It may have been an unlikely event, but after numerous games, tie-in novels, and even feature films, it seems that J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" epic - and Middle-earth in general - is finally undergoing a resurgence in gaming, thanks largely to Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor.
And with the early reviews for the game exceeding even fantasy fans' highest expectations, there's a chance that players could end up looking for even more opportunities to experience their very own Middle-earth adventure. With that in mind, and in an effort to remind gamers that Monolith's open world action game isn't the only time that Tolkien's world of Orcs and Men has been adapted to games with success, we've taken the time to point out a few more winning titles.
Whether older players will use this list as a walk down memory lane, or younger players may realize that Shadow of Mordor is the latest in a line of games proudly bearing the title of The Lord of the Rings, we hope you'll agree that few others deserve more praise.
Here is our list of the Top 5 Lord of the Rings Video Games.
The Two Towers
Developer: Stormfront Studios
Platforms: GameCube, PS2, Xbox
Generally speaking, tie-in video games that seek to recreate the action and sequences from their respective film are less than exhilarating. But in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, the developers managed to escape common problems by keeping the experience up to expectations. Rather than simply herding players through Helm's Deep, Weathertop or the Siege of Barad-dur set to the beat of cut-scenes, players were allowed to fight (alongside their friends), slicing down hordes of Orcs like so much wheat.
The fact that game could draw on the best moments from both The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers tipped the scales in their favor, but whatever the reason, fans spent far, far too many hours dulling their blades on Uruk armor before graphics even tried to match those of big screen blockbusters.
The Third Age
Developer: EA Redwood Shores (Visceral Games)
Platforms: GameCube, PS2, Xbox
For many fans, the chance to play an RPG set alongside the Fellowship, but in the role of a brand new character was enough reason to try out The Lord of the Rings: The Third Age. Even now, the story pitch is an attention-grabber: play as Berethor, a Gondorian Captain sent to find and retrieve Boromir, only to find him aiding the Fellowship on their mission to destroy the One Ring. Once Boromir falls (spoiler), Berethor and his party must follow the Fellowship and help them succeed.
That means doing battle in locations both before and after Frodo and Gandalf have traversed them, mustering forces to aid them in later iconic battles, and finally, slaughtering the Ringwraiths and the Eye of Sauron itself. Not too shabby, for a Gondorian Captain whom literary fans have never even heard of.
Lord of the Rings Online
Developer: Turbine, Inc.
Platforms: Mac, PC
Aside from possessing an acronym that Tolkien himself would approve of, The Lord of the Rings Online (LotRO) is a fairly standard example of MMORPG design. On the surface, it strays as little from the accepted formula as World of Warcraft; a game taking much influence from Tolkien's writings itself. So the mere opportunity to see a similar treatment, but adapting Tolkien's world literally was a no-brainer.
The game's success hasn't always been constant, and has risen in relevance and profitability since going from a subscription-based model to free-to-play. But the connections to The Lord of the Rings is felt throughout, including the lack of traditional Hit Points, instead attributing a player's strength to their morale, or spirit. And a game that has a hero fight stronger and faster on a full stomach is one truly deserving of the Lord of the Rings banner.
War in the North
Developer: Snowblind Studios
Platforms: PC, PS3, Mac, Xbox 360
While the story of The Third Age is meant to take place in complement to the core trilogy, The Lord of the Rings: War in the North acts as more of a mirror; while the Fellowship is on their mission in the South, the player takes their own mission in the eponymous 'war in the North.' With a core party mirroring that of LotR, and a story featuring many of the same supporting characters, players step into the role of truly unsung heroes, and the story behind Tolkien's Fellowship is expanded miles and miles to the North.
But the key selling feature of War in the North was the opportunity to play cooperatively with two other friends. That feature has become rarer and rarer in the days since the game was released, but even then, the balance and fluidity of third-person combat made it one of the more satisfying co-op fantasy titles around.
The Battle For Middle-earth II
Developer: EA Los Angeles (Danger Close Games)
Platforms: PC, Xbox 360
As satisfying and story-driven as the other bright spots in our list may be, one can't read through Tolkien's epic without feeling that the grand and momentous battles - often involving tens of thousands of soldiers - can't really be done justice outside of film. While real-time strategy games aren't often seen as the most 'cinematic' gaming experiences, The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-earth II managed to portray the story with a scale and polish all its own.
Players had a choice of helping the Elf Glorfindel assemble forces in the North, and resist Sauron's army, or instead help the Mouth of Sauron and the Nazgul rewrite the story itself, stomping out the forces of Good altogether and claiming the Ring of Power from Frodo's lifeless body. No judgements are made about which path players chose, because in the end, no game captured the disembodied, yet ever-present and all-powerful forces that governed Tolkien's epic struggle from just outside of the pages.
Time will tell just how securely Shadow of Mordor makes its mark among the very best games to adapt The Lord of the Rings, but the early signs suggest it will succeed with flying colors. Besides offering yet another dark and mature story in a world often seen as high fantasy, the game is also looking to offer a few twists on the assumed sequence of events as well.
Who knows what famous faces Talion could encounter on his trek through Mordor? Regardless of how much influence the game takes from the successes that precede it, its strengths show that while Middle-earth may not be a new invention, clever game designers and writers are still managing to chart a new course through its many factions and locales.
Middle-earth: Shadow of Morder is available now for PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, and Xbox One.
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