Now we’re Tolkien!
One does not simply become one of the most popular fantasy worlds of all time without inspiring a video game or two. Middle Earth plays host to a multitude of games from humble text adventures to vast, sprawling MMOs, and they show no signs of slowing, with a new instalment just on the horizon. Who would’ve thought a fantastical world full of powerful wizards, sentient trees, and immortal elves would make for good video games, eh? Oh, right…
So hold on to your elven cloaks, and prepare to gaze into the Mirror of Galadriel, as I take a look at the Tolkien games that were, games that are, and one game that has not yet come to pass in my quest for the ten best ‘Rings-inspired titles.
The Hobbit (1982, a bumload of different platforms)
It’s easy to forget how popular Tolkien’s works were prior to Peter Jackson’s film trilogy, but Middle Earth video games were being produced while Elijah Wood was still in nappies (I would apologise to American readers here for not calling them diapers, but Tolkien was English, so… *blows raspberry*).
When it released, The Hobbit text adventure was one of the most advanced examples of the genre with all sorts of exciting features. Preposition parsing! Adverb compatibility! Punctuation! In all seriousness, though, it was well ahead of its time, and features classic moments from the novels, like when “Thorin sits down and starts singing about gold” in the middle of a fight with some trolls. That definitely happens in the book, right?
Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (2003, PC, PS2, Xbox, Gamecube)
Hear that? It’s the sound of the Oh-God-It’s-A-Movie-Tie-In™ claxon going off in your head. But hold your horses, because this one’s actually decent. For a start it’s got Sir Ian ‘Gandalf’ McKellen on narrating duties, which is pretty awesome. On top of that, you’ve got a seriously cinematic adventure that lets you clobber various evil sorts in a variety of locations from the films.
Okay, it’s perhaps a little button-mashey, but the combos make you feel ridiculously badass, whether you’re cutting through your first orc, or your 500th. And besides, if you’ve ever dreamed of starring in the LOTR movies (and, c’mon, who hasn’t?) then this is probably as close as you can get. The Two Towers game is also worth a look, though it’s not quite as refined as its sequel.
Lord of the Rings: War of the Ring (2003, PC)
Although it released after the Peter Jackson trilogy, War of the Ring decided to focus on–you guessed it–the War of the Ring, as told in the novel. It’s interesting to see a game that focuses on events that were skimmed over in the movies and, even better, it lets you discover your dark side by commanding Sauron’s armies, from the lowly orc, to the mighty Nazgul. Seriously cool.
In terms of gameplay, it’s a nice gentle introduction to strategy, which is maybe a kind way of saying it’s quite basic. However, there’s something undeniably exciting about having control of a whole battlefield rather than one individual orc.
Lord of the Rings: The Third Age (2004, PS2, Xbox, Gamecube)
Turn-based battles might not seem like an obvious fit for the all action seen in the Lord of the Rings movies, but imagine you’re playing a LOTR / Final Fantasy crossover (let’s just take a second to think about how awesome that’d be…) and it starts to make sense. Taking classic moments from Tolkien’s epic and letting you relive them through a combat system refined by a bazillion JRPGs is a stroke of genius.
Granted, this hasn’t quite got the complexities of Final Fantasy, but what has? In place of deep, challenging gameplay is a heavily streamlined romp through Middle Earth, and that’s not such a bad thing.
Lord of the Rings: The Third Age (2004, GBA)
Is it cheating to include two games with the same name in the same list? Possibly, but this GameBoy Advance installment offers some Fire Emblem inspired gaming–completely different from its console bigger brothers, and playable while locked in a moderately large wardrobe to boot–so I’m willing to bend the rules a little.
Anything drawing from Nintendo’s seminal strategy series is bound to be fun and, well, it is! A few clumsy design choices stop it being remembered as a true classic, but this is basically FIRE EMBLEM IN MIDDLE EARTH. If that doesn’t excite you, then give up now and become forever Galadriel.
Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle Earth (2004, PC)
Taking the Command and Conquer: Generals engine, and blending it up with the Lord of the Rings story, and the scale of the movies’ battles creates a delicious real time strategy cocktail. By comparison, earlier RTS War of the Ring is a less successful blend; a pulpy mush; a mocktail, if you will.
Anyway, weird analogies aside, The Battle for Middle Earth–as well as being a cracking game that even strategic dunces like myself can get into–is perhaps the best bit of virtual fan service LOTR had seen when it launched. That interactive Middle Earth map alone is properly breathtaking stuff.
Lord of the Rings Online (2007, PC)
It was only a matter of time really, wasn’t it? Expansive lands, memorable locations, and an array of different species–sounds like a recipe for a successful MMO if ever I heard one. An accurate portrayal of Middle Earth, both literally and stylistically is, in itself, impressive. To build an engrossing, cinematic and addictive game in that world is downright astounding. And to keep successfully adding to it with new features, locations and quests is–well, I’ve ran out of hyperbole. Let’s just say it’s ruddy good.
If you’re invested in the idea of a Lord of the Rings MMORPG, then you’ll find a lot to love here. And even those who aren’t so sure might just find themselves converted to the idea after a few hours.
The Lord of the Rings: War in the North (2011, PC)
After the stories explored in the LOTR books had been retold by both films and video games alike, it was time to see things from a different angle. War in the North follows three characters as they aim to help turn the tide on Sauron in ways that books don’t document. That’s a kind way of saying this is a bit ‘extended universe’.
The main draw is this game’s 18+ rating, which basically comes down to being able to chop orcs up more gruesomely than ever before. Although the Jackson trilogy took the bloodless approach, this more than makes up for it, with bucket-loads of the stuff spewing from every enemy you encounter. Lovely.
LEGO The Lord of The Rings (PC, PS3, Xbox 360, Wii, Vita, 3DS, DS)
From guts and gore, to bricks galore, Lego LOTR is a fine, fine game. You can free-roam all Middle Earth, and there are cute details everywhere you turn. Sure, it’s a little less slapstick than its predecessors, but it’s still funny. If you don’t crack a smile at the sight of soldiers of Rohan barricading Helm’s Deep with a live pig while Théoden monologues, then you need to have your humour glands examined.
For anyone who’s ever played a LEGO game, there’s not many surprises here, but it’s daft fun nonetheless, and with the audio taken straight from the movies, it surprisingly feels more authentic than many of the other games in this list.
Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor (2014, PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One)
Now, it might be a little bold to put a game that’s yet to be released on a ‘best of’ list, but Shadow of Mordor looks so mind-bogglingly cool, that I had to include it. Set between the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and featuring an undead ranger who can use his ghostly powers to bend orcs to his will, it’s one of the more exciting sounding Tolkien titles for years.
The thing that’s got me most excited though, is being able to mind-control an orc to do your bidding, and then help them rise through the ranks of Sauron’s army. Watching over your chosen orc, keeping them safe and helping them earn respect is like owning some kind of twisted, violent Tamagotchi. Sold.
Bonus: Third Age: Total War (2010, PC)
Strictly speaking, this isn’t a Tolkien game, or at least not an official one. What it is, however, is a nifty mod for Medieval 2: Total War, which plonks you in Middle Earth. You can even choose your faction from a selection of LOTR kingdoms, including Rohan, Gondor and even Mordor.
This is pretty cool, not just because, uh, it’s pretty cool, but also because it shows how dedicated and passionate Tolkien fans and gamers can be. I don’t have the patience and/or talent to even draw a half-decent map of Middle Earth, so recreating it in video game form is super impressive to me. Hats off.
A Gamer’s Tale: There and Back Again
Well, there you have it, the very best gaming delights Middle Earth has to offer. As Gandalf famously says “all you have to do is decide what to do with the time that is given to you.” It seems a pretty easy decision, if you ask me: play some Ring-related video games.
Written by Alex Jones on September 4, 2014 for gamesradar.com