We're all familiar with The Lord of the Rings, whether it be in a book or film form. J.R.R Tolkien was the man who started it all, writing the original books in the fifties, and before there was even a whiff of a live-action film in the works, folks had already tried to make a buck by turning his series into a game. Many have tried in the subsequent years, some have succeeded.
And then there came Peter Jackson. His vision for a trilogy for The Lord of the Rings was loved worldwide, and the Return of the King even went on to win a jaw-dropping eleven Oscars at the 2004 Academy Awards - including Best Picture. If making Lord of the Rings games was popular before, things went into overdrive afterward.
As with most video games series or franchises, there are winners and losers - some great titles, and some that you ought to avoid at all costs (or risk your own sanity). I'm here to help you break them down — so you never make the wrong choice again. So let's don our Gondorian goose-fletched arrow quiver and our Lothlorien cloak of semi-invisibility and get into it - here are the 8 Best and the 7 Worst The Lord of the Rings games on the market. Anduril for the West! Guthwine for the Mark!
15 Best: Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor
Monolith Studio's Lord of the Rings: Shadow of Mordor is the first on our list and arguably one of the best things to ever come from the LOTR mythos. In the game you play a Gondorian ranger named Talion in the years leading up to the War of the Ring (shorthand or the events of the books in The Lord of the Rings). As a ranger, you are assigned to the Black Gate with your family, to keep an eye on those pesky orcs in Mordor. At the beginning of the game, (spoiler alert) your entire family kicks the bucket, including you. Thanks to a vengeful wraith, you are spared from death and given a change to take revenge yourself on the Dark Lord's lieutenants - the Hammer, the Tower, and the Black Hand.
Enter the Nemesis system - developed by Monolith specifically for the game, where you go around Mordor causing havoc and creating individual stories as you encounter Orc captains - creating nemeses on the way. The gameplay is straightforward ass-kickery - kind of like if Assassin's Creed took place in Middle-Earth. You weave between packs of orcs, taking them apart with a bow, sword, and oversized knife. You can also switch between ranger and wraith form as you like. Cheque, please.
14 Worst: The Hobbit
Dear Lord, what evil stanky thing gave birth to this toothless entry into our list? The horribly misguided The Hobbit, by Inevitable Entertainment, came out before most of the other games on this list (trying to get ahead of the curve but failing miserably). I'm desperately trying to not create some horrid joke using the developer's title, but...come on, could we all not see this coming? Rushed games usually never end up as intended. It's almost like its failure was inevitable - doomed to fail you might say. There I said it, now we can move on.
This cartoonish adaptation of the adventures to the LOTR's prequel, The Hobbit, plays like a game designed for three-year-olds and feels like it's written by a drunken gaffer with sweaty hobbit-feet. It's far too easy, and far too basic. Yes, it's tirelessly faithful to its namesake, but if you just wanted to recreate the story exactly as written..why not just read it?
13 Best: Lord Of The Rings: The Third Age
And now we come to one of the most original titles in the list: the much loved Lord of the Rings: The Third Age. This particular entry is noted for being one of the few LoTR games to be a turn-based RPG - think Final Fantasy meets LOTR. And it works surprisingly well. While it opens up the story and the mythos behind Middle-Earth, the gameplay is fun and compelling, delivering an overall enjoyable experience. Is it the best LoTR game out there? Certainly not. But is it up there? You bet your case of Sylvan wine it is.
The game allows you to build a team made of different races and take them to battle - there is an Elf, Dwarf, Man, and of course, Wizard. Is the gameplay derivative and reminiscent of Final Fantasy X - okay, sure? But the graphics and story are both quite good, and as backstory to the One Ring, it's captivating.
12 Worst: Lord Of The Rings: Conquest
Where did this game go wrong? At first glance, it's all over the place. One of the later adaptations in the spectrum of LOTR video games, it follows much the same formula as Star Wars: Battlefront, and for good reason - it's made by the same people. You can play as Good or Evil —beginning as a grunt at both ends— hacking and slashing your way across Peter Jackson's interpretation of Middle-Earth during the War of the Ring. The game play is formulaic and boring, forcing you to use the same combos again and again until you can't decipher friend from foe. Sure, you can ride mounts, and occasionally you get to play as a hero - like Gandalf the White, but those are few and far between.
The graphics are nothing to shout about either -they look tired and texture-less- especially the heroes. Better steer clear of this one, folks.
11 Best: Lego: The Lord Of The Rings
Ah, Lego adaptations - where would we be without you? The Lego: Lord of the Rings games are nothing short of whimsical enjoyment. Taking you through Pete Jackson's vision from The Fellowship right through to the end. Like many of the other Lego games of similar franchises, you get the quirky cutscenes, the lego piece collecting, and the general silliness that we know and love.
It's run of the mill in that sense, but delivers on all the beats of the films - keeping the gameplay fun and fresh. You know where you're going, and you know where you've been, but it's never boring. Spinning the dark world of LOTR into a Lego funhouse is surprisingly great.
10 Worst: JRR Tolkiens The Lord Of The Rings Vol. 1 (SNES)
Okay, so this one isn't exactly the worst game ever, but it sure as heck isn't great. It was reviewed when it came out in 1994 and given a somewhat disrespectful 6.6 out of 10. Critics called it a series of "long, indistinguishable romps" with poor character support AI and, as is becoming a trend with our "worst" games, a low difficulty. The graphics, given 1994 aren't anything to shout about either, the characters being too small to distinguish. It's a slow paced RPG with very deliberate and plodding playstyle. Just plain dull, really.
And then there's the problem of fetch quests, where you just need to go out of your way to gather some special item - if the rest of the game is dull, then these side quests are a "beat your head into a wall repeatedly" kind of dull.
9 Best: The Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers
Ah, we all remember the good old days of PS2/Xbox/GameCube. Hurling endless ranged weapons as either Gimli, Legolas, or Aragorn at our poorly rendered opponents was a delight. This game delivers exactly what all the excited little boys and girls who had seen the movies were looking for - a hack and slash romp, focusing on combos, ability trees, and kicking the stuffing out of mindless orcs. This is, really, along with its sequel, ROTK, the quintessential games in the entire series. They sold very well in the day, and for good reason - they allowed you to traverse Jackson's constructed world. Where Conquest failed, The Two Towers got it right - you play as heroes rather than grunts, and when you cut swathes through the enemy, it feels just so good. You get to live out your fantasy on the small screen.
The graphics were fine, the story was virtually non-existent, the gameplay was fun and fierce - exactly what a Lord of the Rings game should aspire too.
8 Worst: Lord Of The Rings: War In The North
Once again, this game was divisive. There are people out there that will defend it to the death - whether it is the expansive world, the tone, or the fact that it has an intriguing backstory. Still, the fact remains: this game is NOT good.
First off, there's the mindless gameplay - everything that was fun about the previous entry is taken away from this title. Made by Snowblind Studios, it was released between Dark Souls, Skyrim, and Uncharted 3, which might excuse its poor sales, but definitely not the game itself. The fighting is repetitive, and takes few risks, forcing you into a third-person box, of light or heavy attack, ducking, rolling and more. The usual suspects.
Beyond that, there are a number of game-destroying bugs found throughout, and that is just unacceptable, people.
7 Best: The Lord Of The Rings: The Return of the King
And now we're back to the greatest hits. ROTK is an excellent continuation of the success of The Two Towers hack and slasher, expanding on what made the first game a success. Namely, beating up the bad guys in interesting ways, sticking pretty heavily to Peter Jackson's LOTR films, and allowing you to pilot some of the most loved heroes in all of the Fantasy genre. The game has multiple storylines, following most of the cast of characters; players follow three main story threads through the highs and lows of the War of the Ring.
What's wrong with the game? Well, it's a little short, despite the increased story and environment interactivity. The graphics, gameplay, cutscenes, and audio were all critically lauded, which is great, but nothing can truly be perfect. Still, this goes down as one of the all-time best installments in the franchise.
6 Worst: The Lord Of The Rings: Aragorn's Quest
Yeesh. When some games aim high, others go low - often to disastrous effect. Lord of the Rings: Aragorn's Quest was aimed at smaller children, and took away the teeth that had lent itself so well to other titles. The story is a simplified version of the original trilogy, and is bloodless, and far too straightforward and simple.
The game is too easy, people. How many times do I have to say it? Challenge is part of the fun of video games -don't spoon feed success to people, especially younger gamers- you know what happens when you do that? You get millennials. You're welcome.
The game, as it unfolds, is nonsense to those unaware of the complexities of the either the films or the books that the story is predicated upon. While not absolutely horrible, it does no favours to the intricate plot of the series. The fighting is straightforward, the story is truncated and plodding at the same time, giving it a 'cliff notes-y' yet tedious feel, and it doesn't do anything unique with itself. It's simply a less interesting version of other games that already exist.
5 Best: The Lord Of The Rings: Battle For Middle-Earth II
Ah, whoever's idea it was to turn LOTR into an RTS deserves a bloody award. I remember waiting for the game to come out in the early days of high school - and how awesome it felt to be commanding entire armies like those I had seen in the movies. As far as RTS go, Battle for Middle-Earth II is great. Most of the criticism the game received had to do with multiplayer - it was unbalanced as all sin, but that can be forgiven because its campaign mode saves the day. Taking the story into your own hands, changing history - playing as Good or Evil, as Elves, Orcs, Dwarves, Gondorians, Rohan, was endlessly fun. The mechanics were good and responsive - a must for any RTS worth its salt. Even the graphics were polished to the point of perfection. It went on to win a slew of awards the year it came out, and was one of the top-selling PC games in 2006.
4 Worst: The Lord Of The Rings: War Of The Ring
It is fitting to put the two best LOTR RTS games as bookends onto this, the worst. This game was unaffiliated with the Peter Jackson films - which in 2003, when The Two Towers and other affiliated EA games were out, was a huge mar on its reputation and design. It is essentially, a Middle-Earth rendition of Warcraft III, which —while Blizzard's title was an excellent game— could not save this title from being derivative and odd. The design and look of the units and the world makes one think the game is more of a Mod of Warcraft III rather than its own game. Sure, it was 2003, but that's no real excuse.
The title seems opportunistic at best, and at worst, entirely dependent upon the success of Warcraft as a model game. Simply put, elves, dwarves, and men don't mine for ore in the world of LOTR, and seeing it happen is slightly jarring. This game is the deformed alien hybrid of two great franchises - but much like in ancient Sparta, such an abomination should likely have been thrown off a cliff after birth.
3 Best: The Lord Of The Rings: Battle For Middle-Earth
The original Battle for Middle-Earth is nothing if not a textbook film franchise RTS. Being the first installment in the BFME series, this game set a precedent for a sequel, which merely copied everything the first did right - which was a lot. Although it was only a few years after Warcraft, and only one after War for the Ring, it seemed worlds apart - thanks to its SAGE engine, which was developed by Hybrid Graphics Ltd. It allowed for better textures, and more adaptive shadows, which gave the graphics a sense of reality that other games of the same generation could not achieve. Compared to Battle for Middle-Earth, War for the Ring looks a decade older.
It was fairly standard fare for an RTS of its era, however, and didn't get too experimental. EA LA wanted to deliver on tried and tested concepts for a good player experience within Pete Jackson's world. Using the character and art design from the films, BFME delivered in spades.
2 Worst: The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring
Developed by WXP Games for the Xbox, PS2, GBA, and Windows, TFOTR game was the first in a long line of games hurried to production, and it was by far the worst. Featuring deadening graphics, a lackluster and rudimentary combat system, and a slavish interpretation of the story, this game just plain sucks. Two sequels were planned, but because of the horrid reception the game received, those ideas were hastily shelved. Although a financial success, selling 1,000,000 units, it was outsold in the following years four times over. Much of its meager success had to do with it being the only game about LOTR on the market at the time. One imagines it would have done much worse pitted against a competent title from the franchise.
The most generic of all the worst games in the franchise, TFOTR bit the dust hard, and taught future developers an important lesson - gameplay cannot be an afterthought, even when dealing with a popular franchise such as Lord of the Rings.
1 Best: The Lord Of The Rings Online
At last, we come to it, la piece de resistance, the best title in The Lord of the Ring's long history of video games: The Lord of the Rings Online. What makes it so excellent? Well, for starters, it's an MMO, which during its inception, was a world ruled by World of Warcraft and Guild Wars. When LOTRO came on the scene, it delivered what long-time franchise fans had always wanted - to create their own story within the world of Middle-Earth. No other game, despite many attempts, even came close to that. Being able to pick between halfling, man, dwarf, and elf, and then go on into the wide world of LOTR was no gimmick - it was fundamental to the experience most players were seeking.
So what did it get right - gameplay and design wise? Well, the MMO-style of play is very popular, both PVP and PVE, and the game made several inroads in regards to this. The most well known are the captivating Monster Play, where players travel to a PVP zone where one can choose to take part in an unending combat between Good vs. Evil as either side - an enemy or your own character, whose level is immediately set to level 20.
Though it came out in 2007, you can still download it and play it today - that alone is some kind of testament to its value. In fact, it is the third most played MMO in the world.