. On Frodo and Sam's side, late in the game they have to figure out how to cut through Shelob's web. The option I chose (use the Star Ruby) causes the hobbits to get burned a little bit, which would suck--except that the endgame happens five seconds later. Why bother to attach a penalty to the choice?

And while we're talking about pacing, it's important to remember how all the erratic cutting between parties makes it hard to keep track of what any one party is doing. I completely missed an opportunity to recover Anduril because the game lurched to a different party when I was on that quest, and by the time it took me back to Aragorn, it was shouting that Helm's Deep was nigh.
           
Making the least-optimal choice hardly matters when the game is over at the next intersection.
        
Lord of the Rings, Vol. I had a lot of these problems (except the last one), and it ended up with a relatively-high 49 on the GIMLET. Before we rate this one, it's worth thinking about some of the differences. One is size. Vol. I is quite a bit bigger. Although Vol. II is good in this regard, Vol. I offered more opportunities for side quests, inventory acquisition, character development, healing, and general exploration. Pacing issues were caused as much by the player as by the plot.

Vol. I gave you a lot less direction on what to do next. There was a general sense that you had to keep moving east, but you weren't constantly getting title cards explicitly explaining the next step of the quest. For that reason, NPCs and the dialogue system took on a much greater importance. Here, although you can feed NPCs a variety of keywords, they mostly just tell you what the game has already told you in long paragraphs. You never really need them for any clues.

NPCs themselves were more memorable. They had personalities, agendas, side quests, and even a couple of betrayals. Vol. II only marginally developed any of that. There was a poor economy in Vol. I, but Vol. II had no place to spend money at all despite showing that the characters had it. Also keenly felt is the loss of nice graphical (or animated, in the remake) cut scenes between major areas.

Both games do reasonably well in the area of encounters. I've always liked the way Interplay games (including Wasteland and Dragon Wars) require you to read clues and then figure out the right skills to directly employ. Sometimes, items can substitute for skills. But Vol. I's encounters of this nature were less obvious and a little less generous in the variety of things that would work. You couldn't ignore options to improve skills or acquire quest objects. In Vol. II, you can pretty much just walk from beginning to end, knowing that your starting characters have whatever they need.

The rest might just be a matter of bad memory. Recalling the first game, I feel like the graphics offered a little more detail, that encounters didn't depend on hitting quite such a small set of pixels, that there was a little more character development, a slightly better inventory system, and so forth.
            
The game tries to evoke the majesty of Middle Earth without showing much.
         
Let's see how they compare:

1. Game world. The Two Towers definitely makes good use of the Middle Earth setting. The backstory and lore section of the manual are thorough and interesting. It wasn't until I read it that I finally understood some allusions from the films and the previous game, such as what "Numenor" refers to and what Gandalf actually is. While the game doesn't do a lot to build on this setting, it certainly is in keeping with it. Score: 6.

2. Character creation and development. There's no creation at all and only the slightest, near-invisible development. You mostly forget that the attributes even exist. Aragorn started with 70 dexterity, 28 strength, 33 endurance 75 luck, and 75 willpower, and he ended with 74, 28, 38, 79, and 77. Clearly, some development occurred, but never was I notified of any of these increases, and I really have no idea what caused them. The skills system would get more points if the game was a bit more balanced in how you acquire and use them. Score: 2.

3. NPC interaction. I always enjoy keyword-based dialogue systems, but here it's mostly purposeless. When a title card has just told you that "Orcs have ravaged this village and its people are forlorn," you don't need six different NPCs saying, "Orcs destroyed us!" and "We have lost hope!" I did like the few NPCs who could join the parties. Without them, the game would have been forced to either avoid combat with the hobbit parties or make the hobbits uncharacteristically effective. Score: 5.
          
I'm sorry we didn't see more of Eowen.
        
4. Encounters and foes. Despite Tolkien featuring a large bestiary, you only really ever fight orcs and men in this game (aside from a few one-off battles). The only points I give here are for the non-combat encounters, which are frequent, require some puzzle-solving skill, and offer some role-playing opportunities. As mentioned, I don't like the way that they appear, but that's more of an interface issue. Score: 5.

5. Magic and combat. Combat features no tactics, no magic, no items to use. Just "attack" and select your preferred foe from a menu. The "magic system," as such, is just the acquisition of some spell keywords that occasionally solve puzzles, but I only had to use one of these words once. (This is in contrast to the first game, where they were constantly required.) Score: 1.
           
The easy, boring combat system.
         
6. Equipment. I found a few upgrades throughout the game: leather to chain, chain to magic armor, sword to magic sword, and so forth. It just didn't feel like any of it did anything. Most of the items that burdened my inventory were quest items, and I found no use for a lot of them. Score: 2.

7. Economy. In contrast to the first game, there is none. The game keeps track of a "silver" statistic for each character for no reason. Score: 0.

8. Quests. Perhaps the strongest point. Each party has a clear set of main quests, an equal number of side quests, and even a few options about how to complete them. I enjoyed the side quests most because with them, I was exploring Middle Earth rather than just hitting a series of determined locations and plot points in a row. Score: 5.
          
9. Graphics, sound, and interface. The graphics aren't objectively bad, but I do think they fail to live up to the player's imagination of storied places like Helm's Deep and Minas Morgul. The failure to show so many things that the game tells you is also pretty stark. Sounds are mostly beeps and the occasional "oof" in combat.
             
The staircase to Cirith Ungol hardly seems hidden, tight, steep, or foreboding, especially with the silly "mountains" on either side.
           
There are aspects of the interface that work well. The size of the game window seems practically luxurious, and you have to wonder if Ultima VII took a lesson from this game or its precursor. The automap works pretty well. There are some nice touches like the star that appears next to the most recently-saved game when you go to load a game. I definitely appreciated the use of keyboard commands for most major actions, in addition to the buttons. Overall, the game would earn a high score in this category except for the encounter-triggering issue, which is both a graphical problem and an interface problem, and comes close to ruining the game on its own. Score: 4.

10. Gameplay. Vol. II is a bit more linear than Vol. I, but not compared to other games. I suspect that Frodo and Sam could have turned around in the last chapter, left the Morgul Vale, and walked all the way back to the Dead Marshes, cleaning up side quests along the way. The nonlinearity coupled with the side quests lend a certain replayability--in fact, I think the game would probably improve on a replay, with a better understanding of the pacing and terrain.
        
I found it far easier than its predecessor, as exemplified by the battle in which Frodo killed the vampire. I was supposed to solve that with a quest item. The game should have made combats harder and the healing system less erratic. Finally, it's also a bit too short, particularly with the action split among three parties. I suspect you could win in a speed run of just an hour or so. Maybe I'll try when I get some more free time. Score: 4.
        
That gives us a final score of 34, as I suspected quite a bit below Vol. I and even below my "recommended" threshold, though just barely. The engine was a bit better than the game itself, and was used in a superior way in the first title. This one seemed a bit rushed and perfunctory.
              
I did like some of the "instant deaths."
               
Computer Gaming World disagreed with me on the first game by largely hating it: reviewer Charles Ardai obsessed about divergences from the books and didn't even seem to notice the more revolutionary elements of the interface. He dismissed it as "not special enough to carry the Tolkien name." But in the October 1992 issue, reviewer Allen Greenberg gave a much more positive review of the sequel. In particular, he addressed the carping of people like Ardai by pointing out that Middle Earth had taken on a certain life of its own, and if we can forgive Tolkien himself for his many appendices and allusions, why complain about a few side-quests and side-characters in a game that's otherwise relatively faithful to the material?
        
Greenberg also offers a relatively nuanced discussion of the party-switching system, pointing out (correctly) that the very approach is revolutionary, and while Interplay might have refined the approach ("Interplay may wish to consider allowing the player at least a vote in the decision making process as to whether it is time to switch locations"), the innovative system offered a "depth of narrative which would not otherwise have been possible." Greenberg's comments led me to avoid subtracting points for this element despite complaining about it several times.

MobyGames catalog of reviews for the game has them averaging in the high 50s, which is pretty miserable. On the other hand, the lack of any seriously rabid fan base must have softened the blow when Vol. III was never released. A couple of years ago, Jimmy Maher published an excellent entry on what was happening with Interplay during this period. The summary is that the company was struggling as a developer/publisher, with Dragon Wars not having sold well in a crowded RPG market. Founder Brian Fargo managed to secure the rights the trilogy from Tolkien Enterprises, figuring that the Lord of the Rings name would make the games stand out among their competitors. 

Interplay was already in the midst of a new RPG called Secrets of the Magi that would feature a free-scrolling interface. Fargo pulled the team off that project and put them to work on Lord of the Rings. By the time the game was released, the company had been badly hurt by the collapse of Mediagenic, publisher of Interplay's Nintendo titles. Interplay rushed production to make the Christmas 1990 buying season. They ended up releasing the game with a lot of bugs and cut features (including an automap), missed the Christmas season anyway, and got lukewarm reviews.

The company was saved by the unexpected success of a strategy game called Castles. Now understanding that the Tolkien name alone didn't ensure success in sales, Vol. II was produced with a smaller staff. When it, too, got poor reviews, and when repackaging Vol. I on CD-ROM also failed to generate significant sales, there was no impetus to move on to Vol. III. Some sites claim that before it gave up on III, there had been plays to turn it into more of a strategy game. 

". . . no one."
        
Maher memorably concludes:
         
Unlike Dragon Wars, which despite its initial disappointing commercial performance has gone on to attain a cult-classic status among hardcore CRPG fans, the reputations of the two Interplay Lord of the Rings games have never been rehabilitated. Indeed, to a large extent the games have simply been forgotten, bizarre though that situation reads given their lineage in terms of both license and developer. Being neither truly, comprehensively bad games nor truly good ones, they fall into a middle ground of unmemorable mediocrity. In response to their poor reception by a changing marketplace, Interplay would all but abandon CRPGs for the next several years.
             
Indeed, the next RPG we'll see from Interplay isn't until 1995 (Stonekeep), followed by two in 1997: Fallout and Descent to Undermountain. It's hard not to see a little of the Lord of the Rings interface in Fallout's: axonometric graphics, continuous movement, a large main game window, and commands hosted in a set of unobtrusive icons with keyboard backup. (Vol. II and Fallout even share at least one designer, Scott Bennie.) Fallout shares these characteristics with the Infinity Engine, which was developed by Bioware but with a close relationship with (and financing from) Interplay. I'm probably grasping at straws, but I look forward to exploring the engines' history more when we get to those games.

The Two Towers was the last attempt to make an official Middle Earth game until after the Peter Jackson film series, which spawned a host of new games that, like the films themselves, are controversial among fans. (We won't see another one until 2002's The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.) The 1990s were the only era in which Tolkien fans were likely to get an RPG that was technologically and graphically advanced enough to be fun, but not yet influenced ("tainted," as I'm sure some would have it) by the films. While the two Interplay titles have some promise and fun moments, it's too bad that they were the only attempts.

****

While we're wrapping things up, I think I might be ready to throw in the towel on The Seventh Link. I hate to do it, particularly when I know the developer is reading, but I can't seem to force myself to map and explore all the large dungeon levels. I'll chew on it for another couple days while I get started with Star Control II.



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