So you have chosen…..death.

Movie-to-game translations have a reputation of… hmmm, what’s the eloquent way of putting it… sucking hard! Necessitated design shortcuts because of time restraints often leave you with a product  that at best feels rough around the edges, and at worst, incomplete. The whole idea is getting that game out in time for the movie’s release, regardless if it’s any good or not.

Studios know the license will sell itself. The obvious historical example is of course E.T. The notorious Atari 2600 cart was put together in a ridiculously rushed six weeks in order to ship for the holiday rush, and despite earning its bad rap as one of the worst video games of all time, it also happened to be one of the best-selling titles of that year. History has therefore provided a very small camp of games that play like the movie they’re inspired by, seldom achievements like the 16-bit Aladdin or Indiana Jones on the SNES.

But could EA publish a respectable 3D title to join the ranks of those 2D classics? Could developer Stormfront Studios relive the silver screen spectacle that everyone was talking about at the time? Well, they sure did. Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers was one of the first movie tie-ins to do virtually everything right, accomplishing what few of the type ever do: translate its cinematic counterpart’s source material into an incredibly visceral action game.

You Have My Sword; And You Have My Bow; And *MY* Axe

Contrary to the title, the events from The Fellowship of the Ring comprised the first half of the campaign. Given that the prior Fellowship game, a lackluster open-ended adventure, didn’t rank so well with the critics, that was probably for the best. Beginning as the infamous Isuldur, bearing the brunt of the dark lord Sauron’s orcish armies in what acted as the game’s tutorial, the story proceeded through the events of the first two chapters in J.R.R. Tolkien’s legendary saga, letting you play as one of three characters: Aragorn, Legolas, or Gimli – but come on, no one wanted to play as Gimli.

Fire! I’ll take you to burn!

There was a lot more longevity in Two Towers than its length would have you believe.

There was a lot more longevity in Two Towers than its length would have you believe. Most of the levels were really short, some embarrassingly so – one ‘level’ literally consists of a single boss, I kid you not – and you could get through the game in a single sitting assuming frustration didn’t get the best of you in the final tiers. The levels were also linear, the camera fixed, driving you along one set path. However, there were a few factors keeping you from tossing Towers in the trash. For one thing, this wasn’t just a button masher; an RPG element meshed with the action.

Upgrading your characters with crazy combos and racking up high scores were both major complementary components of the in-game carnage. For another, a secret level would unlock for playing with each character, and what we would call today a ‘horde’ mode game-type let you face off against waves of Mordor’s monsters. But all that aside, boredom wasn’t much of a concern anyways, because the action here was so damn good that you’d find yourself replaying the game tens of times.

Put On Your Mythril, You’re Gonna Need It

Dissimilar to Fellowship, The Two Towers was all about the epic hack-and-slash action. Most of the battles from the films, from the mines of Moria to the plains of Rohan to the epic climax at Helm’s Deep, were recreated as well as to stand with the finest in the sword-swinging genre. A diverse set of moves always kept the action fluid and never made it feel like a button-masher.

You shall not pass!!!

You had a quick attack, a strong strike to take out shielded enemies, a parry to block foes’ blows, and a finisher that skewered Orcs, knocking them to the ground. Throw in ranged attacks and unlockable combos that could dispatch waves of Uruk-hai in a myriad of methods, and what you had was some decidedly versatile combat. And each character controlled like you’d expect them to. Aragorn was an all-around swordsman, Legolas was lethal with the bow, and Gimli… Well,  admittedly, the dwarf did seem to have the strongest attacks, and I still to this day feel inclined to use him on Balin’s Tomb, just so I can yell, “AHHH! Let them come! There is yet one dwarf in Moria who still draws blood!” But other than that, I tend to stick with Legolas. Apart from being a complete bad-ass, his ranged finesse really comes in handy in the later stages when things start to heat up in the Deep. The key was that, as you drove back swarms of spawn, you felt like you really were those characters. Forgetting the LOTR license for a second, this was simply one of the greatest examples of third-person combat ever, period!

But movie-to-game adaptations are called so for a reason: they’re not just about delivering the gameplay goods; they’re about turning a passive experience into an interactive one. The Two Towers was one of the first games I can remember, apart from other notable cinematic games like Grand Theft Auto III, to start the game right away, without even taking you to a menu. Footage from the movie would play, setting the scene, and then a shot would cut away to the same shot, only computer-generated. And there you go… you were hacking away at armies of orcs. It was a revolutionary device to just turn on the machine, grab a beer from the fridge, and find yourself getting your ass kicked as the game had immediately thrown you into the fray of shattered shields.

One of the biggest problems I have with Two Towers is that it’s as much a jump-out experience as a jump-in experience.

It was around this time in gaming that I began to notice a greater emphasis on storytelling and movie-like quality in games — but I’ll leave that discussion for another time. Such a heavy reliance on movie material and the awesome transition effects from stock to CG made watching the movie as much a part of the game as playing it.

Again, by no means had it succeeded in all other facets; it had certainly had its defects. One of the biggest problems I have with Two Towers is that it’s as much a jump-out experience as a jump-in experience. This is a hard game! Clearly the guys behind the game felt that the short levels should be compensated by a steep difficultyChallenge is welcome, by all means, but the brevity of each mission here meant fewer checkpoints. You’d die at the end of a long-winded battle, fail to defend a barred gate, or allow innocents to be slaughtered by the forces of Isengard, and a ten-minute trek was immediately undone. Too frustrated to even fathom restarting and soldiering on, you shut off the machine, and would probably itch for another craving in the next hour or so. Rinse, repeat. I.e. Frustration (and by association, another F-word) was Two Towers’ fatal fault.

One Adaptation To Rule Them All

If recent years have proven anything when it comes to movie-based games, it’s the following: it’s far more productive and profitable to give a developer liberty with a franchise, even if that means producing a universe and storyline that barely resembles the film. Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay and Batman: Arkham City are the ones to come to mind with regards to that tactic.

As Gimli watched Legolas impale an orc with his blade, he began to realise that perhaps this particular elf… was kind of alright.

The former, low and behold, turned out to be better than the Chronicles of Riddick film, while Arkham, despite still capitalising on The Dark Knight’s popularity, explored the series’ animated universe instead of just reproducing the reality of Chris Nolan’s gritty re-imagining. In both cases, the games helped to sell DVDs, and hey, they didn’t suck! Bonus points. Perhaps this is an emerging trend to watch out for? Regardless, that’s not the point here.

The point is that Towers didn’t fall into that increasingly inclined category. It was just one more movie-to-game adaptation that, at an initial glance, you could only assume was another haphazard stab at giving the gamer a decent derision of the tried-and-true. EA and Stormfront certainly derived the hack-and-slash basics, but the way they utilised the Lord of the Rings license and bled the boundaries between mediums was virutally unprecedented. You felt like you were playing the movie, and that was the key here: that the cinematic experience was recreated in your own interactive terms.

The one to rule them all, dust off this classic when you get the chance and return to the King of movie tie-ins.

Prefer moving pictures and sound? Then watch our video retro reflection here

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