Format: DS, PS3, PSP, Wii (version tested)
Release: October 29
Publisher: Warner Bros
Developer: Headstrong Games
On balance, Tolkien turns out to be a better storyteller than Samwise Gamgee. Tolkien's stolid mix of prose and verse may not be to everyone's taste, but from it was born a modern myth, the grandeur of which had not been seen since the Viking sagas. Sam's retelling of it in Aragorn's Quest, meanwhile, is largely about hitting things. Hitting things and trying to stop your attention from drifting.
It's actually a rather sophisticated set-up, and a smart means of side-stepping accusations of betraying canon: Samwise Gamgee sits by the fire and tells his kids the story of how Aragorn became king – a garbled greatest hits of the three films that reduces largely to goblin-bashing. These chapters see you star as the Aragorn of Sam's recollection, but in between them you take on the role of young Frodo Gamgee, Sam's son, whose antics in The Shire serve as the game's tutorial. It's a tidy structure, and the bucolic diversions of Hobbiton throw the stark battles for the fate of Middle-earth into pleasant relief.
But Sam's telling as a whole really makes little sense – characters and objectives are introduced without explanation, enemies like Saruman and Sauron given no distinction or comprehension. Which is fine if one assumes this to be an aperitif to the books or films – but the game's child-friendly caricature suggests that this is really a primer for them.
The kid-gloves are practically vacuum-moulded over the game's fighting system too. There's a potent and complex gesture recognition system here – one which really strains the Remote to its limits – but when the hordes of Mordor are no match for mindless waggling, there's sadly little need for it. Crank the difficulty all the way up, and you'll find yourself occasionally having to think about evading and retorting, but by and large, any challenge is reserved for mid-boss battles and above.
As such, dodge a troll's blow and he's vulnerable to a jab from your spear, while a spider is weak to fire – this system has the potential to add welcome variety and a little tactical thought to what you carry in your left hand, but it's barely ever exploited and often undermined by the hectic throng of battle. The screen is sometimes crowded by enemies and effects to the point of being unreadable, while the automated lock-on system spins and disorients you. With its motion blur, over-enthusiastic collision detection and clumsy geometry, Aragorn's Quest presents circumstances in which you couldn't make meaningful tactical decisions without frustration, and so chooses to make tactics largely obsolete instead.
Headstrong Games deserves credit for the way it orchestrates an ever greater escalation to the chapters: the battle for Minas Tirith begins in the streets, but eventually bundles out into the vast planes before the city, where you chase down Oliphaunts on horseback. The Rohan section, meanwhile, offers open rolling grasslands to explore, with collectibles and plenty of (samey and simple) sidequests. The source material demands scale and the game delivers – but it's in the basic action that the One Ring slips off its finger.
Simply ploughing through enemies has a base pleasure to it, but it quickly palls, and the game's setpieces give way to banal mechanics. The flight from the Balrog sees you pepper its weak spots with arrows while Gimli turns a cog to open a gate – a boring reduction of a sequence which the game deploys more than once. Helm's Deep, meanwhile, manages to recreate the gravity and size of that siege, but then besets you with pointless, interrupting cut-scenes.
Headstrong's effort shows a developer of some calibre, with a clutch of decent ideas, bowed beneath the weight of a multimedia franchise and hobbled by family friendly obligations. Its execution is uneven besides, but the challenge is so light that its flaws are largely irrelevant – and, unfortunately, that applies to the game's few triumphs too.