Games 1/13/09: The Lord of the Rings: Conquest, Cradle of Rome

The Lord of the Rings: Conquest
For: Playstation 3, Xbox 360 and PC
From: Pandemic Studios/EA
ESRB Rating: Teen (violence)

Hey, do you like “The Lord of the Rings?” And did you like “Star Wars: Battlefront?” Well guess what: You’ll love “The Lord of the Rings: Conquest,” even when the game itself dares you not to.

Like “Battlefront” — which Pandemic Studios also masterminded — “Conquest” is a tactical action game. Your essential objective is to carve through opposing armies, but you’re working alongside an army of your own and are free to swap between different classes (warrior, archer, scout, mage). While the number of times you can perish in a single mission is limited, “Conquest” otherwise operates like a multiplayer game: If and when you die, you simply respawn as a character type of your choice while the action carries on uninterrupted.

Naturally, a game that functions like a multiplayer experience also works best as one. “Conquest” (16 players online, four offline) takes no chances in terms of mode styles, but it doesn’t need to. Unbalanced though the classes are, all four are fun in their own way to embody, and that’s to say nothing of when the game lets you commandeer a troll, Ent or one of several iconic heroes or villains.

Additionally, while “Conquest” moves and controls like a Playstation 2 game, the somewhat archaic approach remains a perfect fit for this kind of action. Given all the sorry hack-and-slash wannabes that have surfaced this generation, Pandemic’s decision to keep it fast and simple pays off remarkably well.

The retro approach is less glittering, though, if you’re going it alone.

“Conquest” makes a big deal about its single-player component, which lets you relive the films’ story as the good guys and then play a parallel-universe version as the bad guys. But while reenacting and rewriting these moments is fun, Pandemic’s inability to create any kind of compelling artificial intelligence looms awfully large. In too many instances, whether you’re playing as an iconic character or an ordinary grunt, every enemy on the battlefield seems determined to get a piece of you. And they will, because your computer-controlled allies are too busy doing nothing to have your back.

Fortunately, “Conquest” allows co-op play (two players, online or offline) during these missions, so you and a friend can watch each other’s back while the rest of your army stares in amazement.

It says something about the “Battlefront” model, though, that “Conquest” remains fun even if you can’t enlist a friend to save you or compete online. A little advancement the next time around would be welcome, but for now, this marks a fun return to a genre that has a lot of good days ahead of it.

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Cradle of Rome
For: Nintendo DS
From: cerasus.media GmbH/D3Publisher
ESRB Rating: Everyone (alcohol reference)

Ready for another high-concept “Bejeweled” remix, a la “Puzzle Quest?” How about a “Bejeweled” clone that lets you rebuild the Roman Empire? No, seriously.

That pretty much is what “Cradle of Rome” is. You’re matching three or more identical blocks and clearing them, “Bejeweled”-style, and your goal is to clear specific, marked areas of each level before time runs out. Blocks are arranged in a grid, per usual, but the grids appear in different configurations (instead of simple 11×9 rectangles) as the levels go by.

The big twist is that the blocks you’re matching represent resources. Match gold coins to accumulate wealth, stones and wood to accumulate building materials, and food to keep your people fat and happy. As you accrue set amounts of each, you unlock different pieces of architecture, which advances your civilization and opens you to additional resources.

While some new ingredients are simply more advanced forms of preexisting resources, others allow you to create special power-ups for clearing select or multiple spaces that might be impeding your progress. That becomes especially critical during harder levels, where the grid patterns grow increasingly complex and certain blocks need to be “unlocked” before you can move them freely.

The power-ups are fun to use, though they also help mask the problem every “Bejeweled” game, clone or original, has. The very nature of “Bejeweled” — clear some blocks, and new blocks of an unknown configuration fall from above — means that the game often is as much about luck as it is skill. The difference between success and failure in some of “Rome’s” levels will come down to how lucky you are in terms of what blocks fall and what power-ups you can create.

But that’s the nature of the game, and if you like “Bejeweled” in any capacity, you’ve probably accepted that by now. “Rome” is helpless to change that, but the high-concept approach does freshen things up. And while the touch controls occasionally goof up and don’t register your movement, the game manages to stay out of its own way for the most part. If you’ve played “Bejeweled” before, you won’t even need a manual to figure this one out.

Given the obvious applications — along with the fact that pretty much every puzzle game has some kind of multiplayer component — “Rome’s” omission of any such thing is harder to defend. But the $20 price of admission at least reflects that, and the 100 levels you do get likely will keep you entertained long enough to collect on that investment.