The Lord Of The Rings trilogy, like most literary works later adapted to film and games, has a rocky history on game consoles and the PC. The first game adaptation of Middle Earth arrived all the way back in 1982 with The Hobbit from Beam Software. Though successful, the game’s successors failed to live up to the first title’s gameplay, leading developers to abandon the world of Middle Earth in the 1990s.
The trilogy’s film release gave it a second chance with gamers, and all of the great Lord Of The Rings games have been released after 2002. That’s not to say there haven’t been bad games, as well – there most certainly has. But there have also been excellent games that do justice to Middle Earth’s deep lore.
Let’s start with the most obvious pick; the Lord Of The Rings Online. This massively multiplayer PC game was released in 2006 and re-released as a free-to-play title on September 10th, 2010. Numerous expansions have been added over the game’s life, each inching the world closer to Mordor. The last focused on Rohan, and the next will focus on The Battle Of Helm’s Deep.
What makes LOTRO special is its incredible breadth of content. This is a game that focuses on the journey instead of rushing players to the end-game, and there’s a huge variety of locations to visit, including many that are only hinted at in the books. The game’s main quest follows the footsteps of the Fellowship, while side-quests fill out the lore of each region. All of the fantastic landmarks you’d expect to see, such as Bree, Weathertop and the depths of Moria, are included.
There’s no cost to play the game, but most players will need to spend money to advance past level 40 or so. I’ve penned a quick-start guide that will help you become familiar with the game and teach you how to make the most of whatever money you choose to spend on it.
War In The North is a third-person action role-playing game released for the PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 that combines the combat style of other third-person action games with a loot system similar to Diablo or Torchlight, which makes for a fun blend of fast-paced combat and slow, steady equipment progression. There are also levels, of course, and three separate classes; a warrior, a ranger and a loremaster.
While moderately entertaining as a single-player experience, poor companion AI holds the game back. It is best when its couch co-op mode is experienced on a console. Two people can play in split-screen mode, fighting back-to-back throughout the campaign, and it’s clear that most fights were designed with co-op in mind. There’s also an online co-op mode for up to three players.
While the lore in this game is not particularly deep, the story is serviceable and provides a different perspective on the trilogy’s events by focusing on an entirely different area of Middle Earth. This gives the writers some flexibility to add new villains, and you’ll even become friends with the famous Eagles, who you meet early in the campaign.
Battle For Middle Earth is unusual because, unlike most Lord Of The Rings games, it is not in the role-playing genre. This is instead a real-time strategy game designed in a style similar to Warhammer: Dawn Of War. Units are built in squads and maps have important capture points that must be held to gain resources and produce more units.
Another deviation from the norm is the game’s inclusion of campaigns for both “good” and “evil.” The good campaign focuses on what you’d expect; Gondor, Rohan, the dwarves and elves, all of whom are trying to keep the ring out of Sauron’s hands and fight back the forces of Mordor. The “evil” campaign, however, gives players a rare chance to hunt down Frodo and Sam in an attempt to return The One Ring to its rightful owner.
The original Battle For Middle Earth was well reviewed and spurred a sequel, which also received high marks. That sequel also received an expansion, titled The Rise Of The Witch King. Electronic Arts lost its license to the franchise shortly after these games were produced, however, so the games are no longer made and aren’t available online. They’ve become collector items as a result; expect to pay at least $25 for a used copy, and new copies are often over $100. All of these games are PC-only.
While the new movies eventually inspired games that do The Lord Of The Rings justice, the movie tie-ins had a bad start. The first, predictably titled The Fellowship Of The Ring, was released in 2002 to very poor reviews. The follow-up, The Two Towers, was better received, but still struggled to stand out.
It was not until The Return Of The King that the franchise finally received a game worthy of its heritage. This fixed-camera, third-person action game had excellent graphics (for the time), amazing sound, and level design on par with the best action-RPGs ever made. This was also the first console game based on the franchise to offer two-player, split-screen co-op mode.
The game was released for PlayStation 2, Xbox, GameCube, Windows and Mac, but the console versions are preferable, as they run more reliably and include co-op. This game is rather old and sold well, so it can be found used for just a few dollars.
The Lego games are arguably the only successful adventure franchise of the last decade. At least part of their success comes from their tie-ins with other popular franchises, and The Lord Of The Rings is the latest to get the treatment. Available for almost every platform except the Wii U, this game is not the most accurate recreation of Middle Earth, but it can still be a lot of fun.
What drives every Lego game is a combination of light action/puzzle gameplay with a constant nudge towards acing each of the levels. This is accomplished through the collection of Lego bricks (often given franchise-appropriate names; in this case, Mithril) which can be used to make objects and unlock additional characters. Simply beating each level is only half the game; the real goal is to unlock all the secrets. It also has a co-op mode, which enhances the fun and can make puzzles easier to solve.
While Middle Earth is somewhat family-friendly, many of the games are targeted at a mature audience. This is one of the few that players of all ages can enjoy, so it’s perfect for parents who want to enjoy it with a child. It’s also a great choice for fans of Middle Earth who want to ease in another adult with very little gaming experience.
This game is about a year old now and can be purchased either new (for around $20) or used (for around $10) from most game shops.
There are other games that deserve mention, such as 2003’s The Two Towers and 2004’s The Third Age, but the five titles listed above are undoubtedly the best of the bunch and the games any fan of Middle Earth should start with. Let us know which is your favorite in the comments.