Lord Of The Rings: Third Age review

Benylin, vitamin C and Orcs. Three things GamesMaster has overdosed on but all could be hobbit-forming

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You enter the CORNER SHOP. You take a can of full-fat COKE from the fridge when an OLD LADY leaps out. She casts B.O. but you defeat her with a sharpened carton of BANANA YOGHURT. She dies and you receive FALSE TEETH. Then you walk into the street where a CHAV attacks, with the OVER-CHARGING SHOPKEEPER. You restore your HIT POINTS with a slug of sugar and dive into combat again...

Give thanks that life isn't like an RPG. Otherwise every day would be like the one above, times about twenty. But that's how every hour is when you hit the The Third Age. This time EA have run from the fun of The Two Towers and gone for a full-on beards-out RPG with all that ent(r)ails: turn-based fights and random battles. Lots of random battles.

For this film-less spin-off you don't play Sam or Gimli. Or even their brothers. Or some half-cut Halfling they meet speed-dating. Instead this is a gang of nobodies who follow behind the Fellowship. You are the B-team, destined to trudge through the same ten locations as the trilogy trod.

Flicking between a free-roaming exploration mode and tied-down turn-driven 'classic' combat, the game pushes you through some 30 hours of adventure with more than a nod and a wink towards an older Final Fantasy. Not that the Redwood team's effort could ever Square off against Squall and the rest because it doesn't feel as free or innovative or leave you slack-jawed with its astonishing beauty.

Nope, this combat-driven adventure sticks two fingers up your upturned elven nose and leads you around. Each one of the grey Middle Earthy areas reveals itself in turn without giving you an alternative route. No NPCs turn up unless they want to cleave your head from your shoulders. No shopkeepers flog you potions or powers. Everything you need can be scrounged, scavenged or found in a chest. In the same way, all of your combat skills are learned instead of bought. Which does make you wonder where they are getting these new spells from, if not a mystical book or a friendly passing warlock. Are they just making them up as they go along?

Stripped of such side-quests and the chance to explore, the constant combat is all that remains. But this fighting system is too basic and too dated to stand next to the likes of FF10. After just a few hours' play you aren't involved or immersed, you're just treading water. Then the realisation hits you; you aren't the hero, you aren't learning and you aren't being challenged. And yet the game plods on for 30 more hours of drab rooms, easy 'level ups' and a thousand random battles. It's enough to make you cast COCOA and go to bed. Arrgh! MARSHMALLOWS...

The Lord Of The Rings: The Third Age is released on PS2, Xbox, Gamecube and GBA on 5 November

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Alternative names"LotR: Third Age"