Middle-Earth remains an ever-present force in the world of pop culture, partly thanks to some truly great Lord of the Rings games.
It’s scary to think that Peter Jackson’s first film in the motion picture trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring, will be celebrating its 20th anniversary later this year. At the same time, it’s hard not to get excited for what’s coming next: Amazon’s 2022 Lord of the Rings television series.
In the world of video games, Tolkien’s universe has continued to expand, even in the absence of blockbuster films. Shadow of Mordor and its sequel wowed us with their intriguing Nemesis system. There’s also a Gollum game out next year. It’s a steady trickle, and one that has us looking back and remembering some of those earlier Lords of the Rings tie-ins and where they are now.
Fly, you fools!
The sixth generation of home consoles coincided with the Lord of the Rings cinematic trilogy, the PS2, Xbox, and GameCube battling for a spot next to the family television. Games such as Grand Theft Auto III, Sonic Adventure, and Devil May Cry were signalling a change in the action/platforming genre, making way for film IP to cash in on quickly developed movie tie-ins.
The Lord of The Rings movie licence was safely in the hands of Electronic Arts by the time The Fellowship of the Ring hit theatres. EA’s first movie tie-in for The Two Towers represented two-thirds of Peter Jackson’s trilogy, with most action sequences linking to The Two Towers.
Receiving a multi-platform release in October 2002, The Two Towers featured hack and slash battles from those first films. A second instalment in the same vein, The Return of the King, covered the action-packed finale of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Collectively selling over six million copies worldwide, EA had a firm grasp on the Tolkien film licence. Something that the company would have trouble repeating with their Star Wars related ventures.
After the movie tie-ins, EA threw somewhat of a curveball with The Lord of the Rings: The Third Age. This turn-based RPG weaved in and out of the movies’ main events and showed EA’s commitment to providing genre-hopping experiences under one licence (to rule them all).
In a hole in the ground, there lived a licencing deal
Once EA had obtained The Lord of the Rings book licence, The Battle for Middle-Earth soon followed. Moving into the realms of real-time strategy, this served as EA’s answer to popular RTS hits such as Age of Empires and Warcraft. It also stood on the toes of Sierra’s own game set in Tolkien’s fantasy world, War of the Ring. While both had their high points, Battle for Middle Earth was better received by critics, followed up by a sequel and its superb expansion, Rise of the Witch King.
The Lord of the Rings: Conquest was another attempt by EA to cross the border into new genres. Instead of Middle-Earth’s mightiest heroes, this game had you reliving epic clashes through the eyes of men, elves, and orcs, with iconic characters occasionally gracing the battlefield. Although there was a solo campaign, Conquest was designed with multiplayer in mind. Many liken to the game to Star Wars: Battlefront and its easy to see why – both were developed by Pandemic Studios, who created Destroy All Humans!, Mercenaries, and The Saboteur.
Eight Lord of the Rings games were released within seven years, with a ninth game – The White Council – cancelled while still in early development. It was gearing up to be the grandest Lord of the Rings adventure yet, set in an open world with its protagonist working alongside Saruman, Gandalf, Galadriel, Elrond. The fact this project was cancelled in favour of Conquest presents one of gaming’s biggest “what if” scenarios.
EA’s Lord of the Rings games: where are they now?
EA’s licence expired in 2008 with no attempts at renewal, reverting the rights to Warner Bros. which lead to darker, more mature titles in the series such as War in the North and the Shadow Of Mordor series. We also saw Lego game adaptations of both The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, the former being the first Lego title to use original voice lines from a movie.
But what of those older games and the legacy they built? Unless you’re playing on older consoles – or have somehow managed to wangle PC copies – these games are nowhere to be found. No remasters, Steam downloads, or backwards compatible versions on Xbox systems, all thanks to licensing issues.
Various calls have been made online for relicensing/re-releases/remasters of The Two Towers and The Return of the King video games. One, in particular, had reached nearly 15K signatures and included a call to arms for EA’s Harry potter titles. Electronic Arts cannot re-publish any games from the franchises mentioned above due to not having the licences. However, negotiations for new licencing agreements isn’t an impossibility.
Gondor calls for aid!
Right now EA is hard at work on Battlefield 2042, a Dead Space Remake, and a Jedi: Fallen Order sequel among various annualised sporting sequels. However, a potential relicensing of older Lord of the Rings games could give fans an incentive if brought to the publisher’s EA Play subscription service.
Then there’s Xbox Game Pass. Whilst already packing in EA Play for Ultimate members, having legacy The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter titles available for all Xbox/PC users as exclusive content would be an easy win, without the need for developing remasters. It’s been well documented how much team Xbox pay developers to have their titles on Game Pass either for a limited time or permanently. In some cases, this upfront cash covers development costs. In this case, it could cover legal/licence costs.
The likelihood this will ever happen? Very slim. Those Lord of the Rings games aren’t the only ones caught in a tangle. Even in 2021, we’re still seeing AAA games fall prey to licensing woes, Forza 7 being yanked from sale as Microsoft allow their rights to lapse. This has long been a slap in the face of game preservation though, as we’ve seen in the past, fan projects can sometimes deliver when game publishers can’t…