Lord of the Rings: Conquest Hands-On

We've played Pandemic and EA's Tolkein action epic to bring you these fresh impressions.

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It's half past six on a dark winter evening, the free pizza is cooling rapidly, and we've just had our arse handed to us by a band of Ian McKellens. Three of him, to be precise, sporting the shimmering white robes, staff and imposing beard of Gandalf the Grey. We were poking around in the campfires beyond the Black Gate as Brad Dourif (aka Grima Wormtongue, the slimy bloke who tries to have it off with Miranda Otto in Two Towers) only for the McKellens to dart out and electrify us point-blank like Middle Earth's oldest happy slappers. EA Pandemic's Lord of the Rings: Conquest, it's immediately clear, is going to be good for a fair few ridiculous anecdotes.

It's also going to be good for never-ending and probably punitive comparisons with the developer's modestly-received Battlefront games, unless Pandemic has snatched a late, Helms-Deep-esque victory from the jaws of complacency in the weeks between our multiplayer hands-on and the game's release. There's the same slightly unwieldy third person view, the same team-driven mode selection, and the same core balance of stealthy, ranged, support and melee classes. The fact that everybody's wearing mail rather than a force shield is neither here nor there: whatever it says on the box, this is a Battlefront follow-up at heart.

We're fighting for the Evil side in Hero Deathmatch, which functions much the same as standard Deathmatch but gives you the celebrity cast in place of the Warrior, Scout, Mage and Archer classes available in other modes. While it's undeniably a thrill to go running around as Viggo Mortensen or Christopher Lee or that bloke from the Matrix, the difference between Hero and non-Hero is largely cosmetic as you'll make use of the same generic class abilities, with absolutely zilch in the way of upgrades or character customisation.

Gandalf, as you'd expect, fills the Mage slot, hopeless at hand-to-hand but otherwise powerfully equipped with lightning bolts, a splashy short-range fireball, projectile shield thingie, healing and area-effect spells; his Evil counterpart is Saruman. Smarting from our defeat, we decide to re-enter the fray as the polar opposite Warrior class, here represented by Mr Sauron of the sulphurous gaze and metallic mittens.

The respawn timer hits zero and we're back in action. Warriors are by far the easiest class to get to grips with: they have the reach to cancel out difficulties posed by the absence of a lock-on function, and those light, heavy and special attacks mash effortlessly into punishing combos. Toss in a few throwing axes to swat down evasive targets and you've got the perfect antidote to beardy mysticism, even when it comes along in threes.

Sure enough, the tide begins to turn in Evil's favour. Sauron's cracking mace puts paid to two McKellens in short order, and we soon have the last one cornered against the grim ironwork of the Black Gate itself. His magic reservoirs depleted, the other player dares to get up close and personal with his staff. The more fool him. We send the suicidal idiot flying with a leisurely flick of the wrist, move in for the kill... and take a dagger to the backside courtesy of Eowyn of Rohan, brought into play here as a Scout. What goes around comes around, even if you're the undying personification of all wickedness.

Scouts are the underhand sneaky class, obviously, able to turn invisible for short periods and pull off one-hit-kill assassinations. The veil of invisibility is a fragile thing, however, ruptured by the slightest of blows; once exposed Scouts have neither the brawn nor the paranormal puissance to go head-to-head with the other classes, and must fall back on craven tactics like fire bombs.

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