Review: The Two Towers
(Dec. 13, 2002)

To begin with … this ain’t a movie review. I haven’t seen Two Towers yet, so don’t get all excited. This is a review of the video game, which came out some time ago.

I was looking forward to this game. Friends who’d seen it spoke glowingly of it, advance screenshots were beautiful, I like Lord of the Rings, and I like tactical fighting games. I was looking forward to it a lot.

Sadly, I am disappointed.  EA did a lot of things right, but they got a few things wrong – woefully wrong – and those things cast a shadow over the rest of the game. There is probably an audience for this game, but it isn’t me. Let me explain why.

Every level of The Two Towers follows the same basic theme: after selecting a character (you can play Aragorn, Legolas, or Gimli), you move through a linear level wherein you hit things and kill them, followed by a boss fight which has some secret which you must figure out in order to win. There are slight variations: some levels give you an ally to fight beside, and others give you a time limit, but these changes rarely make a difference to gameplay.

This scheme is a classic model for a side-scrolling fighting game (which The Two Towers essentially is, despite its 3D environment), but frankly, it bugs the bejesus out of me. The linear mook-thrashing is unimaginative but harmless enough; boss fights with secrets, however, always seem to me like a ploy to keep the strategy guide publishers afloat. Boss fights with slightly unorthodox challenges are one thing, but they should never make your normal moves and tactics useless. The best boss fights combine your normal tactics in new and unusual ways, requiring you to think a bit without completely changing the skill set that the game requires.

These boss fights are particularly aggravating in The Two Towers because its boss fights often have multiple stages – one which is relatively straightforward, followed by a stage which is unbeatable until you figure out the secret. If you die, you must repeat both stages; one level even forces you to repeat the entire level!

The higher-level design is also uninspired. The game is essentially linear. You can play any of the three characters (indeed, I think you’re meant to play each of them through each level), but every character gets the same series of levels. There are a handful of unlockable levels and special features that depend on getting your characters to certain levels, but it’s pretty much a straight shot from beginning to end.

Aside from the level design, the game has uselessly deep tactical gameplay. It has a wide variety of moves and combos, but they don’t readily come into play. New moves are introduced very poorly. After a brief tutorial level which explores the basic three moves – fast attack, strong attack, and parry – you’re on your own. Every button press initiates a fairly long animation, so it’s difficult to tell exactly what combos are doing. Gameplay is sufficiently fast and furious that there’s never really a good time to experiment and figure out how to make best use of your combos. It’s possible that long practice would allow the full range of attacks to come out, but the learning curve is steep — too steep, for my taste. I found myself mostly just button-mashing, as did everyone else I know who tried to play.

Ranged weapons, too, are frustrating. There’s no first-person view mode, and aiming is unintuitive. Sometimes your bow or axe locks on readily, while other times enemies seem to be out of your field of fire entirely.  It’s particularly annoying when you consider than the game has no jump ability: an orc archer can be standing on a short stump, shooting you repeatedly, and yet for some reason you just can’t hit him.

At this point, the game’s problems start to have second-stage effects. The issues with combos make the advancement system, otherwise clever and well designed, essentially useless. After every level, you earn experience points. These points seem to be based on how many kills you get, and how clean the kills were. When you kill an enemy, a word appears on screen – either “fair”, “good”, “excellent”, or “perfect”. The end screen for each level counts how many of each type you got, and awards points accordingly. Unfortunately, it doesn’t explain how it rates your kills, but it seems to be related to how many hits it
took to kill the enemy, and possibly whether you were injured in the process. Experience points enable your character to gain levels and become more powerful; in the process, you get to spend points on buying new combos. But because the combos aren’t really useful,
spending those points is pointless.

On the up side, the game is beautiful. And I mean stunning. They’ve done a really good job with the graphics – from the behind-the-scenes movie, it seems that they used set designs from the actual movies, and they apparently were able to get the original actors to do the voice work for the game. There are a few decisions that initially seem odd, but on reflection are very clever. For example, the game frequently goes from a scene from the movie to an animated cut-scene of the quality you’d expect from a good video game, and from there into actual gameplay. Sometimes, the EA cut scene recapitulates things that happen in the movie. It seems perplexing, but it makes the transition between game and movie much less jarring. The EA animation is sufficiently good that, while it doesn’t compare to the actual movie, it doesn’t give you the sense of having changed mediums. Similarly, the transition from game animation to game is smooth enough that it isn’t jarring either. Indeed, the game sometimes takes you by surprise.

The graphical implementation isn’t without its flaws. The game is really dark – physically dark. I had to turn up the contrast and white level on my TV in order to play it comfortably. The game also runs afoul of one of the demons of modern 3D games – collision.

The Two Towers, like most contemporary games, is lovingly detailed, with rubble and gnarled trees and rough terrain everywhere. However, it would take too much computing power to deal with characters and objects interacting on the same level of detail. Hence, while a tree looks like a spindly and warped sapling, the game engine treats it like a simple cylinder. This discontinuity between the visible shape of objects and their “real” shape leaves you in a bind. If the collision object is too small, characters pass through objects. If it’s too large, characters run up against invisible walls. If it’s too angled, characters get stuck on things for no apparent reason. The Two Towers has the latter two problems. There are several levels in which your character moves along a path with seemingly arbitrary boundaries; sometimes, there isn’t even a change of incline to mark the boundary of where you can go. In other levels, it’s possible to get stuck for a few seconds on an invisible outcropping. This can be crucial when fleeing bosses with powerful attacks.

One last quibble: graphically rich games are usually the best single-player games to play with spectators. The backgrounds, which the player can’t pay attention to, are worth the price of admission for the spectators, plus they get to kibitz and give the player advice. The Two Towers is impossible to do this with. When you’re watching someone play, it looks like there’s a completely obvious thing to do that the stupid player just won’t do. Then you pick up the controller, and you learn that you just can’t do it, and your aggravating friends are backseat playing until you want to throw the controller at them. It’s frustrating on both sides.

The Two Towers has things to recommend it. It’s very pretty; the unfolding plot is satisfying; the advancement system feels right; there are some fun interviews with the movie cast to watch. I wanted to have fun playing it. But I just couldn’t get past the random chaos of the
fighting, and the maddening boss fights. The tactical gameplay is too clumsy to be anything but a button-mashing game, and the difficulty is set too hard for a button-mashing game.

The last time I read The Two Towers, I thought to myself “You know, a tactical fighter set at Helm’s Deep would be really, really cool. Like Dynasty Warriors set in Tolkien.” EA almost made that game.

But not quite.