So, the levels for Lord of the Rings: Conquest follow the allied campaign first, starting with Helm's Deep and moving on to the Black Gate via Mina Tirith, then finish with the invading rebuttal, which finishes with an attempt on the Shire.
On paper of course that sounds fantastic – Helm's Deep in particular was the highpoint of the entire movie trilogy, so starting the game with the most impressive single battle is a good place to make an impression. Huge numbers of Uruk-hai flinging themselves against your defences like suicidal crickets and a diminishing number of elven archers trying to stem the tide? This could be fantastic.
Unfortunately, when you get into the game the first thing that struck us was the vacuous emptiness of the battlefield. Helm's Deep isn’t an edifice built into an impassive granite cliff – it’s a single wall built against a depressingly grey hill. Not a particularly high wall either.
Likewise, the armies aren’t the rallied forces of entire nations, just small raiding parties. There’s a motionless red army of evil in the distance of the first level, but Sauron thinks it’s best to only send in ten orcs at a time.
Fortunately, things do improve as you move through the levels and the missions increasingly focus on smaller areas where the enemies can appear more numerous. Larger foes appear, such as cave trolls and there’s even one bit where you get to ride a horse for exactly two minutes.
These improvements are let down however by the poor balancing that runs through the entire game like a glass of concentrated fig juice. On some level Pandemic has tried to build a rock-paper-scissors hierarchy into the units to give it a tactical feel. Archers aren’t great against mages for example, who can defend troops with a domed shield.
All of this good intentioned thinking falls down in the singleplayer game when the player recognises how powerful some attacks are and how unobservant the AI is. Enemy mages rarely hold their shields for more than minute, while fast moving archers can just run up close and knock them over with a kick anyway.
To counter this ability to just rape the battlefield with archer-fire, Pandemic has had to play dirty tricks on us. Rogues can turn invisible and insta-kill anyone (which makes boss fights easier than sitting down and pressing E when told to, somehow) and there are enemies in later levels who will literally swoop down and strip you of a life without warning. Conquest steps over the line of being simply challenging and often encamps itself in the area of wrath-worthy / tortuous.
Occasionally though, players get the poor balancing tipped back their way. There’s a hero to every level in the game and each one can be summoned once should the player choose. Heroes on the Dark Side run the likes of Nazgul or Saruman, while goody two-shoes get Gimli Son of Gloin, Gandalf the White and Aragorn the Wooden-faced.
The heroes themselves are always powered-up versions of the base classes – Aragorn is a warrior, Legolas an archer and Gimli is a rogue for some reason – but each of them has a more powerful set of attacks. If an archer can already defend Helm's Deep single handedly then you should be able to appreciate how game-breaking Legolas is. Everything can be a one-hit kill, while he has a set of good melee attacks to back him up and a tonne o’ extra health.