The Two Towers: Bored of the Rings

From The CRPG Addict

The Ringbearer hasn’t left the same perilous countryside since the game began.
Lord of the Rings, Vol. II simply doesn’t work. I’m sorry to have reached that conclusion. I had enjoyed the first game well enough and had been looking forward to the sequel, even though I knew there would be no Vol. III. Now I feel that if Interplay was going to leave fans hanging, they should have left them hanging after Vol. I instead of proceeding with this lackluster title.
The yanking around from party to party got worse–laughably worse–after the last session. I began this session with Frodo and Sam, and I’d barely done more than wander through the marsh for five minutes and fight one battle with some orcs, when the game decided it was time to switch the action to Edoras. There, Aragorn et. al. did nothing more than approach the gates of the city before we were off to check in on Merry and Pippin. Then, for some reason, those two had an absurdly long session, ignoring several obvious transition points, culminating in the destruction of Isengard by the Ents. It feels like their story is over before Frodo even got near the Black Gate.
One of my three parties now has nothing to do but wait.
But the problems with Vol. II run much deeper than that. It’s core problem is that it is satisfying neither as a Lord of the Rings game nor a standard RPG. If you were a fan of the original books, I can’t imagine that you’d find this game a good representation. The characters are mute and bereft of any personality. Epic moments are rendered in banal, bloodless manual text or on-screen exposition. The little side quests that the developers threw in to lengthen the plot and make it more like a standard RPG simply slow down and confuse the main story.
Even worse–and I don’t often criticize games on these grounds–the graphics fail to evoke any sense of the kind of awe and wonder you should feel when exploring Middle Earth, running up against its most famous landmarks, and meeting its most famous denizens. I wasn’t one of them, but I can imagine a Lord of the Rings fan, having read the book umpteen times, conceiving in his imagination “the green shoulders of the hills” and the “wide wind-swept walls and the gates of Edoras.” Let’s recall how Tolkien describes the Black Gate:
This was Cirith Gorgor, the Haunted Pass, the entrance to the land of the Enemy. High cliffs lowered upon either side, and thrust forward from its mouth were two sheer hills, black-boned and bare. Upon them stood the Teeth of Mordor, two towers strong and tall. In days long past they were built by the Men of Gondor in their pride and power, after the overthrow of Sauron and his flight, lest he should seek to return to his old realm. But the strength of Gondor failed, and men slept, and for long years the towers stood empty. Then Sauron returned. Now the watch-towers, which had fallen into decay, were repaired, and filled with arms, and garrisoned with ceaseless vigilance. Stony-faced they were, with dark window-holes staring north and east and west, and each window was full of sleepless eyes.

Across the mouth of the pass, from cliff to cliff, the Dark Lord had built a rampart of stone. In it there was a single gate of iron, and upon its battlement sentinels paced unceasingly. Beneath the hills on either side the rock was bored into a hundred caves and maggot-holes: there a host of orcs lurked, ready at a signal to issue forth like black ants going to war. None could pass the Teeth of Mordor and not feel their bite, unless they were summoned by Sauron, or knew the secret passwords that would open the Morannon, the black gate of his land.

Even I, as a non-fan, have to admit that this is pretty powerful stuff. And here is the Black Gate in-game:
One of the two Teeth. There’s a mirror about one screen to the east.
Say what you want about the recent Shadow of Mordor/Shadow of War series, but at least they did (in my opinion) graphical justice to the setting. Here, no matter what Tolkien intended, the architectural style favored by the game for just about every building is “aluminum airplane hangar.” The setting’s most fearsome foes and most majestic allies are impressive in neither icon nor portrait. 
Every building looks like the same temporary shelter with no door.
As an RPG, meanwhile, the game fails in almost every category. Character development occurs solely at plot intervals and is remarkably impalpable. The skills system, by which characters can actively use certain skills and attributes, goes back to Wasteland but is ill-used here. Among the individuals in each party, you never lack the necessary skill, and it’s always perfectly obvious where to use it. It might as well have happened automatically. The basic equipment list is unexciting, and the combat system–by which you select “attack” and choose from a list of indistinguishable foes–is even less so.
The game’s relatively boring inventory system.
Many of these problems were present in Vol. I, too, so you will naturally wonder how I can justify giving that game a relatively high score and a positive review. To be fair, I did levy some of the same criticisms about how the game fared as an RPG, but beyond that . . . I don’t know . . . the game just somehow felt fresher. I recognized that it wasn’t perfect, but it was doing something new and original and I was more willing to give it a chance. I expected the developers to have learned some lessons between Vol. I and Vol. II and thus have corrected some of the engine’s weaknesses. If anything, they went backwards.
The lack of cut scenes is a particular blow. The first game had some original artwork at set intervals that served to keep the characters’ personalities embedded in your mind, and that kept you on track with the source material. (The remake replaced this artwork with scenes from the Ralph Bakshi film, which I liked less, but was still better than nothing.) The fall of Isengard ought to command more than a single paragraph of exposition next to a couple of goofy little icons that are supposed to be Ents.
Feeling as I do, I was going to try to push through to the end of the game for this entry, but I didn’t quite make it. Perhaps I didn’t even come close–I have no idea how this game is going to stretch and warp the book’s events. I’ll recap the progress of the characters, but to avoid exposing you to the same constantly-jarring changes in perspective that I experienced, I’ll just relate each group in turn.
Frodo, Sam, Gollum, and Gilglin started at the edge of the Dead Marshes, essentially where they’d started the game 7 hours prior. They’d had the vampire interlude and were looking for something called the “star ruby” before making their way to (or past) the Black Gate. Gollum warned us not to follow the lights in the marsh (I wonder what would have happened if we’d never enlisted him).
“Do not follow the lights. They lead to . . . [hiss] . . . Cleveland.”
Systematically exploring the marshes, we soon fell into a barrow in the ground and met an elf named Nendol. He had sworn to never leave the side of a Numenorean named Vorondur who had saved him in combat–a vow that he soon regretted when Vorondur was cursed by undeath and sentenced to wander the marshes as a shade. Nendol asked if I might be able to release him.
We climbed out of the barrow but soon fell into another one where a ghost, in exchange for some rations (which he mimed eating), allowed us to take the Star Ruby. Back at the vampire’s tower, the Star Ruby banished the undead who wanted it. I think it probably would have helped me against the vampire, but who explores the map in such an erratic fashion that they’d find the ruby first? 
A magic ruby for some Lembas bread that you can’t even eat. Seems fair.
We found a group of ghosts hanging out in the marshes, and one of them was Vorondur. Since we had already killed the vampire and received the “spirit key,” all we had to do was give it to Vorondur, and he and the other ghosts were able to pass on. Nendol rewarded us with a dagger, some food, a prybar, a shovel, and leather armor. This was good since Gilglin had joined us with no equipment and had had been beating orcs with his fists.
This was a fun encounter, but some bug put the text all over the place.
We finally made our way through the marshes and south to the Black Gate. There was one encounter where we had to hide from some passing orcs using the “Sneak” skill. As we approached the gate itself, Gollum gave his canonical speech about we’ll all die that way and he can show us a secret path instead. Just for fun, I pressed forward and got a scripted ending. Reloading, I followed Gollum’s directions, and Frodo’s part of the adventure ended as he crossed the border into Ithilien.
West of the sea, everything’s cool.
Merry, Pippin, and their two Ent friends resumed their adventures in Fangorn Forest. They had been tasked with finding two Ents–Leaflock and Skinbark–and watering them so they could rouse themselves and get to the Entmoot. I already knew their locations, and my travel was facilitated by the wandering Ent named Longroot, who will carry the party from place to place if they’re lucky enough to encounter him. Leaflock and Skinbark both responded to Entwater, and both gave the party some kind of password to use, although there was never a place that I used them. I also don’t think I fully explored the ruins or solved the quest involving the seed and the Entwash source. Oh, well.
Back at the Entmoot, the Ents agreed to march on Isengard, and action transitioned to the next map, with Treebeard joining the party (now composed of more Ents than hobbits). Rather than head directly for the fortress, I steered them around the edges and through a mountain pass that led to a village of Dunlendings. They demanded that we leave the village, and when we refused, they attacked us in force and slaughtered us.
To be fair, they are marching to Isengard, not Dunland.
On a reload, I went directly to Isengard. As we approached the gates, we got a textual notice that orcs and men were emptying the fortress, marching off to war somewhere, leaving a skeleton force behind.
Since the party had prematurely cleared out a couple of battles in the previous session, we had an easy time on this visit. After a single battle against a few orcs, the game informed me that the Ents were destroying the fortress, Saruman was in hiding, and there wasn’t anything left for Merry and Pippin to do but go wait by the gatehouse for the rest of the Fellowship to show up. I don’t know how the book is paced, but this seemed an awfully early ending to this thread.
The film version was slightly more epic.
Aragorn, Gimli, Legolas, and Gandalf had barely set foot into Rohan before they were set upon by a band of Rohirrim and escorted to Edoras. Most of the buildings were empty, the occupants fled, so the party made its way to the Golden Hall. There, as in the book, Hama insisted that we divest our weapons, but he grudgingly allowed Gandalf to keep his staff. I had to play this encounter twice because the first time, I didn’t realize that Gandalf’s “Glamdring” was a sword, not a ring, and I didn’t drop it before entering the hall.
This felt wrong, and it turned out it was wrong.
Inside the hall, the dialogue between Gandalf, Grima Wormtongue, and the possessed Theoden played out as in the book. When it was over, I used Gandalf’s staff, Theoden returned to his senses, and Grima fled the hall.
Paraphrased dialogue from the book.
In a divergence from the book, it now transpired that Grima and his allies had set traps all around the multi-leveled Golden Hall, and somewhere had secreted three ancient artifacts: Helm’s Horn, the Cup of Rohan, a bridle, and a scepter. Some prophecy said that Rohan’s armies would never be successful lacking these items, so we had to find them before anyone would ride to war. The party had to wander the rooms and corners of the four levels, using “Perception” and “Disarm Trap” frequently, until we recovered all items. (Some notes in a box that Grima left behind gave us clues as to where to find the items.) There was one battle with a spider in the basement. 
Finding the bridle.
When we found the scepter in the attic, Saruman oddly appeared and attacked us. We exchanged a few blows and then he disappeared. I don’t know what that was about.
That was briefly satisfying.
We briefly met Eowyn in one of the bedrooms and recovered Theoden’s sword, Herugrim, in another, although oddly the game wouldn’t let us give it to him. A found note gave a clue as to a side-quest: Saruman had tasked Grima with finding some magical gauntlets near Helm’s Deep. We looted some magic armor and a magic sword from the armory, which turned out to be fortunate because when we left the Golden Hall, the game said that Grima had stolen Anduril in his flight.
I’m surprised that Eowyn won’t join the party. Shoot–maybe I didn’t try.
When the party left the hall, the Rohirrim were yelling things like “For the Mark!” and “Forth Eorlingas!,” so I assume they’re on the move. I end this session with Aragorn and company exploring the area surrounding Edoras to see if they can recover Anduril and/or meet up with the hobbits at Isengard.
Is Anduril even supposed to be reforged yet?
Having not made it past the first 40% of Lord of the Rings, I’m extremely fuzzy on where this installment is likely to end. (Fuzzy and slightly curious; in fact, vague curiosity about how this game ends is really all I have left to look forward to.) I think I remember someone telling me that the film of The Two Towers ends well before its point in the book, but I could be wrong. As far as I know, Merry and Pippin have nothing left to do. Aragorn and his party still have to go to Helm’s Deep, which I assume will be the climax of the game.” As for Frodo and Sam, I suspect they need to meet Faramir (though I understand events play out very different in the book than in the films) and then find the secret tunnel. Will they run into Shelob? I guess we’ll soon see. One more entry should do it.
Time so far: 12 hours

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